A year ago, I’d have never believed that the comic book most likely to make me laugh out loud, hold back wistful tears, and inspire extreme discomfort over current social issues would star a well-worn cartoon caveman cereal pitchman originally based on Jackie Gleason’s character from The Honeymooners. But holy heck is The Flintstones an excellent book.
Certainly, some of the power behind the subversive, satirical humor is that it’s painted on the familiar yet updated canvas of the Town of Bedrock. But it’s more than that. Sure, there’s over-the-top, in-your-face social commentary highlighting how terribly we treat our veterans, our regrettable history of taking advantage of indigenous peoples, creating war under false pretenses, and even unsubtle jabs at the campaign run by our current commander-in-chief. But the commentary runs deeper. The backdrop of primitive man, new to this “society” thing, allows Mark Russell to cast modern-day social norms such as marriage in the role of being new and innovative – and even deviant – for the folks of Bedrock, and speak to modern concerns like resistance to change and lack of empathy. The philosophical conversations by the characters on life and the nature of society are universal and poignant. Both Wilma and Fred relate clear delineations between when they were kids in more primitive tribes and the current age of “progress” in which they live.
Lest you worry this is a blue-state-centric book, it’s not – perhaps it skews a bit that way, but Russell’s piercing pen points at many targets. Religious worship (what idol should we pray to this week?) is equally lampooned with science and the requisite know-it-all blowhards. And the fact that “Modern Stone Age” tech involves animal servitude brings up some uncomfortable issues, especially if you laughed at the bird popping out of the TV remote when you watched the show, way back when. Consumerist culture, certainly not a classic left vs. right issue, is also one of Russell’s main targets.
Weighty issues aside, what makes this book work more than anything is that it’s funny, not just on satirical levels, but on a surface level too. The school bully keeps threatening to punch people “in the beef,” only to have a nerd exclaim “ouch! my beef!” when the bully follows through on his promise (Maybe you need to read it for yourself for context, but funny, we promise). And the TV news broadcasts, which “(tells) you about things if we have footage on them.”
Nobody is safe from Mark Russel’s witty pen: not artists nor businessmen nor Fred and Barney themselves. Fred, as ever, makes plenty of mistakes, but while perhaps a little ham-handed, isn’t a doofus. He’s actually, truthfully, “Fred Flintstone” in name and appearance only; his personality bears very little resemblance to our favorite scheming, stone-age blowhard. Wilma is layered as well, with seemingly pointless artistic aspirations ultimately revealing some of the best character work in the book.
Betty seems sensible and in touch with what she wants from life. Barney actually seems to be closest to his old cartoon incarnation: sweet, a little dim, well-intentioned, a great guy to have as a friend. Change is appropriate; we can’t imagine “classic” Fred having quite the satirical or even comedic impact as this more introspective, slightly damaged, updated interpretation. Perhaps what they have most in common is they never give up on admittedly different goals – status and wealth for the classic version; understanding of where he fits and how to negotiate the “modern” world for the updated version.
Steve Pugh’s art is spot-on in this – the scenery is intricate, the designs sensible updates of the classics, and just lovely illustrations all around. Perhaps most importantly of all, the faces really act, carry a lot of the emotion, really sell the visual gags.
In sum, this is a funny book with a surprising amount of “oomph.” It fires on all cylinders, mostly honors and builds on its classic incarnation, and even offers a reasonable explanation for the whole “yabba-dabba-do” thing.
GEEK Grade: A-
As of March 28, The Flintstones, Volume 1 is available wherever books and funnybooks are sold.
We’ll leave you with a shot of one of the variant cover, by Ivan Reis, which we think is a great example of how The Flintstones has evolved, yet honors its past and uses it as a springboard for more effect, humorous and otherwise:
Images: DC Comics