If you’ve looked around you this year and thought the world had gone quite horrifically, cartoonishly mad (hate to break it to you but it has), then you’ll find a lot to appreciate in the new(ish) Dastardly and Muttley series from DC Comics.
Continuing the mostly clever reimaginings of a host of classic Hanna-Barbera characters from The Flintstones to Scooby Doo and The Jetsons, Dastardly and Muttley plunges the world into a crisis of quite comical – quite literally as it turns out – when the explosion of new Unstabilium 239 reactor in the fictional country of Unliklistan (home to every over the top Middle Eastern trope you can think of; you find out why later) leaves not so much a toxic radioactive wasteland in its wake as a weirdly-coloured cloud of hippie-ish symbols that strangely affects everyone who comes into contact with them.
Ignoring the usual laws of physics and a host of other constants in the natural world, this extraordinarily odd new world, where people have holes shot through their chest and live and politicians’e eyes literally bulge out where they get angry, changes a great many things.
Including our titular characters, decorated US Air Force pilots who suddenly find themselves profoundly transformed when their mission to check out what happened to Unliklistan takes a very unexpected turn; what should have been a crash into a nightmarish radioactive mess instead changes Captain Dudley “Mutt” Muller into a talking dog/man (he brings his dog along for the mission) and Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Atcherly increasingly into an old time Vaudevillian-looking villain.
That is but the start of a, dare we say it, wacky series of events which see a US drone spreading the effects of the explosion, engineered by one Professor Dubious, far and wide, even infecting Washington DC with its strange brand of warped reality.
As events progress, and Dastardly and Muttley do their best to find out who’s behind the twisting of reality into ever more surreal, cartoonish extremes where decorated pilots such as Captain “Zee” Zabarnowski start speaking like Penelope Pitstop, to her horror and her co-pilot Lieutenant “Uncle” Longman (who remains unaffected by the weirdness enveloping everyone else) and Wiley E. Coyote and Roadrunner (in animal form) go dashing through the Oval Office.
It’s absolutely inspired, totally bonkers and cleverly hilarious and it’s all thanks to the brilliantly good talents of writer Garth Ennis (Preacher, Punisher) and artist Mauricet (Harley Quinn & The Gang Of Harleys).
From the word go, Dastardly and Muttley is an enormously clever, grounded – quite an achievement given the glorious absurdity of the series’ premise – and funny as hell takedown of the way our world, all flashy, digital civilisation and human progress can so easily devolve into a wacky place where up is down, down is up and hitting someone with a mallet seems like a fun idea (trust us, even in this new cartoon universe, it’s not).
One of the chief effects of the Unstabilium cloud is the way it erases the inhibitions of anyone who comes into contact with it, while simultaneously giving them the comedic means to do something about their new, unchecked impulses.
This means that while there are some decided serious dynamics playing out – try a widening conspiracy that may or may not involve Dastardly and Muttley’s commanding officer General Harrington and Muttley trying to de-canine himself so he can get back to his wife and kids looking normal – the storyline uses a range of cartoonish devices to push the surprisingly emotionally-resonant action along.
Take the scene where our two comically-mutated heroes steal a plane to get back to the USA to confront General Harrington, get to the bottom of what’s going on and reset their lives (if that’s even possible anymore).
As Dastardly, who is increasingly speaking like a cartoon character with alliterative hilarity – “Out of our way, you goose-stepping goons! You Nuremberg Ne’er-Do-Wells! Begone! ” – urges Muttley to “Embrace the horror!”, an acknowledgment that the world has gone haywire and they should make the most of it rather than fight it.
If there’s still time left to do that.
The final page of issue 4 indicates that time may be something that the world doesn’t have much left of, at least in its present form.
Ennis deftly guides the narrative between outright nonsensical silliness and some rather sage and sober moments, injecting humour where its needed and going with Catch-22/Dr Strange darkness where it will be most effective.
Mauricet’s art is colourful and cartoonish but also real and stark, a visual tip of the hat to the way the world sits poised between the two extremes, with the tide tilting towards cartoons come to life.
You could well argue that the world is pretty much like that now, without all the visual absurdities, and indeed there is some delicious political parody thrown in for good measure, and Ennis and Mauricet make merry with this idea, delivering up one of the most inspired, compellingly-readable and loopy as Hanna-Barbara reimaginings to come down the DC Comics pike.