Unlike with Peter Pan, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was one of my first stark realizations of the differences that adaptations of works could bring. When I was wee, though I can’t recall if this was during elementary or middle school, there was a program by which one could earn a little extra credit. Quite literally, it was a program on one of the Apple terminals the school had that contained countless quizzes on books that our school library had in stock, ranging across various difficulties and lengths. By completing some number of these quizzes and proving that you’d read the books, you could add a few points to your grade. A brilliant mercenary swerve to get kids to read, but as a kid who loved to read, free money on the table.
You can probably see my folly from there.
After all, I went through quite a lot of books in that school library as well as books from the bookmobile that would park one street over from our house, and so I was poised to fill out a fair number of the quizzes. You only had the opportunity to take each one once, pass or fail, so it behooved you to have a fair understanding of the book you were reporting on. Yet there were always more books than could be read in a time, and more quizzes to take than you likely could. So why not pad the numbers by using the obvious route of also quizzing myself on the movies that had books in the database?
What are Dorothy’s slippers made of? Gold, Emerald, Ruby, or Silver?
Ruby, of course. What kind of rube can’t pass this?
Needless to say, by the time questions about golden crowns and Quadlings came to be, I had no idea what movie the quiz makers had even been watching, and checked The Wonderful Wizard of Oz out from the school library once I’d finished thoroughly failing the quiz. I’d loved the movie for as long as I can remember, a fact that continues to this day, but I actually felt lucky to be able to fall in love with the book in a brand new way as I tore through it and a few of the immediate sequels. To this day I get excited when adaptations touch upon all the little nooks and crannies of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels, though with so many Oz tales out there I’ve barely even begun to scratch the surface on all that there is. Look, they’re putting in a little china girl for his companion! Oz the Great and Powerful might be a respectable movie!
Come to think of it, adaptations of Oz have been pulling the rug out from under me all my life. Alas. At least I’ll always have Return to Oz and the Wicked musical. And of course, Marvel’s take on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Narratively, there’s not much to say about this particular comic adaptation of the 1900 novel that can’t be said of the novel itself. Eric Shanower clearly respects the source material and the greater pull of all the Oz related works, a fact made explicit in his foreword. Being a lifelong fan of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it was his intention to lay out the graphic novel to be as much of a simple visual representation of the novel as he could, including the little bits of language and tics of world building (calling out specifically things such as the guard with the green whiskers in the Emerald City making sure that Dorothy wipes her feet before her audience with the Wizard). In not rocking the boat, he lets it sail through the tale of Dorothy Gale, from the twister’s wail to the return to Kansas, grey and pale. She meets companions, a fearsome Wizard of many guises, bests two witches most wicked with the blessings of two most good, befriends the field mice, enslaves the flying monkeys, and never loses sight over the comforts that a home can bring even in the face of the beautiful and interesting awaiting beyond its porch. L. Frank Baum wished to make a fairy tale that was wholly American and not so dark and violent as those of the Brothers Grimm, and while there are shadows to be feared and some measure of violent acts in Oz (the Tin Man’s origin is worthy of several cringes), never are they used to change or drive fear into the heroine who remains steadfast in her knowledge of what is correct and where she ought to be laying her head. It’s a beautiful story that has endured for a reason, and even had MGM never turned it into a film of such cultural magnitude I’ve no doubt it would still linger. Eric Shanower’s skill in the comic adaptation is in letting L. Frank Baum do the talking while simply putting the words in the right places to convey the intentions and dialogue, and though it’s an almost invisible process he deserves some praise for doing it deftly.
Skottie Young though. Skottie Young, y’all. I can’t remember when I first became aware of Skottie Young, but I think it may have been just before his run on illustrating New X-Men as I had been reading that book at the time and remember being extremely excited when I heard he was going to be taking over on the art side. He is easily one of my favorite comic artists, with a boldly sketchy style of cartooning that is utterly unlike so much of what you’d think of for superhero styled comic art, and I loved every damn issue of the New X-men run that he did because of it. And yet I lapsed on reading New X-men not long after his run ended, and in fact, around that time was when I stopped following most of the superhero comics that I had been. I tend to be more of a trade or graphic novel reader when it comes to comics anyhow, and like to focus on stories that largely self contained in one straight line rather than crossing over or dealing with worlds across multiple titles, or are run by one creator through and through. So I wasn’t reading too much Marvel after that, and it wasn’t until I spent a few months working at a local comic shop here that I found the hardcover edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz staring me in the face day after day with Skottie Young’s buoyant Dorothy beckoning me in. After a time I gave in and picked it up, along with a great number of other books I had been eyeing.
In a great stack they sat, but it was the others I got to first. I knew the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, after all, and while I had flipped through the book to ogle the artwork, I left it unread until this past week. I regret that, a little. Skottie Young’s art and Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s colors work together to make an absolutely gorgeous tapestry that makes something like Oz the Great and Powerful feel all the more hollow and artificial by comparison.
The designs of the characters are like nothing I’ve seen before from Oz adaptations, with a Cowardly Lion that begs to be turned into a stuffed animal, an utterly cantankerous looking Tin Man, and a wicked witch who is almost pathetic in her twisted ugliness. They strike at the heart of these characters (even in the case of the Tin Man) in a way that lets you know who they are before they say even a single word. Young mentions at one point in his sketchbook at the back of the book that if he wasn’t able to make you fall in love with Dorothy in short order then he wasn’t doing his job correctly, and his Dorothy passes that measure for me easily. But even more than the characters, the landscapes bring the world to life, with trees and hills and geography and colors that all change from country to country as the characters journey through the corners of Oz. There’s an absolutely beautiful spread when they reach the Emerald City, and the way the colors of the pages are awash with green whenever they are tells the tale of the city’s truth even before it’s made plain in the text. The art is reason enough to pick up this particular adaptation even had the story itself been mishandled or wrecked, and that that isn’t the case just makes me all the more happy to have this.
As far as non-novel adaptations of the Oz stories go, I can’t count Marvel’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as my absolute favorite. In adhering to the text itself, it makes the story almost superfluous if you’ve read the novel, and for a first time reader I could imagine the sometimes stilted dialogue coming across as slightly much over the entire course of the book. There will always be a part of me that knows that Dorothy’s slippers are supposed to be made of ruby, and a part of me that thinks of the Nome King as looking rather wonderfully silly when he wears them (not long before he terrifies me so much that I will refuse to watch the movie again for years). But there is a part of me that will now always think of the Tin Man as having ought to have a Baum-worthy mustache and of the downtrodden nobility that a flying monkey might have. Not everyone I know enjoys Skottie Young’s art as much as I do, but in enjoying it so much it turns what could have been a very competent straightforward adaptation into something wonderful indeed.