“History never really repeats itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot” Looking back with Mark Russell on his Hannah Barbera books and the Green Lantern Huckleberry Hound Special

anthro, anthropomorphic, comic, interview, Uncategorized

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If you had to think of comics that are political Green Lantern, with it’s Intergalactic Space cops who diligently patrol a whole sector of space as their “beat” with the aid of magic rings, might not be one that instantly springs to mind as somewhere to discuss the issues of the day. Yet Denny O’Neil did exactly that with his famous run in the 1970’s which paired DC’s two green themed heroes, Lantern and Arrow. A politically charged road trip across America in which the usually confident and head strong lantern has to face harsh realities of his countries social climate.

This week however writer Mark Russel returning to a 70’s setting and the books socially conscious leanings, teams up the Green and the Blue this time around, when veteran Solider and rookie Lantern John Stewart is drawn into a partnership with down on his luck canine comedian, Huckleberry hound. “So you have the young idealistic Lantern meeting up with a world-weary cartoon dog against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Seems like they might have something to talk about” Russell says, explaining what at first seems like a strange and unlikely pairing “Setting the crossover in the early 1970’s just seemed to make a lot of sense, because John Stewart is still at the beginning of his career, just learning how to be a Lantern, whereas Huckleberry is at the end of his. His cartoon cancelled and making a living on the “has-been circuit”, appearing on TV shows like the Hollywood Squares and hand-selling his comedy albums at stand-up gigs”

Maybe this crossover shouldn’t have been such a surprise from the writer of the criminally overlooked Prez; itself an updated spin on the original Joe Simon creation, Prez Rickard which while silly, fun and wildly inventive for it’s short run, never really took advantage of the Presidential angle beyond the teen president’s strong stance on gun control, settling for legless vampires and other comic oddities. Russel’s recent reinvention put the politics back into a book that was already a perfect fit for it, taking a sardonic look at 2000’s politics and how that works in the world of instant celebrity culture and quick fire social media. “It’s something I sort of got into by accident. DC offered me the chance to write The Flintstones based on the work I did on Prez” he says of his Teen President Beth Ross, whose time in office beat her male counterpart by two issues and led the writer onto his subsequent work with the Hannah Barbera stable of Saturday morning cartoon icons “What I’ve come to like about the Hanna Barbera characters is that they didn’t come in with a lot of backstory or continuity to worry about. Surprisingly, the Snagglepuss cartoons never included any flashbacks to his failed career in theatre or his broken relationship with his parents or anything like that. So I got to make all that stuff up”

 

It’s the looseness and simplicity behind this Saturday morning cartoon creations that has given Russell breathing to reinterpret and recontextulaize them, has writing some of the most striking and socially hard hitting comics of the last few years,both adding complex backstories to these beloved cartoon staples whilst staying true to the core of their characters. Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles framed the pink mountain lion as a less comedic, and much more melancholic soul leading a double life as  a successful and confident,Tennesee Williams type playwright forced to skulk and sneak his way into New York’s village against the backdrop of McCarthy witch hunts and the much less known about “Lavander Scare”, which sough out homosexuals casting them as subversives and communist sympathisers. It was the first time such a strong and overtly queer characterisation and story had been given to a character who had previously only been broadly gay coded, sweeping aside the snickering comments of the past and giving him a quiet, noble dignity “Snagglepuss’ gayness is not only central to his identity, but to his struggle against the institutions that are trying to destroy him. The entire story of Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles is built on two pillars. That he had a background in theater before he went into cartoons and that he was a gay man living in 1950s America” explains Russell on Snagglepuss’ portrayal as gay in this years Exit Stage Left and if he worried about any fallout from the decision “I don’t really worry about how people will react to modernizing or changing well-established characters. I just try to make characters who have depth and meaning for me and trust that other people will feel the same way about the character that I do” 

