When DC Comics announced a line-up of Hanna Barbera titles a few years back, the concept was met with skepticism by many. Some thought it would be an abject failure. Others speculated that it would have, at most, a moderate, fleeting success and soon be forgotten. Few would have thought it would produce one of the most important and subversive comics in recent years. And then shortly afterwards The Flintstones happened. Almost overnight the narrative changed, with Flintstones and many of DC’s cartoon crossovers considered among the best comics 2017 had to offer. Now Mark Russell, having been nominated for an Eisner, teams up with Mike Feehan, pencils, Mark Morales, inks, and Paul Mounts, colours, in an attempt to trump his own success with Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles.
Set in the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles (heavens to Murgatroyd what a mouthful) follows our titular mountain lion as the brilliant playwright attempts to traverse the complex political landscape he now finds himself in. It provides a chilling backdrop from which to explore both the lives of non-conformist creatives and the LGBT community of the time. The book discusses issues of prejudice, self-expression, and compromise, political and social. Heavy themes for any comic to tackle let alone one lead by a pink cartoon cat. Snagglepuss is a talented playwright forced to present the public with a hetero-normative facade in order to live some semblance of a normal life. It is only in the shadows of underground bars that he can truly be himself. The artist is only tormented further by his own growing disillusionment with the New York cultural circle that he once aspired to. A circle that is falling evermore under the watchful idea of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The stark reality of the duality with which many have had to live their lives is at the heart of a book filled with poetic, witty dialogue and colourful characters.
There is a moment early in Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles that cements this book as one of the year’s most important works. A character tries to explain to Snagglepuss the dangers being complacent when faced with the attacks on the basic freedoms and tenants of a democratic society. In a heated exchange he warns “the Clown is a joke to everyone except the clown”. In one panel, a singular sentence, the creative team manage to capture the political mood of the world in 2018. The book is a period piece, but more importantly it is a call to arms. A reminder not to let those central pillars of society erode without a fight. A reminder of the inherent fallacy in hiding the behind the mantra of “it could never happen here”. In that moment, the genius of the cover becomes clear. Our hero, as Lady Liberty, is a representation for the very rights that the creative team feel are under threat.
As impressive and compelling as the dialogue makes each of the characters, it is only when combined with the Feehan and Morales’ stunning interiors that they truly shine. The art imbues Snagglepuss and company with a realness that is lacking in many comics. This is surprising given the cartoonish quality of the artwork, wearing its Saturday morning origins on its sleeve. Yet in doing so, it manages to make a world of antropomorphised cats and dogs convincing. The influence of Steve Dillion cannot be underestimated, but it merely serves to enhance rather than detract from Feehan and Morale’s underlying style. The result is a book that is addictive in its readability. It makes for a quick read, not because it is lacking in substance, but because it flows so well. Each panel is practically bursting with background jokes or commentary that enhances the book upon repeated reading.
Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles is a stunning comic that’s depth and readability simply demands you return to it again and again. It is a story equally personal and political, bold and unapologetic, with witty repertoire to rival the best that Aaron Sorkin had to offer. It sets the stage for an excellent year of comics unafraid to tackle the important questions of our time. The distinguished competition have started strong, the industry is officially on notice.