DC Comics’ push for its Hanna-Barbera licenses seemed doomed to a quick grave, but surprise successes like Jeff Parker, Steve Rude and Evan Shaner’s thrilling Future Quest and Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s satirical The Flintstones have bucked fate and emboldened the publisher to continue experimenting with these vintage animation properties. The latest step: combining Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters with DC’s premiere heroes in oversized one-shot specials, each of which contains a backup short that may launch the next great ongoing. Since DC decided to load the week with all four of its initial specials, we organized a review round-up to evaluate the publisher’s mad alchemy. Tastes may vary, but it seems like DC might be onto something here…
Writers: Mark Andreyko, Jeff Parker, Dan DiDio
Artists: Steve Lieber, Phil Winslade
Close your eyes and imagine a comic-book crossover in which nothing ever rises above the level of competent. There’s a good chance you just envisioned Adam Strange/Future Quest Special #1 (or let’s face it, 75% of the comics you’ve ever read). Marc Andreyko and Jeff Parker’s script, coupled with Steve Lieber’s lines and Veronica Gandini’s colors, is enough to launch a story and see it through to its logical conclusion. But this is a tale of characters known for exploring the uncharted and the unknown, so why does everything feel so rote and familiar?
In the comic, Adam Strange is catapulted by a malfunctioning Zeta Beam (Wikipedia it, because we just don’t have the time, people) into the laps of the Quest family, who are lost in a place called—wait for it—the Lost Valley. It’s also a coincidence for all these explorers to meet up like this, but at the very least, it’s a coincidence that should engender a Saturday-morning cartoon team-up. After all, the Lost Valley plays host to a variety of things that should be very exciting, but in actuality are just there. Things like great, big dinosaurs, some nice and some mean; or a group of terrorists trying to forcefully piggyback onto Adam Strange’s return flight; or everyone’s favorite childhood hero, Birdman (not to be confused with either Harvey Birdman or Michael Keaton Birdman). Oddly enough, the appearance of Birdman is the most exciting thing to occur in this completely passable book!
As innocuous as the main story is, the backup offers something more insidious in the form of a Dan DiDio-penned tale about Batman meeting an anthropomorphic garbage cat. DiDio, the co-publisher of DC Comics, probably has the ability to write whatever stories he wants to write. So it’s telling that he chose to write this backup, which is essentially a conversation between the Caped Crusader and this cat who wears a purple vest (meaning, DiDio is unclear about what comic readers actually want to read). Its boring to the point of meanness, but it’s also drawn by veteran artist Phil Winslade with a realistic aesthetic, which in turn makes it incredibly unrealistic. Why is Batman talking to a cat? Ask yourself that. Because Dan DiDio clearly didn’t. Jakob Free
Writers: Mark Russell, Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner
Artists: Rick Leonardi, Pier Brito
A comic crossing an ‘80s superhero footnote with a cartoon based on a ‘50s sitcom starring Jackie Gleason shouldn’t be this entertaining. But as Mark Russell has proven in his previous efforts both in panels and prose, he’s A) annoyingly clever and B) gives zero fucks to obey convention. This one-shot special sends time traveler Booster Gold back to the Stone Age to investigate why a race of alien lizards has invaded his future. Deep in Hanna-Barbera prehistory, the blue-and-gold narcissist attempts to repair his ship, aided by Fred, Barney and a few electric-eel power tools.
Russell and artist Rick Leonardi offer a shocking amount of value in the issue, packing a domino trail of jokes that almost always land. One aside shows Booster reaching out to fellow time-hoppers for aid while marooned in the past; each traveler declines to help whether because of a marauding T-Rex, ancient Greek volcano eruptions or, um, classic rock concerts. The tight pacing and visual humor is dead-on, and gags that seem gratuitous eventually pay off—Russell wastes no set up, closing the narrative loop on threads ranging from lagging Tinder dates to the aforementioned concertgoer.
As one of the key contributors to Marvel’s ‘80s house style, Leonardi casts a pure retro feel rooted in the sketchy foundation of Neal Adams. The facial expressions don’t support a massive range of emotion and details drain as the perspective widens, but the art ensures fluid storytelling that shifts to multiple perspectives. And for a lead character who looks like the rich prep-school villain from a classic Spielberg production, those pencils and Steve Buccellato’s bright, blocky colors nail that aesthetic.
The book ends on a note that marries two of Russell’s favorite subjects: religion and politics, which the author addressed in God is Disappointed In You and Prez. Spoiler Alert: Kudos to a corporate comics company to end a story with a scaly Christ analogue chastising hypocrites who proclaim to follow peaceful ideologies before hitting the war trail. Or, in other words, “You just used my death as an excuse to go on being the same buttholes you were before.” God bless the soapbox this comic stands on.
The book also includes an eight-page teaser of The Jetsons from Harley Quinn scribes Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, with art from Pier Brito. Though it lacks the jubilant pace of the marquee story, the introduction injects heavier themes of morality and technology into its cartoon foundation. Like a happy version of Black Mirror (there are some hardcore “San Junipero” similarities) with visuals that emphasize character acting over future forward excess, it’s a good reason to pick up the debut issue whenever it hits stands. Jannon Calloway
Writers: James Tynion IV, Christopher Sebela, Howard Chaykin
Artists: Ariel Olivetti, Howard Chaykin
I wasn’t ready to like Green Lantern/Space Ghost Special #1 as much as I did. No, that’s not entirely true—I wasn’t prepared to love this one-shot as much as I did. The premise alone sounds cockamamie, the sort of “what-if” comic scenario one would expect to find on an online forum poll, not on a front-and-center collaboration from a major publisher. What if DC’s Hal Jordan, fighter pilot-turned-Green Lantern of Earth, fought and later teamed up with Space Ghost, Hanna-Barbera’s premiere galactic defender/everyone’s favorite late-night cartoon talk-show host? The answer is simple: it would be amazing.
