The Snagglepuss Chronicles is one of the strangest comic books ever published. It also is a complicated book to review.
Snagglepuss is true to his Hanna-Barbera animated origins as a man-sized pink mountain lion who walks on two legs and talks with an accent from deep in the antebellum South. But it’s also very different from its roots.
Writer Mark Russell, along with artist Mike Feehan, casts the character as a kind of Tennessee Williams gone animated. As the story begins, Snagglepuss is an acclaimed and popular playwright in the 1950s who fights to keep his secrets hidden from the morality police of the time. His work is lauded in the press and plays to big crowds on Broadway, but that doesn’t save him from confronting some of the most important moral dilemmas of his era. With that background, the book works as a strange and compelling social satire that fascinates readers in its oddness while providing an intriguing perspective on tour modern world. It’s also often quite pointedly on the nose with its satire, providing a surprising dose of bittersweet irony.
Russell, the mind behind several of DC’s smartest satirical works of the last several years (including Prez and The Flintstones), here brings us a work unafraid to offer a deeper, more intriguing and often more despairing view of American society in the 1950s. Working in cameos of characters like Marilyn Monroe, Senator Joe McCarthy and Soviet Leader Khrushchev, Russell delivers a depth and verisimilitude to the world he creates. An extended scene takes place in a fake village created to be destroyed by nuclear bomb tests. That scene simultaneously evokes the terror of nuclear war, provides an unsettling bit of scene setting for the era, and satirizes the destruction of the nuclear family that Snagglepuss demonstrates.
It’s striking how often Russell brings in real world elements to give depth and complexity to his settings. A lot of the book takes place in the Stonewall bar, the famous Greenwich Village pub in which a police raid sparked the civil rights movement among gay Americans. Though I’ve read and seen depictions of the Stonewall Riots before, those scenes don’t have the same sort of odd power Russell and Feehan present here. There’s a unique kind of empathy that comes from portraying the people at the riot as cartoonish animals. In an odd demonstration of Scott McCloud’s principle that readers empathize more with cartoonish drawing, these scenes have more power because we are forced to see ourselves in the characters we’re reading.
But the power of Exit Stage Left doesn’t just come from its smartly designed setting. Readers quickly come to care about Snagglepuss and especially about poor, tragic Huckleberry Hound (yeah, I’m as shocked by the weirdness of that sentence as you probably are). Those dichotomies break Huckleberry Hound but don’t break our protagonist.
In his furtive planning and broken ambitions, the pink tiger represents a middle-aged man feeling trapped in the circumstances he creates for himself. He is simultaneously content in his own skin and deeply unhappy, both closeted and free. He is both his own man and a man forced to live within the often arbitrary boundaries of the society in which he lives.
That struggle would kill a lesser man. In fact, with Huckleberry, readers witness that struggle kill a lesser creature who simply doesn’t have Snagglepuss’s fortitude. In the climax of this brave work, Snagglepuss is forced to compromise his fortitude to survive. In that tragic ending, our pink tiger must to confront the need to compromise with society’s banality simply to move out of the 1950s.
In doing so, he represents an essential transformation of America itself. Whereas once our country had room for dissent and deviance from society norms, by the late 1950s it began sliding towards puerile banality. Even the most steadfast people of that era found themselves forced to compromise in order to survive.
While some of the decisions made here are too on-the-nose (the cameos by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe are awkward), and others detract from the story (the first kiss we see in Stonewall is between Snagglepuss and a man, but it seems to me a kiss between two tigers would make the point better), this is a terrific work of comics art that compels rereading.
There are no heroes in The Snagglepuss Chronicles: Exit Stage Left. There are only survivors. The world is too complex to allow for real heroes. In Mark Russell’s compelling graphic novel, we see the world crush idealism under its uncaring heel. “Exit stage left” wasn’t just a cute line Snagglepuss said in the cartoons. In Russell’s hands, the phrase becomes a sad elegy for American dissent and uniqueness. This book is a paean for those who carried the torch of dissent as long as they could.