When you write a weekly column, it doesn’t take long before you find yourself talking about something you don’t know anything about. For me, that moment is now, and I just want to get that out of the way before we go any further. But you see, I had a rather strange experience last week that had absolutely nothing to do with comics.
Except that now I think it had everything to do with comics.
Let me explain. Our family recently went to see the touring company of the Broadway musical, Wicked. As you probably know, Wicked is an extraordinarily popular musical—perhaps the biggest hit of the past twenty years. It’s based on an adult fantasy novel by Gregory Maguire that tells the backstory of some of the characters from The Wizard of Oz—particularly the “Wicked Witch of the West.”
Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of musicals. I don’t hate them on principle, but outside of Guys and Dolls, Grease, and a couple of Gene Kelly movies, they’re not really my thing. But more to the point, I’m not much of a Wizard of Oz fan. As hard as it may be to believe, until just a few days ago, I had never made it all the way through the old Judy Garland movie. In fact, I even had to Google “Wicked Witch” when I was writing that last paragraph because I didn’t know if she was from the West or the East.
All of which is to say, I’m a little out of my depth now. But that’s okay, because when we went to see Wicked, I still found plenty to think about. As strange as it may sound, while future witches Galinda and Elphaba were going through their angst-ridden high school rivalry on stage, I found myself thinking about Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and the so-called “grim and gritty” revisionist comic books of the 1980s.
I guess I need to explain that too. Whenever I talk to non-comics readers, the most common question I get is a variation on “Why are comics so popular now?” It’s a good question, even if the premise is misstated. For even though comics may not be selling all that well, comic books and comics characters are interacting with mainstream culture in fairly unprecedented ways. The reasons for this are many and far too complex to tackle in this humble little column, but there is one small part of the answer that’s relevant here.
And wouldn’t you know it? It all ties in with Wicked.
Ever since the emergence of postmodernism, the creative arts have wrestled with a similar dilemma, famously described by Samuel Beckett as follows: “there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” In other words, if you’re a writer, artist, or musician, how are you supposed to create art in a world defined by meaningless absurdity?
Back in the ‘60s, Stan Lee was able to temporarily solve this problem for comics by developing his distinctive voice—that weird, paradoxical mixture of melodrama and glibness. But Lee’s solution to the postmodern artist’s dilemma was one of tone, and tone, by itself, is not enough to sustain relevancy—not for comics and not for any other art form.
That’s why we started to see signs of a more thorough revisionist approach to stories cropping up in movies—especially in the ‘70s. If traditional genres were inherently flawed, implausible, or absurd, how might they be reworked in a way that could speak to the times? Much of Robert Altman’s career was devoted to this revisionist effort, pouring new wine into old bottles by tearing down the conventions of war movies, westerns, mysteries, and musicals and replacing them with the likes of M*A*S*H*, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and Nashville.
But few narrative genres were quite as old-fashioned, implausible, or absurd as the super-hero adventure. Thus, by the 1980s, comic books had become the real focal point for these experiments in revisionism. It seemed that if we were ever to reconcile our cultural past with our postmodern present, we would find it in the revisionist efforts of books like Miracleman, The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen.
That era not only changed comics, but it changed popular culture at large. While we may grow tired of the various re-treads and reboots that dominate today’s film, theater, and television, the most striking successes—things like Battlestar Galactica and Casino Royale—owe much of their existence to the groundwork laid by those revisionist comics from the ‘80s. Comic books have helped provide the creative template for rejuvenating what might otherwise seem irrelevant or meaningless. That’s one small part of the answer to that larger question of why comics are so popular today.
And that’s also the yellow brick road that brings us back to the merry old land of Oz.
Because if anything, The Wizard of Oz is even more painfully out of touch with contemporary sensibilities than even the most old-fashioned of super-hero stories. After all, Oz is a world where morality is understood in terms of “good” and “wicked,” and where the rules of physics seem arbitrary and undefined, a world where water is a weapon and heel-clicking is a transportation device. Surely few stories were as ripe for some comic book-style revisionism as The Wizard of Oz.
And that’s largely what we get with Wicked. In fact, the musical serves as a nice reminder that even though some comics fans dismiss revisionism as too dark or too violent, revisionism isn’t really a style—it’s a way of thinking. The musical might be light in tone and full of broad humor, but the story forces us to reconsider the familiar characters and situations in far more complex ways.
In particular, it challenges many of the fundamental elements of the original—particularly the allegorical naming of characters. In the song, “Wonderful,” the Wizard deconstructs the idea of truth, history, and labeling:
A man’s called a traitor—or liberator
A rich man’s a thief—or philanthropist
Is one a crusader—or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist.
The song provides a remarkable moment in the show because it not only undermines the allegorical labels of the original story, but it also becomes quite politically relevant—especially for audiences in 2003 when the musical debuted. By emphasizing key words like “liberator” and “crusader” and “invader,” what had begun as a fluffy piece of children’s entertainment becomes a not-so-subtle repudiation of the “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” Bush-era notion of overly-simplified morality.
And the entire musical is predicated on this idea that history is written by the winners and often has no real basis in truth. As a result, the story inverts the morality of the characters almost as if it were an old Alan Moore script where the heroes are flawed and the villains sympathetic. In this case, the Wicked Witch, Elphaba, demonstrates the most integrity while the Good Witch, Galinda, is often defined by self-promotion, narcissism, and cowardice.
Most tellingly, when Galinda finally finds her integrity, it’s complicated by the fact that her real goodness is hidden from the community while her popularly perceived goodness is built upon lies and scapegoats. No wonder she floats in a bubble.
The musical isn’t perfect. The second act, which works to integrate many elements from the original Wizard of Oz, is a bit of a mess and appears to suffer from the same problem of pandering that often plagues mainstream comics where stories spend too much time catering to hardcore fans instead of telling a good story.
But the first act—which establishes the story’s primary theme with the song, “Who Mourns for the Wicked?” and which focuses on Elphaba’s journey from awkward teenager to public enemy number one—is a powerful and complete work of revisionism all on its own. And as the first act culminates with Elphaba’s physical elevation above the stage choreographed to the soaring notes of “Defying Gravity,” the musical finds an emotional catharsis and its thematic core. The one character willing to stand up for what’s right takes on the mantle of villain—an outlaw martyr for an ironic world. It’s enough to make even this non-fan of musicals and The Wizard of Oz get a little misty.
Surprisingly though, I didn’t melt.
 Alan Moore, himself, offered a revisionist take on Dorothy and some of her experiences in Lost Girls.