When I heard that EXIT STAGE LEFT: The Snagglepuss Chronicles (by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan; cover by Ben Caldwell) would reinvent Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss as a gay playwright in the 1950s, I thought that sounded doable. Snagglepuss was a flamboyant, eccentric, theatrical character; being gay wasn’t that big a stretch. As I mentioned Monday, Russell already stretched the premise of The Flintstones and it worked for me (this is, by the way, another repost from my own blog).
Exit Stage Left did not. Like Russell’s Flintstones book, it does make for an interesting study in how far you can change a character or a mythos before it becomes unrecognizable. Russell’s Bedrock, like the original, played for satirical laughs; his Snagglepuss book is serious, if not downright glum.
Snagglepuss was one of Hanna-Barbera’s character from their 1960s TV supremacy, noted most for his phraseology, such as “Exit, stage left!” (or right, or center) when it came time to amscray. In Exit Stage Left, Russell reinvents him as a celebrated Southern playwright taking flak from the House Unamerican Activities Committee for casting a critical eye on American society: doesn’t he know criticizing his country plays into Communst hands? Called in for interrogation, he stares them down and makes them look like fools, but the heat is still on. He doesn’t need the heat, given that although married, Snagglepuss is a closeted gay man — er, anthropomorphic cat.
Complications include Snagglepuss’s former lover, rising author Huckleberry Hound, visiting New York and discovering what it’s like at Stonewall and other gay bars where he can be openly out; Snagglepuss coping with crises in his latest stage production; a Cuban boyfriend who wants to go home and participate in Castro’s revolution; and Huck falling for closeted cop Quickdraw McGraw. No way that last one can turn out bad, right? Spoiler: it turns out bad.
The miniseries is well-executed but seeing a bunch of comical cartoon characters in a downbeat, tragic drama feels very off. Nor do they feel anything like their cartoon prototopyes. 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). 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, this book was a useful reminded that there are limits to what can be done before the names become basically meaningless. If they’re not the characters they’re supposed to be, using them is counter-productive. Though I admit that point of no return is subjective: maybe millennials who didn’t grow up with Hanna-Barbera might find more to love in Exit Stage Left than I did. But I’m not one of them, and I didn’t.
#SFWApro. Cover by Mike Feehan.