Apr 9, 2018

Demand Good Writing: An Interview with Mark Russell

I was very close to giving the recent Flintstones revamp a hard pass, even though it was written by someone good, drawn by someone who’s never disappointed me. The property seemed past its ultimate sell-by. And, I’m a mark!  I’m the one person who loves Viva Rock Vegas. But, that movie concretized my point. Its quality is all in being retro, retro concerns, retro gags, retro giggles. Marie Javins changed my mind, first by posting Steve Pugh’s thoughts on dinosaurs, and then, dropping here and there, what Mark Russell might actually find important. And, it made the comic sound important. Like a good sitcom instead of perfunctory space filler.

Demand Good Writing
An Interview With Mark Russell
Travis Hedge Coke

And, there were Devo and glam rock puns. Carl Sagan wasn’t timely, but it was super timely. PTSD, modern slavery, marriage retreats, churches desperately making new bids for relevance that are just the old bids with new carpeting.

Any hate it got, was invariably stupid. Often, hateful and stupid.

I would see Russell post on social media, here and there, mostly replies to mutual friends. He’s always smart, often super funny.

I don’t do a ton of interviews, but I love interviewing people who are definitely smarter than me, who are considered and experienced.

After, his Snagglepuss comic, Exit Stage Left, was announced, and I teared up in a way I never would have assumed I would over Hanna-Barbera ad copy, I knew solidly, this is an interview that has to happen. And, it did.

Travis Hedge Coke: What is the value to you, as a writer, in putting serious effort into revisions of fifty year old cartoon characters, like the Flintstone family or Huckleberry Hound?

Mark Russell: To me, it's the same value as writing anything else. You have a very finite amount of time on this Earth. The amount of time where you are artistically active and productive is even shorter than that. And the amount of time where people are paying attention to you is shorter still. So don't hold anything back. If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to write in a popular medium, take full advantage of it. Whether you're writing a comic book about a stone age family or your life's story, throw all your thoughts and feelings about the world into it. Never hold back "the good stuff" because you never know when that opportunity will come to an end.

Hedge Coke: What have you learned since God Is Disappointed In You, that you wish you knew back then?

Russell: I think my writing was better served by not knowing anything about the future. If I'd known that I'd be writing comic books, that I'd have other opportunities to impose myself on the world, I might have held something back, pulled a punch or two. I wrote that book feeling like it might be the only thing I ever publish in my life and that made it a better book. It's the way I always try to write, even though I've got a lot more projects lined up. The book I wrote after God Is Disappointed in You, Apocrypha Now, which is about the non-canonical books that didn't quite make it into the Bible, has a parable from the Gospel of Thomas about a rich man who spends all night planning his upcoming harvest, figuring out how to improve his crop production, calculating how many harvests it will take for him to retire a rich man. Exhausted, he finally goes to bed, having mapped out his entire future. That night, he died. I keep that parable in my mind when I start getting ahead of myself, thinking too much about the future or upcoming projects instead of focusing on what I'm working on at the moment.

Hedge Coke: How do you balance familiarity with the new, nostalgia with novelty, in your work?

Russell: I've made something of a career by borrowing on the cultural equity of older, more popular work like the Bible and the Flintstones. In both cases, what I tried to do was find what I really loved about the old work, what it was that drew me to it, and then use it as a prism through which to project myself , my thoughts about the world, and the things the original creators were trying to say about the world that I found meaningful.

Hedge Coke: The Flintstones live in the modern day, just with dinosaur proxies and puns on rocks. So, why were the musical references in your run from decades earlier than “today”?

Russell: Because I'm old and irrelevant. I just made references to music and bands that I like, which tend to be from a few decades ago. Although Devo seemed strangely relevant to the world of Bedrock, as they do to a 21st century America ruled by reality TV.

Hedge Coke: Why do you think so many people who otherwise don’t care, want gay-coded characters to remain sexless and merely implicitly coded?

Russell: Of all the flavors of evil in the world, I think the most insidious is nostalgia. "Conservatism" is essentially a word for wanting the world to remain as you remember it. Nostalgia is very comfortable and it asks nothing of you. It's doubly hard to convince people that their need for characters to remain white or straight are symptoms of racism and/or homophobia, because they don't feel homophobic. They just feel nostalgic.

Hedge Coke: What would you hope from a kid who gets hold of your Snagglepuss comic, Exit Stage Left?

Russell: That the purpose of life is to create from your soul and people can't do that if they are forced to live in a world of lies and self-hatred.

Hedge Coke: If there are two things you could teach the comics audience/market as a whole, to make them a better audience/market, what would they be?

Russell: Demand good writing. Don't just buy a comic because you like the title character and you remember when it was good. Demand that it say something new to you, or move you in some way, or if it doesn't, look for a comic that does. So many comics have become a form of professional wrestling. "Title Character X hasn't fought Y in a while. What if he teamed up with former enemy Z?" And they get away with this because it's a safe formula. They know it will sell. And they will continue making the same comics until the fan spends their money on something different. That, and I would like it if the industry became more geared around selling trades than individual floppies, which again, I think rewards better writing.

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