Probably every review or feature about DC Comics’ Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles will address how palpably weird it is to be seriously discussing a Snagglepuss comic. Because it is very, very weird. But much as writer Mark Russell transformed Hanna Barbera’s The Flintstones into some of the most socially relevant satire of 2016-17, in Snagglepuss he finds new purpose for a classic but neglected cartoon character.
Illustrated by penciller Mike Feehan, inker Mark Morales and colorist Paul Mounts, Snagglepuss casts the pink mountain lion as a gay Southern Gothic playwright in the mold of Tennessee Williams, rising to fame in the early 1950s just as Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) is purging alleged Communists and other non-conformists from all walks of American life.
This has been much-publicized; this you knew. But seeing Russell and Feehan’s execution is… something else. This is not The Flintstones, or Russell’s criminally unappreciated Prez. Exit Stage Left is deeply rooted in the real literary and theatrical community of New York circa 1953, making it immediately more subtle, more grounded than Russell’s other comics… while also being set in a world where anthropomorphic animals share in human society, apparently without comment.
The first thing to know is that Snagglepuss #1 is incredibly dark. The humor has a bite to it, sure, but there’s also a desperation to the story itself, due to the era in which it takes place. Many Americans imagine the 1950s in terms of Leave It to Beaver, a time when the country was “great;” but for many Americans, this just wasn’t so. Despite his great fame and the public’s adoration, Snagglepuss must hide his homosexuality, not only to gain acceptance but to avoid persecution by HUAC; prosecution, even. He maintains a marriage to Lila Lion as cover, but sneaks away at night to the Stonewall Inn to meet his human, male lover. This isn’t played with a wink and a nod, it’s not the comedy; this is the plot upon which the witticisms and commentary hang.
Which is significant in and of itself, due to Snagglepuss’s origins within the same decade Russell and Feehan’s story takes place. First introduced in 1959, the pink mountain lion and aspiring thespian would have read as gay even at the time, when depictions of gay characters were coded rather than overt. Snagglepuss was a not especially sympathetic caricature, with lisping speech and faux-dandy style meant for mockery. It’s a kids’ show, right, and cartoon characters are funny — and so kids were invited to laugh at Snagglepuss’s effeminate mannerisms.
Russell and Feehan take these traits and turn them to tragedy. Snagglepuss is wittier than we remember him, and has not (yet) introduced his famous catchphrases or begun punctuating his speech with the word “even.” Yet at the Stonewall Inn, when he says (in a panel framed like an aside to the reader), “What good is a world without subversives and deviants,” we completely believe that this is just what the Snagglepuss of yore might have said. “I’ve been to that circus and I’m not impressed with the clowns” is another fantastic line that is in equal parts funny, sad and 100 percent Snagglepuss.
Some of the lightest moments come in Russell’s interpretation of Snagglepuss’s penchant for sprucing up his home, here a well-appointed Manhattan apartment instead of a cave. Lila and Snagglepuss — or “S.P.” as he is sometimes called — are visited by their old pal Huckleberry Hound, a novelist who has not yet reached the heights of his friend’s success. Together they share a ride to a party hosted by wealthy art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim.
Guggenheim is one of several real-world historical figures grounding Snagglepuss in American culture. After citing the Algonquin Round Table as an influence on his work, SP meets up with the poet Dorothy Parker, a former member of the literary lunch club. Snagglepuss is also chums with Lillian Hellman, the blacklisted playwright, whom this issue depicts in her appearance before HUAC. And then of course there are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted Soviet spies.
These aren’t mere cameos. Hellman and Parker are full members of the supporting cast, while the Rosenbergs’ fate has a very specific function in the story. All serve to both establish an era and Snagglepuss’s place within it.
And what of S.P.’s hit play, My Heart is a Kennel of Thieves? From the climactic scenes shown in Snagglepuss #1, it looks to be a story of conflict between mother and son, taking a nod or two from Williams’ A Glass Menagerie. The mother has taken up with a man she believes can deliver her family from poverty, but the son storms off in a rage, headed for “Oblivion, Mother. Oblivion.” Meanwhile, Mother’s beau proves a deadbeat drunk, dashing her hopes to pieces. Notably, the mother is played by an actual lion, whereas both the son and the suitor are played by human actors wearing lion noses and ears. A Glass Menagerie was a largely autobiographical play; it would stand to reason, then, that My Heart is a Kennel of Thieves speaks to Snagglepuss’s childhood, as well.
Feehan’s art, reminiscent of Steve Dillon for its long, expressive faces, further grounds this pink lion story in gritty, complex reality. It’s a credit to him that scenes of utter absurdity, such as a man wearing an animal nose fiercely condemning his own mother, can simultaneously embrace that absurdity and shoulder the dramatic weight that they would carry in the world of the story.
Exit Stage Left shows the versatility of Russell’s satire. Prez was overtly political, while Flintstones tackled multiple aspects of the contemporary social and cultural experience. And those following him on Facebook will recall his comedic interpretations of ancient historian Herodotus, which I sure as hell hope are being collected into a book. All of these were, in addition to being super-smart, laugh out loud funny.
The humor in Snagglepuss is of a different nature. It’s a smile, or a frown; a groan, a shake of the head, even. But through its incisive look at celebrity, cultural consumption, civil rights, and the persecution of those deemed a threat to the dominant social order, The Snagglepuss Chronicles has firmly established itself as the first must-read comic of 2018. Heavens to Murgatroyd.