When DC Comics announced it was rebooting classic Hanna Barbera cartoons like Scooby Doo and The Flintstones, the news was met with a mixed response. Because, well, do we really need a gritty, Mad Max-influenced version of Wacky Races?
Four issues in, it’s now clear that the new Flintstones is an unexpected gem among DC’s 2016 relaunch, a weird social satire whose strength lies in inappropriately funny moments of downbeat misery. It includes storylines about marriage equality, suicidal war veterans, and the psychological impact of consumer culture, and while that probably sounds like a nightmarish parody of gritty reboots, this comic is actually brilliant.
Issue #1 launches straight in with the cultural rift between cavemen who have adopted capitalism, and those who haven’t, as Fred Flintstones’ boss orders him to entertain some easily exploitable Cro-Magnon employees who don’t understand the concept of money.
Most of us aren’t sitting around pondering the deeper meaning of vintage Hanna Barbera cartoons, but once you think back on the original Flintstones series, the new comic begins to make more sense. Airing in the 1960s, the cartoon drew its humor from the clichés of life in suburban America: nuclear families, stereotypical gender roles, petty workplace conflicts, and an obsession with innovative household appliances. The running jokes mostly relied on goofy stone-age puns and examples of prehistoric “technology” like using a woolly mammoth as a vacuum cleaner.
The new comic keeps the puns and the prehistoric appliance gags, but leans into a more cynical view of the suburban existence parodied in the original. Fred is a loving husband and father, wracked with neuroses about navigating corporate life and providing for his family. Meanwhile his wife, Wilma, struggles to express her identity beyond her role as a housewife. She’s an aspiring artist, but no one seems to understand her work—which mostly consists of handprint cave paintings.
As you might expect, this material comes from a creative team that no one would ever predict taking on The Flintstones. Writer Mark Russell’s last job was DC’s Prez, a dystopian satire comic about a teenager accidentally being elected President of the United States. Artist Steve Pugh has worked on titles like Judge Dredd, Hellblazer, and Animal Man, and his comparatively realistic art style is lightyears away from the cheerful figures of the Hanna Barbera cartoon.
This comic’s genius lies in the contrast between the silliness of The Flintstones, and the morbid humor of seeing those scenes play out among characters who look and react like real(ish) adults. Almost every page includes a punchline that could easily belong in the original cartoon, but now feels agonizingly downbeat due to the darker tone. For instance, here’s Fred’s boss introducing everyone to a new discovery: ice cream.
Often when a familiar source gets a drastic reboot, fans ask: Why not just create something new instead of messing with what already works? But in this case, the new Flintstones works precisely because we’re familiar with the old Flintstones. It’s a fun comic in its own right, but the thing that really elevates it is our memories of the original. It embraces the absurd humor of the 1960s cartoon, and without making The Flintstones unreasonably grim or mature, it updates and subverts a simple concept into something modern adult audiences can enjoy.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Fred’s wife.