It is possible that more people in this world are familiar with the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz than are the original 1900 novel that inspired it. The imagery, characters, and story of the film are so iconic and ingrained that they’re practically inescapable; even people who haven’t seen it are liable to know what ruby slippers are, and lines like “We’re not in Kansas anymore” and “There’s no place like home” come from. Spin-off works — including the companion-novel-turned-blockbuster-musical Wicked — tend to take the film version of the story as their starting place. Given the long shadow the film casts, I imagine it would be very daunting to approach the original work with the intention of providing a fresh spin. Marvel Comics’ adaptation succeeds admirably in this task, mostly thanks to the artistic stylings of penciler Skottie Young which give exciting new life to this classic story.
Marvel’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a fairly straightforward affair in the text department, not only sticking to Baum’s original story but preserving much of his language. While not a full-text adaptation like Boom! Studios’ recently completed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this is still a very wordy book, with much of the novel’s exposition kept intact in addition to the majority of the dialogue. Because of its fidelity to the novel, it shares a lot of the original’s weaknesses such as scattershot pacing, scenes that go nowhere, and reliance on deus ex machina to resolve plot points. In addition, the Wicked Witch of the West’s presence in both the novel and this comic is limited to about ten pages, which doesn’t feel like enough time to build the expected level of menace in the character before she’s dispatched by a conveniently present bucket of water.
These are mere quibbles of course. The Oz stories are beloved fairy tales, which means both that what we want from them as stories is different from what we look for in other works and that my criticism here is kind of beside the point. Ultimately it was wise of Marvel to present the books faithfully and the story’s innocent charm is undeniable.
The art is where this book really stakes its own turf in the cultural milieu of Oz. Young’s images are full of both levity and darkness, which gives the story a bit more of an edge than we are used to seeing. His characters designs are lovely, with bright faces and over-sized heads that give everyone a sort of manga feel. His Dorothy in particular is just perfect. She appears to be about ten or eleven years old (younger than the teenage Judy Garland, but older than she looks in the original Denslow illustrations where she’s apparently four), giving her a perfect balance of innocence, attitude, and energy. Conversely, his Wicked Witch of the West is ghoulish and hunched, with a grotesquely wrinkled face and cool, cruel eyes. There’s a perfect balance between the two rivals.
Other elements of the art strengthen both the sense of place and the otherworldly feel of the story. The scenes and backgrounds have astonishing depth thanks to Young’s scratchy line work. His tendency to scratch extends to the eye-popping colors in the book as well, with squiggles of yellow shooting through the deep greens of the Emerald City, creating a sense of life and motion.
This book has been checking out like crazy in my library’s Children’s section and I am glad for it. Rarely do you see such a close adaptation of a classic story succeed in showing the story in such a new light. Hopefully this book — and the follow-up adaptations of The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz by the same creative team — will keep Baum’s original vision of the Oz stories alive for another generation or two.