If you had told me as recently as a year ago that I would be in love with a comic about Snagglepuss not due to its wacky retro yucks, but because of its heart and soul, I don’t know that I would have believed you. However, in 2018, that is exactly what happened, though I suppose it’s not without precedence if I think about it.
The revamped Hanna Barbera line from DC has had its hits and misses, as well as those titles that are just fine but don’t bowl you over with their brilliance. For instance, the Future Quest titles stories have worked well in updating the old adventure characters, while remaining true to their intent. The Jetsons was a likable reimagining of the cartoon sitcom as an earthbound Lost In Space. And such strange endeavors as the Jabberjaw/Aquaman team-up and the Speed Buggy/Flash team-up had a bizarre charm.
But the crown jewel was The Flintstones. Written by Mark Russell, the famous Stone Age family was only barely reinvented, but their trappings were utilized for a more fleshed-out vision that pulled off an amazing trick of wrapping broad social satire around genuinely affecting personal stories. It was hilarious and immensely sweet at the same time.
So I was excited upon hearing that Russell would tackle Snagglepuss. The year 2018 didn’t hold a lot of promise in so many areas of reality, but it did give us Russell’s Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, which boasts the pencils of Mike Feehan and hits comics stores next week. It is surely one of the finest things to happen this year.
Focusing on the Red Scare in the 1950s and, more specifically, the Hollywood Black List, we find Snagglepuss recast as a Tennessee Williams type — not so far-fetched, really — who leads his secret gay life hidden from the public. Other related characters play roles here, most notably Huckleberry Hound, who’s a little bit Truman Capote, a little bit William Faulkner, I suppose, and completely heartbreaking. Quick Draw McGraw pops up, as does Squiddly Diddly and a few more.
But the hunt for communists is only a partial aspect of Snagglepuss’ scope. Mixed in is the disdain for gay Americans, their treatment as degenerates, and the juxtaposition of people leading hidden lives because of their sexual orientation with people being forced to do the same because of their political convictions. Shame is the weapon used against all forms of dissidents, the shame of being who you really are, which aligns with the fear of what will become of you if you step into daylight as yourself.
America, as portrayed in Snagglepuss, is one where you are expected to snap to the grid, be the same as everything else, and any deviation leads to your devaluation as a human and often your destruction. America is not a nation of individuals, but a settlement of indistinguishable entities that will only tolerate your uniqueness up to a point.
And the book does the extra work with its Historical Glossary that provides extensive notes about the inspirations for many aspects of the story, providing context beyond the satire and bringing it into the real world. With the lines so directly drawn, the heartache and horror of Snagglepuss grow more real to the reader, especially the younger ones who might not be as familiar with this information as people my age.
Snagglepuss wraps the trappings of its characters around a wider philosophy that begins to define that real world, the one they — and we — live in. By acknowledging acting as the discipline of wearing masks intentionally, Russell compares the world to a stage and suggests that we are all players — well, actually, Shakespeare suggested that, but Russell takes it and runs. Masks are not just the tools of the acting trade, but central to the human condition itself, and the stage, in Russell’s evocation of Shakespeare’s idea, becomes a microcosm of the world, a related universe similar talents are used for different things. In the real world, masks often mean survival.
And so you’ll find Snagglepuss waxing philosophic on a talk show about the difference between celebrities and actors — “Celebrities show you …” — but also clarifying. Celebrities are like false gods intentionally put into place to act out morality plays, similar to the Greek and Roman versions of so long ago. But somewhere in that dynamic, the actors can get rounded up in the plight of the celebrities, and morality plays only serve to disarm actual lives and deflate real souls.
What’s so disheartening about Snagglepuss is how prescient it is. More prescient than it should be, and I don’t mean because a comic book about Snagglepuss shouldn’t have importance or feel current. It’s that we shouldn’t feel like our country is backtracking. But to a lot of Americans, that’s what’s been happening. Snagglepuss captures this moment of fervor and fear, of demands for loyalty without consideration and of hatred for difference, in a chilling way.
But its prescience is also a call for hope. It’s a tearjerker for sure, but not one that is mired in a final melancholia. Masks are replaced by stories as the focus, and stories are heralded not only as a way of controlling more important narratives but as a way of connecting, of creating a common experience. Russell eventually brings Snagglepuss full circle in a most touching way, one that draws in the nostalgia of people my age with the realization that as awful as the world seems, some of it has gotten better, and even the most innocuous tomfoolery of our past may have contributed something to the connections we feel now.