Part 1 – Mark Russell, writer of DC Comics’ Flintstones and Prez – Book Club Discussion

– Our recording missed a bit of this first question, but this transcript picks up very early in the conversation.
– For the sake of not typing a lot of sound effects, imagine that we were all laughing, almost constantly, throughout this talk!

ST: Can you tell us a bit about what your initial thoughts were when DC approached you to write the Flintstones?

MR: I thought, you know, it’s set in prehistoric times, and I’m really sort of interested in human anthropology and paleontology. To me, that’s the important thing… what I look for when I’m writing something… what could I link it to, outside of comics, that I’m interested in.

And for the Flintstones, it was like… I’ve got a lot to say about human evolution and where we’re going, and how the problems we have now are, I think, due to the problem that we’re not living life the way we actually evolved to live it.

So I thought, Flintstones gives me the chance to really impose these views on people through an innocent comic book.

ST: When they made the offer, was it in his (Dan Didio’s) mind that this should be a book that has a lot of biting social critique? Or was it just completely, “hey, write a Flintstones book?”

MR: No, he had this memory of the original Flintstones being that way, which I don’t have at all… but he seemed to think that the original Flintstones was really subversive and satirical… whereas, I just thought it was a bunch of shitty rock puns… with a Honeymooners story tacked on to it.

But no, that was what he wanted and so that’s why I took the gig… because I thought we both felt the same way about it. They’ve been really supportive with the direction I’ve taken, whereas most publishers would have been…

…if it had been up to Hanna Barbera, I think… this would have been cancelled after issue number ONE!

[roaring laughter]

The vitamin pill people weren’t happy!

[roaring laughter]

DC was really supportive, though. They did what they had to do to push it through!

It’s good to not let the tail wag the dog… you know… to let the vitamin pill people tell the number one comic book publisher in the world what to do!

ST: So with all of the historical content in the book, were there any nonfiction references that you consulted for historical or philosophical inspiration, as you were preparing?

MR: I didn’t really do a lot of research for the Flintstones, I just sort of drew upon things that I had read. Like, a lot of the critique of marriage I drew from having read Sex at Dawn, which is about how human sexuality evolved and how marriage was created with the advent of agriculture… how humans superimpose their own breeding framework on the same agricultural patterns they created for animals, and it was a way of creating a stable population base for farms, and later for factories.

One of my favorite books that was really influencial on the Flintstones, was Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, which is a brief history of the human race. He really goes into depth about how the human race evolved and what we evolved to do and about the sort of strange decisions we’ve collectively made, without realizing we were making them.

Basically, civilization and agriculture turned us into zoo animals. Our species has been around for 200,000 years, and it’s only about 8,000 years ago, we were hunter-gatherers. So the adjustment to having to live on farms, or in towns and cities has been really hard on us. It’s not a natural way for us to be living. So we had to create institutions like religion and politics to coordinate with each other and make life livable for large numbers of people in a small space.

And so I thought the people of Bedrock have an excuse for getting all of this wrong. They’re the first people to do this! They’re the first people to have to figure out how religion should work or how politics should work. So why don’t I make the mistakes I think we’re making, in their world.

But make the mistakes seem reasonable, because these are people who have no idea what they’re doing. They’re not sophisticated enough to realize that what they’re doing is going to cause horrible problems later on.

So it’s really, in a lot of ways, my grand critique on civilization.

ST: How much of the writing process is DC and how much is purely you?

MR: DC really allows me to do whatever I want… as long as it’s not too obscene. The book is rated teen, so if I call someone an asshole, they’ll say, “no, change that.” Or if it’s going to get them sued, like… you can’t use the word Avengers anywhere.

[roaring laughter]

Or, for example, in issue number eleven, there’s a reference to the blue man group… so I mean, we changed it to the green man group.

And I originally had in Professor Sargon’s science cave, he was doing experiments with a cocaine addicted rat… and we had to take that out!

We don’t want a cocaine addict rat to be a bad influence on children!

[roaring laughter]
ST: We love your satirical and critical approach to normative values and society. You address many topics including religion, marriage, war, genocide, art, science, and labor rights. Of those topics is there one or two that are particularly important or personal to you?

MR: Well one that sorta seems to show up in everything I do, is religion. Because I grew up in a very religious household. It pervades all my work. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write something that isn’t permeated by some sort of commentary on religion, or about the impact religion has on people. Because it’s had such an impact on me.

And I think ultimately you write about the things that have wounded you. You write about the things that have left their mark on you… and writing is a form of therapy.

So religion is really important, but I think overall, the thing that I’m trying to wrap my head around, in writing the Flintstones is how people can be so nice and good as one… as one person, yet so terrible when you get them together in large numbers. It’s like, you’re a good person, you’re a good person, you, you… but together, you’re a MONSTER!

And this is my critique of civilization. How do we get it where people are as good in a collective, as they are individually?

ST: You talked about the mistakes made in the Flintstones, as a reflection of the mistakes we still make today. Even though civilization and agriculture are relatively new in the history of the Earth, we have for example, made amazing technological advancements as a species in a very short time. Why haven’t we been able to grow out of these fundamental mistakes that you address in the book, as well?

MR: Well I think it’s because we’ve invested our identity in these mistakes. We don’t see them as mistakes, because this is who we are.

You’re brought up a Methodist, so you don’t see the problems of Christianity.
To be otherwise would be to unravel your personal identity.

This is one of the reasons I wanted to write the Flintstones, because they’re NOT that invested. They’re still finding their way. So when they fuck up, they can be honest with themselves, and say, “well that was a stupid idea!” “That was a dumb god! What was I thinking worshipping that god?”

