No matter how well-educated we might be, all of us have a tendency, to a greater or lesser degree, to interpret other cultures, peoples’ situations or even ancient civilisations through the lens of our modern worldview.
We might have all the facts or evidence we need at hand but the interpretation will still be that they can’t be as advanced or have lives as progressively fulfilling as we do.
So it is in the first few panels of DC Comics’ more muscular – literally when you check out Fred, Barney and some of their Neanderthal coworkers – interpretation of Hanna-Barbera’s iconic The Flintstones, where a visitor to a museum remarks that, all evidence of complex civilisation to the contrary, that life in a Stone Age civilisation must have been “awful”.
It speaks to the intelligence of this quite modern take on The Flintstones, which crams motions of existential angst, consumer regret, veterans issues and the debilitating after-effects of war, frustrated career and artistic ambitions, teenage angst – Pebbles is as sullen as any teenager and reads book with titles like Cannibalism: The Unknown Ideal – and the stresses, strains but ultimately love of a modern marriage.
It’s way more thoughtful and introspective than its animated forebear which ran from 20 September, 1960 to 1 April 1966 and promised to bring us the “Modern Stone Age family,” a riff on popular sitcom The Honeymooners – to be fair though the animated series contained quite a number of pithy observations about society and the way modernity was changing it, not always for the better, making it way more clever that appearances might suggest – but as a result also lacks much of the sitcom-y fun that was, and is, a central part of the appeal of Fred and Wilma Flintstone and their neighbours Barney and Betty Rubble.
Even so, it’s a really clever read overall, retaining all the pun-laden verve of the original – dinosaurs are still the backbone of the workforce at Slate’s Quarry and shops come with names like “Tarpit”, “Starbrick’s Coffee” and “Outback Snakehouse” – and it’s central conceit that there life couldn’t possibly be advanced when it’s back in the Stone Age.
Ah but that’s the thing it is and quite demonstrably so.
The Flintstones even have TV – though Fred initially goes to throw a rock through Barney’s new purchase, calling it a “demon in the wall”; there is religion too but it’s a revolving door of pointless deities that provides a deliciously withering commentary on religion and the church – abstract art (one of Wilma’s great loves, both appreciating it and creating it), and modern appliances which yes, are still animals which have attitude just as in the original.
The thing is, and why shouldn’t a cartoon or a comic be able to make this point, is that relative to the people of the day, their civilisation is advanced and certainly as far as Fred and Wilma, Barney and Betty are concerned, they are astride the very pinnacle of humanity’s achievements to date.
In the animated series, this idea of modern viewpoints skewering our idea of what was advanced was implicit; in the comic book series, which is exquisitely drawn, keeping the visual gag of the Stone Age being modern going – again to the people of the era, it is – it’s said upfront with the narrative making it clear again and again that The Flintstones aren’t lacking in anything.
The visitor to the museum might think so but the residents of Bedrock Valley at the time don’t, with their feet-powered cars, giant sloth couches – yes, that is how they went extinct I believe – their goat-powered lawn mowers and octopus-dishwashers proof that life is good and very good indeed.
To illustrate just how good everyone has it and how recent a development this is, the former lives of Fred and Wilma are illustrated to brilliant storytelling effect.
Wilma makes constant reference to her childhood as a nomadic hunter-gatherer, something she has in common with pretty much everyone in Bedrock, remarking on how much better their lives are now but acknowledging some nostalgia for the past.
Fred too is appreciative of where he is, though he carries some anxiety about being a good provider to Wilma when the demands of modern life, there’s that word again, mean it’s no longer enough to drag a mammoth to the door for dinner and be done with it.
Now you must have all the accoutrements of life in the modern Stone Age but as The Flintstones discover over and over, all that stuff doesn’t necessarily bring you happiness and that it’s who you’re with that makes the difference ultimately.
A nice touch in the comic series is that Fred is a little more in touch with his feelings that he was in the animated series; sure he expressed love and affection for Wilma but it was limited for the most part, but in the comic series he is a modern husband who’s wife is as much a friend as a domestic companion.
While re-imaginings of any pop culture property are always fraught with risk and don’t necessarily work perfectly, The Flintstones is a pretty clever updating of the original.
It retains the quirky premise of a Stone Age civilisation that looks much like our own, rock puns, visual dinosaur gags and all, but makes some very clever observations too about the inherent contradictions of civilised life in the 21st century, giving the series by Mark Russell, Steve Pugh and Chris Chuckry, and how very much like us they actually are.
But also reminding us, and trust us we need constant reminding, that the more things change, the more they stay the same; it’s true for humanity and for The Flintstones, which keeps its goofy edge while sharpening its blade of social observation in such a way that it’s impossible not to wonder just how far we’ve really come after all these eons.