The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900 and 2009

Rightly you might say that The Wizard of Oz doesn’t quite fit into the “picture book” world we’ve got going here. Yes, it does have pictures, and yes, it is for kids. But the words vastly outweigh the pictures, and the witch is too scary for a wee child (she was my first recurrent nightmare when I was four). That’s why we’re not exactly talking about Baum’s story from 1900, but rather Marvel’s graphic novel from 2009. True, graphic novels don’t really belong here either, but I really, really like graphic novels. And it’s not totally out of left field: there are way more pictures than text, and despite its dark feel, the cover touts an Eisner’s award for “Best Publication for Kids.” So there you go. And here we go, to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Marvel-style.

If you start at the beginning, it’s a sad tale. L. Frank Baum, born 1856, was, believe it or not, a bit of a failure (though I will say a brave failure). He wrote and illustrated over 50 novels among tons of other theater and poetry. But it wasn’t until 1900, when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, that he found any real success. And once he did, he was stuck with it. Throughout the 14 books he wrote in the Oz series, Baum swore number 6, number 8, number 12 would be his last. But they never were. Of his many works, Oz was all the public and the publishers wanted from him. The last 2 books of the series were published posthumously. You might say Oz was his golden ball and chain, hand-holding him until his death…

Regardless of where it took him, Baum’s initial desire to write The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, his inspiration, had some pretty strong and noble foundations: Baum deliberately revised the tradition of the Brother’s Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, creating an “American fairy tale.” He meant to invoke the wonder without the horrors and replace the fairies and trolls with more recognizable figures like a scarecrow and a lion. In the Victorian era of morals and lesson-giving, Baum also embraced Lewis Carroll’s philosophy: let kids be kids, let them imagine, let them have fun, out the window with all the morals.

And it worked. Very, very well. The series brought him the kind of fame that lives on a century later in so many forms and adaptations it’s hard to keep track of them all. Not to mention almost 30 Oz books written by other people after Baum’s death. Like Lucky Bucky in Oz or The Giant Horse in Oz. Three other Oz related books were put out in 2011. Yeah, that’s last year. If nothing else, Baum lives on (just take a look at his IMDb). In books, movies, theater, and yes, thankfully for us, the graphic novel.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz might have been intended for kids, but don’t be fooled. The characters are complex, the motives selfishly pure, the violence pervasive, and the imagination full and compelling. And in Marvel’s adaptation, the pictures build these castles even higher. In a culture that still publishes Baum sequels and still religiously watches an 1939 film adaptation of the story, there must be some classic strings running through this story. And the graphic novel stays so much closer to Baum’s original story than Judy Garland. Like I said, there’s less text, but Eric Shanower did the adaption, and it seems a lot like he just cut and pasted from the original. And Shanower does a very good job finding a fluid progression using a tenth of Baum’s words. The result is a slightly archaic sounding narrative, surprisingly perfect for the very modern comic-book art. Perfect because… well it seems innocent in a way. And innocence coupled with contradictory dark messages makes for the kind of complexity that lends depth. Right?

Skottie Young did the illustrations. Yes, they are undeniably the art of the graphic novel, and as such, moderny. But they are detailed, full of color (albeit, lots of black), whimsical, and frightening. Again, that contradictory effect. Now, it’s gotta be said, Frank Baum didn’t particularly like his illustrator, John R. Neill, because he felt that Neill’s drawing didn’t express the fun he meant to convey with the story. I cannot help but wonder at how he might have felt at Young’s illustrations. Though he may have appreciated their imagination, he may have found them… less than fun. They are dark and exaggerated, the fun is carnivalesque and the horror prominent. But to contextualize, for our modern sentiment, they’re perfectly fun. After all, with the way we love our horror movies and friendly vampires, we’ve come back around to the Grimm mentality. And this book is grim: at least in appearance. But it’s also for kids. Even though the woodcutter chops himself to pieces (that’s why he’s made of tin– re-made, we should say), there’s a disgustingly happy ending.

This one’s gonna take you a few hours to read rather than a few minutes. But go ahead. It’s worth it.

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