The 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has been so long and dramatic that its shadow is being felt everywhere – even in the pages of DC comic books. This week sees the release of two issues (The Flintstones #5 by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh, and the one-shot special Catwoman: Election Night by Meredith Finch and Shane Davis) in which the characters deal with issues related to the election.
Catwoman: Election Night, for instance, features The Penguin deciding to run for mayor of Gotham City and spouting some very Trump-like rhetoric. His female opponent, Constance Harris, is up to some shady dealings as well, prompting an intervention from Catwoman to make sure her beloved orphanage isn’t caught in the political crossfire. The Flintstones, which over four issues has demonstrated a willingness to examine real-life social issues in the context of Bedrock, looks at Trumpian politics from two parallel angles in issue #5. The adult characters like Fred and Barney are forced to reexamine their war experience in response to a demagogic politician, while their kids Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm watch as a school bully campaigns for class president.
EW spoke with Russell and Finch about the election and how they went about examining different issues in the context of their new stories.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you guys go about incorporating Trump-like figures and election issues into your stories?
MARK RUSSELL: I have a theory about Trump, which I worked into the Flintstones story. My theory is most people growing up have been bullied by someone like Donald Trump, and they’ve developed a weird kind of Stockholm Syndrome. They’ve been bullied all their lives, they’ve lost their jobs, they’ve been increasingly marginalized by the market and people like Donald Trump, and this is some sort of strange attempt to get on their side. The bullying will somehow stop if they can curry favor with the bully. That’s kind of my theory on Trump, and I put that in Flintstones as the bully running for class president of the middle school that Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm go to.
MEREDITH FINCH: As a Canadian, I have a different perspective on your elections, because we’ve already been through that and now have one of the best-looking, charismatic leaders out there, [Justin Trudeau]. When I watch what’s going on north of the border, it’s baffling. So I really wanted to use Trump in kind of a comedic way, and that’s what I tried to do with having Penguin be that Trump-like character. Penguin is such an outrageous character, and I felt like he’s the best DC universe person to be that crazy. Penguin does a good job appealing to the worst of us, in the same way that Trump appeals to the worst of ourselves. I think everybody has secret fears and Trump seems to have that ability to hit on things that people don’t want to look at. Penguin’s doing that same thing in Gotham, trying to resurrect stuff.
We sometimes hear people freaking out about the effect of this election and Trump’s vulgar rhetoric on kids. Children factor in both these stories. What were you guys going for with the kids’ side of these storylines?
RUSSELL: I think in a lot of ways Donald Trump has reduced the debate to a playground level. Hillary Clinton tells him he’s the puppet of Putin, and he responds with, basically, “I know you are but what am I?” So it seemed appropriate to put the allegory of this election in a childish context. The French philosopher Michel Foucault said that the next wave of totalitarian dictators would not be supermen, but people who allow us to indulge our base instincts. He called it Ubu-ism. The dictators of the past like Stalin and Hitler were aspirational in a way. They tried to hold the country to this high standard, they told their countrymen they were supermen who had to live in this way that wasn’t always conducive to human reality. Whereas Trump and his ilk, you see it with [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines, their wave of populist demagoguery is based on indulging people’s basest instincts and allowing them to get away with whatever they’ve been holding in for the past 20 years. It’s a chance for the whole nation to let its stomach hang out and breathe, and I think that’s what people are responding to: They don’t have to pretend to be civil or compassionate anymore.
FINCH: For myself, I was just trying to mimic the idea of bullying and intimidation that is going on in the election, and put that into what Selina experienced as a child. We have that bullying and intimidation of Selina as a child, and then we have Penguin bullying and intimidating the people of Gotham into voting for him. I definitely think we’re seeing that reflected in the broader election.
Both candidates in Catwoman: Election Night are shady. Meanwhile, Trump and Clinton are the two most unpopular candidates in modern history. Is that something you were playing with?
FINCH: It definitely is. One of the ways in which U.S. politics differs from Canadian is we actually have three people who could be prime minister, because we have three national parties. You guys are caught in this Catch-22 of who do you vote for when you have nobody to vote for? That’s what I wanted to explore. In this situation, the best of the worst is almost the choice, and again this is sort of a Canadian perspective looking in, but seeing the things reported on both candidates and the trust issues reflected on both of them, I really felt like I needed to pull that in and acknowledge what’s going on with the story itself.
The original Flintstones cartoon had a bit of social commentary on the ’50s and ’60s, which also seems to be the period people harken back to when they talk about “Make America Great Again.” What did you like about bringing those two things together?
RUSSELL: One way I try to be different than the original Flintstones cartoon is I think the original cartoon was more of a domestic comedy, about regular life and domestic situations with a little bit of commentary on society embedded in the background, and I use The Flintstones to examine where civilization has gone wrong as the foreground of my story, with domestic situations providing the backdrop. One thing I thought was really subversive about the original cartoon, and I definitely try to incorporate in my comic, was the commentary on consumerism. In The Flintstones, when you want to take a picture, a little bird has to come out of the camera and chisel the image on a tiny stone tablet. So in order to take a photograph, you have to be okay with a tiny bird living their entire life inside a little stone prison. To me that was far more acerbic and damning commentary on commercialism than anything else that was going on in the 1960s, although it didn’t really brand itself as such.
Catwoman ends up getting drawn into this mayoral race because of her investigations into both Harris and the Penguin. When approaching this issue, how were you thinking about a superhero’s relationship to politics in their world?
FINCH: The great thing about writing Catwoman and using her for this election issue is that she doesn’t have any superhero standards that she’s forced to adhere to. She’s going to take care of herself, and if she chooses to actively intervene on behalf of someone else, as she does in this issue, consequences begin. She’s gonna do what she’s gonna do for the people she needs to do it for, and that’s very freeing. It frees you from the parameters you have to function under when you’re working with a superhero.
A lot of this Flintstones story has to do with Fred and Barney’s memories of war and genocide, brought out by this new politician’s fiery rhetoric. That resonates with both Trump, who promotes a militaristic policy at home and abroad, and Clinton, who would probably escalate our involvement in Syria, among other things. How did you decide to incorporate that in this storyline?
RUSSELL: The rhetoric that politicians use to get people on their side or arouse people has real-world consequences, and that’s the thing voters need to realize. It might sound great when they’re saying it on the stage, but it’s gonna have real life consequences for whoever’s on the receiving end of the policies they’re talking about. The things the candidates in this race are talking about are all mistakes we’ve made before. None of this should take us by surprise. The electorate is made up of goldfish, people who forget every 30 seconds what’s happened before. Whether it’s Trump espousing the same policy as George W. Bush, which was disastrous, or escalating conflicts in the Middle East, which has never worked out in the past, people tend to forget the failures of the past out of exasperation or not knowing what else to do. I think this is a chance for me to say, when voting you should remember how these issues have fared when done in the past.
Both issues end with interesting codas/cliffhangers. What were you going for there?
RUSSSELL: I just wanted to provide a little backstory for all the major characters as we go forward, and examine how the world’s first civilization has both brought people together and destroyed lives that would have been different otherwise. Every character has somehow been fundamentally changed by this idea of civilization and living in a city, and I wanted to show that.
FINCH: I wanted to end the issue with a sense of optimism, because I think there was a fair amount of heaviness, and when you’re thinking about this election, there has to be some ray of hope. Otherwise why are people getting out of bed in the morning? That’s how I wanted to end the Catwoman issue, show there’s a ray of hope and set up what’s to come.