Book Club #10: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

For the tenth installment of the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club, the four of us read the graphic novel adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by Eric Shanower and drawn by Skottie Young. We’re going to start our discussion by sharing an e-mail exchange that took place among the Fantastic Fangirls staff. This is a starting point for whatever our readers would like to say about the book. In the comments, feel free to address any of the points that came up in our discussion, or raise a topic/question of your own. Enjoy!

Jennifer: I think it’s only fair to start this discussion by talking about our previous experiences with the land of Oz and with this story in particular. This is, after all, arguably the most culturally-pervasive and influential fairy tale that is wholly American. We have our mythologies, even our 20th century mythologies, and comics have played a huge part in the development of those myths, with the creation of characters like Superman and Batman. But in terms of a single self-contained children’s narrative that everyone knows, few texts can challenge the supremacy of The Wizard of Oz.

I feel safe to say that none of us, then, is coming to this text as a blank slate. I certainly saw the film of The Wizard of Oz as a child, and I went through a brief phase in which I read at least half a dozen of the Oz novels, including the first. I haven’t touched either since pre-pubescence, however, and these days my closest association with Oz is the musical Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire’s book about the Wicked Witch of the West. This adaptation, then, came to me in a sort of filtered way, as I tried to separate out the things I knew specifically from the copyrighted film (which are necessarily absent from adaptations of the public domain novel) and the things I knew from Wicked, to come to the core of this story.

What baggage did you bring to this text?

Caroline: When I was a kid, I just loved the Cowardly Lion. I had a Cowardly Lion Christmas tree ornament, and my grandmother made me an enormous stuffed C.L. for one birthday. I don’t know what it was I enjoyed so much about that character. Somehow the thin veneer of bravado over the layer of cringing fear, which turned out to hide real courage, deep down — to me, that was everything that is both ridiculous and adorable. So, obviously, I watched that movie enough for it to make an impression. We also had a record album of all the songs and my siblings and I made up dance routines to them.

I know I read the first book, once. But my exposure to Oz was definitely mostly about the music and the movie costumes.

Sigrid: The famous movie as a kid, certainly, but … But I went through about two years of my young life during which I read and re-read the fourteen L. Frank Baum canonical Oz books over and over again in a relentless loop. I can tell you all sorts of things about Oz. And, during this book club, I expect I will.

These days I am familiar with Maguire’s Wicked, the musical Wicked, and I’ve read a number of works about the Oz movie, and Dorothy Gale and Judy Garland, and I’ve read up on why Oz was so important to the queer movement, and gay coding in Hollywood, and none of that is particularly relevant to this graphic novel. But, there you have it.

Oz baggage. I have it.

Anika: This is where I admit I have no exposure to Wicked beyond what has been on Glee. I’ve seen the 1939 film countless times and The Wiz, and I was fascinated by Return to Oz because it started with Dorothy in a mental hospital. I don’t remember the film so much as I remember loving the concept that there is a transparent line between madness and imagination. Also the hospital burned down.

I’ve read one book, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, and I don’t remember anything.

Jennifer: It sounds like we all have at least some exposure to the story, as I thought, so I suppose my next question is, what did we all think of this as an adaptation? This story has been told again and again, so what makes this version special — or, alternatively, what doesn’t? What reason does this adaptation have to exist, especially since it’s so faithful and doesn’t go in the interesting directions of Wicked and The Wiz?

For me, the answer is simple: Skottie Young. His interpretations of these characters are incredibly distinct, vibrant, and different from anything that’s come before. Though the film images will probably always be the iconic visuals for most Americans, I think these versions have a chance to become formative for the next generation of children, and I can’t say I object. Young’s Dorothy, in particular, is so full of the light and optimism of a little girl, and I adore his big, puffy Cowardly Lion.

Shanower’s scripting is another matter, I think, but for now I feel safe saying that Skottie Young’s art deserves all the praise it’s gotten.

