In the beginning was the word, and the art followed. The word and the art became comics, and comics are good. Entering stage left is writer Mark Russell: One of the most incisive, subversive storytellers working in comics. My intentionally biblical opener alludes to Mr. Russell’s meditations on religion, which is one of the key themes that makes the best Mark Russell comics so distinct. The other two characteristics that repeatedly appear in his works are revitalizing and re-contextualizing older intellectual properties and in his interest in the creation of systems and society.
In Mark Russell’s hands, seemingly flat, two-dimensional characters and cartoons are upended; they’re imbued with modern meaning, body, and nuance. Yet, even through a contextual upheaval, there is such a deep respect and love for each of these characters and their decades old legacy. Russell skillfully drives these classic comics towards unobvious, but natural conclusions. Mark Russell turns “Prez Rickard” (a 70’s comic about a teenage president) into a scathing takedown of corporate influence in American democracy and governance. The Flintstones ' traces the earliest community of Bedrock and ponders our own society's origins. Snagglepuss takes a goofy pink feline and turns him into a sympathetic, closeted, blacklisted playwright in the 50’s. Most importantly, each story has a sharply wicked gallows humor that cuts at the inherent foolishness and malevolent immorality of a capitalist, conservative culture.
But what Mark Russell is most interested in is systems: how they are created, how they decay, how they are sustained, and how they are challenged. He uses familiar characters as guides towards greater ideas. His stories drill deeply into institutions and questions the status quo in both religion and politics. Russell distills prevailing norms to their bare naked essence and what you’re left with is either hilarious or horrifying, often both. The resulting graphic novels are some of the wittiest commentaries on late-capitalist America told through beautiful sequential art. Punctuated with a razor-sharp sense of humor, there are few working writers with an imagination, indignation, and intelligence as Mark Russell.
Best Mark Russell Comics Reading List
- The Flintstones, DC comics (2018)
- Exit Stage Left!: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, DC Comics (2018)
- Second Coming, Ahoy Comics (2019)
- Wonder Twins Vol.1: Activate!, DC Comics (2019)
- Prez Vol. 1: Corndog In Chief, DC Comics (2016)
- Red Sonja: Scorched Earth, Dynamite Entertainment (2019)
- Judge Dredd: Under Siege (IDW; 2019)
I want to emphasize that all of these comics are pretty great. In my opinion, however, The Flintstones and Snagglepuss stand a tier above the rest. While I try to avoid some of the major surprises, consider this a SPOILER WARNING for some of the stories below.
Judge Dredd: Under Siege, IDW (2019)
When Mark Russell gets free reign over an undervalued property, he has the ability to mine each character to their fullest potential. What seems like the craziest of concepts all suddenly makes complete sense. I suspect that IDW may have been a little more protective of Judge Dredd and limited just how far they would let Mark Russell put his imprimatur on the character and subject matter. In our era of stop and frisk, enhanced surveillance, police brutality and Black Lives Matter, Judge Dredd could have reflected a devastating critique of an increasingly militarized police force and extrajudicial killings by the state. Instead, we get a more-standard-than-expected rescue operation of a stranded Judge trapped in a turf war between gang residents of Patrick Swayze Block and mutant invaders. I would have loved to see him tackle issues regarding the role that a peace officer plays in society. What new insights would his critical eye uncover when it stares at the creeping fascism of "the thin blue line" that views its population as an enemy to fear and occupy rather than a community to protect and to serve?
As much as I love Russell, his Dredd seems a little handcuffed. In 2020, the perception of police as hero is more complicated than ever. Judge Dredd should be difficult to root for. The line between anti-hero and villain blurs as the role of American police has evolved from neighborhood peace officer to militarized occupying force. This is a Dredd who has little regard for civil rights or due process.
However, Russell is able to include his signature social commentary into the story. Dredd polices the world of have-nots. It’s a world where the “Church Of The Holy Question Mark” automates the answers to life’s biggest questions - complete with a mechanical minister. It’s a housing unit where the residents can farm out their organs to Kidney Hut as a “side hustle”. Internal Collections Agents wear the body armor of ICE Agents and have no qualms about separating children from their families. In its final monologue, we get a hard criticism of a justice system that has lost its way. A Judge provides an explanation for what happens to a society when trust in law enforcement deteriorates: when those entrusted to safeguard the law devalue human life, their authority is abdicated and a more natural law is formed.
Dredd is more of a passenger in this uncivilized world than an active protagonist, but as law enforcement takes on a tribalistic "us-versus-them" mentality, it's harder to see police as heroes; particularly when the police view citizens and civilians as the "them" to be occupied. When arbiters of the law abuse their power and wield it unfairly, public trust deteriorates. Maybe it was a self-imposed challenge by the author himself or a mandate by IDW Publishing, but there just seems to be a bit holding back in an otherwise action-packed and socially aware take on Judge Dredd.
