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”