“I think stories resonate, not because we care about the time period in which they’re set, but because they’re populated by characters that are dealing with timeless human realities” Exit Stage Left encapsulates Russell’s outlook on storytelling perfectly. Shockingly for a comic set in the 50’s, with an underused character, is that it strongly and deeply resonates with the experiences of a queer audience in 2018. In a year that felt like it had been thrown head first into full reverse it expertly focused in and captured this feeling from the viewpoint of the LGBT community with pathos and heartbreaking tenderness “Whatever genre I’m writing, I basically ask myself the same questions. I want to know what it would mean to be that character and how to survive in a world that is trying to kill them” By adding things before or after their cartoon careers, in this world Snagglepuss and Quickdraw essentially serving as “actor”s on their respective cartoon shows, it has allowed Russell to add these in depth back stories and inner lives without casting aside the animations that made them so popular in the first place. For a story that ends on a hopeful but downbeat note, it makes the cartoons almost an act of defiance with the events of Exit Stage left in mind as the effeminate gay mountain lion perseveres and carries on with his life. It might be as a comedic and inoffensive version of his true self,but it’s close to it as he can get and Heavens to Murgatroyd does he live it. “I‘m much more interested in the conflict between a character and the world in which they live” Russell comments “The way they are expected to fall in line behind institutions that don’t care about them. About the ways they deal with their limitations and the apathy of the Universe by finding meaning in their work and in each other”

 

“Sometimes I’m accused of making a cult of my own sorrow” admits Huckleberry Hound, fellow Playwright and longtime friend of Snagglepuss in a moment of self depreciation. Huckleberry Hounds journey mirrors and then veers of wildly from our pink protagonist in one of the more heart wrenching moments in a book that already pulls no punches. Unable to weather the storm Huckleberry takes his own life, leading to Snagglepuss working with his son Huckleberry Jr who becomes the beloved star of screen and attains a sense of happiness his father never knew. For a while at least. Russell’s stories might be slightly unmoored from the history of the cartoons we watched as children but we are children no longer and the gentle continuity between his multitude Hannah Barabera books has  allowed for some fascinating new aspects to characters, based on their shared history in an adult world “There are references both to the father he never knew and the cartoon career that was just beginning at the end of Snagglepuss. This fact informed the character and influenced the story” tells Russell on Huckleberry, seen protesting side by side with the Green Lantern on the cover to this weeks special “Not only in terms of Huckleberry’s willingness to speak out, but also in terms of Huckleberry having to deal with the destruction of his career in show business, much the same way Snagglepuss had to. As it is sometimes said, and as John Stewart points out in this issue, history never really repeats itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot”

 

“I felt like there were a lot of parallels between that time and our own. Most notably, about people’s capacity to lie to themselves to keep fighting a war they know is unwinnable. To keep believing in a president they know is corrupt. About the futility of trying to control people through fear and brutality” Russell explains on the setting of the Green Lantern Huckleberry Hound special, the 1970’s and more specifically the Vietnam war. Huckleberry is down and out on his luck while the freshly recruited Green Lantern John Stewart returns home not to a heroes welcome but to distrust and hatred as he himself learns the difference between having power, and using power. In scenes that could equally have been ripped out of the headlines of either the 1975 or 2018, we see fearful residents calling the police to ‘deal with’ groups of black people. Making his prediction of history rhyming even further is Stewart retelling the story of his brother surviving two tours of a warzone, only to be felled by racist troops after less then 24 hours back in Detroit in the same week that holocaust survivor Rose Mallinger was shot dead with 10 others in her own synagouge. “The hard part, the part I regularly struggle with, is not in describing these realities so much as offering hope that we can overcome them” Russell offers on his tackling of such important and sensitive issues in his comic work “In the end, the best solutions I’ve been able to come up with are to self-medicate, not necessarily with drugs, but with beliefs and relationships that allow you to take meaning from your life and to not wait for institutions to change to start building the world you want to see in microcosm”
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Thank you to Mark Russell for agreeing to and finding the time to conduct this interview. The Green Lantern Huckleberry Hound was released Wednesday 31st October and Exit Stage Left the Snagglepuss Chronicles is available in trade paperback. You can follow him on twitter here.
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“It was really fun, Saul – too bad it’s over!” – Visaggio’s exploration of Carolines four colour life draws closer to it’s conclusion..

