The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Story by: L. Frank Baum
Written by: Eric Shanower
Art by: Skottie Young
Cover by: Skottie Young
Rating: 8 (of 10)
Of all the contemporary and modern American fantasy and fiction works, none of them are as recognizable as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Granted, this is mostly due to Victor Fleming’s 1939 film adaptation, which takes many liberties with Baum’s original source material, despite being a great standalone film. Baum himself was no stranger to the theater, being a playwright, actor, and director with modest success. It was no wonder, then, that when his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, Baum envisioned future adaptations of his work. Eric Shanower’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is no exception, and is still widely read for his simplistic rendering of an American classic.
The comic was well received, garnering for itself two Eisner awards for Best Limited Series and Best Publication for Kids. Much of this has to do with Skottie Young’s rendering of the Land of Oz, which in the Baum lore is far more expansive and diverse than Fleming’s musical production. This aspect could be the only thing going against the comic itself, as there is far too much of Fleming’s work ingrained in our heads for us to be susceptible to Shanower’s cultural preservation of the original material. Being a fan himself, Shanower tells the story of Dorothy Gale in lieu of the Brothers Grim and other fantastic stories of the age, capturing a sense of intrigue and wonder while also drawing modern observations out of the characters that give a humanistic dimension to Dorothy’s epic journey.
Young’s artwork is rich, eccentric, and delicate. Dorothy is typified as a young, though brave, girl alongside her motley companions. The way the story commences suggests that this is not a coming of age story, but a modern fairy tale reproduced onto the comic book medium. In doing so, the story is marketed intentionally towards younger audiences that have yet to understand complicated existential questions. Shanower’s work, then, is more “popcorn comics” than something produced by DC out of the late 80s, which isn’t bad at all, really—just different.
Like Alice in Wonderland, Baum’s tale is devoid of its original, populist subtext that brought it into the world. The Gilded Age, Free Silver Movement, and the abject poverty of American citizens in the time of growth and expansion was the context in which Baum existed. Born into a progressive and wealthy family, Baum’s story is rooted in the common woes of the time, serving as thinly veiled activist literature. (The fact that his wife was the daughter of Matilda Gage, one of the forerunners of Universal Suffrage, has influence over the plot of The Marvelous Land of Oz). I am not sure if Shanower was aware of these overtones growing up as a child but, despite having not been aware of these facts, Baum’s creative discourse can still be gleaned from the pages, though muted and subtle. Young’s artwork feeds off this, contributing substantially to the work’s quality as a fantasy story, while retaining the core imagery of Baum’s work that substantiated his activism. It’s an impressive feat—one not easily overlooked.
The only disservice that can be rendered against The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is that the work, in its entirety, must wrestle from the grasp of Fleming’s culturally iconic adaptation the “first look” of the original concept. When reading the comic, it may seem that the story progresses too rapidly, while at the same time adding fluff that confounds our expectations of what The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ought to be. In reality, however, it is spot on, while Fleming’s work is actually a poor adaptation by comparison. That being said, the problem this narrative faces is one created by ourselves.
All things accounted for, Shanower’s work is quite good and worthy of its Eisners. The 8 issue miniseries has spawned a number of sequels, all of which are based on Baum’s other books. It is proof enough that our transgressive values still bear a soft spot for the simple, and that is good enough for me.