A couple of years back, DC Comics decided to take the classic Hanna-Barbera television animation properties from the ’50s and ’60s and give them a less cartoony, 21st century makeover in the pages of the comics. This resulted in books like Scooby Apocalypse and a more “realistic” take on The Flintstones. I can’t speak to the success or failures of these titles, never having read them, but the concept behind them was interesting to say the least.
Now DC is going even further into the Hanna-Barbera vaults, and giving us a post-modern take on one of their earliest iconic characters, Snagglepuss. For those of you reading this who are too young to have heard of the character, who mostly lives now in late night reruns on Boomerang, Snagglepuss was an anthropomorphic mountain lion, who wore a propped collar and a bow tie, was colored bright pink and played as stereotypically effeminate, spouting catchphrases like “Heavens to Murgatroyd!” and “Exit, stage left!” Basically, the clip below is all you really need to know about Snagglepuss encapsulated into two minutes.
Created in 1959, this was an era where gay characters in all forms of media were all coded — as being gay was extremely taboo, and in fact, illegal — but without a doubt, the character was meant to encapsulate (and mock) what American society thought of a gay man. It would be unfair to beat up on Hanna-Barbera in particular for doing this, since basically every form of media tackled gay people disrespectfully at the time. They weren’t any better or worse than anyone else.
DC’s new comic, The Snagglepuss Chronicles: Exit Stage Left, from writer Mark Russell and artist Mike Feehan, seems like something that would have been an unofficial take on the character just a few years ago, but we live in an era where the rights owners are OK with seeing their children’s cartoon character totally deconstructed for a wide audience, which is actually pretty daring. This alone makes this comic worth checking out — it’s sort of crazy and awesome that this even exists at all.
The basic premise of this new series finds us in a world where talking anthropomorphic animals live alongside humans, if for no other reason than they did in those old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. But that’s where the cartoonishness ends, as everything else about this world is pretty much a version of our own screwed up real one, including the ugly parts of our history. Snagglepuss, or “SP” as he is most often referred, is a massively successful playwright, in the Tennessee Williams tradition. As the story opens, it’s 1953, and SP’s latest smash show is closing on Broadway, a highly charged family drama in the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof style.
SP is married, to a Lila Lion, another pink hued feline (probably a nod to ’50s societal norms about interracial marriages; SP could probably only marry a similarly hued member of his species). But his marriage is a sham, and at one point he sneaks away to meet his male lover (who is also human to boot, and a foreigner) at a local underground gay watering hole, which happens to be the historic Stonewall Inn. Not exactly subtle here, but then, what’s subtle about a gay pink mountain lion?? I should add, all of these details reflect in one form or another the real life of legendary playwright Tennessee Williams.
The background of all this is the very real House Un-American Activities, Red Scare-era witch hunts that were happening at the time, including the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg trial and execution. The first issue suggests that SP will also be brought before the House Un-American Activities Commission, blackmailed due to someone finding out about his compromising “deviant” lifestyle, something that didn’t happen to Williams, making this series more than just “the life of Tennessee Williams told with animals.”
The entire idea of using a cartoon character like Snagglepuss to explore maybe the most paranoid and repressive time in American history might seem outlandish on the surface, but writer Mark Russell finds a way to make it all work. I kept thinking this comic reminded me of Rian Johnson’s movie Brick, a 1940s-style noir thriller set in a modern American high school. The entire premise of that movie is patently ridiculous, but since the film is played straight, it forces the viewer to ignore the trappings and pay attention to the actual story. Snagglepuss is very much the same — once you get past the fact that lions and golden retrievers are just part of society, this is just a study of repressive American values in the first half of the 20th century.
This mini-series is scheduled at six issues, and it will be interesting to see if they can keep the basic premise of this working for as long as that, but they’re off to a fairly good start. The writing by Mark Russell is witty and compelling enough to keep you seriously invested in its premise, no matter how silly it may seem on the surface and the art by Mike Feehan is perfectly serviceable, although nothing Earth-shattering. Fans of LGBT and American history, especially socio-political history, will enjoy this comic more than others, but I’d say it’s definitely worth checking out once it hits comic shops next year.
What do you think of this deconstruction of a cartoon favorite? Be sure to let us know what you think down below in the comments.
RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5 BURRITOS
The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1: Exit Stage Left will be available at comic book stores on January 2, 2018.
Images: DC Comics