Caroline: I definitely love the look of Skottie Young’s art. The character designs in this book accomplished the very tricky task of looking fresh and unique, while still conveying familiar and recognizable characters. That approach was very effective for the basic idea that, “This is something you already know, but it’s different.”

As for the larger idea of working as an adaptation, I’m not sure I found it particularly effective as a comic. I mostly know Skottie Young as a cover artist, so this was the first sequential work of any length that I’ve seen him do. I’m not sure if that accounts for my feeling that the panel-to-panel storytelling was on the choppy side, or if that’s a script issue. Overall, I’m not sure I got enough “new” out of this book to justify the length. I would personally have preferred an ‘Oz’ picture book by Young. I’m imagining something with fewer pages and less narration, but larger and more detailed illustrations.

That probably depends on who the adaptation is for, though. I’ll probably pass my copy of the book on to my young nieces or nephews, who might not be quite old enough to read Baum’s book on their own. It could be a good window into comics, for them — though I suspect they might also prefer the picture book.

Anika: Generally, I think having a faithful adaptation in graphic novel form has it’s own intrinsic value. Specifically, I felt like I was reading the comic book novelization of a Studio Ghibli adaptation of The Wizard of Oz that was put out by someone who had written the text without watching Miyazaki’s version. What I mean is while it was interesting to look at, the text and the art seemed at odds. They were telling the same story but there was a disconnect between how it was being done. So it felt clunky to me instead of sweeping and left me with the impression “Oh, I’ve read that” more than “Wow, that was awesome” or “Ew, that was awful”.

But then, again, that is apparently my reaction to the one Baum book I’ve read so maybe it’s me.

Sigrid: I … didn’t pay much attention to the adaptation. I was so enchanted with Skottie Young’s art, his interpretation of these characters I grew up with, that I didn’t think about the exposition. Monkeys! Emerald City! Poppies! Trees! Now that I think about it, I think I was treating this as an illustrated novel.

I know this story so well, I’m not sure I can review this rendition without pulling in all my outside knowledge.

Jennifer: I have to agree with my co-bloggers here — I loved Young’s art, but it often seemed to be running at cross-purposes to Shanower’s script, and I, too, think it might have worked better as a picture book. It does make me want to check out the team’s adaptations of the later Oz books, though; perhaps their collaboration has gotten smoother in all the time they’ve spent working together. I would guess that Shanower probably felt less pressure with those adaptations, too, since the texts are less well-known and his words wouldn’t be under such close scrutiny.

That said, this book can’t be judged as an adaptation alone. Our thoughts on the story itself obviously factor in, no matter how many times we’ve seen, heard, or read it before. Did any of you gain any new or valuable insights about The Wizard of Oz by reading this book?

Caroline: One of the things about revisiting a work you knew as a child is that you can remember insights you gained from the story, and suddenly discover what they mean in terms of adult life experience. When I first read Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I remember being struck by something that I hadn’t gotten from the film: the Scarecrow, though looking for a brain, was the most clever; the Tin Woodman, in search of a heart, was the most compassionate; and the Cowardly Lion was the bravest. At the time, I thought that was silly. How could these characters be so wrong about their most essential qualities?

On this reading, a bell went off and I thought: “This is a story about impostor syndrome.” By this point in my life, I’ve met many many brilliant people who feared they were intellectually inadequate, kind people constantly worried they’ve given offense, and brave people certain they haven’t acted boldly enough. The explanation no longer seems so mysterious. People who value brains know how much they have left to learn, while people who follow their hearts know there’s always room to love and care more, and there’s no real courage without understanding what there is to be afraid of.

Well done, Mr. Baum. Sorry I ever doubted you.

Anika: Yes, but Dorothy. It’s interesting that you make the statement “this is a story about…” and don’t mention Dorothy. Isn’t it her story? Or shouldn’t it be?