Artist: Max Dunbar
Colorist: Jose Luis Rio
Letterers: Simon Bowland & Shawn Lee
Red Sonja: Scorched Earth, Dynamite Entertainment (2019)
Initially imagined as a “cheesecake” pin-up model (chainmail bikini and all), the Red Sonja of Mark Russell’s story reimagines the warrior side of her character - specifically the strategist and tactician. The Emperor of Shadizar, Dragan the Magnificent, is mandated by a curse of never-ending expansion. Much like the corporate boards of today - enslaved to the myth of eternal growth - he must grow each quarter. He sets his sights on the barren steppes of Hyrkania, where the soil is unforgiving and the sun is relentless. Red Sonja is given the responsibility of defending this land and leading her people.
Red Sonja becomes a study of contrasts in leadership. The “world eating” Emperor Dragan is actually kind of a dumpy middle-aged man with a headpiece that looks like the Chili’s logo. Entitled and cocky, he’s reminiscent of the overconfident and unqualified failures like George W. Bush and Donald Trump who play at war, but have no idea what actual leadership is like. Dragan is a “leader” only in the sense that he’s in that position without any leadership qualities. All three of these boy-”men” are fools who believe in their right to rule, simply by virtue of their class and position.
Sonja, on the other hand, earns her right to lead by continually making strategic decisions and learning from past lessons. The entire series weaves in a non-linear narrative about the tactics she’d learn from her mentor, Domo, which informs each difficult and strategic decision she has to make. It’s a stark reminder that leadership is about difficult choices for the good of the people and compassion for the least in society when standing up against malevolence and bullies. The fictional sword and sorcery society of Red Sonja reveals what a real leader looks like and exposes the massive void in 2020 America.
The foolishness and pettiness of this overcompensating need for domination is highlighted by the real desperation and survival struggle of the underdog. Red Sonja has, at its center, a true feminist hero: she is a capable and competent leader who listens and learns from mentors and mistakes alike. She’s even more capable than the dominant ruler who opposes her, and gets much more done with much less. That is the inequity; one side with all advantages who gets by on the bare minimum versus a warrior Queen who scraps for every possible win.
We see the toll and the cost it takes on Sonja and her people, the Hyrkanians. It’s got a kinship with “The Battle of Algiers” as it lays out the weapons and tactics of a resistance. And to all of us readers, it’s a reminder that oftentimes the most important struggles seem insurmountable. Surviving and fighting is a win and each “smaller win” adds up.
Artists: Mirko Colak, Bob Q, Robert Carey, Katie O'Meara
Prez Vol. 1: Corndog In Chief, DC Comics (2016)
Mark Russell first hopped on our radar with “Prez” a re-imagining of a 1973 comic about the first, teen President. His cutting satire imagines an America where citizens turn to crowdfunding to pay for healthcare, where corporations monopolize the government, where a flu pandemic is widespread and only muddled by profits and religion, and where the working class and immigrants debase themselves on television for a chance at the American Dream. Sounds not to far off from fiction? The righteous rage wafts from page to page. Teenager Beth Ross is elected President via social media after online hacktivist trolls boost her viral moment (getting her braid stuck in a corndog deep-fryer). Beth finds herself handcuffed as she tries to clean up the hole that the previous generations have trapped hers (and future ones) in.
Prez is rich in ideas… Very rich. I particularly like the depiction of corporate America here - in bright neon logos - with the big bad “Boss Smiley” (reminiscent of Amazon or Walmart) putting on a perpetually happy sheen on its ugly greed. The faceless corporate entities have been granted personhood, echoing Mitt Romney’s declaration that “corporations are people”. The bright cutesy colors belie the monopolistic dystopia of this America, where the rights of corporations supersede human health, rights, and dignity. The pop colors also betray a pessimism that comics - just by virtue of its medium - can mask.
If Prez sounds like all politics, it does not want for action - specifically the Military Industrial Complexes latest AI achievement: War Beast. Originally programmed to kill insurgents, War Beast reaches singularity quite quickly and rebels against her original prime directive. If a war machine can change and reach a new understanding, can a country?
Beth's Ms. Ross goes to Washington story follows the Jimmy Stewart-esque trajectory of an average citizen flung into great circumstances. Her character stands against the same overwhelming forces that we struggle to stand up against. It's a sad, but honest commentary that the hero of this story who can affect change is a dumpy billionaire named Fred Wayne. The one with the most money has the most power in this society.
