Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles #2 Review and Spoilers

Taking A Stand

Written by: Mark Russell
Pencils by: Mike Feehan
Inks by: Mark Morales
Colours by: Paul Mounts
Letters by: Dave Sharpe
Price: $3.99
Release Date: February 7, 2018

Well, this is better. The first issue of this reimagining of everyone's favourite softly-spoken pink cartoon mountain lion as a softly-spoken pink secretly gay playwright in 1950s America didn't exactly grab me for a number of reasons. I'm happy to say that, with a bit more focus and a lot more characterisation, this issue sees the series begin to deliver on its premise. With the forces of cultural oppression focusing on him and a play to stage, will our hero manage to remain characteristically unruffled? There's only one way to know for sure…

The issue opens with a scene in which Gigi Allen, the series' Tipper Gore/Mary Whitehouse cultural conservative who has assumed the role of Field Marshall in the 1950s culture war, harangues a number of Hollywood executives and producers and, handily for the reader, lays out her rationale for the witch hunt on which she's about to embark. And that rationale is… odd. Rather than make the traditional conservative argument about values and whether they are American or not, Allen explicitly frames her crusade in the context of a cold war that has inevitably turned hot. She presents a hypothetical pilot who is about to drop a bomb on a (presumably Russian) target and pauses at the critical moment because, instead of thinking about good "wholesome" American families (exemplified by a farming couple and their gap-toothed kid), the pilot thinks about the "perverts and junkies" found in the movies and plays of the day (exemplified by a drunkenly comatose transvestite) and, it is implied, questions whether such reprobates are worth committing mass murder for.

This, it seems to me, is a rather implausible set of circumstances to use as a cautionary tale to a group of movie execs, although, because it is absurd, irrational and, in managing to undermine implicitly the professionalism of the armed forces in which it purports to believe, self-defeating, it does make a useful foil for Snagglepuss' more intelligent and principled arguments later on. It's tempting to see Allen as simply a ridiculous figure, but Russell makes an important point here. To be able to identify the ludicrousness of a position is no defense if the people taking it have enough power to make your life difficult. This is certainly true of Allen.

Before she makes her appearance later, though, we get to see Snagglepuss at work in a more coherent way than we got last time. And he's a pretty nice guy. Cat. He hires a young, aspiring writer to work as script boy; he displays extraordinary patience with his leading man who's having difficulty 'getting' his character. We even see him involved in voluntary work, visiting a retired (and, it must be acknowledged, unpleasant) judge in a nursing home.

Much of the middle third of the book is involved with an exploration of the sad tale of Huckleberry Hound whose double life as a closet homosexual leads to heartache for him and his family. It's to Russell's credit that Huck is portrayed with considerable skill and no little humour. The scene in which he propositions a stranger loitering by the pier could have been uncomfortably tawdry, but, accompanied by Snagglepuss' arch commentary, is rather touching. Huck's sadness and loneliness are, after all, universal human conditions, something that Snagglepuss' leading man, along for the ride at the playwright's request, takes and turns into artistic gold in his performance later on.

Unlike the previous issue in which Snagglepuss' character was anemic and poorly defined, here we get a clearer understanding of his kindness, generosity, and courage. Russell's encounter with Allen later in the issue features some powerful dialogue and his principled stand for his art is inspiring.

That's not to say that the issue doesn't have one or two problems. The book remains an explicitly political one and still skirts dangerously close to oversimplification and caricature when dealing with the cultural right. That said, the improvement in characterization and a more purposeful approach to plotting are welcome changes. I'm still not completely on board with this series, but at least Russell has, a little belatedly, given us a central character we can admire and root for. Feehan's art is nice and clear, too. His characters have a solidity that grounds them very effectively – despite the fact that half of them are anthropomorphized animals of one sort or another. 

I'm still a little unsure about where this series is going. It feels like Russell is setting Snagglepuss up to be some sort of liberal martyr; he has no noticeable character flaws, and in fact, displays a genuine and appealing humility. There are risks with this approach – authorial sanctimony and oversentimentality being two I can think of off the top of my head – but I think Russell is a good enough writer to avoid them. On the whole, I am cautiously optimistic about the direction this book is heading in.

As well as the main Snagglepuss story, there is also a backup featuring Brandee Stilwell's Sasquatch Detective. This is very much an introductory story in which we see the eponymous detective Tonya celebrate with her partner the anniversary of her joining the police department. This device is essentially a thin frame on which is hung a number of gags, some of which are funny and some of which aren't. The art – bright, colourful and cartoon-influenced – is decent enough for this kind of character, and you do get a reasonable feel for her and her relationship with her partner. At six pages, the story is probably one page too long, but it's inoffensive enough and doesn't affect my final score for this issue one way or another.

Bits and Pieces:

A clearer sense of plot and character see a significant improvement on last month's issue, and a sharper focus on storytelling, as opposed to historical moralizing, doesn't hurt either. This issue, Russell begins to give us a better understanding of our central character and Feehan's art is solid and clear, telling the story in a straightforward manner that is always engaging and, in one or two cases, very impressive. I still have my reservations about the concept for this series, but the problems that beset the first issue are largely absent here. 


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