Which brings up what I learned revisiting the story. I think the reason I never read the books or felt super connected to these stories is I don’t like the conclusion as related in the 1939 film: Dorothy’s happiness is in her own backyard. Without the bookends they made up for the film… Dorothy’s desire to go home is almost even more annoying to me. Dorothy is very plucky and compassionate and I can appreciate that and I’m happy for her that she gets what she wants and is returned to her home and family. But I can’t stop myself being mad at her for preferring Kansas to Oz. The monkeys get free and her companions get to be kings and I don’t want her reward to be “leave the magical kingdom you saved and return to your life as a farmer’s ward” even though it’s what she wants. She doesn’t even get to keep the shoes.

Sigrid: But she does go back. And ends up moving her whole family there.

Of course, that doesn’t happen in this book.

See what I mean about me having a problem?

Jennifer: Sigrid, I’d love to hear more about Dorothy’s future from you, because I have almost no memory of the later books despite reading them as a kid.

For me, The Wizard of Oz is a story about the dangers of presumptuousness. I think Caroline is exactly right when she describes it as a story of impostor syndrome — but it’s impostor syndrome, in some ways, as a virtue. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion get what they want because they don’t feel like they have them, because they’re not so presumptuous as to assume that they are better than everyone else, because they sacrifice themselves again and again. The Wizard, meanwhile, is a complete fraud, and his villainy comes in his attempts to claim he’s better than everyone else, to literally force the populace to see him through green-colored lenses. He’s no better than the wicked witches, who similarly assume they deserve to lord over others. So I think Dorothy, to fit into this moral universe, must renounce Oz, just as she must renounce her credit for killing the first witch. She can’t assume these things belong to her, and she has to go home. But what happens afterward — which I do hope Sigrid will elaborate on — may be viewed as her ultimate reward for accepting the fact that she isn’t naturally entitled to anything.

This strikes me as an exceptionally American moral universe, and a universe identified with the Midwestern/Heartland/Protestant mentality in particular. We’re not Europe, with our kings and queens; we have to work hard in the soil to earn what we get. (Of course this is immensely problematic, considering the “self-made” frontier man got there by presuming he was better than the Native Americans who already occupied the land, but the myth remains nonetheless.) I think it’s significant that this book was written right at the turn of the century, when the Midwest was still seen as full of rugged individualists and dangerous progressive labor organizing, but that most popular adaptations, including the film and this comic, came about in the 30s or later — when we were beginning to redefine the Midwest as the Heartland of “All-American” conservative, pastoral values. This story is uniquely useful for portraying both sides of that coin simultaneously.

Furthermore, while I have no interest in reading Lost Girls by Alan Moore, I think it’s significant that he chooses Dorothy, Wendy (of Peter Pan), and Alice (of Wonderland) for his protagonists. I think they are all parts of the same archetype, but the nation of origin (Britain for the latter two, America for Dorothy) and era (turn-of-the-century for Dorothy and Wendy, 40 years earlier for Alice) make a difference in the constructions of morality and young womanhood that are allowed for in each text.

Caroline: Wow, lots to tackle there. First, I want to mount a (limited) defense of the Wizard. Everything Jennifer says about him is absolutely right, but. . .well, there’s a moment that really hit me in this comic where he muses, “How can I help being a humbug when all these people make me do things everyone knows can’t be done?” I have to admit, I related to that frustration. In a way, it’s a commentary on the role of the artist, especially the fantasy artist. People want to be transported into a world of the impossible, but they want the impossible to function as though it were real. There may be a whole essay in this where the Wizard is George Lucas. “But he doesn’t explain how the Force works!” “But he explained how the Force works and I don’t like it!” “Stop explaining so much!” On and on in infinite variations.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the act of criticism (of stories in general or of Lucas in particular), or that the citizens of Oz shouldn’t resent being lied to. Still, if there’s a virtue to Cowardly Lion’s bravado, maybe there’s something to the Wizard’s, too. Getting back to this comic as an adaptation, by far my favorite part is the scene where Dorothy’s crew all go in to the Wizard separately, and he shows each of them the thing they specifically need to see. He’s not as admirable as the Lion, certainly. He doesn’t go out and kill the monsters himself, and at the end of the day he’s still a humbug. But he gives them what they need.