So we have so much of ourselves and our identities invested in these decisions, or it’s invested for us by our parents and by our schools, that we’ll never admit to ourselves that they were mistakes.

But I wanted people to start thinking about themselves and their relationship to politics and religion and society, through a Bedrockian… someone who is like, “Ok, so we voted for Clod the Destroyer… that was… dumb…”

“Remind me why we’re spending a trillion dollars going after the lizard people?!”

They are still new enough, they’ll ask themselves these questions, whereas people today, who vote on these things have so much of their identity invested in the way they vote, they don’t stop to ask themselves these questions, or consider that they may be making a mistake.

ST: I really love how Clod is starting a war on the lizard people, where his father started the war on the tree people, and Barney’s reflection to Fred that this all sounds very familiar.

MR: I think a lot of politics is about a bunch of rich guys trying to prove to their daddy that they’re a big man too, now! Like George W. Bush had to prove that he could have a bigger war than his daddy’s war to show that he’d grown up. And Donald Trump is always trying to prove himself to his billionaire dad, that he belongs in the club too.

I think this is one of the problems of creating this stratified society, where you have this ruling class that’s always the same people. That they’re substituting their own personal hang-ups, their need to prove themselves to the others in the ruling class, for actual policy decisions, that benefit each other.

They’re playing their own game, and the rest of us are cannon fodder for their psychological need to feel like they’re better than their dad, or grandpa, or whoever had the job before them.

They’re more concerned with their legacy as it relates to their family and the others in the ruling class, rather than if the policy will work for the rest of us.

ST: And really, legacy is akin to happenstance, right? Like the Neanderthal at the beginning of the book, who died wearing Mr. Slate’s stone chain, the curator at the museum believed him to be an important person, but really, he died as a joke and a slave to Mr. Slate.

MR: To me that’s about the futility of trying to maintain your legacy, because the ages will have no idea who you were. They’re working from really incomplete evidence, and they’re going to come up with their own conclusions.

So, trying to sacrifice the world beneath you, to try and build this monument to your legacy is like Ozymandias. It’s futile, because you’ll end up half sunken in the desert and no one will remember who you were.

Oblivion awaits us all!
If there’s one thing I want people to take away from this, it’s “Oblivion awaits you all!”

[roaring laughter]

ST: Some of my favorite parts of the book, throughout, are vacuum cleaner in the dark closet and bowling ball, and their friendship. These quiet moments of humanity, within these objects that no one really pays attention to.

MR: In a way, that’s a great thing to bring up, in relation to futile legacy.

People think that these monuments to themselves and their accomplishments are what they’re going to be remembered for, or where they’ll find meaning… when really, all we have are these relationships between sentient beings, sharing experience in the universe. This is ultimately the only legacy we not only are capable of… but that we need.

ST: But with characters that no one pays attention to. You know, it’s the servants.

MR: Yeah, one of the directives from Hanna Barbera, was that the animals could talk to the animals and the humans could talk to other humans, but animals and humans can never talk to one another… or understand each other.

Originally, I had just been writing dialogue between animals and humans.
But, when they said that, I thought, “this is a really good limitation!”
When you have limitations on your writing, a lot of times, it spurs your creativity.

So when I wasn’t able to have them all talk anymore, it created this real upstairs/downstairs effect, where the people employers have their world, and the animal employees have their world, and they have no idea what the other is really wanting.

The bowling ball has NO IDEA why this guy wants to roll him down an alley at these pins.
And the humans are completely oblivious to the suffering their causing.

Obviously, Fred and Wilma are good, compassionate human beings, but they just never stop to think about the misery they’re imposing upon the coat rack… an elk that has to stand there all day, holding people’s coats on his antlers, or like vacuum cleaner sitting at home alone in the dark all the time.

Because it never even occurs to them that these are beings worthy of their consideration.

Which, I think, in a lot of ways is what we all do. I have an iPhone in my pocket. Some guy in some Chinese factory probably worked 100 hours a week, making that iPhone. Perhaps, jumped out of a window, trying to kill himself… yet, I still got it.

The thing that civilization is really good at is removing you from the misery that goes into everything you enjoy, to the point that you don’t know it’s there. We’re all guilty of that, but we need to remember sometimes that everything we enjoy has to be built upon someone else being forced to do something that they don’t want to do.

That’s one of the cardinal sins of civilization, to me… the division of labor.

The fact that, instead of living whole, human lives, hunting, gathering, foraging and using our minds in the way they were designed, we’re spending all day soldering a diode, or asking people if they want fries and a soda. The division of labor has forced us into the jobs which are not challenging or satisfying to us in any way. We created the most sophisticated computer in the known universe, the human brain, and we use it to ask people if they want fries with their sandwich.

PART 2 COMING SOON!

2 thoughts on “Part 1 – Mark Russell, writer of DC Comics’ Flintstones and Prez – Book Club Discussion”

  1. Reblogged this on Samuel Snoek-Brown and commented:
    Last Sunday, my friend Mark Russell came up to Tacoma to join the monthly book club at my favorite Tacoma comic book shop, Stargazer Comics Toys & Games. We were discussing, of course, the first trade volume of Mark’s brilliant Flintstones series from DC Comics, and the gang at Stargazer were thrilled that Mark was going to be able to join us in person! It was a fabulous conversation, and the coolest bit is that, with Mark’s permission, the owners taped the conversation and have now begun posting the entire transcript on their blog. I’m sharing Part 1 of that transcript here, so head on over to their blog and check it out, then stay tuned for Part 2. Unless you haven’t read The Flintstones yet — if that’s the case, SPOILER ALERT! and get yourself to your local comic book shop and grab the first trade volume!

    Like

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