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“Nothing’s sad till it’s over. Then everything is.”

Longevity in comics is dead. Dormant at least. No one’s going to be pulling epic runs of hundreds of issues in long sprawling arcs anytime soon, with a few exceptions of course. Which writers and artists could afford to in the current industry? Is the audience and indeed, their bank accounts still up for such ambitious long burning stories? Either way, certain characters lend themselves to shorter, more contained runs. Short, bright bursts that ignite our imaginations and then end, left for some other writer to pick up in the future, or not. Struck by the sadness I usually feel when a series that has buried itself into my brain comes to an end, Eternity Girl’s penultimate issue brings us one step closer towards it’s conclusion. Even with several ‘iterations’ last issue and her fabricated backstory (then again, aren’t they all?) it feels like I want more of Caroline’s story. A character who only four issues or so, is as fully fleshed out and realised as any of he DC counterparts. So, a single issue after this one. Maybe some other writer might release her from comic book limbo years from now? This time though, these thoughts and the sadness were replaced and chased away with a wry smile, suddenly struck by the glaringly obvious. Remembering what writer Magdalene Visaggio has been saying and preparing us for this entire run through Caroline’s plight and Flying in the face of decades of comics publishing and serialised storytelling.

All good things come to an end. All good stories, should end.

The seeds of Eternity Girl were sown in the Milk Wars crossover which saw the weirdness reach critical levels as we were treated to a few pages of selected Eternity Girl stories detailing her fabricated history, stretching across the years and reflecting each age of comics in a hyper accelerated Flex Mentallo fashion. Reaching it’s conclusion, Eternity Girl,who bares a passing resemblance to Element girl, famously given her most poignant and final story by Mr Gaiman and shares the same afflictions (ie not dying) navigates the empty white spaces between the panels before literally squeezing herself into the world. Ta-dah!

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After last month Eternity Girl’s fifth issue restricts itself to a mere two realities with Caroline facing off against both Crash and Rick, once again throwing question the nature of what she is experiencing. Is she really following Madam Atom on a journey to end all existence or going dangerously mad? Does it really matter at this point. Throughout it’s run has been pulling some extremely complex and meta storytelling, but with heart. Yet again we are made fully aware of her endless and eternally repeating “Iterations” and the none to subtle nod to her torturers, the readers and writers. Hearkening back to Animal man and indeed this issue and the series has the best aspects of a Grant Morrison story but with a more relateable gnostic superhero at it’s core, driving it’s clever structure.

Leiw’s artwork continues to be the perfect fit for this story. Selected panels highlight the  kitsch retro four colour printing method of years gone by which clashes deliciously with the sombre tones of Visaggio’s storytelling. It’s a part of a comics history Eternity girl was never really a part of, but now is through some deft continuity wizardry in order add to her suffering and this issue they serve as windows to both realities, showing them literally overlapping and bleeding into each other. It gives the impression of two ages of comics crashing into each other and visually represents Eternity Girls mental state at this time, still weighing up the prospect of ending her own pain at the expense of reality itself. After last issue, Leiw’s art is more restrained and straightforward but still manages to stun and explode of the page such as the page with DJ Crash reaching out to Caroline which one again uses a circular, fractal motif that has come up in this series in both the art and story structure.