I’m trying to puzzle this out, because I usually hate stories where an all-knowing mentor figure manipulates our heroes behind the scenes. (Dumbledore issues, I have them.) Maybe I appreciate the fact that the story is so frank about the Wizard’s humbuggery. You might as well say that the good witches could have told Dorothy to click her heels together at any time. They’re all just doing what they need to manipulate Dorothy along, the Wizard’s just more human about it.

I have thoughts about the lost girls, too. (I’m most definitely an Alice, at least in stories.) But I’ve said a lot and I’ll let someone else tackle that.

Sigrid: I think there is a huge difference between this, first, solitary story of Oz, and everything that came after it. Baum was very clear that this first book was not intended to start something. I think, in light of that, one can examine the characters both as they appear here and as they go on.

In the later books, Dorothy comes back to Oz a couple of times, and persists in returning home at the end of each adventure because she loves her family. Yet times are very, very hard for a Kansas farm, and ultimately the Gales are broke and on the brink of starving, if memory serves. So Dorothy asks one of the magical forces of Oz, I can’t recall which one, to bring them to live in Oz with her. This ends Dorothy’s jaunting back and forth between worlds and begins a series of adventures focusing both on other characters within the world of Oz and on other girls from Earth who travel to the various realms of fairy. (Possible my favorite of whom is Trot, but that’s really outside the scope of this book club.)

In the later books, the Wizard learns real magic. In the later books, the Scarecrow rules The Emerald City. In the later books, everyone comes into what it was clear to the reader they are all along.

But that hasn’t happened yet, so I’m not sure how relevant it is to the comic book adaptation…

As for the archetypes that Jennifer brings up — One of the things that Baum said about his work is that he wrote about the kind of children he enjoyed spending time with. So his children are very bright, very quick, very perceptive, and generally polite. If it’s anybody’s wish fulfillment, I think it’s Baum’s.

Also mine, speaking as a parent. Dorothy is certainly the kind of kid I could spend time around, more so than the wild and rambunctious Darling siblings or dreamy, contrary Alice.

Of course, now that I say that, it’s perfectly clear to me that my kids are a mix of all those traits, all the time. And honestly I wouldn’t wish away their rambunctiousness or their dreamy contrarian streak. But I can empathize with what Baum is getting at!

Anika: As I am certainly an Alice, in or outside of stories, does it prove a point that my gut response is: on the contrary, I’ve much more patience for children of temper? My family will attest.

And my gut reaction to Jen’s discourse on the story’s commentary on presumption is equally contrary. Not that I think she’s wrong. I think she’s right. But I believe it is as arrogant and lazy and manipulative to claim no responsibility as it is to claim all responsibility. I resist the moral universe she described and its use of the word must. I stand in defiance with my arms crossed and my eyes narrowed and I say “I won’t! And you can’t make me.”

I don’t have much experience with stories of the American Midwest or heartland? Unless Dr. Quinn counts and even there I liked her because she was a nonconformist — and in point of fact she’s from Boston. I never read the Little House books and I can’t think what other books would even count. But as far as fantasy goes, I do like Peter Pan (though more for Peter than Wendy) and I use the Alice books to describe (if not dictate) my life. I love Harry Potter. And Lyra of the His Dark Materials trilogy. I do not know what it means that I lean British! But I think we are naturally entitled to something. We are entitled to our selves and our stories and if The Wizard of Oz is Dorothy’s story (and maybe it isn’t if the title matters) then I want Dorothy to get more than back to where she began, without her friends, and having learned no directly personal lesson so far as I can tell in this version. So that’s why it doesn’t work for me.

All that said, I’m going to read this comic with/to my six year old daughter and we are both looking forward to it. I may not personally connect with the story or characters but it’s a classic, and beloved, for a reason and I like it well enough. And especially after all this discussion, I want to know what her interpretation is.

