When DC Comics announced its new slate of comics based on classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons, no one was really sure what to make of it. Scooby Doo and a half-dozen others were re-imagined for a more mature audience; Wacky Races now looks like something out of Mad Max, for instance. Some of the concepts seemed like they were trying a bit too hard to be edgy, but the books were announced alongside some pretty solid creative teams.
Next to no one thought that The Flintstones was going to be the breakout book of the bunch, much less one of the best comics of the year. But writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh's darkly comic take on stone-age modern life manages to be funny, poignant and compelling with every issue. I never thought I'd say this, but you should check out this fantastic Flintstones comic.
I know it's hard to take that recommendation at face value, so let me show you what makes this version of Bedrock so special.
The original Flintstones cartoon often focused on the tangible, mechanical differences of everyday life in its own cartoony version of the Stone Age. The foot-powered car, the clamshell currency and of course, sarcastic animals in place of household appliances were all staples of the series. Though it sometimes tackled real-world issues (Barney and Betty dealt with infertility in the 1960s), those kinds of caveman gags were what the series became known for.
But the comic is different. It still has the steamroller car and the living garbage disposal, but this Flintstones world reflects our own social issues in its own special way. For instance, marriage has been a social norm for quite a while, but the concept of mating for life wasn't always around. If you're married in the town of Bedrock, you might be started at or even yelled at on the street for being an abhorrent freak . "Get back in the sex cave like nature intended!" they cry. Town hall meetings are held on the subject, with local citizens voicing concerns like "If we allow men and women to marry, how long before they start marrying dinosaurs and street lamps? It's a slippery slope."
In another book this might be a preachy and cloying way to address opponents of same-sex marriage without ever referencing the "g" word, but the Flintstones isn't shy about directly referencing the world it's satirizing. Case in point: Fred and Wilma run into some old friends who happen to be a gay couple.
Yes, their names are Adam and Steve, and yes, they were spotted in front of a bar called "Homo Erectus." Just because a comic wants to be socially conscious doesn't mean it can't have fun with it. We'll come back to Adam and Steve in a minute, but things get pretty heavy once everyone goes to the marriage retreat.
Because these types of unions are a relatively rare thing in this universe, those who do choose to engage in it have put a lot of thought into their decision. This even extends to Fred Flintstone, whose insecurity and trepidation about his sacred bond is nothing short of soul-shattering.
A comic book based on a 1960s cartoon that was basically a prehistoric reskin of The Honeymooners should never be emotionally devastating, but here we are. Russell's writing is on-point, of course, but Pugh's art (and Chris Chuckry's excellent colors) elevates it to another level. The comic's world is very recognizably The Flintstones, but simultaneously has a muted realism that the cartoon never had. Fred is still a big meat slab of a man, but you can actually see his neck now. He might be wearing a animal-spotted night-gown and a tie from the Donkey Kong collection, but there's doubt in Fred's face, and that doubt is layered in guilt for even feeling apprehension about his marriage.
Balancing the wacky features of the show and the grounded elements of the reboot is a delicate task, but it makes moments like these all the more effective. Seeing that one of television's most enduring blowhards has his own flaws and fears is in a way more moving than if these were original characters in an original book.
Your run-of-the-mill angry mob eventually crashes the marriage retreat bearing signs like "God Hates Dads," but they're talked down by a plea for tolerance and acceptance from the reverend. Just as the hate-mongering is over, Adam and Steve show up to get married. The reverend refuses them, because of course he does.
This isn't an argument that should have to be made. "But they can't breed" is in no way a valid argument in debates about same-sex marriage today. Even so, Fred calmly explains just one way that "non-breeders" can be a force for good. Again, he shouldn't have to, but after all, these are primitive people, and some of them have primitive ideas. This applies throughout the book, especially when...
