A comic book based on a fairly obscure cartoon from the 1960s that takes place after the end of the world? Sure, why not!
Published by DC, 6 issues (#1-6), cover dated August 2016 – January 2017.
Some mild SPOILERS ahead, but nothing too egregious. Plus, you can embiggen the images by clicking on them!
Every once in a while a comic comes along of such breathtaking emotional maturity and intensity, such depth of characterization, such powerful allegory and subtle metaphor, that it leaves readers shaken. A comic that haunts us, that digs deep into our souls and reminds us what it is to be human, and to be human is to be beautiful, loving and loved, enriched by experience, tempered by tragedy but strengthened by adversity. A comic that forces us to look upward to the stars, to ponder the heights of human potential and to strive for it, so that one day we can all rejoice in the new era of peace and tranquility.
Wacky Raceland is not that comic.
Return with me to the halcyon days of 2016, when DC was Rebirthing all over the place and Warner Brothers, in its infinite wisdom, decided it would be a smart idea to let the comics arm of their media empire loose on its Hanna-Barbera characters. Perhaps they weren’t sure exactly what kind of weirdos were hanging out in the DC offices at that time, but DC, for all its faults, has never been shy about taking venerable characters and twisting them into strange new shapes (Marvel doesn’t do this at all; can you imagine Disney letting Marvel do a comic where all the Disney princesses are trapped in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where they’re forced to kill to survive? … which is a comic I would totally read, but Disney would never let it happen). Wacky Raceland isn’t the best comic to come out of this bold publishing venture, but it’s close to being the best, and it’s definitely a comic you should own, because if DC had a mandate to go nuts with the Hanna-Barbera characters, they took it very seriously with this comic. Wacky Raceland not only pushes the pedal all the way to the floor, it ignores any traffic signals in its way and ends up ignoring basic physics as well, all to take the reader on an insane ride that is just as fun the tenth time you read it as it is the first.
When issue #1 came out, I wrote a paean to its beauty (the Wayback Machine link is crappy, so you don’t get to read the insulting comments to the post), but I didn’t follow up with any other reviews of the series, because I figured I’d be writing about it in these posts when it came around in the alphabet. Having re-read it again, I stand by my wildly enthusiastic tribute of issue #1, as it’s seriously one of the best introductory issues of the last … decade? 20 years? As I noted in my earlier post, in issue #1 we get an eight-legged lizard, cars that talk to each other (and the drivers), a dude wearing a bear’s head, a bar fight that begins on Page 5, giant creatures in the sand that look vaguely like centipedes and are therefore called … sandtipedes, swarming insects that happen to be armored, and a back-up story in which a character gets mauled by a bear (the same bear he’s later wearing on his head, because his partner kills the hell out of it). Ken Pontac throws so much into the first issue that I wasn’t sure where he could go with it. It turns out he doesn’t go too far with it, but just far enough to make it more than just insane mayhem. It remains super-fun, but because it takes place after an apocalypse and these characters were alive before said apocalypse, there’s just enough tragedy in it to make us realize why these people are so damaged and why they might engage in this kind of race.
Pontac skims over a lot that other writers might want to delve into and therefore grind the story to a halt – the apocalypse itself, the sentient cars, the purpose of the race, the Ant Hill Mob, why the Red Baron is a Nazi when the actual Red Baron flew during World War I – and just lets us fill in blanks. He gives us the minimum for why the world ended, which ties into the sentient cars, the Ant Hill Mob, and the purpose of the race (still no good reason for the Red Baron to be a Nazi), but they’re the kind of things that if you think about them too long, holes appear, so it’s best not to think about them. The racers are all at the whim of the “Announcer” – a voice in their heads that tells them what to do, and if they rebel, they can be punished – so they go along with the race, even if they think it’s kind of stupid. The Announcer promises them that if they win the race (no telling how they do that), they will be able to reach the utopia – the only part of the world untouched by the apocalypse – but we as readers know that utopias in these kinds of situations never exist, and it doesn’t here. We don’t get much in the way of back stories for the characters, either, but that also doesn’t matter. Pontac gives us the bare minimum and trusts us to imagine the rest, and that’s perfectly fine. In issue #1, we get an “origin story” for Penelope Pitstop that is a page-and-a-half long and runs nine panels, and it’s really all we need. In issue #3, we get four more pages about Penelope’s pre-apocalyptic life, and it almost feels like