The Flintstones was a TV cartoon sitcom, the first of its kind. It used the classic “topsy turvy” idea of treating a caveman society as if it were a modern sitcom. Based on existing sitcom The Honeymooners, it played out that idealised idea of American life, a million years ago. But it was as fraudulent then as it is now.
A lazy revamped version of the Flintstones would have just brought the references up to date. It would have had the same family gags, with kids using stone tablets instead of iPads. Maybe some references to the housing crisis, or Donald Trump or the internet. And there are touches of this in the new DC Comics version, the first issue of which is out next month – such as characters carrying portable shellphones.
But instead it does something very different indeed. It tries to tap into a time closer to when the Flintstones was made, and rather than create an idealised version, it goes for something closer to Mad Men. It’s a post war society, though these are the Pleistocene Wars, something that all the working men of a certain age were part of, and still frame their world in relation to it. With business growing from the carnal carnivorous nature of humanity – just here in Bedrock it seems closer than the streets of Madison Avenue in Manhattan. The illusion is just the same, for all that.
And the sexist assumptions of the sixties that were just natural in the cartoon, are replicated here, but the disconnect is heightened, the reader is meant to be aware of how differently men and women are treated – while the different races of humanity make for a stand-in for ethnic and racial division. This may rub some reader the wrong way, but it does expose certain racial stupidity rather effectively.
So, as in Mad Men, society’s problem are visibly there, seen in direct contrast to the idealised version, but any disparity is rarely addressed by the characters – because this is their life. It’s just the way things are.
Which doesn’t sound that funny. And it’s not – at least not in the gag-a-second punchlines that the cartoon went for. Indeed, where these occur, it is the least interesting part of this comic. There is pathos here, humour brought to bear from people in ridiculous situations, bearing the truths about them that conflict with their surroundings, and play out their own personal tragedies.
A Fred Flintstone with dreams of grandeur, moving on and up, yet trapped in a world where the greatest he can achieve is Employee Of The Month. Betty, who tries to fill her life with artistic meaning that ends up isolating her even more. The quarry boss, his life enriched by so many treasures and comforts of home, yet he can only relate to the giant sloth he sits upon.
The reinvention of Hanna Barbera classics by DC Comics, has been welcomed and criticised alike, but I don’t think anyone can accuse them of playing safe. Turning the Scooby gang into genetic terrorists facing the end of the world, Future Quest into a study in iconography, Wacky Races into Mad Max and the Flintstones into an expose of the underbelly that is the American Dream.
The other radical change, as with the other titles, is the art style. Steve Pugh, with his signature art-style, building up layers of ink, creates a rocky style, as if each page had been carved from granite – but also a far more realistic look to the characters, more natural than even Amanda Conner’s designs on the covers. Where the film tried to make three-dimensional versions of the cartoon’s blocky look, here the designs are kept but transferred onto more natural skeletons, cloths and animals.
And yes, there’s even the catchphrase. But only sarcastically.
This is a remarkable, ridiculous artifact – much of it seems to fight against itself,. trying to have its mammoth flavour cake and eat it, going for the silly names and repurposed prehistoric animals, while also mining the social strata – as well as the granite in the quarry. But the lack of the cheap gag, and the move towards social realism despite all the odds, works.
Purists will hate it. But that’s what purists are for…
The Flintstones #1 by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh is published on the 6th July from DC Comics.