Detective Comics scribe James Tynion IV and DC Writers Workshop alum Christopher Sebela assemble to deliver a script that packs as much punch as it does poignancy, pitting the two star-crossed space cops in a showdown born out of misunderstanding as they search for a mysterious “weapon,” before stranding them on an isolated planet. Hunted by militant xenophobes and an army of death-bots, the two have little choice other than to put aside their differences and team up, trading powers along the way and attempting to liberate the planet from fear of the unknown. The issue is packed with exquisite double-page spreads illustrated by Ariel Olivetti (who collaborated with Joe Kelly on DC’s 2004 too-serious Space Ghost mini-series), whose dynamic poses, cosmic backdrops and CG environment work strike the perfect mix between profound and absurd. This mash-up works about as well as fries and milkshakes: two great tastes that you can’t believe weren’t combined sooner.
The issue’s backup feature, written and illustrated by American Flagg! creator Howard Chaykin, is an inspired take on the obscure Hanna-Barbera duo Ruff and Reddy, two down-on-their-luck comedians trying to eke out a livelihood in the cutthroat high-stakes business of variety-show television. Chaykin’s script sports his signature bite, with back-alley brawls and smoke-choked dive bars rendered in his hard-boiled grit, not unlike his classic work on Nick Fury or 2004’s Challengers of the Unknown. Toussaint Egan
Writers: Tony Bedard, Mark Russell
Artists: Ben Caldwell, Howard Porter
It’s seems crazy that this has to be said in a review of Suicide Squad/The Banana Splits Special, but writers: please reconsider cracking police brutality jokes, particularly in gleefully violent comics about anthropomorphic animals wielding rocket launchers. DC standby Tony Bedard opens this oversized one-shot with a crack about “open season on Animal-Americans,” which, along with a flat gangsta-rap gig at the end, dip an otherwise genuinely enjoyable action/comedy one-off into the unfunny territory of lesser Deadpool outings.
Poor bookend scenes aside, Suicide Squad/The Banana Splits Special #1 offers fans of both franchises (c’mon, I can’t be the only fan of Hanna-Barbera’s pioneering live-action/animation hybrid variety show from 1968) a lively jaunt that never leans too far into the Suicide Squad’s nastier side. After the aforementioned police confrontation, the Banana Splits, a self-described “bubblegum pop” group, end up in Belle Reve Penitentiary, where gang recruitment attempts spur a mild riot. Meanwhile, Task Force X mastermind Amanda Waller finds herself in need of an expendable rescue team for her wayward sociopaths.
The Suicide Squad stakes its name on offing cannon fodder to up the stakes, but—spoiler alert—Bedard isn’t out to massacre any Hanna-Barbara mascots. The Splits arm up and parachute in to extract Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Katana, and Killer Croc from a rescue-mission-gone-awry. Self-replicating tween murder robots have captured government field agent Rick Flag, which offers an opportunity for plenty of expended ammunition, but no bloody body count. Bedard has a solid handle on the movie-friendly SS cast, and effectively builds distinct characterizations for the Splits crew in a short amount of space (particularly the scene-stealing nonverbal elephant).
But I’m burying the lede here: Ben Caldwell, whose run on Prez with writer Mark Russell was cut criminally short, is a cartooning mad genius, equally adept at portraying Harley Quinn’s gymnastic antics and a humanoid lion with an assault rifle. His Splits don’t fall too close to the furry event horizon, but they avoid any mascot-like uncanny valley (more on that momentarily). His visual humor, aided by Mark Morales’ fluid inks and Jeremy Lawson’s vibrant colors, keeps the cast in constant, excited motion, and helps to sell Bedard’s subtler moments, like Croc’s sly shift from the SS side of the action to standing among his animal-hybrid kin.
It’s a shame that Caldwell wasn’t available to reunite with Russell for this issue’s Snagglepuss backup. Twitter has already had a field day with this, but it has to be said: Howard Porter’s anthropomorphic animals are unsettling. The former JLA artist has grown and adapted much more than many of his ‘90s peers, becoming one of DC’s most dynamic cape artists. Unfortunately, his Snagglepuss and ancillary animal characters look like dead-eyed mascot costumes. I can’t pretend to understand furry culture as a whole, but its membership gets that anthropomorphic animals require a level of cartooning abstraction to achieve a relatable range of emotional expression. It’s a shame that Porter’s characters are so chilling, because Russell’s take on Snagglepuss—a Red Scare-era homosexual playwright provocateur—is among the most compelling iterations of DC’s unexpectedly delightful Hanna-Barbera resurgence. Russell’s Snagglepuss is a big pink Oscar Wilde-meets-Tennessee Williams, doling out politically charged non-sequiturs and elder-gay wisdom with equal ease. Let’s hope that Porter gets drafted back into the superhero world before Snag’s chronicles continue. Steve Foxe