There is, perhaps, no better tribute to Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s look at the frustrations of modern life through the lens of a Stone Age family than the fact that Pugh spent half our interview fighting Skype. For a book that lingers on whether innovation really makes our lives better, even Pugh found it hilarious.
DC has been updating Hanna Barbera’s classic cartoons in comic book form, some with radical reinventions like dropping the Scooby gang in the middle of a monster apocalypse, and others being a bit more traditional, but still updated. The Flintstones is very much the beloved cartoon in some respects, but Russell and Pugh aren’t content to just play it cute. We talked to them about reworking an animated classic.
The book isn’t exactly grim, but it definitely has a sharper edge than the original series. How’d that come about?
Mark Russell: I got this gig because I’d done some darker edgier satirical work on Prez, and that was the sensibility they wanted. What appealed to me was being able to take a more satirical eye towards civilization as it is. I wanted to say it all started in Bedrock, all the flaws started there. I hope it’s not too dark. What I liked about the show was the world-building. The animals, the appliances, the architecture, that was my touchstone for what I wanted to have in common with the original series. The show was a critique of the times, and I wanted to keep that.
One thing that’s decidedly the same is the absolutely shameless puns, like a visit to the Outback Snakehouse. Who comes up with more of the gags?
Russell: I came up with Outback Snakehouse as a list of initial puns, but Steve adds all these little details. The cover for #2 is all of them trying on shoes, and he came up with ten ridiculously good Stone Age puns. It always surprises me when I see something in the comics.
Steve Pugh: Hello! [Both laugh.] I’m so frustrated with Skype! Nothing works! This would be better if we had the bird with the pen who looks at the camera and says “It’s a living!”
The animals are here as well, but they’re a bit more realistic than the Dino of yore. How do you keep that balance?
Pugh: It’s hard to pitch it right. It often depends on the scene. Sometimes the same character has several different looks, depending on the context. I deal with these things on a daily basis. Part of my advantage is that I just don’t know what I’m doing! I have the advantage of ignorance! I owe all my originality to the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing! (both laugh)
Fans of Fred’s gut might be surprised that he, and everybody else, has been hitting the gym. What made you decide to have these super-fit Flintstones?
Pugh: Mark’s guidelines, actually! Fred’s physically imposing, a big block, a big guy, he’s the rock in the center of things. But I didn’t want him to be too imposing.
Russell: We didn’t want him to just look like a buffoon.
One of the more surprising touches here is the book hints that Fred, and the members of the Water Buffalo Lodge, are veterans of a war who maybe aren’t entirely dealing with it. Where’d that come from as you were developing the book?
Russell: I figure it’s like the world which the Flintstones were written, they all would have been products of the Second World War or Korea. You look at the Water Buffalo, it’s pseudo-military. The bravado would be hiding some horrible experiences, and that was my critique. They created this facade and pastiche to cover the things they couldn’t talk about. People read Hanna-Barbera for existential horror, don’t they? [Laughs.]
You’ve got a tough balance here, keeping the light tone of the show while sharpening the critique. How do you strike it?
Russell: The darker the reality, the more blunt you are, the funnier it is. George Saunders once said “Humor is truth quicker than you expected it.” I try to be very honest as quickly and pithily as possible, and that’s where the humor comes from.
I’m actually more critiquing the advent of civilization, when we went from hunting and gathering to agriculture. That was the big mistake, that was when life began to suck. That’s when we invented ideas like wage slavery and materialism. That’s when those values took over human civilization. That’s the big central sacrifice of joining together as a civilization. You buckle yourself into the roller coaster with a thousand others, and you do it with the promise of indoor plumbing and swap meets, but no idea where it’ll go. That’s the dilemma they face.
Pugh: Tigers don’t eat you anymore, but you have to pay taxes. [Laughs.]
The Flintstones #1 is out today in comics shops and on digital platforms.