One Fan's Opinion: Issue #60

Fri, October 20th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

I love Oz.

No, not the prison drama on HBO - I don't even have HBO! I've never seen the show. I mean the Land of Oz - that wonderful fairyland created by L. Frank Baum.

It's true.

I've read all the Baum Oz books - several times and they're a terrific series, fun for the whole family and all the rest.

As a kid I was not a particularly voracious reader. Sure, I read comic books by the truckload, but getting me to sit down and read pure prose was next to impossible. But we had a number of the Oz books kicking around and they changed all that. I'd sit down with one of those and read it from cover to cover and get lost in a wild and wonderful world unlike any other.

The Oz books I have now contain informative Afterwords by Peter Glassman. They're published by "Books of Wonder" and they're attractive hardcover books, lovingly recreating the originals.

L[yman] Frank Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, in 1856. After trying his hand at a number of trades, he discovered, at the age of forty, his true talent - writing fantastic children's stories. And they were fantastic in several senses of the word - they were about the fantastic and they were fantastic. L. Frank Baum's most famous work, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was published in 1900. The book was the best-selling children's book for two years after its initial publication and it was followed up with a series of Oz books. He tried to create other enduring characters as well and write of other fairylands, but even teamed with the most enduring Oz illustrator, John R. Neill, he met with limited success. The "loving tyrants" (as he often referred to his Oz fans in the Introductions to his books) wanted Oz and only Oz.

In many cases, Baum cheated a bit. He'd write books that took place almost entirely in other realms using new characters and then pull in the Oz characters in the final few chapters to conclude the book. In one case, he took the script for an Oz play based on a previous Oz book and turned it into a new Oz book.

And the kids ate it up.

Baum wrote 14 full-length Oz novels and a number of short stories. He wrote a wildly successful stage version of "The Wizard of Oz" and a number of other stage productions and movies, some of which fared well - others of which were dismal failures. By this time Baum had moved to Hollywood with his wife and four sons. It was there that they built "Ozcot," the home in which Baum lived up until his death in 1919.

Baum was a prolific writer. In addition to the Oz series, Baum wrote numerous other books, many of which using pseudonyms.

John R. Neill wasn't the first artist to illustrate an Oz book. He missed it by one volume. W. W. Denslow drew the first book and Neill took over with its sequel, "The Marvelous Land of Oz."

Neill would illustrate all of the successive Baum-penned Oz novels and after Baum's death, he would stick with the series as Ruth Plumly Thompson took over. Neill ended up illustrating over forty Oz books and writing three of them. Neill's illustrations are pretty much synonymous with Oz.

Baum's Oz books are packed with unbridled imagination, boundless optimism, terrible puns and fast-paced adventure. Every volume is a joy to behold and if you've got a kid to read them to as a bedtime story, that's all the better.

Most folks know Oz from the relatively (for the time) faithful 1939 MGM production starring Judy Garland. I like that, too. Sure, Dorothy is several years older than she should have been and her hair was brown instead of blonde, but it was perky and upbeat and you could sing along to its lively musical numbers.

Less well known is "Return to Oz," a 1985 Disney release starring Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale. This somewhat spooky and musical number-lacking pseudo-sequel to the MGM classic combined elements from "The Marvelous Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz." It's visually engaging and well-acted for the most part, but somewhat scary and it was nowhere near as lively and heartwarming as the 1939 MGM release. Dorothy was closer to the right age, however, and it's terrific to see other Oz characters brought to life.

And there were Oz comics.

The first one I ever ran across was a DC/Marvel joint. It was a faithful adaptation of the MGM film and it was an over-sized treasury edition. That was followed up with a Marvel release that adapted the second Oz book, "The Marvelous Land of Oz." I imagine that there were plans to do more books in this series but something went sour.

The Oz characters stumbled into "Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew" for the "Oz/Wonderland War," but I missed that one somehow.

Then came Eric Shanower. From First Comics came his excellent Oz graphic novels "The Enchanted Apples of Oz," "The Secret Island of Oz," "The Ice King of Oz," "The Forgotten Forest of Oz" and "The Blue Witch of Oz." Eric has written and illustrated numerous Oz books and he writes and draws the award-winning comic book "The Age of Bronze" for Image Comics.

Eric's Oz books and comics are faithful to Baum's original version and his illustrations make every effort to be "on model" to John R. Neill's versions of the characters.

Now, over the years, several people have pitched Oz-related comics to Image.

