Friday, July 1, 2011

Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

There have been numerous adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s whimsical fantasy series of Oz books since they became part of the public domain in 1956, including books, television shows, video games and even a film version starring Kermit and the Muppets. Some of these adaptations are good, though many are not. And one of the very best is a comic book published by Marvel: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, faithfully adapted by Eric Shanower and beautifully illustrated by Skottie Young.

Unlike previous adaptations, including the beloved 1939 Judy Garland musical, Shanower’s Oz hews closely to the plot of Baum’s original novel. It begins, of course, with young Dorothy Gale and her little dog Toto being swept up and away by a tornado, house and all, from the colorless Kansas farmland and deposited in the magical world of Oz, whereupon Dorothy discovers the house has landed on and crushed the Wicked Witch of the East.

And there was much rejoicing.

What follows is the well-known adventure as the Good Witch of the North bestows upon Dorothy the magical silver shoes -- not the ruby slippers of the Garland musical; I guess sparkly red looks better on-screen -- the Wicked Witch of the East had been wearing when she died. The Good Witch of the North then sends Dorothy on her way down the yellow-brick road toward the fabled Emerald City, where, Dorothy hopes, the powerful Wizard of Oz will help her return home to her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em.

Along the way, Dorothy meets her beloved companions: the Scarecrow who only wants a brain, the Tin Woodman who wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion who wants courage. Dorothy convinces each one that the Wizard can help them, and they agree to accompany her on her journey.

I don't remember the last time I watched the 1939 film, let alone read the original books, so I was coming into this adaptation cold, with only a few fleeting images from the movie rattling about inside my head. I had no preconceived notions about the book, save for Young's artwork, which I knew was going to be gorgeous, and I was certainly not disappointed in that assumption.

In fact, the star of Marvel’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is without a doubt Skottie Young, whose imaginative interpretations of these iconic characters are nothing short of masterful. Young has a sketchy cartoon style of artwork that perfectly captures the childlike essence of these 100-year-old characters while updating them for today’s visual medium. He takes these characters and puts his own spin on them while maintaining their charming familiarity.

Dorothy is sweet and innocent, with big, expressive eyes, while the Cowardly Lion is a big ball of cuddly fur, more kitten than king. The Wicked Witch of the West is a creepy old crone, with sickly green skin pulled tight over her boney face. (The coloring by Jean-Francois Beaulieu perfectly compliments and enhances Young's pencils.)

The collection is rounded out with images from Young's sketchbook, allowing insight into his creative process as he tries to get the characters just right for the tone of Shanower's adaptation. Young's initial Cowardly Lion looks more stately and lean, dark and brooding, like something out of The Lion King, while his early Scarecrow design looks like it escaped from a Batman comic, which, now that I think of it, I would love to see Young penciling a Batman series, if for no other reason than to see his interpretations of the villains. I imagine Young's Joker would be particularly frightful.

The story plays out as expected, with Dorothy and her new friends arriving at the Emerald City and being granted an audience with the great and powerful Oz, who promises to grant their wishes, but only if they agree to kill the Wicked Witch of the West for him.

Shanower's script is full of energy and keeps the story moving at a good clip. There's never a dull moment, just the occasional pause for breath and to enjoy more of Young's lush pencils. The Wizard of Oz remains a classic with good reason, and Marvel's adaptation is poised to become a classic in its own right, a fairy tale suited for kids and adults alike.

Originally published as an eight-issue mini-series, Marvel’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is now available in both hardcover and softcover collections. Shanower and Young followed up their delightful first collaboration by adapting Baum’s sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, currently available as a hardcover. Their third volume, Ozma of Oz is due to be released in Sept. 2011.

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