April 7, 2017

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Trade Talk: The Flintstones Vol. 1

The Flintstones (2016-) Vol. 1


The Flintstones Vol. 1
Written by Mark Russell
Illustrated by Steve Pugh
Colored by Chris Chuckry
Lettered by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics

"Flintstones. Meet the Flintstones.
They're the modern stone age family.
From the town of Bedrock,
They're a page right out of history."



Forget everything you think you know, all the assumptions you might have, about a comic book based on the Flintstones. Because I made those assumptions too, at first, and I was wrong. Not only is The Flintstones a hilarious comic (and it absolutely is), but it's so much more than that. The Flintstones is moving and poignant and insightful and intelligent and it's got social commentary that's insightful and sometimes just brutal. But it really is, at its heart, an exploration of what it is to be a human being in modern times. It's one of the best comics being published, and I highly recommend you check it out. Volume 1, written by Mark Russell, illustrated by Steve Pugh and colored by Chris Chuckry, is available now.

The basic elements of the story are as you may remember them from the cartoon. Fred Flintstone still works at the quarry for Mr. Slate along with his best pal Barney Rubble. Fred and Wilma are together with their daughter Pebbles, as are Barney and Betty and son Bamm-Bamm. On the surface, it's got the same elements as the 60’s TV show, which was a broad satirical take on modern life in the 1960’s, along with being a stone-age take on The Honeymooners.

The Flintstones (2016-) #1
But while the same basic story elements are here, this is not the Flintstones you remember. I don't exaggerate when I say that, along with The Vision, The Flintstones is one of the smartest, most insightful looks at what it means to be human that I've read in years. I really enjoyed Russell’s work in Prez, but as good as that book was, I think that The Flintstones is the proverbial Great Leap Forward. Prez was a brutal satire of politics and social media and popular culture. The Flintstones is all of those things, but it's much more. Russell clearly cares very much about these characters. Each of Fred, Wilma, and Barney (Betty a little less so) are given moments of poignancy, have a sense of agency and purpose. We grow to deeply care about them, and understand their struggles. 

Each issue has an overarching theme - basically, Russell and team turn their eyes on a particular aspect of society and unleash their razor-sharp wit. Topics covered in the first arc include (among others) (i) rampant consumerism and the disposable way in which we view everything in our lives in a "modern" society, (ii) the hypocrisy inherent in religion (both as to the religious institutions propagating myths, and the people seeking out religion as an excuse and justification for their own behavior), (iii) fear of knowledge and worship of ignorance, (iv) marriage and fear of it (as a way of tackling opposition to same-sex marriage, and (v) in a striking way, war and its justifications and the flimsy excuses people use to invade other lands and kill off whole populations.


The Flintstones (2016-) #2
More specifically with regards to war, Fred and Barney are war veterans, and their war experiences are shown over the course of the first arc. As much as The Flintstones is a somewhat kid-friendly comic, Fred and Barney’s war experiences are shown in a way that's absolutely brutal and unflinching. You get that on a fundamental level, some part of Fred and Barney is profoundly damaged. The comic deals both unflinchingly and compassionately with a friend of theirs, Joe, a fellow veteran who's had a harder time adjusting to life after war. That character’s fate might initially seem callous, but I don't think Russell is intending to be callous to Joe. Rather, I think he's coming "knives out" at the hollow, meaningless ways in which we pay lip service to honor our veterans while simultaneously shunting them aside, ignoring their pain and asking them to sometimes do the unspeakable.  The book is also coming at cheap sloganeering people use to justify actions like "fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here." The veterans themselves are shown attempting as best they can to reintegrate into society, as they go about their lives and also attend a support group. After reading this comic, you'll never think about "Yabba Dabba Doo!!" in the same way, I promise you.

This is what I'm saying. It's heady stuff. The Flintstones is the kind of book that wrestles every issue with serious ideas and simultaneously brings raucous humor to the occasion. This is a hard balance, one you can imagine going very badly quickly. However, thankfully, Pugh (with colors from Chuckry) is more than up to the task. Pugh is such a skilled illustrator, and he really does have a significant task in this book. He's got to bring to life the wacky, light-hearted spirit of the Flintstones cartoon while simultaneously addressing some very serious subject matter (war, religion, marriage). Pugh somehow finds a way to portray somewhat "realistically" the people of the Flintstones while still portraying the more ridiculous aspects of the story (octopus dishwashers, armadillo bowling balls, elephant vacuums, etc.).  The design work regarding the characters is first rate.  The men are big and muscular as you imagine prehistoric men might have been, but not in a hyper-stylized Jim Lee sort of way; more of a "these are men that work at a quarry with dinosaurs" sort of way.  I really enjoy the work that Chuckry does on colors in the book. The story brings to life the world of the stone age; I can't say if it does so accurately since I wasn't there, but I think the color palate of the comic starts with similar grays and browns to the colors used on the TV show.  Each of the main characters are instantly recognizable and that is in part from the distinctive coloring to their clothes; it feels straight out of the TV show but somehow made more plausible on actual people. 

The world of the story is intricately detailed; Bedrock really comes to life as a place. There are tons of amazing details and jokes built into each issue, such as (in a nod to the original TV show) the ancient stores and restaurants with names that are a takeoff on modern places (Starbucks, Panda Express, Etc.).  Pugh and Chuckry fill the page with a ton of visual information - it's helpful to read the story through once to get the story, and then a second time to make sure you didn't miss any of the jokes. The art that I'm reminded of most closely is that of another very talented Steve - Steve Lieber, artist on the hilarious The Fix and the much-loved Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Superior Foes was one of the funniest comic series I've ever read, and while that book had a higher joke-per-age ratio than The Flintstones, what the books have in common is that they are both more than just a whole lot of jokes. Superior Foes was a cynical look at human nature, and The Flintstones more broadly is a critical (rather than cynical) look more broadly at both human nature generally and at the lies and hypocrisies inherent in all of our fundamental institutions, and each is being done by a master of precise visual humor. There's a Bowie "Space Oddity" joke in one of the first few issues that had me smiling all day. 
The Flintstones (2016-) #2
But I really don't want you to think that everything in The Flintstones is just bleak, brutal satire. There's a lot of that, to be sure. But what really makes this a great comic is the way that the creative team brings to life a story full of love. When Wilma reminisces about life in her hunter-gatherer family growing up, you can feel the love she felt for that simpler life. The love that the husbands have for their wives, and the friendship and empathy that Fred and Barney have for each other and for their other friends, is genuinely touching. There's a bit in one issue that introduces a couple named Adam and Steve. It starts as a joke but then turns into something quite poignant. Similarly, all of those animals that serve as household appliances? It was an ongoing visual gag in the comic, but The Flintstones brings to life their life of strange servitude interspersed with poignant moments of loyalty and friendship, such that you'll come to love the relationship among these animals and see it as sweetly tragic.

This is part of the beauty of The Flintstones; it's doing a lot and it's doing it really well. It might very well be simultaneously the most brutally insightful, the funniest and the most poignant comic I'm reading right now. What I'm saying is, you really ought to give The Flintstones a look.