an indulgence. It’s not a terribly deep origin – almost Cinderella-esque – but it works because Manco draws it like a child would, with simple lines and disproportionate bodies, while Sanzone colors it as if it were done with crayons, so the effect works really well. But that’s all we get about Penelope, and she’s the most developed of any character. In issue #1 we find out why Blubber Bear wears a bear head – his brain is damaged by the bear attack – and in issue #4 we find out why the Red Baron’s life is shit (still no reason for him to be a Nazi). In issue #5 we find out about some of the odder characters – Muttley, the Gruesome Twosome, the Ant Hill Mob – but it’s just a brief look, and finally, in issue #6, we find out about Professor Pat Pending, who seems like a typical mad scientist except that he loves his wife very much, which turns out to be not the wisest thing in the world. It’s a nice twist – most of the time, mad scientists are loners or at least pining away for a woman, but Professor Pending is more interesting because of his marriage. It’s Dick Dastardly, strangely, who gets the most character development, even though his character doesn’t grow and evolve at all. In issue #2, we find out he was a concert pianist before the apocalypse, and while he’s still a douchebag, he loves his wife and son very much, which is a mitigating factor. He’s inside a chamber looking at a Stradivarius when a swarm of nanites attacks the concert hall where he’s performing, and a door slides closed automatically, trapping his wife and son outside. He doesn’t want to open the door for them because then they’ll all die, which is both a practical thought and an utterly horrible one, and he watches as his family is skeletonized right in front of him. Post-apocalypse, he’s even more of a craven asshole because he’s seen what happens when you care about someone. Pontac doesn’t dwell on it, but it’s a gripping scene because the reader is unsure what choice he or she would make, and while we’d like to think we’d do the heroic thing, we suspect that we’d do what Dick did, and we definitely don’t want to face that aspect of ourselves.
The brief character development we do get in Wacky Raceland is set against the insanity of the main plot, and part of the reason why it works is because of the craziness going on around it. Dick’s flashback comes at the same time that the rest of the racers are battling mutant cannibals and the same kind of nanites that killed Dick’s family, so we cut between the pathos of his past with the strangeness of the present. Penelope’s story comes while she and Dick are battling mutant crabs while sitting on the back of a giant sea turtle (they don’t know about that part until the turtle decides to rise up out of the water). The Red Baron thinks about his past while he and the racers are fighting in a gladiatorial ring in Las Vegas. Pontac balances the humanistic parts of the story so well with the absolute craziness that the insanity never quite overwhelms us, which it threatens to do. Wackiness is fine, as long as the entire point of the story isn’t wackiness, and Pontac comes so close to that point without going too far, which is why the comic resonates. It’s a tough task, but he’s up to it.
Of course, the insanity is mostly the point of the comic, and Pontac knows it, so he gives it to us relentlessly. The action is frenetic, but it’s also easily digestible, with Manco providing a visual palette that lets Pontac go a bit nuts without sacrificing perspective or coherence. The Announcer is forcing the racers to race, and she also makes sure they know that they can’t let any racer die, so although they don’t like each other, they’re forced to save each other when necessary, and this creates small bonds that make the action more affecting. The bar fight in issue #1 is a good example of this – it’s a classic situation of “we can pick on ours, but you can’t,” as the bartender won’t serve Blubber Bear and a mutated dude is hitting on Penelope, neither of which sits well with the rest of the racers, so they fight it out. Peter Perfect tries to rescue Penelope from the sandtipedes later in the issue, and fails miserably, but it’s the thought that counts, and it allows Penelope to pull off a clever way to win the race, something she calls “metal” because it really is (I’d show it, but I don’t want to spoil it). When Dick gets distracted by his memory in issue #2, the rest of the racers are attacked by nanites, and Dick ends up the only one who can save them … which he does as soon as he wins the race, because that’s still the entire point of the book. Penelope and Dick get stuck on the back of the giant sea turtle because Dick saved her life when her car went into the ocean. And, of course, when they meet the Big Bad at the end of the series, they work together to win, which they do … after a fashion (the book ends with “The End?”, which I hate because I very much doubt there was any possibility of a sequel). Pontac realizes that making the mayhem relentless can be draining to the readers, so he makes sure that the racers are human and despite their disdain for each other, they can find small human moments even in the midst of the action.
