Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Oz-Wonderland War

As I noted the other day, I recently picked up The Oz-Wonderland War mini-series from 1986. It was evidently meant to be originally housed within Captain Carrot but the cancellation of that title shunted it over into it's own.

The basic thrust of the story is that the Nome King has captured and imprisoned several prominent citizens of Oz, including Ozma, Glenda, and Nick Chopper among others. He's further gained control of the flying monkeys and, through them, Oz itself. The inhabitants of Wonderland are concerned, naturally enough, that he'll soon see wage war against them as well. So the Cheshire Cat heads out in search of some new champions to help save those who've been captured and depose the Nome King. He's found Captain Carrot by page 2 of the story, who enlists the aid of the rest of the Zoo Crew. The Zoo Crew spend the next few double-sized issues rescuing the lost heroes with the aid of Dorothy Gale, the White Knight, the Mock Turtle, Tik-Tok and a host of other characters.

The first thing that struck me about the series is artwork. All of the characters are drawn in a style reminiscent of the original artists. So while Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew appear in Scott Shaw!'s cartoony style, the inhabitants of Wonderland look like Sir John Tenniel's designs, and the inhabitants of Oz look the work of W.W. Denslow. What I found particularly striking is that artist Carol Lay has blended the styles together just enough that the original stylistic differences aren't at all jarring, as one who's familiar with the originals might expect them to be.

Now I am certainly one who appreciates the original Oz and Wonderland tales, and I've gone so far as to read a number of spin-offs and re-imaginings of them as well. Straight retellings tend not to fare terribly well against the originals because something always seems to be left out in the process. Re-imagined versions of the tales fare somewhat better since their underlying premise is that there are some significant differences in the story, sometimes even at a thematic level. Actually, many of these are done quite well from a technical perspective; however, one can find fault with the basic premise and so that tends to color their view of the new version. (There was something of kerfuffle with Lewis Carroll purists, as I recall, when Frank Beddor released his first book of the Looking-Glass Wars.) Spin-offs, then, are often the most successful because their creators are generally fans of the originals and try to imbue their work with as much of the spirit of the originals as possible and provide extended adventures. Indeed, most of what is considered part of the Oz mythology was NOT written by L. Frank Baum.

That last reason, though, is why Oz-Wonderland War is so disappointing. There's a wonderful premise there, some excellent artwork, and even a reasonably solid story. But the spirit of the originals just doesn't seem to be there. Reading the accompanying text pieces, writer E. Nelson Bridwell was indeed a big fan of the Oz and Wonderland books and holds them in a great deal of reverence. But that seems to actually be part of the problem, as he's mostly just regurgitating bits and pieces of both stories. It's as if he just took the originals, cut them into small portions and re-assembled them into one story.

Now, looking at from that point of view, it is well done. The pieces all join together in an easy narrative. But it seems to be missing the spirit of the originals.

Case in point. The protagonists gather around a table to discuss their plans and, while they're there, have a cup of tea. Naturally, this is led by the Mad Hatter who exclaims "No room! No room!" when another person shows up late. The table is already full, and there is indeed no more room for another. But the point of the Hatter's exclamation in the original was that he was shouting "No room!" when there was, in fact, plenty of room, providing an obvious disconnect. Likewise, he's dismayed to find the Zoo Crew's resident mouse, Little Cheese, in the tea pot. Given that it was originally home to Dormouse, it should be perfectly acceptable and normal for rodents to find their way into tea pots.

The bright spot in the series was in issue #2, where Captain Carrot finds himself captive with a host of other unusual rabbit-y characters -- including the March Hare, the Easter Bunny, Wonder Wabbit, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny -- who then fight the Nome King's Fearsome Five, an obvious take on the Fantastic Four. We're pretty far removed from Oz and Wonderland mythos at this point, and we're able to see the spirit of them much more focused here. I think it shows that Bridwell did have good intentions, but he was simply too close to the material throughout much of the series; he'd fall back on what he'd already read instead of allowing the characters to really continue to move forward, based on their personalities. He effectively had to remove the characters from the lands of Oz and Wonderland to think about the characters as individuals.

All in all, it wasn't a bad story. While there was some clever inspiration behind it, the story itself wasn't very inspired and, because of that, it ultimately fell a little flat. Like watching old performers past their prime doing their old routines by rote -- you're really watching a shadow of the original. It can be fun to see that from a nostalgic perspective, but it really doesn't hold up against what drew you to the originals in the first place.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I don't think it'd spoil things too terribly to say that the captured Oz citizens are all saved, the winged monkeys freed, the Nome King imprisoned, and everyone lived happily ever after.

2 comments:

RAB said...

One point: the writing here is credited to Nelson Bridwell and Joey Cavalieri, and it's difficult to know the precise division of labor. I can imagine a scenario in which Bridwell only came up with the premise but the rest was done by Cavalieri...or one in which Bridwell devised a detailed plot and Cavalieri broke it down into scripts, including the Mad Hatter scenes you mention...or even Nelson doing full scripts that DC felt needed minor touching up by Joey. Whatever the case, it makes me wince to see the blame for any failings you see in the book being placed solely on Bridwell's shoulders when we don't know for sure how much of it was him.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Hey, RAB, you make a good point that we don't know exactly what Bridwell contributed compared to Cavalieri. From the text pieces that accompany the series, I do get the impression, though, that Bridwell had more to do with things than Cavalieri. At one point, I believe artist Carol Lay is actually given more credit for the story than Cavalieri, so I'm assuming his contributions here were relatively minimal.

But, yes, to be perfectly fair, Bridwell should not shoulder the full credit/blame for the quality of writing in the series. And, indeed, the book may have suffered precisely because there was not a single writer working on it.