'Wacky Raceland #1' Is Dark and Unexpected

For those of us old enough to remember televised Saturday morning cartoons way back when, this take on the genre is a revelation.

Wacky Raceland

Publisher: DC Comics
Length: 36 pages
Writer: Ken Pontac
Contributors: Leonardo Manco (artist)
Issues: #1
Publication date: 2016-06-15

There's more than a touch of madness in the pages of DC Comic's Wacky Raceland #1, madness and chaos just barely contained. In one of the strangest reboots in a long time, Pontac and Manco transform Wacky Races, the 1968 Hanna-Barbera cartoon, into something wild and wonderful, into something dark and unexpected.

Not that the original wasn't pretty strange. Each episode of the 17 episode series features two cross country races which pit a truly bizarre cast of characters against each other while an unseen narrator (voiced by Dave Willock) delivers an over-the-top play-by-play. Evil Dick Dastardly and his canine sidekick, Muttley, are the villains willing to do anything to cross the finish line first in their rocket-powered Mean Machine.

Their nemeses included Rock and Gravel, the Slag Brothers, in their Boulder Mobile; the Gruesome Twosome, knock-offs of Frankenstein and Dracula, in the Creepy Coupe; Professor Pat Pending, an eccentric inventor, in the Convert-A-Car; The Red Max, a World War I style pilot, aboard the car/airplane hybrid known as the Crimson Haybaler; Penelope Pitstop, the lone female in the race, who drives the Compact Pussycat; and, among others, my personal favorites – Lazy Luke and Blubber Bear, a hillbilly and a grizzly bear, who drove the Arkansas Chuggabug.

In episode after episode, these unlikely characters carry on their inexplicable quest to win the big race, speeding across recognizable, but unreal, environments while the narrator drones on and on.

These were truly the unenlightened days, before children's television took on the pretension of educational value and lofty purpose, and when producers believed that kids would watch anything with bright colors, loud sounds, and constant motion.

Wacky Raceland is part of DC Comic's revival of Hanna-Barbera characters for a new age. In this revival, Scooby Doo and the gang find themselves battling for their lives in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in Scooby Apocalypse. Johnny Quest teams up with Space Ghost, the Herculoids, Frankenstein Jr., and a host of other, mostly forgotten, Saturday morning heroes in Future Quest. The new Flintstones promises to make the characters more realistic and take on contemporary social issues.

From the first announcement of the news Hanna-Barbera books, Wacky Raceland has always seemed as if it would be the hardest to pull-off. For one thing, out of all the revived properties, Wacky Races is the most obscure. Add to that its simple-minded premise and reliance on less-than-original characterizations and it seemed likely that the reboot would be a disaster.

Surprisingly, Wacky Raceland manages to take that simple premise and those stock characters and produce something that is decidedly a step beyond wacky. Helped by the obscurity of the original, Pontac and Manco transform all of those oh-so-familiar characters into a cast of post-apocalyptic warriors racing across the badlands of some future Earth under the command of the mysterious, and sinister, Narrator.

The first of the two tales in this first issue is a fast and ready introduction to the characters, their mission, and the corrupted world through which they race. Readers who remember the original series will find enough familiar here to make them happy, and, as a matter of fact, may find that this new take on Wacky Races to be somewhat revelatory. Those 17 episodes never made a lot of sense and even suggested, in their refusal to provide a deeper context for the action, that there might have been something dark and sinister in the background that we weren't being let in on. Here, that dark and sinister background is front and center.

Penelope Pitstop and her intelligent car, Compact Pussycat (all of the cars are intelligent, thanks to the workings of the Narrator), are the stars. We're given a brief yet tantalizing glimpse of the tragedy that struck the Earth and of the Narrator's role in transforming Penelope, and her car, into fierce racing machines.

Just like in the cartoon, this episode of Wacky Raceland is mostly about the racing and the attempts of Dick Dastardly and Muttley to cheat their way to the finish line. But, unlike the cartoon, Pontac and Manco set the characters and action against in an intriguing dark world. Plus, there's a wonderful scene in which all of the mutants and monsters have a fight in the Armageddon Bar.

As much fun as the first story in this issue is, however, the second story is even better. For those who might have wondered how Lazy Luke managed to team up with an intelligent grizzly, and who hasn't wondered about that, the answer is finally given. Let's just say that it's a bloody tale, the likes of which would never have been featured on a Saturday morning cartoon.

I admit that I fully expected Wacky Raceland to be a big disaster and never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that it could be like this. For those of us old enough to remember Saturday morning cartoons way back when, even if we don't remember the forgettable Wacky Races, this take on the genre is a revelation. If we had looked away from the TV long enough, stopped filling our mouths with sugary cereal, and found a way to break the spell of those bright colors, loud sounds, and constant motion, then we might have seen the truth.

There was always something more than wacky about those Saturday cartoons, something down-right weird, maybe even menacing. Wacky Raceland puts that weirdness and menace on display.

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