Oz is in public domain. Nobody owns the Oz characters, so successive authors and illustrators can take the characters and do with them as they please. There is no "official" version - not really (although Eric Shanower is as close as you're likely to find) and so numerous writers and artists have written and drawn Oz books and Oz comics and everything else Oz.

The pitches I've received almost invariably update the characters and try to make things darker and grittier. Dorothy Gale invariably gets turned into a sexpot and the Tin Woodsman invariably gets turned into a killing machine, hacking up anybody that comes within arm's reach.

And they all suck.

The Oz series is, for the most part, completely sexless. Yes, there are characters that are married and have children, but there's no mention of anybody bumping uglies to be found anywhere. Characters may kiss each other in affection (and generally it's a girl pecking another girl on the cheek), but never lustfully. "Sexing up" Oz is in contradiction to the author's vision and it strikes me as both immature and a little sick.

(And yeah, I know, Todd McFarlane did a line of "Twisted Oz" toys and they fit that bill, but I don't look at those as being the "real" Oz characters, but something from a twisted reality. To take the "real" Oz characters and have them screwing is something else entirely).

I don't want updated Oz books where Dorothy is eighteen-years old and hot to trot and the Cowardly Lion is mauling visitors to the Emerald City. I don't want to read stories of Dorothy having sex with characters from other children's literature (not that Alan Moore's "Lost Girls" was pitched to and passed on by Image Comics, mind you - it wasn't. And if it had been, it most certainly would have been given the green light, regardless of my feelings on the matter. Alan Moore gets a free pass because, well, because he's Alan Moore and we all respect and trust Alan More to deliver entertaining comic books even if this particular comic book isn't one that is one that's my cup of tea. It's not like I have to love every book we publish, after all). I don't want to read bad photo comics or read about the Oz characters as superheroes or re-imagined in any number of other ways. I want to read real Oz stories of the real Oz characters that are true to the vision L. Frank Baum created all those years ago.

There was a while that I had entertained the idea of doing a book called "The Savage Dragon in Oz." I may still, but my initial stab at it left me a bit cold. It was tough to be faithful to both the Savage Dragon and Oz. The world of Savage Dragon is loaded with danger and violence and hookers with hearts of gold and various villains that are sometimes vulgar and often disturbing. My thought was that that would be a stark contrast to the Land of Oz with its colorful cast and imaginative setting. The idea was to have a nemesis, intent on raiding Oz for its numerous rubies and emeralds and precious metals and gems, invade the fairyland and have Savage Dragon in hot pursuit. I ultimately put it aside because I was having one hell of a time coming up with a tale that would be satisfying to both readers of Oz and Savage Dragon. I didn't want to water down Savage Dragon and I didn't want to put objectionable material into an Oz book.

Oh well.

So, I've kept a lot of Oz wannabe books out of Image - including my own. I didn't want to see anybody poop in the poppies.

And then came "The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz" - an Oz graphic novel by David Chauvel, featuring breathtaking artwork by Enrique Fernandez.

Their take on Oz was both faithful and fun. It's not "on model" to previous versions, by any means, but these renderings of the characters are both delightful and engaging in their own right. In this 96-page graphic novel, readers can rediscover the wonderful world of Oz, along with the fantastic and familiar characters that inhabit it. It's a fresh and appealing adaptation of the L. Frank Baum classic and, truly, it's a treat to see familiar characters re-envisioned by these guys. This book was originally published in France and it was the recipient of the prestigious 2005 Grand Prix de La Ville De Lyon Award of Illustration. And it's drop-dead gorgeous, which never hurts.

Needless to say - I was all over it.

For an Oz aficionado, this all-new adaptation of "The Wizard of Oz" truly hits the mark. And I'm pleased as punch to be bringing it to Image Comics and publishing it in English for the first time (translated by Kat Amano and remixed by Image's own jovial Joe Keatinge).

What lies in the future for the Oz characters? I can't say for sure. I know I'll be there at Eric Shanower's table at whatever convention I see him at snapping up his latest additions to the Oz legend.

And I hope to publish more Oz stories at Image in the coming years.

I may even try to work in a visit to that fantastic fairyland by my own Savage Dragon, if I can work out the kinks.

In the meantime - I'm going to enjoy the Oz books and comics that I have and look forward to more Oz things to come.

Because, like I said - I love Oz.

But that's one fan's opinion. You may feel otherwise.

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