Yes, Spire Comics, we’re back. Back to settle an old score.
For the tenth instalment in our expedition into the mighty Christian kitsch industry, we’re considering a spawn of Spire’s children’s imprint. Kiddie Christian Comics was the company’s imprint for very young children, and also put out God Is…, which we covered in Christian Kitsch #4. We can only hope that this entry will achieve the same slapdash surrealism of that comic, though this time the preaching is grounded in a narrative form.
Because this is a special occasion, and these characters are Spire originals (though, as a friend named Tom informed me, Barney Bear is also an MGM cartoon and comics character), it’s only right to give them the honour of a dramatis personae.
And, last but certainly not least, the pillars of the community.
Now that we’re familiar with the many colourful characters of the Barney the Bear Extended Universe, let’s see what kind of adventures they get themselves into when they come OUT OF THE WOODS.
Al Hartley begins his story on a clear night. The parents are sleeping, until all of a sudden:
Clearly, something is amiss, or else this bear would not be having trouble sleeping in his natural habitat. Though it appears that, in this world, only some of the anthropomorphic animals have assimilated into a domesticated life. I’m also unsure what Mama Bear’s curlers are supposed to accomplish given how short her hair is. On an artistic level, they serve as gender markers, but other than that they probably just pull her hair and sort of sit there.
The entire comic, being meant for children, is also quite light on panels, often having only two or even one per page and very little dialogue. I’m not opposed to this approach, and we’ll see it actually leads to somewhat creative page layout, but the drawing itself is just as generic and overall lifeless as it always is on these books. Competent, but nothing above mediocre.
After the whole family wakes up and rushes into the parents’ bedroom, the father bear begins the story proper:
How exactly has the neighbourhood changed? Basically, we’ve gone from cute, domesticated Disney animals, complete with Bambi, Toby the Turtle, and Air Guitar Frog…
To Ralph Bakshi animals:
Having realized that their tranquil suburban bliss has been upended, the family rushes from their house and heads out to investigate the source of the racket. Perched on an overhanging cliff, they behold a landscape wholly and terribly transformed:
Though it’s not stated or even implied by the text, I have to assume that the family awoke not from a normal sleep but from an extended hibernation. Otherwise, this level of urbanization would not have escaped their notice. And indeed this city is a swarming hive of misery and sin. People out at “All Night Movies,” being “Adult,” having “Fun,” and even heading to the “Grotto.” Take that inebriated elephant for one. His dome is smoking something fierce, though he doesn’t seem too worried about plunging over the green waterfall. I’m jealous of the bear triplets riding the useless water wheel in antique swimsuits, and much less jealous of the white-suited gentleman taking a swan dive right into the turf. Overall, though, it seems like a good time.
Not if you ask our nuclear family in peril, of course:
Well well, what kind of bright idea is forming in the effervescent young mind of our young ursine scout? As we learn over the next few tedious pages, he has enlisted the help of the noble bachelor Church Mouse, a meek evangelist who hurries to the woods with his Tent of Miracles.
My guess is that state repression is not available as an option in this case. I would guess that this bedevilled family would probably put in a call to the SWAT team or the National Guard to break up this tomfoolery, but it seems the Hobbesian state of nature is still strong and unfettered in these woods. And so one Church Mouse is summoned to do the work of a thousand gentrifiers and beat cops: clean up the damn neighbourhood with an old-fashioned revival meeting.
But perhaps our mouse of the cloth is not as unshakeable as he appears.
On learning that his natural predators are likely to be in attendance––though why the derelict denizens of the wild woods would even want to attend such a meeting is never explained––the mouse hoofs it back to the car and doesn’t even think to bring the tent back. It’s all fight-or-flight in this predator-prey world. But the bears, optimistic and, shall we say, rather presumptive, think that the mouse would make a good vessel for the Word in reforming these critters. He offers to leave them tracts and literature, but they insist that the servants of God have to be a bit more involved than that.
So we have our first bachelor pillar of the community, the beginning of the somewhat incoherent core of our book. In propaganda like this, the point is to instruct first and entertain second. The artwork and the story are important but they are subservient to the political or, in this case, religious, point that the work is trying to make.
The structure varies, but in the general case, the characters in this kind of didactic literature fall into a number of fixed types. We have the wise teachers, the ones who espouse the views that the literature considers correct. In this case, the bear family acts as a unit, and if you’ve been paying attention they often finish each other’s thoughts and basically act as extensions of one another. They’re the embodiment of the conservative fantasy of the family as an organic and undifferentiated unity reproducing itself without conflict, especially between generations. Second, we have the characters who are ignorant, mistaken, or fatally flawed in some other way. In this case, the wild jungle animals. These characters are usually the ones who espouse positions the wise teachers have to criticize and correct. In this book, though, their problem is not so much possessing mistaken ideas but instead having no direction whatsoever. They are carte blanche, the people whom Christian evangelists imagine have somehow lived in the United States but never gotten the basic idea of Christian doctrine before. They will either conform to the words of the wise teachers in the end or are put to some kind of bad end.
