When DC announced it was updating Hanna-Barbera properties, I don’t think anyone really expected The Flintstones to be hard-hitting social commentary. Thankfully, with The Flintstones Volume 1, that is exactly what Mark Russell and Steve Pugh have produced. The result is a mix of callbacks to the original cartoon, real insight into some serious topics, and 21st century updates, all of which combine into a slightly unsettling, but worthwhile, read.
The Flintstones Vol. 1 (DC Comics)
Each of the six issues collected this volume essentially stands alone, consisting of one or two storylines. One storyline tends to be some kind of social commentary, from consumerism to war to religion to gay marriage, and the other tends to be lighter. For the most part the approach balances the issues out so they don’t get too heavy. Throughout the issues, almost all the usual Flintstones characters and tropes make an appearance. There’s the Flintstone and Rubble families, with Pebbles and Bam-Bam aged up to about middle school, Mr. Slate, Fred’s demanding boss at the quarry, and even the Great Gazoo turns up too. For the most part, the character updates feel pretty organic, making each of the characters more well-rounded, which provide opportunities for some good stories.
Two of the updates that are more jarring are those to the talking animal appliances and the Order of the Water Buffalo, Fred and Barney’s social club. Animals still talk in this series, but instead of one-liners, they reflect on the meaning of life and their existence. There are some really poignant observations, especially by the elephant vacuum cleaner, but in a relatively progressive Bedrock the servitude of these animals seems much more cruel. I’m sure that contrast is purposeful, and I hope Russell brings that into a storyline in the future, but what was an iconic bit of charming whimsy in the cartoon seems more sinister in the comic. Tonally it just feels a bit off.
In modern Bedrock, the Order of the Water Buffalo has been reworked to be a Veterans of the Paleolithic Wars group. It’s an interesting idea, and one that Russell mines for some interesting commentary on the nature of war and PTSD. Like the talking animals though, it offers dramatic tonal shifts that feel out of place. In one issue, a veteran contemplates suicide when suddenly party-animal aliens invade. Veteran suicide is a very serious thing, and important to talk about, but I’m not sure an alien invasion issue is the best place to do so.
Pugh’s art is solid throughout, and his updated Bedrock is full of clever visual gags and little touches that are totally Flintstones. His character designs are all very realistic, which grounds the story and gives emotional weight to Russell’s heavy topics. Throughout, Pugh’s characters are full of emotion, especially during the aforementioned PTSD sequences and at a marriage counseling session Fred and Wilma attend. In a series without a lot of action, Pugh still manages to create some really great visuals.
One last thing worth noting is about the trade paperback format itself. Since these issues don’t really connect, there isn’t an overarching story line in this trade. Unlike some comics, this doesn’t read better in trade format. Arguably, it reads worse in trade format. Due to the social commentary in most of the issues, reading one issue after the other is kind of a lot emotionally, and Russell starts to seem even a little preachy. Like I said though, I think this is mostly due to the collected format. If you were to read these issues with a break in between, I don’t think you’d run into this problem.
The Flintstones Volume 1 is an interesting book that goes places you wouldn’t expect a Flintstones story to go. For the most part, it works, and provides a fresh, modern, relevant take on 50 year old characters. Aside from a few tonally uneven elements, they are solid stories with real emotional punch.