I never would have expected that one of my favorite comics of the year is The Flintstones. After all, comics based on “the modern stone age family” have always been about as boring and stale as any comic ever published.
Until Mark Russell took on the characters.
Russell, writer of DC’s late, lamented Prez as well as his series of delightfully sacrilegious/religious Bible volumes with Shannon Wheeler, (God is Disappointed in You and Apocrypha Now) brings a slyly satirical new sensibility to these characters, presenting a Fred, Wilma, Betty and Barney far from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
As Russell explains it, the success of the comic rests in a fundamentally interesting idea: “Flintstones was a chance for me – well, this is where civilization got it wrong: at the very beginning. So, everything that’s wrong with our society now, we can basically blame on Bedrock. You know, they kind of set the tone.
“But at the same time, they’re kind of loveable,” he adds “They don’t know any better. They’re all trying to figure this out from scratch just like we are. And also, there’s really sort of subversive commentary built into The Flintstones. About consumerism and materialism. Because you watch The Flintstones, and somebody takes a picture and a little bird comes out and chisels on a stone tablet, which is cute until you realize that by owning a camera, you’ve basically condemned this bird to live its entire life in this tiny camera. It’s horrible. But you don’t think about it because it’s so cute.
“Which I guess sort of what we do with iPhones in secret. We love our iPhones. We love – We don’t think of somebody in a factory being forced to work 120 hours a week and jumping out the window to their death. We just know it’s cool for catching Pokémon on.”
I asked Russell if he saw the comic as a satire in some ways of American privilege.
“Yeah,” he replies. “Of the way that civilization allows us to distance ourselves from the cost of our actions.”
But with all that said, The Flintstones is also a hell of a lot of fun, too.
“Yeah,” he replies to that thought. “I don’t want to give the impression it’s some kid of dark and Marxist tome or something. It’s a comedy, and I think anytime you’re laughing at something or making fun of something, it has to be because you have affection for it. Otherwise, it’s just mean. It’s just bullying. But the fact that I’ve developed a genuine kind of affection for these characters and what they’re going through. And even what we’re going through – the human race in general. The fact that I really want us to get it right, I think, makes it okay to rub our faces in what we’re doing wrong and the little mistakes that the Flintstones have made – and consequently we’re making today.”
The writer revels in the satire he’s delivering: “I like to think of my satire – that satire is the art of quality control in terms of what could be better. It’s like a big Yelp review of the world. That’s kind of the way that I approach writing both Prez and The Flintstones.”
Another thing Prez and The Flintstones have in common is that they’re just fun: “Well, I think that the cardinal sin – You can be accurate and boring, or you can be really interesting but wildly inaccurate. The cardinal sin is being wrong and boring. And I feel like what I’ve tried to do – the highest possible ascension that you can get to is to be both accurate and interesting. And that’s what I shoot for. I think, “How can I make something that’s like the boring truth and make it interesting?”
“I think that whenever you take something that’s kind of complicated – and maybe has a lot of facets – and simplify it, it instantly becomes kind of funny.” Russell continues. “One of my favorite quotes is – George Saunders once said that ‘Humor is the truth quicker than you expected it.’ That’s what I try to do. I try to be as honest as I can in as quick and punchy a way as I can. And that automatically makes it sort of funny, I find.
“Like when people say something blunt. There’s a scene in The Flintstones #1, where Fred’s introducing these Neanderthals to the Slate’s Quarry and how to work. They have no concept of money or work or condition of labor. So they’re working all day in the quarry, and then, at the end of the day, they’re paid with a little bag of gravel. And they’re like, ‘Well, what is this?’
“And he says, ‘Well, this is money.’ They hated working in the quarries. They say this was the worst experience of their lives, and all they’ve got to show for it is this bag of gravel. ‘Well, what are we supposed to do with this gravel?’ And Fred says, ‘Well, I don’t know. Buy something someone else hated making.’ Which is classic economics in a nutshell. We all hate what we do, but we do it so that we can buy something that someone else hated to do.”
One of the oddest aspects of the comic is that Fred doesn’t deliver his famous tag-line much. “Initially, I got a little bit of static from licensing. They wanted me to not mention any deities, even though I had the Flintstones worshipping this bird god named Morp. They didn’t like that. And they wanted me to make sure that Fred said Yabba-dabba-doo at least once an issue, which I really chafed at. But, luckily, the licensing didn’t really drive the conversation.
“DC was much better about letting me do what I wanted with the series. And I did have Fred say Yabba-dabba-doo, but I turned it into a nonsense phrase that he uses to keep from stressing out. Like some mantra. When he feels stressed out or put upon, he just kind of sighs and says, ‘Yabba-dabba-doo’.”
If Russell has his way, he will stay on this project for a long time: “It’s a super amount of fun. I’ve really enjoyed every minute of it. Whatever misgivings I had about writing The Flintstones at the beginning melted away. I’m totally into the project now. I can’t imagine how lucky I actually was to be able to work on it. “
And how lucky fans are to be able to read it.