There’s a bit of satire, too, but Pontac doesn’t push it. Trump makes a cameo, which is about all we need from him (insulting Trump is like shooting fish in a barrel, and his real-life shenanigans are so outré that’s it’s almost impossible to satirize him), but Pontac does some other small satires of American culture that might not be too unique but add some interesting nuance to the story. In issue #4, the racers end up in Las Vegas, which of course has weathered the apocalypse better than most places (because the casinos were built to withstand nuclear attacks, as you can’t stop gambling just because the world is ending!), and of course that’s where “Trump” shows up, but while using Las Vegas as a microcosm of the United States isn’t new, Pontac still does it nicely, with their devotion to entertainment to distract the masses (of course they have gladiatorial games; we have them in the country today, and it’s not too big a stretch to imagine them becoming lethal) and their looking back to a perceived golden age (in this case, the Egyptian era, because Pontac doesn’t want to make it too obvious, but the parallels between the gilded Egyptians and the gaudy Americans is still there). In the context of the story, Pontac makes them model themselves after Egypt for a very specific reason, but it also shows the desire of these people to recreate an age that is long gone, and the similarity to our own age can’t be a coincidence. Pontac is a bit more subtle in other regards. He does an interesting thing with Sergeant Blast and the Red Baron. Blast is transgender, and defiantly so, verbally sparring with the Red Baron, who, as a Nazi, thinks that she’s an abomination. Pontac is obviously showing Blast is a positive light and the Red Baron in a negative one (despite the brief flashback to the Red Baron’s pre-apocalypse life, which at least humanizes him a little), but what’s interesting about these characters is that they’ve been normalized. Both transgender people and Nazis were once on the fringe of American life, but in recent years, both groups have become prominent and “normal” within the mainstream of our society. In one case, this is a positive move (do I really need to explain which group’s move to the perceived center is positive?) and in one case, it’s negative, but the fact is that as social media continues to create platforms for democratization, former fringe groups will have a voice, and Pontac exposes that simply by creating two characters who were once on that fringe. Neither Blast nor the Red Baron are great characters, because Pontac doesn’t spend too much time on them, but just the little bit he does with them is a fascinating look at the way our society works in these fast-moving times.
Pontac also gives us “haves” and “have-nots” and shows us what happens when one doesn’t care about the other. The racers are the “haves” – they’re doing much better than the ancillary characters they come across in the book, and they have an opportunity to better themselves. The analogy doesn’t work perfectly – they’re still at the mercy of a higher power – but they exhibit the traits of what we’ve come to expect of the upper crust in our society – they don’t care about the less fortunate, and they’re very interested in retreating to a place where everything is wonderful instead of improving their surroundings. In many post-apocalyptic tales, the protagonists are not inclined to build something where they are, instead opting to go somewhere else, and that’s why there’s a powerful indictment of today’s American society in these stories – the utopia never exists, or at least not in the way anyone expects, and the idea of retreating into a utopia instead of building something where they are is a powerful lure of today’s conservative movement. Pontac is simply following the “rules” of a post-apocalyptic story, and I imagine that he didn’t think too much about this, but it’s still interesting that the racers, for the most part, are healthy and relatively good-looking, while the people they encounter on the road are misshapen and almost sub-human. They are running toward a utopia where – presumably – these creatures don’t exist, which is a conservative fantasy, and while we suspect that the utopia doesn’t exist and that there’s something manipulating the racers (which isn’t too hard a leap to make), Pontac still hews to this fantasy, and it’s an interesting critique of both his own protagonists (including the more sympathetic ones, like Penelope) and of society in general.
Manco and Sanzone help create this world, too, which is crucial. The Hanna-Barbera properties that DC published benefited greatly from having some very good artists, artists whose work would not be considered “cartoony,” which added to the cognitive dissonance of the comics and, I would argue, was important to the overall aesthetic. Wacky Raceland shouldn’t be cartoony, because it would remind people too much of the cartoon and undercut the story too much. And Manco does an excellent job on the series. Manco can be a very good artist, but in the recent past he was veering too far into photo-reference work, and it’s nice to see that for this book, he backed off on that a bit. It’s certainly possible that he used it quite a bit (to be clear, I have no problem with photo-referencing, just the problem of its poor integration into the scenery), but it’s not as obvious. If he used celebrities as models (which he’s done in the past), it doesn’t look it, and it’s clear he drew quite a lot, as the art has a more organic look to it than some of the work he’s done in the past. He takes the templates for the cartoon racers and turns them into real and believable characters – Dick doesn’t wear a ridiculous striped hat, but Manco gives him a smaller striped helmet and stringy, multi-colored hair that make him still look villainous, but in a way that works in a post-apocalyptic landscape (he’s also kind of hot, so there’s that). Penelope is not dressed like a traditional girl as she was in the cartoon, but her much more functional racing outfit is pink, so we get a callback there. Manco twists the characters just enough so that they’re still recognizable, but they fit well into the world Pontac has