 

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Visaggio Delves further into Caroline’s character this issue, graduating from the low level grey feelings at the depths of depression and isolation she was suffering in early issues into full blown anger when those around her turn against her. Visaggio herself is an openly trans writer, a subject she candidly and honestly talks about on her twitter. For those following Visaggio, it’s an interesting lens to view Eternity Girl through and adds a lot more depth and poignancy into an already thought provoking and visually striking book. I hope it’s a title that queer fans will latch on to, it’s a razor sharp smart example of what queer storytelling can be without making it the absolute and obvious driving force behind a story. While it would be really easy to fall into intentional fallacy territory, the strength of Caroline’s story is Visaggio taking it above and beyond such a straightforward and surface level reading with the sheer amount of ideas feeding back and looping on one another in a given issue She makes it a much broader and ultimately richer story and at any given time as a comic for anyone who has ever suffered depression, any level of body dysphoria, a lack of agency and control in their own life or simply some meta comic book shenanigans

Issue five is another stunning instalment in a vibrant and invigorating new series from a relatively new voice in the industry, Eternity Girl has felt like a mission statement or a summation of what the Young Animals imprint is all about. Mind bending comics about comics with wit, heart and empathy to spare. When it ends next month Visaggio is going to ultimately leave us conflicted and acting against our own nature as comics readers, wanting more but hoping that there never, ever will be.

That is not the end of the story, it never is.

The beat goes on…

Wednesday Adventures- 26th April

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“The superhero is the kind of last, small, broken ideal of what we might all become one day if we just get it together and stop being assholes”- Grant Morrison

Doom Patrol 6- DC Comics

Fantabulous first arc complete! DC’s most obtuse and outlandish band of superhero misfits continues to be the perfect place for Way’s seemingly endless stream of delirious ideas and deranged pop punk poetry dialogue. As ambulance driver Casey brink comes to terms with her origin, the team finally reunites against the Vectra to defend Danny Le Street from becoming intergalactic street food

A dadist infused, psychedelic romp that serves as both a love letter to the Doom Patrol’s legacy and the enduring power of super heroes and comics, Way and Derrington have found the perfect midway point between the outlandish and perplexing antics the roster of strange characters have to offer and the good bright fistpumpimg super-heroics in the strongest and strangest title from the Young Animals imprint so far.

 

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Infamous Iron Man 7- Marvel Comics

Despite my criticism of the first few slow paced issues, Bendis and Maleev’s re-introduction of Victor Von Doom and his newly aligned moral compass is the one title I quietly look forward to each month with it’s perfect inversion of superhero characters, motivations and interactions as it skewers the rivalry against Marvels first family, eventually pitting the new found hero against The Maker.

Seeking redemption for a life of tyranny and the combined might of the villain community and SHEILD pursuing him, Doom finds the hardest thing to escape are his own reputation and actions. The idea of an inverted Victor was around in Axis and here Bendis writes that concept in widescreen, big and bold in it’s action set pieces whilst at the same time small and intimate when exploring it’s troubled protagonist.  The slow pace that bothered me at first actually gives the story breathing room letting Bendis pull off a more poignant and complex examination of the once power mad Doom. For all it’s cinematic superhero action, at it’s core the Infamous Iron Man is revealing itself to be a fascinating study of a man at war, with himself

“To be a fire when I feel like ice”- Cecil Castellucci delves deeper into madness and isolation with Shade the Changing Girl

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School is Hell. School is madness, even for the displaced avian Lomo currently inhabiting Earth girl Megan as she returns to Amelia Bloomer High School, much to the confusion of her fellow students. Insisting on being called shade in her new amalgamation of body and personality. Her peers are obviously wary of her, assuming her strange and oddly calm behaviour is a result of her accident and resulting comca as she struggles to make sense of her place in the social strata of the school, her relationships with other students and even lunchtime.

Series writer Cecil Castellucci is crafting a strangely off kilter look at this world through the eyes of her uniquely alien, avian creation Loma. Far more advanced and intelligent then the primitive world around her she none the less has to work to make sense of her strange new home and the people around her already questioning her act of rebellion in stealing the M-vest. Thrown into school Loma has a lot more interactions this issue as we start to learn more and more about Megan’s life. Faced with the tense and confused reactions of Megan’s former friends, unaware the majority wanted her dead. While initially indifferent to those around Loma is still left with the creeping uneasy sense that she’s logged herself firmly into a human with a very complicated and prickly past than she might have first thought. So far there is no sign of the previous occupant, Megan, beyond her memories but it’s such a tantalising layer to add to an already out there story,  I have a hard time believing that Castellucci won’t bring some of this into the mix during her run.