Jennifer: It’s probably telling that my favorite childhood fairy tales are Cinderella and Willy Wonka. I’ve always thrived on rules and restrictions, on the moral of “if you are good, and do as you’re told, and don’t assume you should just have everything, you will be rewarded.” I could never live in lawless Wonderland, though I wouldn’t mind being a caretaker like Wendy Darling. Ultimately, I think I aspire to be Charlie Bucket — but out of the female archetypes we discussed, I do gain a lot of satisfaction out of the humble American can-do attitude of homebody Dorothy.

I think that about wraps up our conversation, so I’d like to turn this over to our readers. What did you think of this adaptation? What are your thoughts on Shanower’s script and Young’s art? And perhaps even more significantly, what are your thoughts on Oz? Do you celebrate the Wizard, or condemn him? And are you an Alice, a Wendy, or little Dorothy Gale? We welcome any and all responses in the comments!

5 Comments on Book Club #10: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

  1. I’d like to respond to a few things in this thread.

    Before I do, I’ll mention where I’m coming from. I grew up in Holland, Michigan. It includes an area called Macatawa Park. L. Frank Baum wrote some of the Oz books in Macatawa Park. Some of them (or parts of them) were written in Hollywood, California too.

    There was a period where Baum and his family would live part of the year in Holland, and the other part in California, so that’s why you’ll see references to both in the Oz books. Prior to that, Baum and his family lived in Chicago as well as in other parts of the Midwest (though he grew up relatively wealthy on the East Coast).

    I’ve read the books, and seen the movie. I’ve also written several drafts of a novel that includes Baum as a character, and done appropriate research for that (and I’m still working on it). I’ve also walked the stretch of beach where Baum’s cottage stood until it burned–not that that gives me any special insight, but it’s cool.

    Now I’ll respond to a few statements in what I’ve seen so far:

    This strikes me as an exceptionally American moral universe, and a universe identified with the Midwestern/Heartland/Protestant mentality in particular.

    Baum actually deliberately set out to create “American fairy tales” minus frightening European elements (like goblins, and trolls for example). He wanted his stories to be “modern.” He also deliberately avoided including violence in his stories.

    Also interesting and related to his perspective… Baum and his wife Maud were Theosophists, an odd and newish religion of the period. Theosophical ideas appear all over the books. The four sections of Oz actually correspond something in Theosophy for example (I can’t remember what right now).

    Another piece of his perspective: His wife Maud came from a family that was deeply involved in feminism. Susan B. Anthony and other famous feminists of the period stayed at her house when she was growing up. It’s reflected most obviously in one of the books in which an army of women take over Oz.

    So, yes, Baum probably had “heartland values” of a kind, but his were different from what you’d expect.

    That said, he probably didn’t stand out from the people around him when in an editorial for a paper he edited, he called for genocide of the Indians. His family has since apologized for that.

    Oz, oddly enough is supposed to be a kind of utopia. Utopias were a popular idea in the period. No one there grows old. No one dies. There’s no violence.

    Baum was very clear that this first book was not intended to start something.

    Definitely true. It’s funny. Baum actually wanted to stop writing the books, but they were a huge, global hit. When he did stop writing them, his other books (he did write other books) never sold as well. In the end he went back to writing about Oz (actually including characters from his other books in Oz books). For a good long while there, an Oz book came out every Christmas (they had marketing at the turn of the century too), and his publishing company even hired Ruth Plumly Thompson to continue creating Oz books after he died.

    Baum couldn’t stop writing Oz books if only because needed the money as he was rather bad at managing it, or maybe he was bad at running businesses, I don’t know. I do know that he managed to lose money starting one of the early movie studios in Hollywood. He also lost money on touring doing plays and performances based on Oz.

    It was amazing and sad to read about.

    Okay. I should probably stop writing about this now. I don’t actually have Aspergers, but I do a good imitation when certain subjects come up. This, I’m afraid, is one of them.