Even though Prez is a great freshman outing for Russell, it presaged greater things to come as his stories got more tight and focused. Like the original Prez, Mark Russell’s run was canceled before it was completed. I also could have used more Beth up front. Still, there is a shaginess and rebellious swagger to Prez that is both engrossing and entertaining.
Artist: Ben Caldwell, Dominike “Domo” Stanton
Inks: Mark Morales, Sean Parsons, John Lucas
Colors: Jeremy Lawson
Letters: Travis Lanham, Marilyn Patrizio, Sal Cipriano
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Wonder Twins Vol. 1: Activate!, DC Comics (2019)
One factor I wish I could get across more clearly in this article is just how funny Mark Russell is. Sometimes it's gallows humor; many times it's satire. It's also slapstick and broad. Nothing illustrates Mark Russell's ability to hop through comedy genres than Wonder Twins. Jayna and Zan are new to high school and, the superhero business, and to earth. They are immigrants to earth from the planet Exxor. Jayna can transform into any animal she wants and Zan can take the shape of water. They report directly to Superman at Justice League headquarters as his wards. Being the new kids in a high school can be difficult on anyone, but the Wonder Twins are also dealing with their apprenticeships as heroes and learning about earth culture. The first issue takes their super-internship and pokes fun at the more absurd elements of the characters' lore.
However, Issue #2 of this run unfolds the main theme of this run. The Wonder Twins find their nemesis when they take a field trip to a privatized prison. A not-so-supervillain known as "The Scrambler" joins the third-tier villains team "League of Annoyance" and strives for legitimacy. The Scrambler (with the universal sign for "troll" - egg emblem emblazoned on his chest) joins such "illustrious villains" as The Praying Mantis, Baron Nightblood, Aunt Phetamine, and Cell Phone Sylvia. The League of Annoyance could prove to be good training wheels for Jayna and Zan, but the bumbling bad guys prove less of a challenge than making friends at Morris High School and finding dates.
Mark Russell takes the profoundly silly and makes it profound. This Wonder Twins run has one of the best, most touching lines of dialogue and also one of the most creative villain plots in recent memory. Because the League of Annoyance are more incompetent than evil and the Wonder Twins are more amateurish than good, the question of their fundamental "goodness or badness" become more morally gray. Zan and Jayna good intentions result in bad consequences; the League of Annoyance do bad things for a higher intent. Systems and conservative unwillingness to change (except for for more profit) leads to stagnation and absurdity. Here is one of my favorite lines of dialogue from Jayna at the end of Issue #3:
"It's easy to imagine that the world is divided into good and evil. But those concepts are often complicated and not easily defined. The true moral struggle isn't between good and evil. It's between pettiness and generosity. So when the world seems too complex and horrifying to know what to do... Err on the side of generosity. For in the end, it's the greatest power we have." - Mark Russell (Wonder Twins #3).
As superhero comic readers age and mature, simple black and white morality that was originally created for children also need to evolve. With this statement, Mark Russell uses some of the silliest characters to articulate a more complicated world. People are nuanced, not simply good or evil. Wonder Twins then turns its lens on the real world, where the U.S. judicial system does write people off as evil and irredeemable. As a prison abolitionist (the writer), the American carceral state is akin to modern day slavery. There are more Black men in prison, jail, probation or parole than were enslaved pre-Civil War in 1850. Inmates work for slave wages at call centers (highlighted by Wonder Twins), sewing clothes, and fighting fires. The simplistic superhero construct of good versus evil has aided in the dehumanization of prisoners as people and citizens and Wonder Twins illustrates the real life cost that our prison system has on our views of rehabilitation.
***MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
The greatest villain plot happens courtesy of the Scrambler - who has the ability to trade his consciousness with one person. Upon joining the League of Annoyance, he has a chance meeting with disgraced Nobel physicist Filo Math and is able to implement a plot that would "scramble" the consciousness of every person on the planet. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, you might trade places with your neighbor, a sweatshop worker, the President of the United States, or an old man with moments to live. In a twist by way of Watchmen and philosopher John Rawls' "Veil of Ignorance", the Scrambler gives the world thirty days to get its house in order. Those in power will most certainly end up as someone else, thus forcing them to make a better world for everyone.
Wonder Twins ultimately points out the absurdity of our current system again and again; but it does provide a path: extending compassion and generosity to those around you, and demanding much of those in power.