Being no stranger to writing teens in her long career as a novelist or indeed the criminally overlooked Plain Janes for DC’s last teen oriented imprint, Minx back in 2008, She has an amazing grasp on writing what feels like authentic teens dialogue and speech patterns without ever slipping into groan worthy cliche or dropping in social media mentions and in fact seems to be actively avoiding this particular pitfall with Shade. The comic slips between this tone and Loma’s more poetic inner monologue beautifully. Ultimately I was left with the feeling that even if the alien elements were stripped out, this series is strong enough already that it would still work wonderfully as a story of identity, change and dealing with the preconceptions others bring into that equation. Working as it’s own unique story even for those like myself who might be coming to the book with only general idea of Shade’s long and esoteric character history.

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Matching this with some sensational art  from Marley Zarcone further sets this apart from the rest of the comics crowd, Imbuing the comic from start to finish with it’s own loose flow and momentum as the story drifts almost lazily and fluidly from one moment to the next. A page featuring Megan getting ready for school shows this in a single panel showing her movement from the room and time, fain versions of herself around the room almost like echos which emphasises the books dreamlike qualities and elements of madness. Despite the book’s solicitation saying “No one can have a little bit of madness” the visuals are toned down this issue letting the book breath a  little after the stunning visual spectacle of it’s debut issue. Subtle and effective when they are used, a small poster here, the madness takes over small parts of her surroundings almost seeping through into the panels.

“I have to study up. Do my homework to really live this life” Shade promises herself setting out her plan for the future as this issue itself does,  expanding on last issue this one treats us to just a little more of Megan’s life, a world that Castellucci makes you eager to explore and learn more about as Loma sets about discovering too. Gorgeous art and sharp writing sets this as perfect allegory for being an uneasy teen and a story of identity put through a psychedelic, kaleidoscope filter.

 

Na na na na Na na na na Batbooks!- Unloved Batbooks you should give a second chance! Pt 1

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Many moons ago, bored, dissatisfied with video reviews of comics on-line and craving excitement, I decided that I was going to jump on an already crowded bandwagon and promptly purchased two books with the intention of taking the piss out of them.

Instead I kinda ended up falling in love with them.

It was a weird decision to begin with, as I’ve never really written about things I don’t like even way back in the days when I reviewed live music and albums. I’d be critical, but If I didn’t like something, a band for example, I just didn’t bother writing about them. There was and still is enough great artists in my city to keep me busy promoting all the good stuff. Turns out it’s the same with comics, and while I came close to adopting a sarcastic or satirical tone, it turns out I’d much rather be positive and leave a reader with something awesome they can go away and read.

So, the books. It was smack bang in the middle of a harcore Batman Phase that had only just subsided last year that I ended up bidding, and winning, on both Batman 3D and Batman Digital Justice. Then I did nothing, for a really long time. In the case of Batman 3D I procrastinated so long and so hard that in the meantime the wonderful man behind it, Ray Zone passed away. Three years more passed. Yikes.

The best examples of Batman comics? Not really. Entertaining? Hell yes.

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FIrst up Batman 3D, by the late Ray Zone. I have to admit that before getting this book I’d never heard of Ray Zone, finding out with a little bit of research that he was responsible for a lot of 3D comics, over the last thirty or so years. Despite his prolific work it seems that Batman 3D is the only book that collects any sizable amount of his comic work in one place, his other books focusing more on the history and mechanics of 3D cinema. From what I can find out about him he discovered 3D comics at a very early age, fell in love with them, and perused them into a career with a monomaniacal zeal.