But, to work our way back to the mouse and his fellow bachelor pillars of the community, there is also a third type: the well-meaning but mistaken “experts” who exist to exhibit arrogance and to be corrected by the wise teachers.
And look who we have here:
Here is our second patsy, the intellectual who will, inexorably, bow before the simple folk knowledge of our put-upon Normal American Family. No matter his schemes for urban renewal or educational initiatives or what have you, Jesus can and will fix every problem. What kind of fiendish puzzle will Barney and co. pose to the posturing owl?
I know what you’re thinking, but let’s first focus on the tree-house in the background. No doubt Al Hartley woke up that day, pulled on his drawing clothes, and said to himself “I’m going to draw windows wherever I damn well please!” Or, excuse me, “darn well please.” I also think we can definitively say that that owl is just a graduation cosplayer who’s never actually read a single word from that unsheltered outdoor bookshelf he has. J’accuse, charlatan!
Well, the church mouse and Barney know an easy catch when they see one.
One more aside: the last panel I screen capped shows off one of Hartley’s strangest stylistic tics: the triple punctuation mark. If you scroll back up through this post you’ll notice that in almost every instance where a question is being asked or someone is particularly excited, Hartley puts another line in the dialogue balloon and fills it with three question marks or exclamation points. Notice what I mean??? It’s weird once you notice!!!
But, in an effort to keep up its nonexistent narrative momentum,the book debuts the third and final bachelor pillar of the community: the goat judge!!!
Of course, we can’t have the state judge usurping the divine right. Again, our sphinx-like protagonists pose an unsolvable quandary before the magistrate.
Once again, his ignorance is never directly corrected, even with something as simplistic as “read the Bible, it’s the truth!!!” Instead, the book leaves him to drown in his own question marks. Obviously the book has a sharp sense of irony: a judge who can’t judge and a know-nothing intellectual. What’s more, Hartley kicks the climax into gear, showing the dangers of running perilously long extension cords in a flammable environment. Although Hartley didn’t bother drawing the wire in a damaged condition, so it appears as though it spontaneously combusted for no reason at all. Well, I suppose it is just a plot device, so let’s scurry forward.
The next few pages show the fire spreading as the dithering judge and owl are no help whatsoever, culminating in their crowning moment:
Pay close attention to this. Remember that one thread that’s been running more or less consistently through this comic is that one should take action. The bears admonished Church Mouse for suggesting that he just pray for the cats and leave some tracts, and the goat is shown up as a buffoon for his indecision and ineffectual attitude. Eventually, the goat judge does come to his senses and pronounces his judgment:
It gets better, since when you think through this comic’s theology and view of how the natural world functions, you have to conclude that the senseless fire was caused by God sparking up a totally intact electrical wire. I mean, if the plot supplies no answers and the art is shoddy and lazy, I have to assume that the judge needs to go after God Himself here.
Luckily, the book doesn’t contemplate deicide. Barney and the Church Mouse have had enough of the goat’s vindictive attitude and just want to get the fire put out. Behold their solution:
Let’s think for a moment before I reveal what occurs next. As established, the book has criticized the idea that we can just lean on praying and not actually intervening in bad situations. God might carry the day but we have to be his hands and feet, etc. If the book actually wants to teach children something positive and one of the benefits of prayer, it might show the mouse and Barney taking a moment to compose themselves, gather their courage and, maybe, help out with rescue efforts, get the goat off that precarious log for goodness’ sake, or get professionals to help. They even ask for God to help them stop the fire, suggesting that they will prove Christian integrity by acting selflessly even in the face of danger. A raging fire is their crucible, the trial that proves they can live the faith rather than just preaching it.
Yes, the other shoe is about to drop. Along with buckets of…
Conveniently, the divine rainstorm both snuffs out the blaze and forces the hapless sinners of the woods underneath the only shelter that apparently survived the fire: the tent.
Finally, after some prodding and a pep talk, the Church Mouse delivers his beneficent message:
Our moral has truly pivoted. After dedicating a good chunk of space to criticizing the mouse’s complacency and unwillingness to act, we get a literal deus ex machina solving every problem for everyone. The book has come utterly untethered from recognizable reality, and this is a deep flaw in a book that is marketed and produced to teach practical and religious lessons to children. Out of the Woods is not infuriating because it’s propaganda, but because it mistakes its audience for fools and chumps. Children are naïve, not incapable of facing hard truths or life’s ambiguities. Even a message as simple as “faith needs action to be real” gets muddied up because the comic presents a world where the benevolent God will, say, send rain to douse your burning home. It’s convenient and shoddy, and children probably won’t buy it for a second. At least, not if they’ve ever had to face actual trials in their lives.
Also, it might just be a jerk move to start haranguing forest fire survivors and giving them the three-point sermon after––we have to presume––many of them have lost their homes due to environmental negligence and a lack of social services. And yes, I’m taking this gravely seriously, far more so than the lackadaisical writer and artist. Partly that’s for comic effect, considering just how fluffy and klutzy Out of the Woods is, but it’s also because I hate the idea that junk media is acceptable just because it’s for children. If you’re writing propaganda and cushy comfort food for the converted, at least get your messaging straight.