Monday, December 4, 2017

Graphic Novel Review The Flintstones Vol. 1

Over the last year or so, DC Comics has launched new comic book versions of classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The best of these, and the most classroom-relevant is The Flintstones. The others so far in descending order include the Jetsons (just started last month, but I really enjoyed the first issue) Scooby-Doo Apocalypse (which...I wasn't a fan; I prefer pulling a rubber mask off of Old Man Withers to actual mass killing of zombies) and Wacky Racers, which I couldn't make it through because it was terrible. My opinion only, but as is usually the case, I'm right. But hey, positivity, so here we go: 

The Flintstones got great reviews from the get-go. Writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh have taken the town of Bedrock and its citizens and brought it into the twenty-first century while keeping it in the stone age. The original cartoon series was the first-ever animated series in prime time, running for six seasons starting in 1960. It was groundbreaking for the time in its connections to twentieth century life; the new comic is a little more biting. I was a fan of the cartoon when I was a pup (in reruns) and a lot of the things about the tv show that I found charming have made their way into the book.

Volume 1 of the series collects the first five issues of the comic books in a single 168-page book.  paperback." Instead of Fred, Wilma, Barney and Betty being punchlines for corny jokes, they're now the arbiters of brilliant satire that skewers (and sometimes celebrates) the world around us. The stories end up being a lens to view our own civilization, and our lack of civility. Which makes it an incredible resource for helping students see multiple sides of controversial modern day issues.

Some of those social issues:

Consumerism: one of the things I loved about both the old TV series and the comics is people living side-by-side with dinosaurs and mammoths. Paleontologically inaccurate, but fun. Those dinosaurs and mammoths become the machines, appliances, and playthings for the residents of Bedrock. So Fred's quarry is equipped with dinosaurs, their vacuum cleaner is a young mammoth, and the lamp is some kind of prehistoric bird. When the people aren't around, the appliances talk among themselves; an ongoing subplot is the new vacuum cleaner getting to know the other creatures in the broom closet, confessing his anxieties and befriending the rather terse armadillo-bowling-ball. A favorite pastime of Fred, Wilma, and their teenage daughter Pebbles is going to the local mall and buying more stuff...seemingly just to buy more stuff. When an appliance is considered outdated (even if it's still functional) it's surplused and turned into some kind of meat byproduct pet chow, and replaced with the newer model...which looks identical to us as the reader, and not really cared about or valued by even the "good" characters in the book. The wastefulness and frivolity of consumerism is on display, and sometimes shocking.

PTSD and the Morality of War: In the cartoon, Fred and Barney were both members of a fraternal lodge, the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes. It's headed up by the Grand Poobah, but you're never really told what exactly that lodge is, or why these men are all gathered together. In the comic, it's explained. And it's pretty horrific. It turns out these are all veterans of a war. A war in which this civilization wiped out the Neanderthals. So...genocide. In conversations among themselves, they at times are disturbed by what they did...but outside of the lodge, go about their lives just like everyone else. One character in particular is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it's all just much more complex and tragic than you'd expect from a Flintstones comic book. In a more recent comic (collected in Volume 2) the army is called up to go to war again, and the morality of that war (spoilers: when they get to where their enemies are camped, they're not there, so you don't actually see a battle or anything) is also debated.

Marriage Equality: It turns out that Fred and Wilma Flinstone and their neighbors Barney and Betty Rubble are seen as kind of freaks in their community because of their (to us) traditional marriage. The other people in Bedrock just go to the Sex Cave. Which is never fully explained, and you don't see much of how other families raise kids or anything, but...it's a Sex Cave. I'm sure you can figure it out. In town meetings and churches, Bedrock debates the nature of marriage and family and relationships, clearly mirroring our current debates about all of those same things. The setting, removed from us, softens some of the controversy in these issues, while still allowing the conversation to happen. It makes both the Flintstones and the Rubbles reexamine their own marriages, making the story personal and poignant. The way the issue is framed makes it safe for discussion; I'd even use it in my (pretty dang) conservative schools in Utah. 

Elections and Governing: There are a few different elections that happen in the course of the book: Pebbles is involved in an election at her middle school, and Bedrock needs to elect a new mayor. We see debates, we see how qualified or unqualified the candidates are, their platforms--but in a way that's funny and relevant and disconnected from our recent election (thank goodness, I can't relive that quite yet), but still raising issues that are ripe for student discussion. As with the other controversial topics, they're made more safe by using the Stone Age setting, and more funny, too. 

Religion and Science: Bedrock is in a transitional period from prehistoric religion to something much more recognizable. Their religious leader starts up his own church (eventually called the Church of Geraldo Gerald) and draws in parishioners who end up being an ongoing vocal group that we see from time to time. The leader tweaks the doctrine of the Church of Gerald from week to week, seeing what will fit best with his flock; sometimes experimenting during the worship services themselves. In a more recent issue (also collected in Volume 2) they even look at the idea of Indulgences, a sixteenth century practice of paying money to the church to erase your sins, that ticked a dude named Martin Luther King Jr off enough to nail a list of his beefs with the church to the door. Aaaaand has some parallels to for-profit-churches that will be recognizable to kids today. Good fodder for thought and maybe classroom discussion if you want to go there. Science and "science" end up with the same kind of debate, with Pebbles volunteering at the Bedrock Science Center and asking some pretty pointed questions about the nature of knowledge and experimentation.

In all, this is a fascinating and entertaining read, coming close to preachy at times, but more often leaving the reader asking questions that the comic doesn't fully answer. If you're a fan of the old television series, you'll recognize the characters and scenarios here, and for me, that's part of the fun of the book. The characters are more complex than they used to be, with Wilma on an ongoing search for fulfillment as an artist; many of the episodes of the cartoon had Wilma and Betty deceiving their husbands (and Fred and Barney doing the same) to get what they wanted -- a very Lucy and Desi model -- you don't see much of that at all in the book. Fred and Wilma don't always understand each other, but their relationship is more healthy than it was in the 1960s. 

IN THE CLASSROOM 
I'd start out using the book by showing the animated introduction and theme song to the series (and probably closing class with the closing credits)(because I really like Fred trying to put the saber-tooth cat out for the night and getting locked out). It'll be in your head all day, but it will help frame the comic for kids who probably have seen the characters on cereal boxes or vitamin bottles, but haven't ever watched the cartoon themselves. 

It can be difficult to acquire classroom sets of comic books or graphic novels, but in this book in particular, there are individual pages or even panels that open the door for deep discussion. Take a page or two from the book and use it as a text set with other texts (a nonfiction reading passage, a poem, an opinion piece) and have students incorporate the debate points from The Flintstones in an argument. 

You could even get all STEMy with it and have them design their own prehistoric machines that would make their lives easier. Tangent: Pebbles and Bam-Bam both have cell phones. That are clearly made of rock, but still function. Like...how? I'm able to understand and appreciate the pterosaur airplane, but the phones? Also their televisions. I mean...yeah. Okay. Sorry. 

You could have students do the research and make clear the connections in the comic to the current state of those debates. Have the debates been settled? What are the "punctuation marks" in history where these debates have been most...debated? 

I'd say the comic is appropriate at least in excerpts for middle school, but high school is where I really see kids getting into the social issues raised. At the price point for the first volume, if you've seen anything at all in this review that made you stop and think, you should get a copy and delve into it. I had heard good things about the book from friends, but it was better and more complex and more funny than I had imagined. I've been a fan of The Flintstones since I was a kid...but this made me love them all over again. 

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