I’m here today to fulfill my promise of looking at some of the more creative takes on classic children’s literature in comics. We’ve seen a horror-themed take on Pinocchio and Peter Pan go to war. Now, we have something with a much more American flavor in a lot of ways. Today we’re looking at The Legend of Oz: Wicked West.
Wicked West is a series from independent comics publisher Big Dog Ink that reimagines the land of Oz as the setting of a fantastical Western. It starts with cowgirl Dorothy Gale (who prefers to just be called “Gale”), her horse Toto and her whole barn being swept away by a twister. When we next see her she’s now been in the land of Oz for three years and is equipped with a pair of ruby spurs and ruby-handled six-shooters, trying to follow a road of gold bricks that’s been picked apart for years. Along the way, she meets some reimagined familiar faces. There’s the Tin Man, who is a seemingly completely human axe-wielding lawman. There’s the Scarecrow, someone who looks like some sort of Native American woman but is revealed to be a sort of artificial being filled with straw. There’s also the Cowardly Lion, who now sports a face painted like a clown’s. Not to mention other various and sundry Oz characters like the kalidahs, winged monkeys, Dr. Pipt, Patchwork Girl and General Jinjur (you’ll note that not all these characters are normally from the first Oz story). And of course there’s a Wicked Witch trying to get her hands on the ruby spurs.
Writing the Wizard of Oz as a western seems like simultaneously the best and worst idea at the same time. The strengths of the Oz books have always been whimsy and fantastical invention. Westerns, on the other hand, have long emphasized grit and a certain element of historical verisimilitude. Not truth, necessarily, but believability. You have to at least believe that something in a western could have happened during the days of the U.S.A.’s westward expansion. Whether or not they’re anything like actual history is another ball of wax. At the same time, there’s something uniquely about both the western and the Oz books. Both America’s westward expansion and most of the Oz books are also typified by long journeys over vast country in search of something (a way home, brains, heart, courage, land, prosperity, the Pacific Ocean, etc). So, how do our comic creators Tom Hutchison and Alisson Borges manage? Well, not too bad. Some concessions are made. For example, they pretty much tossed the verisimilitude in favor of fantasy, as you’ve probably already figured out. The grit is there, though. And compared to other works that tried to add grit to Oz, it does it in a more enjoyable way (I’m looking at you, Emerald City). Also, the commonalities still exist: the long journey and the search for something.
In terms of character, it can be a bit of a mixed bag. The witch is always compelling on the page, which is nice. Since they’re borrowing a lot from Margaret Hamilton’s performance from the MGM movie, it makes sense. Her performance was one of the most dominating things in that movie. The Tin Man seems kind of standard as the grizzled old lawman. Perhaps it would be more interesting if “the Tin Man as a tough old lawman” wasn’t already one of the basic ideas of a preexisting SyFy miniseries named Tin Man. Neither the Lion or Scarecrow talk, which makes it a bit hard to get into their characters. The Lion doesn’t seem so much like a coward as an animal that just wants to get away from its abusers, who then comes back to help his rescuer. I’m also not sure what the significance of him being painted up like a clown is. The Scarecrow I like a fair bit because she seems kind of free-spirited. In fact, sometimes she reminds me more of the Patchwork Girl (who appears in the book but without any of her usual personality traits). She’s fun to watch as a pantomime character, and there are some moments when she shows uncommon courage and kindness, but that’s it. And the questionable Native American motif makes me cringe a little. And then there’s Gale. I’m realizing she may be my biggest problem with all the characters, actually. For you see, we pretty much see all of them filtered through her perceptions. For example, it’s not so much that the Tin Man is heartless, it’s that she thinks he’s heartless. The Lion isn’t a coward, just a “sensitive soul” according to the Tin Man, but Gale thought he was a coward. And the Scarecrow isn’t brainless, it’s just that Gale can’t figure out what’s going on in her head. She is a strong character and frequently stands up for the downtrodden, which is good. The thing is, that and a general grumbliness are all I tend to pick up from her. I kind of wish I was seeing a wider range of emotions from this character. I do think her way of taking out the Witch is rather clever, but I’m not going to give it away. In terms of physical depictions, there are also moments when it feels like they’re embracing Zenescope’s attitude of “sexier is better”. There are some notable butt-shots of our erstwhile Dorothy (including the title page) and among the variant covers shown in the back there is one of Gale in a bikini. But maybe this is an issue for another day.
|Exhibit A: The cover page. (I'm not sure pants should physically be able to get that tight).
In terms of movie/book ratio in terms of what’s adapted, Hutchison and company seem to keep the movie references to the stuff that would most easily picked out as iconic movie stuff. So, there are ruby spurs and pistols instead of silver ones. There’s a green witch with a pointed hat and a broom who plays a big role in the story. There’s even a reference to a “Lollipop Guild Candy Store”. Most of the other stuff is drawn from the book. They use the kalidahs. They use the green glasses when entering the Emerald City (which is actually a mine in this case). They have the part where the group is attacked by bees. You get the picture.
Now I’m not a huge western fan so maybe I’m missing something, but I’m going to say that this one’s a good read but not necessarily a must-read. I would like it a lot better if the characters were a little bit more multidimensional and we could get more out of Gale than some good shooting, some grumbling about how long her journey is taking and misjudgments of her new friends. But hey, there are more Legend of Oz stories out there so maybe it does get better. As for volume one, I’ll say it doesn’t hurt to read it but I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way for it.