14 November 2007

Old-Fashioned and Modern: Dorothy Gale Goes Comics

It's been a while since I ventured into the "Oz" side of Oz and Ends, but now that I'm discussing how stories make the transition into comics format, I can mention Michael Cavallaro's "manga-style" adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz from Puffin Graphics.

This book was conceived and commissioned by Byron Preiss Visual Productions, which probably means it was done on the cheap. A nice consequence of that approach, however, is that it gave a young artist the chance to create his "first novel-length work for a major publisher."

Cavallaro hadn't read Baum's text before this job, but he was quite faithful to it. The only omitted episode is the visit to the China Country (which Baum probably added to his manuscript after the first draft). Most of the dialogue and narrative captions come directly from the book. There's little evidence of the MGM movie looming over this vision of the story.

Nevertheless, throughout the book there's a tension between Baum's original text and Cavallaro's visual adaptation of it more than a century later. The first page says, "In our solar system...on Earth...in America...in the midst of the great prairies"--the last phrase echoing Baum, the first three hinting at today's wider perspective on fantasy lands.

Dorothy lives "in a place called Kansas," but she also lives in an urban townhouse. She wears jeans, sneakers, and a studded belt. She speaks in old-fashioned cadences: "I'm sure Aunt Em will be dreadfully worried over my being away so long." But she has a young adolescent's spindly body and the big-eyed visage of anime heroines.

The Tin Woodman has a buzz saw for one hand, making an ax redundant. A detail like that is usually a hallmark of a "dark" adaptation of Oz, but this tin man's character is as kind as ever. Similarly, the Scarecrow wears (is partly made of?) a zippered sweatshirt, the Winkie soldiers have dog tags, and the Wicked Witch of the West's magical cap is a chic turban. But their characters are as Baum created them.

All in all, I thought the mix worked just fine. I especially liked the variety of panel frames and layouts that Cavallaro used to translate Baum's story into dramatic visual form. A budding comics creator could get a lot of ideas from these pages. And the last 26 of the book's pages share a sample of Cavallaro's sketches and notes.


Anonymous said...

I thought you'd lost your mind, but then I stumbled across this book. The work inside is really quite good, just as you said.

Interesting that you suggest Oz is now a good place for an artist to start. Back in the 80s, didn't Eric Shanower have to turn out some sort of robot comic for awhile before First let him do Oz?
I may be wrong about that, it's been at least 10 years since the 1980s.

J. L. Bell said...

The Wizard of Oz graphic novel seems like a good opportunity for Michael Cavallaro for the same reason that publishers often pair a new picture-book artist with an established writer, or vice versa. The Oz name gets the book into the stores where an original title from a new artist would have trouble.

I seem to recall that Eric Shanower drew his first Oz comic as the equivalent of a graduation project from his art school, but it took a while for him to find a publisher for it. Perhaps there were robots and other creatures along the way; the internet must have a comprehensive Shanower bibliography somewhere.

Eric had a couple of extra strikes against him with his first Oz comic. Not only was he relatively unknown at that time, but he had an original story rather than an adaptation of the beloved classic, and his story followed on the lesser-known later Oz novels rather than Wizard. But the quality of the work shone through.

Of course, I would have bought it anyway.

Anonymous said...

No robot comics, sorry. Maybe you're referring to Nexus, a comic I inked for a while, then did a couple back-up stories for and one complete fill-in issue. First Comics didn't force me to work on Nexus. I was glad to get the job. Nexus was one of my favorite comics before I began inking it.

I did draw part of a short Oz story, General Jinjur of Oz, for one of my final projects in art school. This became part of my proposal for the eventual Oz graphic novel series, but was never actually part of that series. Although it is available in the hardcover edition of Adventures in Oz (the recent compilation of my Oz graphic novel series published by IDW) as one of the extras.

There's a bibliography of my work on my personal website:

J. L. Bell said...

An actual authoritative bibliography! Who'd a thunk it?

Anonymous said...

Sorry for my fuzzy memory!

Now I need to go through my enormous stack of Nexus comics to refresh my memory.

I do remember seeing that first Oz book come out and already knowing who E.S. was and thinking, "righteous!"