  2. Ugh… I attempted to put blockquotes around a couple phrases lifted from the main article,but it didn’t work… If you have the urge to italicize the sentences that follow, it will become clear that I’m quoting people:

    “This strikes me as an exceptionally American moral universe, and a universe identified with the Midwestern/Heartland/Protestant mentality in particular.”

    and…

    “Baum was very clear that this first book was not intended to start something.”

    Sorry…

  3. I’m like Sigird on the Oz reading. I read the first book for school in fourth grade, and then spent a cross-country RV trip the following summer reading the rest of the Baum Oz books. This particular adaptation has a really special place in my heart because I am a huge Oz fan and Marvel put it out while I was an intern there, so I had plenty of opportunity to stare at Skottie Young’s amazing art and agonize over the first issue (it came out the week before I left).

    I think Shanower’s limitations as an adaptor come from the fact that he is a bigger Oz fan than any of us. To the point where he’s written a semi-canonical Oz book. He’s slavishly faithful to Baum’s text and it really limits him. Honestly, I love it. I adore not saying “it wasn’t that way in the book” and Shanower took the time to include interludes like the Flying Monkey’s backstory and the excursion to the china country (the china country was my favorite as a kid). It’s the kind of thing I don’t expect to find in an adaptation, kind of like how you will never see the Want and Ignorance sequence in adaptations of A Christmas Carol (I will not digress to talking about Dickens, no one needs that). I do think the adaptation gets better as the series progresses, but if I remember an interview from 2009 correctly, Shanower attributes at least part of that to Baum adjusting his writing style to be better for stage adaptations. Certainly he hasn’t stopped being very faithful to the books. Skottie Young has gotten so many Twitter replies from me that just said things like “Wheelers!!!! SO SCARY!!!” and “Lunch Buckets!” and “General Jinjur!” when he posted sketches and things.

    In conclusion, I act like Alice when I’m at home, but get me out of the house and I turn into Dorothy.

  4. epoetchica // February 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm //

    On the “Oz experiences” continuum, I probably fall fairly near Sigrid. Oz was right after Narnia in terms of Literary Obsessions of My Elementary School Years. From about 3rd through 6th grade, I tracked down all of the original 14 Oz books that I could find–that was when Del Ray was republishing them in paperback, so it was _possible_ but not easy. I read pretty much everything else by Baum that I could find and seriously wanted to join the Wizard of Oz Society, until I found out that the dues were significantly more than my allowance.

    It’s been awhile since I read this title, and I really should go back and re-read it for the book club, but overall I really enjoyed it. I appreciated both Shanower’s faithfulness to the original text and the way that Young’s art also seemed to be consciously inspired by Baum’s original words rather than the many takes on the material that have appeared in pop culture since. Don’t get me wrong–I love the movie, and I suspect I’ll really enjoy Wicked too, once I get around to reading the book and/or seeing the musical–but I really appreciated the efforts of this team to do something old, yet new, and am beyond thrilled that they are doing the whole series.

    Wearing my children’s librarian hat, I often recommend it as a good all-ages comic, though I always caution that some of the illustrations might be too scary for some younger children. Not directly related to the comic, I’ve always thought that it’s pretty ironic that Baum was trying to get rid of the scariness of traditional European fairy tales, but a lot of kids find the things he comes up with to be just as frightening.

  5. I liked that the trade included concept art of the characters. I was completely enchanted by the art, so much so that I read the book in one sitting, which I almost never do with trades. Anyway, I enjoyed seeing other, discarded versions of Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man (I’m glad Skottie Young decided not to go with the toothy Scarecrow, that was terrifying). The character designs for Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion were my favorites – I liked those characters before either of them spoke.

    I agree that there was a bit of a disconnect between the art and the narration, but it didn’t distract me. Yes, it was a bit choppy, but I think that works okay with a story with such distinct scenes and patterns of action.

    I learned a lot about Oz from this post, so thank you for the interesting discussion!

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