Had someone said a year ago that the sharpest social satire of 2016 would be a comic book revival of a 56-year-old animated comedy, we'd likely still be waiting for the laughter to fade. But while we did laugh at DC Comics' "The Flintstones," by writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh, it was sometimes through tears. After all, 2016 was a pretty terrible year.
RELATED: CBR's Top 100 Comics of 2016: #25-11
The original Hanna-Barbera cartoon was a thinly disguised spoof of "The Honeymooners" known for its juxtaposition of contemporary everyday life with a fanciful prehistoric setting, complete with anachronistic (and animal-powered) technology: Working-class family man Fred Flintstone operated the bronto-crane at the quarry, his wife Wilma swept the home with a baby woolly mammoth vacuum cleaner, and their neighbor Barney Rubble drove a wooden car that could be mistaken for an oversize pencil.
Those hallmarks are present in Russell and Pugh's revival, of course, but never has the Modern Stone Age Family seemed so ... modern, or so relevant to life in the present (occasionally painfully relevant). DC's "The Flintstones" takes the satire of the 1960s animated series to another level, tapping into the darker corners of Bedrock -- and modern-day life -- for examinations of faith, politics, science, social institutions and morality. Suddenly, 100,000 years in the past doesn't seem that long ago.
The Horrors of War
The first clues to Bedrock's dark past appear early in "The Flintstones," which exchanges Fred and Barney's lodge, the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, for the Veterans of Paleolithic Wars. Its members wear the same funny furry hats, which turn out to be part of a military uniform, but instead of boisterous meetings they participate in support groups, sharing raw memories of a massacre. "The poor bastards didn't stand a chance," a teary-eyed Joe recalls in the first issue. "We set fire to their trees. When the smoke cleared, there were dead Tree People everywhere!" That bloody picture begins to come into chilling focus in subsequent issues, as Fred reveals, "We participated in a genocide, Barney," a phrase you'd never hear on the '60s cartoon. It's Bedrock's original sin, committed at the behest of Mr. Slate and his political ally Mordok the Destroyer, who manufacture a threat from the Tree People -- "Maybe they will come out to burn you alive as they devour the flesh of your children. Who knows?" -- as the pretense for a war to seize their land to build the city. Needless to say, the truth emerges too late.
But haunted memories of the Bedrock Wars are only the beginning of the problems for veterans. When they returned from the battlefield, they were greeted by a ticker-tape parade, soon followed by unemployment, homelessness and, as a suicidal Joe discovers, a lack of support services. A counselor does, however, provide the veterans with a nonsense phrase to help them cope with tense situations -- it turns out "Yabba-dabba-doo!" is the "Serenity now!" of the Stone Age -- and they are given lip service, even if they're left waiting for a statue. That's still a better fate than the Tree People, whose inglorious memorial is the mascot of Bedrock Middle School ("Home of the Fighting Tree People").
Exploitation of Labor
Quarry owner Mr. Slate wasn't the most sympathetic character on the TV series, and this comic certainly doesn't cast him in a softer light. Rewarded for his role in the Tree People genocide with access to the granite beneath their land, Mr. Slate builds his empire on the spoils of war and on the backs of his employees. Preoccupied with his own legacy, he has no qualms about trying to exploit the Neanderthals -- not, as he believes, Cro-Magnons -- who come to Bedrock with "no formal concept of money." Seeking to woo them with a creepy hot tub party at his mansion, Slate ends up using his wealth to pressure them into first eating a tarantula and then attempting to kill a mammoth for his entertainment (the latter doesn't end well, for either the caveman or the mammoth). “No offense," one of the Neanderthals concludes, "but it seems like the whole point of civilization is to get someone else to do your killing for you.”
Of course, if Mr. Slate didn't learn anything from an unjust war, a rebuke from a Neanderthal isn't about to trigger personal growth. So when an employee is trapped in a cave-in at the quarry in this week's Issue 7, his concern isn't the man's welfare but instead a looming deadline. "Well, shame about the new guy," he tells Fred. "But life goes on, right?" In fairness, Mr. Slate does feel guilty enough about his actions to seek absolution from the church, and the poster at the quarry clearly reads, "Try Not to Die."
