21 February 2011

Fables and Ozian Decadence

Yesterday I quoted comics scripter Bill Willingham’s 2009 essay against “Superhero Decadence,” which appears to be a politicized way of expressing the common thought that superhero comics aren’t as good as they were when a person was twelve.

Willingham’s major work in comics now is Fables, which takes fairy-tale heroes and moves them to our world, where they live in secret among us. (Other authors exploring this idea include Michael Buckley in The Sisters Grimm and Sarah Beth Durst in Into the Wild and Out of the Wild.)

All public-domain fantasy characters are available to Willingham. The unusual copyright situation of Peter Pan caused him some troubles, but L. Frank Baum’s Oz characters are fair game. Glinda and her swan-drawn chariot appeared in one frantic panel of an early issue of Fables, and Dorothy Gale and her companions have shown up several times in the companion series, Jack of Fables.

The most prominent refugees from Oz in the Fables comic books are Bufkin the winged monkey, whom I’ll discuss tomorrow, and a young witch identified as Ozma in issue #87. She’s not precisely like Baum’s Ozma: there’s no mention of fairy ancestry, early life as a boy, or the throne of the Emerald City. But with a poppy in her hair, she’s clearly meant to evoke the little queen of Oz.

Except that Baum’s Ozma was entirely benevolent, sometimes naively so—as in The Emerald City of Oz, when she’s willing to let evil creatures overrun her kingdom because she can’t think of any way to stop them without hurting them, and Ozma of Oz and Glinda of Oz, in which she heads off to help other kingdoms without thinking of how to protect herself.

In contrast, Willingham’s Ozma is a little schemer, fairly ruthless at the internal politics of Fabletown and promising to be more ruthless about its latest adversaries. She’s also very good at magic, while Baum’s Ozma gains her magical knowledge gradually, and never seems as capable as Glinda the Good Sorceress.

Indeed, the character in Fables is a much better match for Baum’s Glinda, who is far more authoritarian, secretive, and militaristic than Ozma in her approach to protecting Oz. But Glinda doesn’t offer the striking visual paradox of a little girl acting like a tough commander.

Meanwhile, Cinderella, a Fables spin-off scripted by James Roberson, has featured another version of Dorothy Gale, as Jer Alford reports at Emerald Hearts in Oz. That magazine features Cinderella as a deadly secret agent, and Dorothy shows up as a rival assassin from Russia. She’s fully grown, and—based on this panel, which is all that I’ve seen—goes around pointing guns in her underwear.

Willingham and his colleagues have every right to use Baum’s characters as they choose, and Fables continues to be an entertaining adventure comic. I don’t insist that depictions of Oz remain pure and childish, having frequently pointed out Glinda’s realpolitik and even published an article titled “Dorothy the Conqueror,” about the character’s tendency to wipe out her enemies.

But Ozma’s different. Open, unadulterated, and sometimes heedless kindness is what defines Ozma in Baum’s books. Willingham’s rant about superheroes becoming “decadent”—straying from their traditional characterizations to become violent, selfish, and cynical—seems to apply even more to his series’ treatment of Ozma.


Kim Scarborough said...

The point of the "Superhero Decadence" essay wasn't so much that it was wrong to portray superheroes that way... it was just that it's gotten to be a cliche. Grim, realistic superheroes were still a novelty 25 years ago when Miller & Moore did them; now nobody seems to do them any other way. He was saying that nowadays, the truly novel and original way to treat them would be as, well, heroic characters.

I don't think it's really a cliche yet to have done that with fairy tale and public domain characters. Yes, it's been done (the Oz characters specifically in Phillip Farmer's A Barnstormer in Oz), but it's hardly taken over, especially in comics.

J. L. Bell said...

I tried to reread Willingham’s “Superhero Decadence” essay as a warning about cliché rather than a claim that such portrayals are wrong, and I don’t see it. He treats such “Decadence” as a matter of “conscience,” not artistic originality or novelty. While stating that grim-and-gritty is the fashion, he also says that fashion is simply wrong for the superhero genre.

(Well, more specifically Willingham says it’s wrong for the superhero genre to be unpatriotic as he defines it. There’s nothing in the essay about the advisability of wiping out America’s enemies in grim-and-gritty ways.)

As for Oz characters, I think the bulk of original comics stories are “dark” or “decadent” treatments. Straight adaptations of Baum’s stories retain the original tone, as do Eric Shanower’s old Adventures, Ozopolis, and a couple more examples.

But on the dim to dark side, there’s Oz/Dark Oz, Oz Squad, Emerald City Blues, Peter Pan and the Warlords of Oz, the Dorothy fumetti, Lost Girls, Cheshire Crossing, and at least one more I remember for a horror-style picture of the Scarecrow but can’t otherwise recall.