Writer: Mark Russell
Penciller: Mike Feehan
Inker: Mark Morales
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Release date: January 3rd, 2018
This comic was provided to the Beat by DC Comics for advance review
Alex Lu: The past year has been a banner one for political comics. The commentary ranges from the abstract existentialist glances of Mister Miracle to the blunt commentary espoused by the New Yorker’s daily cartoons. And somewhere in between these two books lies Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1, a deft and poignant cautionary look back on what it meant to be different during the McCarthy era of American politics.
I am a huge fan of Mark Russell, whose previous work on Prez and The Flintstones has proven he’s more than capable of dissecting current events through the lens of speculative situations and an absurdist sense of humor. With his previous work in mind, it’s no wonder that he decided to take on Snagglepuss, whose mannerisms and visual styling were not traditionally masculine and have thus over the years led many to read the character as subtextually gay or at least as a prototype for queer and queer-friendly characters in cartoons.
Indeed, subtext becomes text in Exit Stage Left #1 as Snagglepuss, a successful playwright in 1953 New York City, is revealed to be gay. He has a wife, Lila Lion, whom he brings out to public events such as the closing night of his latest play, but when he’s out of sight of prying eyes, he calls their marriage a “performance” and heads to the Stonewall Inn, a famed Greenwich Village gay bar.
Indeed, performance is the crux of what make Exit Stage Left sing as a comic. Everything about this book is heightened. This visual depiction of a New York split between animals and people is vivid and bold, filled with enough bright lights and visual noise to outshine Times Square. And Russell’s dialogue is filled with allusions to gods and Camelot as well as poignant, quotable lines about the difference between our dreams and our reality. Perhaps the most resonant one comes when Snagglepuss tells his paramour Pablo that the violent atrocities the government committed against gay men in Cuba could never happen here because “this is America.” To which Pablo replies, “That’s not an argument. It’s a night-light. Every nation is a monster in the making. And Monsters will come for you. Whether you believe in them or not.” Indeed, it is a danger to discount monsters as incompetent, because a hammer, regardless of whether it’s wielded with competence, can bring enough force down to ruin more than one life.
How’d you feel about this debut, Kyle?
Kyle Pinion: So the first thing about this book that sticks out to me is how even the title itself flaunts commercial appeal. Instead of just calling the book “Snagglepuss”, DC okayed a much wordier though perhaps more representative title to underscore the serious nature of the work. We can debate the relative draw of a Snagglepuss book in isolation, which admittedly I think has a pretty narrow audience anyway, but to minimize the character’s name right at the outset to instead highlight his signature catch-phrase and how it plays to the themes and setting of the work is a daring little move. And in turn that brings to bear for me just what a treasure Mark Russell has been for DC as a publisher, and just how well they’ve figured out how to use him. Not to say Russell wouldn’t do very well with a standard hero title taken through his satirical lens, but placing him in these singular settings like Prez, The Flintstones, and now Exit Stage Left has allowed him to work within worlds that leave him unencumbered to explore the social stratas and conflicts that interest him most. And while that kind of work doesn’t have a mass appeal, it still is work that’s well worth putting out into the world. Prez was one of the best books of DC You, The Flintstones in turn was the best title of the Hanna-Barbera line thus far, and now Russell gets something new to play with.
It also worth pointing out that these Hanna-Barbera titles have worked best when DC’s more sardonic talents have taken the helm. While I like played straight adventures like Future Quest, the satirical edge that infuses Ruff & Reddy, Dastardly & Muttley, and now Exit Stage Left gives me a sense of a line of books where I’m getting a singular experience. I cannot think of another set of comics at any publisher that delves into life after television stardom, the military industrial complex, and homophobia during the Red Scare. I’m just so impressed by their willingness to take these creaky old properties and do whatever with them. It’s a sense of adventure that puts me in mind of the old pre-Vertigo days.
Alright, sorry, about the actual comic…it’s both very sad and very funny. Which is basically a pretty good descriptor of how Mark Russell writes. He has a great understanding of the inherent tragedy within the strife his characters face, but is never afraid to highlight some of the more ridiculous elements that are inherent in bringing these cartoon figures into much more serious plane. For example, the idea that Snagglepuss and Huckleberry Hound would go to a society party, wearing no pants and no one says a word to them is deeply, deeply hilarious to me. Or better yet, how the comic opens with one of Snagglepuss’ terrible stageplays with a uproarious final line that’ll only catch you if you pay attention to the background details that Russell and Feely have provided up front. Of course, these bits of comedy are countered within pages by horrifying sequences like the one taking place in Cuba that as you say Alex, acts as a cautionary tale, not only for Snagglepuss but for the reader as well. Or equally as shocking, the idea that people would watch the execution of the Rosenbergs as if it was a must-see motion picture. Russell and Feely are holding a bit of a mirror up to the human race’s worst instincts.
Exit Stage Left also provides a bit of a historical deep-cut for readers unfamiliar with the history and players of this time period and scene, so this may very well be someone’s first exposure to Lillian Hellman or the Rosenbergs, and I can tell you for sure it was my first time ever hearing of the Algonquin Round Table (though I assure you, I went to straight to Wikipedia right afterwards). When you have a comic that not only crafts a captivating tale, but also provides some entre into learning more about real-life figures, there’s an immense amount of value-added there.
I also just really like Feely’s art, which reminds me a bit of Chris Batista or maybe even Jacen Burrows. A very clean, attractive line that keeps panels mostly comprised of talking heads pretty interesting. A tough task for a medium driven by action.
Alex, I’ll ask the big question though, so you can tie a ribbon on this…why should readers who could care less about Snagglepuss, one of the least cared about HB cartoons, buy this book?
Alex: At the end of the day, we all just want to read a good story. As someone who, due to youth or simple lack of exposure, is mostly impervious to nostalgia, the only reason I would want to read a book based on old properties like Hanna-Barbera’s is because they’re filled with genuine empathy. And that’s what Exit Stage Left is. It’s a gorgeously rendered and deftly told story about a man who seems to have it all, but the one secret thing that makes him different may cost him everything.
I honestly don’t know what old Snagglepuss cartoons were like. I’ve never seen one. But in just one chapter of this story, i feel like I know Snagglepuss now. I know what makes him joyful. What makes him scared. What makes him laugh and cry. I know the dangers he faces and fear for him. I want to laugh with him. And cry with him. I want to learn more about the era he’s living through– the era many of us might say we’re living through again. I want to know how he survives these challenges so we might learn to survive our own.
It’s easy for topical books to bash an idea into a reader’s head with the blunt force trauma of a sledgehammer, but Exit Stage Left doesn’t do that. It lets them marinate. It shows us specific examples of the terrible things that can go wrong when hysteria is allowed to take the wheel of our national consciousness and allows us to make our own choice about the future that we want to see. That makes Exit Stage Left #1 one of the best debuts of the year and a book I’m looking forward to devouring more of as soon as possible.