created. His car designs are superb, as he gives us all kinds of souped-up racers that are a far cry from the pieced-together jalopies of the Mad Max movies (which is obviously a point of inspiration for Pontac). The cars have a special place in this world, which is why they look so cool, and Manco has fun with them, modeling them on the cartoon cars but turning them into lean, racing machines. Manco also has fun with the various weird things populating the apocalyptic landscape. The sandtipedes are terrific monsters, all armored exoskeleton and spiny legs and multiple rows of teeth, and his immense sea turtle in issue #3 impressively dominates a double-page spread. The weird Egyptian culture that exists in Las Vegas is punctuated by not only a ridiculously fat “ruler” (there’s always a ridiculously fat ruler somewhere in these stories), but by their use of weird electric lights on their outfits, dazzlingly illuminated by Sanzone. Manco uses a lot of harsh hatching to turn the world into a rough, beaten-up place, heightening Pontac’s point about the “haves” and “have-nots” because he keeps the cars and even most of the racers sleek and clean, generally using fewer and thinner lines to draw the racers while scuffing up their surroundings. Manco also has to fit A LOT into this comic, because Pontac is not one of those writers who believes in stretching things out. He has PLOT to get to, man, and you’re not going to stop him! So Manco’s page layouts become things of beauty, as he keeps things simple for some of it but shoves panels in seemingly haphazardly, giving us almost an overload of visual information. Even many of his double-page spreads are packed with information, in marked contrast to far too many double-page spreads in DC and Marvel comics these days. Manco gives us giant drawings over which he pastes several smaller panels, filling up the page with images we need to process even as the larger drawing underneath everything dominates the page. He also gets to use a double-page spread in issue #6 to show the ultimate expression of what the race cars are capable of, and while I’m not going to spoil it, it’s pretty darned cool. In some of the issues, he gets to do double-page spreads that are a bit simpler, with only one image, but those usually show us all the racers, either in their cars (which is where they are in the first two issues, probably just to introduce them to the reader), or when they’re enjoying some down time and ingest some bad mushrooms, which happens in issue #5. Manco is adept at both the action-packed pages and the quieter ones. There’s also Penelope’s flashback, as I mentioned above, where he shifts to a childlike style, turning Penelope’s brutal childhood into a depressing fairy tale. Sanzone works very well with Manco, keeping the book well lit (a problem with some of Manco’s art in the past) so that we can see all the weirdness perfectly. She uses a good blend of digitally rendered coloring and flatter hues, and it appears at times that she colors “outside the lines,” so to speak, by coloring where Manco didn’t draw anything (although he may have expressed a desire for color to be there; I don’t know the collaborative process between the two) – she does this a lot with blood and viscera, which makes the book gorier and more “realistic” – there’s splotches of color without hard lines, which makes it look more like liquid rather than something drawn in. Sanzone knows her color wheel – she doesn’t often use complementary colors like blue and yellow in the same panels, but her interiors are often blue and her exteriors are often reddish, so when the scene shifts in the course of a page (which it often does; remember, Pontac doesn’t take his foot off the pedal to wait for page breaks, man!), the shift in colors is dramatic. She never makes the dark scenes too dark, either, which is a problem with a lot of earlier digital coloring – the forward momentum of technology has alleviated that problem a lot, and good colorists know how to make things dark with obscuring the line work. The coloring in the book is part of the frenetic art, and it helps match Pontac’s insane story.
Despite a lot in the subtext, Wacky Raceland is “only” a comic about crazy racers driving through a crazy landscape doing crazy things. I mean, I’m not that stupid. However, I will submit that even stories that don’t appear to have much to say on the surface always have things going on underneath, no matter how conscious the creator is of those things. I know Pontac was aware of some of the things he was doing, but I can’t say for sure that he was aware of everything, because, as we know, once a work is out there, it no longer belongs to the creators but to the consumers, and I can read things in Wacky Raceland that you may not, and neither of us is wrong. It is refreshing, however, to read a comic that pulls no punches whatsoever, that begins with a bar fight and never lets up after that, and which trusts the readers to go along with the ride. As with so many stories, the plot is somewhat generic, but Pontac gets us through it in a ridiculously fun manner, and he adds those weird touches that make a generic plot something far more special. Everything that happens along the way is a chance for readers to ponder what’s really going on, even if there isn’t anything going on. Unlike books in which the creator wants you to think the way he or she does, Pontac simply shows you this wacky world and lets you think about it. If you don’t want to, there’s still so much insanity going on that the book remains a blast to read and look at. But if you choose to, you can engage with this on different levels, which is always fun to do. And hey, there are giant mutated centipedes, bear attacks, a massive angry sea turtle, clones, nanites, artificially enhanced dogs, a mastodon, man-eating crabs … you know, just the kind of world you’d love to live in!
You can get Wacky Raceland in trade, of course, and remember that if you use the link below, even if you buy something else, I get a small piece of it, so if you’re interested in the comic, use the link! I would love to see a sequel if the creators are on board, but this works perfectly well as a standalone story, so check it out!