When you think of cavemen, you might imagine the lumpy TV brand seen in those Geico commercials -- but it's easy to forget that there were multiple different human species living at the same time. Early homo sapiens existed simultaneously with the neanderthals, for instance (though science is not clear on when gramophone-playing birds came about). There are a lot of theories as to why the neanderthals vanished, and the most optimistic guesses involve assimilation and interbreeding, but many other hypotheses acknowledge the ruthless competitive streak of modern man.
If neanderthals suddenly re-emerged today, you can bet there would be a whole new frontier of racism and resentment slathered in ignorance. Such is the case for the poor neanderthals seen in the first issue.
Mr. Slate has always been kind of an asshole, but here he proves himself to be an idiot. For one, "cro magnons" are technically the same species as modern humans, just 40,000 years prior in development. Slate is basically assuming that anyone who looks different enough is probably an early version of himself instead of another kind of human entirely.
"They all look the same to me" is a phrase that is let's say, frowned upon when spoken oustide of an ironic or satirical context -- but that's sort of the reader's perspective on these people in this universe. On a certain level, every human in the story is just another prehistoric caveman in a comic book. If the book hadn't specified, you might not have even picked up on the different homonids at play here, which makes it seem all the more silly that any comic book caveman should be treated any differently than the rest.
Nonetheless, Mr. Slate plans to exploit the neanderthals (and their lack of understanding when it comes to money) to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the quarry. In general, the people of Bedrock seem to treat anyone unlike themselves as commodities as opposed to people.
The mall sells "neanderdolls," reducing an entire people into a trendy toy for children. Then there's Bedrock Middle School, "Home of the Fighting Tree People." The Tree People, as we learn, are a group of indigenous people that were exterminated by their neighbors for no other reason than that they were there. Now vanquished, the Tree People's spirit is falsely venerated by their conquerors, who have turned their victims into mascots for preteens. Sound familiar?
The citizens of Bedrock probably don't even realize the irony when they're invaded by fratty aliens on Galactic Break.
This might take some explaining. See, at the start of the issue, humanity was celebrating its first manned vessel launched into space, piloted by one chimpanzee Sergeant Grumbles. Remember this chimp -- he'll come up later. It just so happens that aliens on a flyby notice the prehistoric Zephram Cochrane and stop by to visit with the species newly capable of space travel. The aliens seem pretty bored by the planet... until their kids show up. The little green shits treat Bedrock like a trendy new tourist spot, trashing the city, destroying property and eventually hurting and killing citizens.
With the poor treatment of the Tree People/Neanderthals followed up by the destructive alien "vacation," this storyline is kind of an adaptation of that Stephen Hawking quote: "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans." The original quote is a bit more dire, but taking a serious, socially-conscious perspective and spraying it with neon green alien barf is the kind of thing the Flintstones comic does best.
In the original cartoon, Wilma Flintstone was a pretty typical TV housewife. She might get in a few jokes here and there, but in the end she was always just a foil for Fred's madcap antics. You never got the feeling that Wilma had a life outside of working in the house, chatting with Betty and yeah, nagging.
The comic is definitely still treats Fred as the main protagonist, but there's an effort to show that the people in his life have their own interests, thoughts and dreams. Wilma in particular is a struggling artist. Cue snooty art gallery scene.
Lame hipster jokes aside, this isn't just about giving Fred's wife a hobby and calling it a day. There's more going on than just "Wilma likes to art, but some people don't like her art." If it was, well, it'd basically be that scene with Pam from The Office. Instead, the comic takes it further by exploring Wilma's connection to her craft.
In only a couple of pages, Russell, Pugh and Chuckry show us not only the fact that Wilma cares about something outside of her marriage, but why she feels that urge to create. When those snooty dickbags insulted her art, she wasn't upset because they were insulting her skill -- to Wilma, it was like someone spat on her purpose, her life, and the life of anyone she's ever known.
Even Fred seems a little taken aback at just how much Wilma's expressions mean to her.
