The Wonderful Wizard of Oz| Novel: L. Frank Baum / W. W. Norton Norton & Company | Graphic Novel: Eric Shanower and Skottie Young / Marvel Comics
When Dorothy’s dog, Toto, hides under a bed during a twister, she follows in an attempt to save him. As a result, both are trapped in the house as it’s carried away by the storm. Dorothy wakes up to find herself in a new land, and discovers that she has just killed a Wicked Witch. She’s a hero to the Munchkins, but Dorothy only wants to go home—and the only person who can help her do that is the Wizard of Oz. As she travels to see the wizard she meets a talking scarecrow, a man made of tin, and a lion who’s afraid of everything, but when they reach the end of the road will they all be able to get what they wish for?
L. Frank Baum published the first Oz book in 1900, and it became a success almost immediately. He went on to write 13 more novels in the series, and even produced a stage adaptation of the original book. And we all know that Oz has inspired movies, including one written and directed by Baum and, even more famously, the MGM movie starring Judy Garland.
It’s safe to say that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is universally recognized as a classic novel and a staple of American culture, but Baum’s great aspiration was simply to create an enjoyable story for children: “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz … aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” And that’s just what Baum created. With simple—but still lovely—language, Baum has carried generations of children through his rich, fantastical world full of characters that are entertaining as well as deep and real.
Baum’s story is pretty straightforward, but Dorothy and her friends experience a number of adventures both before and after they meet the Wizard (certainly many more than in the MGM film). Shanower and Young manage to find a way to fit all the adventures from Baum’s novel into the comic—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Dorothy’s three friends are given more room to expand as characters in the side adventures, but in context of the comic, these feel like wasted time. Bits like the Lion jumping a gorge feel unnecessary, taking up little enough time to seem unimportant, but enough page space to disrupt the flow.
The comic also fails to escape the problem of using too much of the book’s original narration. Much of it is helpful for establishing the setting, but sometimes the narrative is contradictory to the illustrations, such as when Dorothy and the Scarecrow are described as walking through a “dismal country” while the art shows a bright, friendly-looking forest. Luckily the comic doesn’t rely as heavily on the narration as other, less well-crafted adaptations, such as when we first see Dorothy’s home in Kansas. Baum aptly describes the monotony of the scenery in the original novel: “Dorothy … could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side … The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass … Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color …” As imagistic as that prose is, Shanower wisely chooses not to put any of the description in his novel. Instead, Young and colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu give us a sweeping view of the gray plains with Dorothy in her pink dress as the only spot of color.
The art works in favor of the characters as well. Adding his own touches, like a mustache on the Tin Woodman, Young inserts his own vision into the designs rather than simply copying Denslow’s original art or redrawing the actors from the movie. The personality Baum gave his characters shines through, like his roly-poly lion and his viciously cruel Wicked Witch. Young’s illustrations also increase the intensity in some scenes, such as one in which the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman fend off the Wicked Witch’s beasts. Wolves are given bright red eyes, and we see the sketchy shadows of their heads flying as the Woodman chops them apart. A silhouette of the Scarecrow snatches descending crows and crushes their necks.
It seems almost impossible to escape the over-narration problem with comic adaptations, at least those of classic novels, but Shanower manages to reduce it enough so that you’re not constantly wincing at artwork clogged with text. Shanower may have also kept a few too many of the off-shooting scenes, but he does offer those with no Oz experience outside the MGM movie a glimpse of the true depths of Baum’s characters. Young’s art is what really makes this adaptation worthwhile. His illustrations enhance the whimsical fairy tale feel of the original book, giving the comic its own life and a leg to stand on amongst the many adaptations Baum’s work inspired. Baum’s book is a classic that all fans of children’s literature should read at some point (I’m ashamed to say I didn’t read it until adulthood), but Shanower and Young’s adaptation is still a fine means for jumping into the world of Oz.
Have any graphic novel adaptations you think do a good job? Or a comic you want me to check out for you? Leave suggestions for future columns in the comments!