Religion and Consumerism
Speaking of the church, "The Flintstones" devotes significant space to an exploration of the intersection of religion and consumerism, which in Bedrock (and, arguably, elsewhere) are inexorably linked. It's probably unavoidable as these Stone Age people transition from a nomadic existence, during which they worshiped a crane named Morp, to a more leisurely, civilized life, where they worship ... well, that's a work in progress. When the residents of Bedrock grow tired of one god, the First Church of Animism must scramble to find another, which isn't easy, especially in a town where animals are used as household appliances and industrial machinery -- the octopus dishwasher, the moose hat rack, the triceratops bulldozer, and so on. Wilma is shocked to discover their new god, Peaches the baby woolly mammoth, is actually a vacuum cleaner, which leads to another crisis of faith, and the introduction of an invisible deity named Gerald. Ah, progress.
But just as the residents of Bedrock collect gods, they also find themselves hording "crap," the term for all of those items the don't really need -- and, in the case of the Flintstones, can't really afford -- yet are compelled to purchase in ever-growing numbers. The mounting costs push Fred and Barney to take side jobs selling vitamin supplements, which is actually familiar territory for the duo.
Although one of the trademarks of the "Flintstones" cartoon was its inventive use of animals as appliances and tools, there was little thought given to the ethics of the scenario, or the lives lived by the can opener or the lamp (aside from the occasional humorous protest). It was an animated comedy, after all. But in DC's revival, the plight of these animals is seldom ignored, whether it's when a bird-blender labels the Flintstones' pet Dino a "traitor," or when Fred returns some of their unwanted "crap" to the store, only to leave with a bloody bag of "appliance feed."
As in the cartoon, it's usually played for laughs. But there are also touching (even heartbreaking) moments, such as when, free of human supervision, the armadillo bowling ball befriends the Flintstones' woolly mammoth-vacuum cleaner, who spends most of its time shut away, alone, in the closet. The ethical questions more relevant to contemporary readers arise when Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm's class visits the Bedrock Cave of Science and Technology, where they witness a chimpanzee launched into space in the most "Flintstones" way possible (involving an enormous dinosaur dropped onto a lever; see below). "Wait -- did they just kill a chimp to impress a bunch of eighth graders?" Pebbles asks.
As the citizens of Bedrock adapt to their fledgling civilization, they not only embrace new gods (goodbye, Morp; hello, Gerald), they also abandon old institutions, like the "sex cave," which we're told was the precursor to marriage. However, they don't give it up without a fight. As the marriage debate rages around them -- one television commentator labels it "an immoral threat our way of life," while a passerby refers to married people as "disgusting" -- Fred and Wilma head off to a church-run marriage retreat, to see if it's right for them. Despite himself, the hapless minister makes a strong enough case for marriage, and for change, to convince retreat participants and a mob of protesters that the institution is the way forward -- that is, until he's confronted with a same-sex couple.
But when he balks at Adam and Steve (that's their names, really), Fred springs into action, relating the important role the couple played when he was a child in a tribe of nomads. His plea for love and tolerance provides the minister with food for thought, although it's clear he won't dwell too long on it.
Much like their modern-day descendants, the people of Bedrock fail to learn from their past. Although their war with the Tree People remains a fresh wound, the election of a new mayor takes place against the backdrop of a looming conflict with the Lizard People. To cement the parallel, the populist candidate Clod the Destroyer is the son of Mordok the Destroyer, who bangs the drums of war just like his father. The crowd chants "Clod! Clod!" as one supporter cheers, "He says the things I wish were true!"
Meanwhile, Bedrock Middle School faces its own choice in the election of a student president: between the bully Ralph, who steals lunches and threatens to "punch you in the beef," and Portnoy, who offers a perfectly reasonable proposal for decreasing the number of kids plucked off the playground by pterodactyls. Ralph wins the debate by bullying his opponent -- at least until Pebbles, often the voice of reason, speaks up. As she lectures her classmates about voting against their self-interests, it's not difficult to imagine she's addressing an audience outside of her school, or even Bedrock.
A Tribute to David Bowie
The launch of the chimpanzee Sergeant Grumbles into space triggers a series of events that leads to an invasion by alien space bros seeking a new spring break destination, sheds light on the mistreatment of veterans of the Bedrock Wars and introduces that most hated of characters from "Flintstones" lore, the Great Gazoo. However, the most poignant aspect of the issue is the tribute to David Bowie, who passed away Jan. 10, 2016: Titled "A Space Oddity," the story features a panel in which lyrics from the singer's 1969 classic are used to touching, yet humorous, effect. Right before Grumbles is sent to his death, in the name of science.
"The Flintstones" #7, by Mark Russell and guest artist Rick Leonardi, is on sale now.