Artist: Stephen Byrne
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Colorist: Cris Peters
Second Coming, Ahoy Comics (2019)
Almost 3,000 years ago, the Greeks told epics of superpowered beings and they grew in such popularity that they were worshiped as "gods". The Romans, unimaginatively, simply re-booted these legends as a canon had developed around them. Fast forward 5,000 years and DC Comics leaned heavily on Hercules, Hades, and the Amazons to form their trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. These comics revealed what Joseph Cambell's Hero of a Thousand Faces would tell - that these long lasting archetypes have staying power. The gods of yesterday become the heroes of today; the congregation become fanboys. You've got the hardcore fans who police how to be a fan and you've got the casuals who may dip in on special occasions - like opening weekend of a Marvel movie or Easter service. You've got apostates who challenge the fans by re-contextualizing and examining the characters to the dissatisfaction of the faithful.
Similarly, about 2,000 years ago, the early Christians created the legend of Jesus Christ. The resurrection narrative predated that of Christ with the Mesopotamian god Dumuzid, the Egyptian god Osiris, and the Greek god Adonis, so there was a lot of material to pull from. While people quickly outgrew the Greek and Roman gods, Jesus stuck and his fans are typically only keen on updates that allow them to feel less guilty about making money and looking less Middle Eastern.
Mark Russell's Second Coming takes Christ and his Father back to the basics. Jesus is considering a second crack at humanity, much to the dismay of his father, God. The first time he went to earth was a disaster, and the folks didn't seem to beget much of it except violence, hatred, and greed. But God sees the superhero Sunstar (an analog for Superman) and what a badass the world's greatest hero is. If Jesus could learn a thing or two from the most powerful superhero on earth, maybe it won't be so bad. Sunstar tries to toughen Christ up and show him how it's done, but Jesus seems more horrified that his execution method is now his logo and more interested in healing the sick and helping the weak. Maybe Jesus' original message got lost in translation and from willfully bad actors - but to the people of earth, he is kind of a kook.
Whether we like it or not, characters, superheroes, - even gods - are continuously evolved and updated to fit the cultural climate. By transplanting Jesus Christ into modern America, we see how the original come face to face with our society's capitalist invention of a mascot Jesus. The original Jesus does not recognize his portrayal in 2020 America. Mark Russell takes Jesus Christ back to his roots to explore his message. There was some outcry about this project and DC Comics cancelled its publishing before it went to Ahoy Comics. But perhaps before throwing the first stone, folks should not only look at Mark Russell's interpretation of Christ and look at the re-invention of him by the prosperity gospel televangelists, the republican party, the evangelical social warriors, and the country club corporations. I challenge you to decide whose Jesus looks more like the original.
Artist: Richard Pace, Leonard Kirk
Colorist: Andy Troy
Letterer: Rob Steen
Exit Stage Left!: The Snagglepuss Chronicles (2018)
Exit Stage Left! might just be Mark Russell's greatest trick. The writer pulls back the curtain on the pink mountain lion of Hanna Barbara lore and gives Snagglepuss the seriousness and weight afforded to a literary giant in the mold of Tennessee Williams. Exit Stage Left! takes us though the paranoid, homophobic, anxious, atmosphere of the McCarthy-era and post-war Boom. Snagglepuss' Zelig-like existence - rubbing elbows with Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Marilyn Monroe - serves as an entry to Pre-Stonewall New York and the early days of the gay rights movement. It's a premise that sounds silly, but is approached with the utmost respect and sincerity with little irony, all the while casting Snagglepuss as the protagonist in a Southern Gothic melodrama of his own.
Snagglepuss, an acclaimed playwright, celebrates the final performance of his Broadway play - The Heart is a Kennel of Thieves. An intellectual celebrity in his own right, he's the toast of New York society... and he's being called to testify in front of the House Un-Americans Committee. He's being hounded by special counsel Gigi Allen for his subversive works, while he grapples with both his boyfriend and his lavender marriage. A friend from the past, novelist Huckleberry Hound (by way of William Faulkner) arrives to visit and will force Snagglepuss out of the paradise he created for himself in Greenwich Village and into confronting his own past.
On one hand, Exit Stage Left! tells the story of so many in the LGBTQ+ community who felt that New York was (comparatively) a place in America that allowed them to live their true lives, even with one foot in the closet. For these cultural refugees, New York was a city large enough to be ignored. But this was a time where those in the gay community were outed by their own government; persecuted by those intent on blackmailing, exposing, and destroying them. We see the mechanism of a nation turning on its own citizens.
Using the framework of a stageplay, Snagglepuss delivers many truths, but two rang out to me. Firstly, we see how much presentation and performance is part of everyone's lives. Snagglepuss lives a closeted life. The HUAC hearings were themselves, performative patriotism. Icons like Marilyn Monroe carefully construct an image of an all-American sweetheart, while immigrants like Joe DiMaggio grapples with how he is accepted. Even on a larger scale, Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev spar on how to best show off their respective countries in a national performance. All the world is truly a stage, with some roles more risky than others.
