The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
I've never read L. Frank Baum's classic Oz book series. Like most people, my primary point of reference is The Wizard of Oz, the famous 1939 film adaptation of the first book. And my own impressions are more reliant on general cultural osmosis than from any recent viewing of the movie. The resulting effect is that, for better or worse, it's become virtually impossible to separate the narrative from the film's many well-known musical numbers. The other obvious impact of the movie is its memorable visual identity, which I believe was largely derived from the original book illustrations of W.W. Denslow. At any rate it's a safe bet that when most people in the Western world picture the land of Oz, they're partially recalling scenes like the cast singing "we're off to see the wizard" while marching down the yellow brick road. So unfortunately, any adaptation not only has to compare with the written text, but this beloved movie as well. The last effort that I can recall seeing was the 2007 mini-series Tin Man - a plodding, overly-long attempt to superimpose onto the fairy tale a bleaker, more adult sensibility, and a conscious repudiation of the sun-drenched world of its predecessors for a more dystopian, post-industrial setting.
Given this history, what's immediately most striking thing about this comic book adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the cleverness of its artistic approach. Navigating between the poles of faithful reproduction and critical deconstruction, artist Skottie Young and colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu opt for an interpretation that feels fresh without coming across as a cynical attempt to "update" the source material. Speaking only for myself, I much prefer it to Denslow or the 1939 film. Young draws in a more rubbery cartoon style which, in comparison to Denslow's more mundane-looking designs, is frankly better suited to capturing the fantastic world of Oz. And Beaulie's warm, bright color palette and painterly layering imbue Young's lines with the right amount of two seemingly contradictory qualities: nostalgic remembrance and innocent wonder.
The main protagonist Dorothy looks much more fragile and child-like than the inevitably more stolid presence of Judy Garland. But this makes her scrappy demeanor and acts of bravery all the more endearing. The fantasy-based characters have a certain creepy, even alien, quality not found in the movie. This lends them a certain edginess not found in Denslow. The Scarecrow actually looks like a sack of straw that inexplicably talks despite not having a real mouth. The Cowardly Lion is a more convincing giant fuzzball. But the most interesting redesign is the Tin Woodman, who now sports a handlebar mustache and a deeply furrowed brow. This gives the character a sorrowful, middle-age appearance which generates pathos in his quest for a heart.
For those familiar with only the movie, an interesting point of divergence is that writer Eric Shanower preserves within the comic a certain storybook quality. This can be partly explained by the serial format, but an episodic structure which carefully divides the story into a series of set pieces is a useful method for keeping a younger audience's interest in an extended narrative. This makes it very suitable material to being followed over the course of several readings. Their didactic nature definitely comes through, as each chapter is a mini-adventure that forces the characters to call upon heretofore unacknowledged virtues (wisdom, compassion, courage, sheer dumb luck).
I take it that Shanower is being extremely faithful to the book, because I get the impression that the included text was lifted almost verbatim. The results are not always ideal since the comic alternates between highly wordy panels that feel like pages from children's picture books, and silent panels where the art alone tells the story. These contrasting approaches stick out incongruously rather than flow seamlessly into one another. The more verbose panels take on the voice of an omniscient narrator who will often reinforce what the art is already showing. This makes the sudden quiet of the other panels seem a bit odd. Something also seems to have been lost during the paring-down process of the text for the comic, because the dialogue often sounds dry. This contrasts with the more lively portrayals within the panels. Rather than complimenting the art, the text often seems to be wanting to set the pace and overall tone. But the result is that certain actions or key moments feel understated, or even completely lost, when they could have been illustrated for greater visual impact. Perhaps a looser wording of the text would have served the comic better.
Obviously, I can't just recommend an adaptation over the source material. And I'm loathe to turn young people away from any valuable work that could inspire longform reading. But whatever quibbles I may have, they aren't enough to disregard the efforts put into the book. This is no doubt a labor of love, especially for Shanower. The art alone is worth the price of the comic. And for those already familiar with Baum's original text, or the 1939 film, it's an alternative worthy of consideration. It might even change how some people imagine Oz.
On a completely unrelated note, this post marks three years to the day I started this word blog. Yay for me. Not that I'm an exceedingly brilliant writer by any stretch of the imagination. But I'd like to think I've improved since my first post. Yeah, I know - just keep telling yourself that buddy.