“Monsters will come for you whether you believe in them or not.” Snagglepuss is warned by a victim of Cuba’s Batista regime in the early pages of Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1, but he pays no mind. He lives in America, after all. This snippet provides a perfect encapsulation of the tone of this series, one that is strikingly similar and desperately different from writer Mark Russell’s previous comics satires. There is still comedy within these pages, but it comes with much greater waves of sadness and inevitability. This is a historical moment that any American reader already knows goes very wrong, and the mountain lion living through it is equal parts lovable and doomed.
Fans of Russell from The Flintstones and Prez will recognize his wit, but Exit Stage Left offers a much different sense of humor. His prior politically-charged mini-series were based on the sitcom and absurdist qualities of their source material. This comic is much more steeped in the dramatic and historical sources it calls into its orbit than the cartoon Snagglepuss. Comedy here is droll, each witticism or aside coming with a caustic bite. Even the successful members of the cast have reasons to be angry, and the rest have ample reasons for bitterness. The world is brittle and preparing to break, and the comedy matches its setting.
This feeling is perfectly matched by the pencils of Mike Feehan and inks of Mark Morales. They make even the most fantastical elements of this anthropomorphized Broadway feel mundane. There’s a flatness to their characters that is reminiscent of Jacen Burrows’ best work on Providence. They do not exaggerate any elements and that allows the absurd to exist in a much more poignant sphere. Mountain lions sitting in the back of the car is detailed as plainly as people doing the same. Emotions are natural, which is absolutely essential in this story. Sadness is subtle and most smiles are tinged by something else. It’s a masterful example of smallness making the story greater and should not go underrecognized.
The subtleties of the story come across in the framing choices of the issue as well. A couple’s choice of entertainment and discussions by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) build a world that is frightening and true to history. They parallel Snagglepuss’s narrative in a fashion that is both revealing to the moment and foreshadowing of a darker future. While there is an urge to avoid spoiling any elements of this issue, it’s impossible for an awareness of American history to not scream in one’s head about the only possible outcomes for a closeted public person facing off against the Red Scare. Dread is overwhelming.
Exit Stage Left feels essential at this moment. It is a story nominally about the past, but truly about the present -- the best sort of historical narrative. Russell is pushing himself in a new direction, leaving playfulness behind for a more rigorous narrative, and he is perfectly matched with Feehan and Morales. Wherever this series leads cannot be good, but the comic itself seems bound for greatness. Prepare to laugh even while you know tears can’t be far behind.
Written by Mark Russell
Art by Mike Feehan and Mark Morales
Colors by Paul Mounts