For the second theme, Snagglepuss finds himself on a talk show to discuss his work (as an aside: I watched an old Dick Cavett interview with Tennessee Williams, and couldn't help but note that Williams' laconic purring dialect and Snagglepuss' Cowardly Lion Impression were spiritual vocal ancestors). In discussing the difference between theater and television acting, he posits that "a star shows people who they'd wish to be; an actor shows them what they are." There is a gap between how others perceive us and who we really are. Most people see flat two-dimensional, simple versions of the people around them. Only a treasured few are allowed entree into the inner workings of each of our lives. Perhaps simply recognizing that people are more complex than how they portray is the more important step to empathy and understanding (recently, I've taken to a mantra whenever I'm interacting with someone at work: "he/she had to have worked very hard to get here". I find that alone puts me into someone else's shoes).
And the "trick" comes full circle. We know a two-dimensional character. We follow him into his personal life and relate to his pain, struggle, and journey. Then, Mark Russell flips Snagglepuss back to his roots and turns him into a flat character again. Exit Stage Left! serving as something as a prequel to the more famous version we're all familiar with. It takes a pink, cartoon, lion to remind us that we all wear something of a mask every day -whether it's a meticulously constructed one or one casually tossed on: we all have vibrant, rich interior lives. And to paraphrase Snagglepuss --- it's not about the plot, it's about the characters.
Penciller: Mike Feehan
Inkers: Mark Morales, Sean Pasons, Jose Marzan Jr.
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
The Flintstones, DC Comics (2018)
Mark Russell's masterpiece is the Flintstones, where he takes a two dimensional gag and reflects on the birth of modernity and civilization. Where the original Hanna-Barbera cartoons poked fun at the anachronistic settings, personalities, and products, Mark Russell interrogates ideas and origins. The Flintstones goes back to the Stone Age to see the development of consumerism, exploitation, religion, tribalism, monogamy, and colonialism. Something that both Mark Russell and the original Flintstones understands is that human nature is not so divorced from our ancestors. The images that look back at us from old video, photographs, paintings, statues, and other form of art share a bond that transcends time: desires, passions, kindness, and cruelty that we still have today. We in the 21st Century don't have an monopoly on "enlightenment" and the past certainly doesn't have one on "barbarism".
By imposing our modern traits and ideologies to Bedrock, we can see very simple distillations that are the roots of our culture, prejudices, and vices. The birth of consumerism and the middle-class shows Fred, Wilma, and the gang enjoying the labor of dinosaur and animal with little regard for the well being of those who serve. The friendship between an armadillo named Bowling Ball and an elephant named Vacuum Cleaner shows the day to day grind of appliances. While serving the ruling class, they only find worth and meaning in the relationships they build among each other. Just as in today's society - "essential" worker is a platitudinous code for expendable worker - people are valued only in their means of generating wealth. America disposes of the elderly, doesn't believe that it's people have a right to healthcare, and worships at the altar of workaholism.
The beginning of a heterosexual, monogamous, couple is viewed upon with the suspicion and discrimination that queer couples are subjected to today. When Fred and Wilma decide to try this new thing called "marriage", they are judged by the denizens of the sex cave, seeing it as unnatural (because it did not exist when they were children, of course). The church of animism has several drafts in creating a deity that everyone is comfortable worshiping. As animals become commodified, it becomes harder to worship a record player or a vacuum cleaner. Troubled by a god who asks for restraint, discipline, and empathy, many citizens become much more comfortable with one who reinforces materialism, acquisition and selfishness.
In between the biting satire and critique, is the lesson of what makes humanity worth fighting for: shared community, friendship, equanimity and compassion for those in your life. The structures that build up society actually stratifies what makes humankind great. I've always thought that the saddest thing is a growth paralysis. When people so afraid of change, choose to live in a prison of their own design - idealizing the past and avoiding growth due convenience; it robs us of our humanity. Evolution is a good. We adapt and create. Society can't be left to the bullies, and cynics. We can build a more advanced culture, but it will take re-learning compassion for the other - and even eschewing some of the conveniences that have made our lives easier, but more detached. We still have a lot of evolving to do.
Artist: Steve Pugh
Colorist: Chris Chuckry, Rick Leonardi, Scott Hanna
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Mark Russell is one of the most incisive and insightful writers working today. His newest book "Billionaire Island" is coming out as a trade paperback on November 24, 2020. You can check out his hilarious twitter page and his amazon author page.
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