Stretching Characters Until They Break: Exit Stage Left

When I heard that EXIT STAGE LEFT: The Snagglepuss Chronicles (by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan) would reinvent Snagglepuss as a gay playwright in the 1950s, I thought that sounded doable. Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss was a flamboyant, eccentric, theatrical character; being gay wasn’t that big a stretch. Russell already stretched the premise of The Flintstones for their comic book, and I liked that one, so why wouldn’t this one work.

It didn’t, at least not for me. Russell’s Flintstones, while not as sitcommy as the original, still played for satirical laughs. Exit Stage Left is serious, and rather glum.

Snagglepuss was a Hanna-Barbera character from their 1960s TV wave, noted most for his phraseology, such as “Exit, stage left!” (or right, or center) when it came time to amscray. Here he’s a celebrated Southern playwright facing pressure from the government for writing dramas that cast a critical eye on American society — why is he playing into Communist hands by saying America isn’t perfect? In his first encounter with the Unamerican Activities Committee, he stares them down and makes them look like idiots, but the heat is still on. Which is not a good thing, as despite marriage, he’s a closeted gay anthropomorphic big cat. So is his former lover Huckleberry Hound, a rising author who visits New York and discovers what it’s like to be openly out in a place like Stonewall. In between Snagglepuss coping with crises in his latest production, and a Cuban boyfriend who wants to go home and participate in Castro’s revolution, Huck falls in love with Quick Draw McGraw, a closeted cop. Yes, no way sleeping with a cop back when gay was still illegal could turn out bad? Spoiler: it turns out bad.

As a story, it’s well-executed (Russell shares his thoughts on the book at Vox). But it’s so damn serious (what else could it be given the premise) that seeing a bunch of comical cartoon characters cast in downbeat drama felt very off. Nor were any of them particularly like their characters in the ‘toons. Snagglepuss is thoughtful, brooding, literate. Huck is just kind of there. Dimwitted, loudmouthed Quickdraw is insecure and shy. Peter Pottamus, a globetrotting, time-traveling explorer, is the stage manager on Snagglepuss’s latest project. It’s that last one that particularly bugged me; there’s a point to reinventing Snagglepuss and Huck, but putting Peter backstage is just name dropping (that might have worked if I liked the story better though). Ditto Augie Doggie in a supporting role.

As someone who uses a fair number of old characters in various stories, from Conan (by another name) to John Galt (ditto) to Sherlock Holmes, it’s a useful reminded that there are limits to what can be done before the names become basically meaningless; they’re not the characters they’re supposed to be (as I observed with A Study in Honor) which makes using them counter-productive. Of course that point is going to be subjective. Millennials who’ve never seen the old Hanna-Barbera stuff might have a higher tolerance for Exit Stage Left than me, who remembers them well. But it’s still worth keeping in mind.

#SFWApro. Cover by Mike Feehan.

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Filed under Comics, Is Our Writers Learning?

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