Wilma unfortunately doesn't get this kind of development all the time. There are some plotlines where it seems like she's just around to say stuff like "Look out!" and "Where are the kids?!" but starting with this sweet scene in the first issue establishes that Wilma isn't just waiting by the door whenever Fred's not around.
I know I've spent most of this article praising this comic's deft mixture of slapstick and satire, but it can get a little too on-the-nose sometimes. One issue contains several flashbacks to The Paleolithic Wars, in which Fred and Barney fall prey to hawkish fearmongering and join a war effort to fight the innocent Tree People. It's not exactly subtle. But once the war's over, there's nothing left but soldiers, and that's where The Flintstones is so good that it fills your heart with despair.
For one, there's a slight change in one of the major factions of the 60s cartoon: the fraternity Fred and Barney was originally called The Order of the Water Buffalo, but the comic transforms it into a center for Veterans of the Paleolithic Wars. The characters we know seem to be getting by with the things they've seen and done, but poor Joe is much worse for the wear.
This is a man in very real pain that veterans the world over have had to endure; at the same time, Joe is experiencing this anguish in a stone room with coffee, donuts, and three half-naked Neanderthals -- one of which is holding what looks to be a mylar balloon pig. The goofy visuals and serious emotional content clash in a way that's meant to be disturbing. The whole situation is darkly humorous because it feels traumatizing, cartoony and banal, all at the same time.
Joe gets these little moments throughout the first handful of issues, but when the fratty aliens on Galactic Break start murdering Bedrockians indiscriminately, Joe leaps into action. He has a purpose again, for one moment. Until he doesn't.
For going above and beyond the call of duty, Joe is rewarded with a swift death at the hands of an alien teen wielding a death ray phone app. He did save Pebbles' life, but no one seems to care about that outside of the Flintstones and the Rubbles. Well, it almost seems like Joe will get some recognition with a statue, but...
That's right, the only one to get any respect for their part in day's events is Sergeant Grumbles, that chimp who got shot into space and alerted the aliens in the first place. Once again, the sight is so absurd and depressing that it's pretty believable.
Despite this one moment, though...
Wisecracking dinosaur appliances come part and parcel with The Flintstones. In the TV show, you'd usually see them acting as the speaker for a telephone, or as the spindles on a rake or generating lift for an elevator. "It's a living," they croak, as the laugh track mocks their pitiful existence.
Appliance animals are all over The Flintstones comic, of course, but you've probably figured out they'd put their own little twist on it. In fact, we get something of an origin story for these indentured creatures. Back when man first started showing signs of dominance, some of the animals decided that they'd rather serve man than die out in the middle of a field with an empty stomach.
The animals only ever entered this agreement for survival, but several generations down the line, it's safe to say that they've forgotten why they're even doing what they're doing.
You never really see the life of the animal appliances in The Flintstones outside of brief appearances and one-liners. But what happens when they're not in use? As evidenced by the comic, they're stowed away like any other device humans have no use for. A goat hogtied to a pole can only act as a lawnmower so long as the lawn needs mowed. Outside of those fifteen minutes per week, the goat sits, still hogtied, alone in the pitch black garage.
Over a couple issues we get to know the animals known only as Vacuum and Bowling Ball, who have their own awful but strangely uplifting story.
What might have been a trite but well-meaning skewer of casual animal cruelty instead becomes a tale about finding meaning or reason in a ruthless and uncaring world. That you feel anything for living household gadgets speaks volumes about the baffling but welcome high quality of this book.
There's lots more to explore that we didn't cover here, like The Flintstones' take on religion, commercialism and the indomitable human spirit seen through the eyes of the alien guardian The Great Gazoo. The collected trade paperback isn't out yet, but you can pre-order it if you want to read the rest for yourself, or read it now in digital form. I don't get any money for saying this, but as unexpected as it sounds, you should totally buy this Flintstones comic. Tristan Cooper can be found on Twitter.