Today is May 15th, and on this day in 1856, Mr. L. Frank Baum, the creator and author of the fourteen original Oz books, was born in Chittenango, New York. We here at Comics Oughta Be Fun were raised on the Oz books, one of the original shared-fantasy-universe concepts (Baum populated his Oz books with characters from his other novels and vice-versa), thus providing us comic book fans with a springboard for the fantastic and the magic, not to mention your little dog, too. So sit back, put on your silver slippers, raise a glass of Oz-chohol and let's salute Baum through the magic of our favorite medium: comic books. There's certainly been no scarcity of comics based on the Oz characters and stories, some more faithful to the source material than others...
...including more than a few that take the Oz concept into decidedly non-kid-lit directions...
But one of my favorite series of Oz comics of all time is DC's 1986 miniseries, Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew! In The Oz-Wonderland War Trilogy. Whew! That's quite a mouthful, so let's just call it The Oz-Wonderland War from now, on shall we?
The concept's simple, fast, and fun: it merges characters and plots from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and L. Frank Baum's first three Oz books (the only ones in the public domain at the time the comic was produced) and mixing in DC's funny animal superheroes Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew (whose own book had been cancelled a couple years back). Rodney Rabbit (the mild-mannered cartoonist alter-ego of Captain Carrot) is visited by the Cheshire Cat, who calls for the Zoo Crew's help in defeating the evil Nome King (the villainous underground monarch Baum created in Ozma of Oz). Nomes live in the darkness of caverns and mine precious jewels, and are as tough and ancient as the hills themselves. Their only weakness: eggs are deadly to them. Too bad one of the Zoo Crew isn't a chicken!
All panels are from The Oz-Wonderland War #1-3 (January-March 1986), script by E. Nelson Bridwell, script by Joey Cavalieri, art and additional dialogue by Carol Lay, lettering by Carl Gafford
At a council of war led by Oz's Professor H.M. Wogglebug, T.E. (Highly Magnified, Thoroughly Educated), the Zoo Crew join characters from Wonderland and Oz to plot a strategy against the Nome King, who had kidnapped many of Oz's denizens and turned them into knick-knacks (a plot first used by the Nome King in Ozma of Oz as well).
Carol Lay's beautifully detailed artwork is a delight: the Oz characters are portrayed in the same style in which they appear in the classic Oz book illustrations by John R. Neill, and the Wonderland folk are patterned after the artwork of John Tenniel. It's a credit to Lay's skill and design sense that not only do the two styles mesh wonderfully, they also work dynamically in the same panels as Captain Carrot and his band of animal heroes.
The story gives Bridwell a chance to write (and Lay a chance to portray) some of the most famous Oz characters like the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, but also some unfamiliar to you if your only exposure to Oz is the Judy Garland movie. Here, Yankee Poodle teams up with Tik-Tok, the mechanical man and Professor Wogglebug to battle Baum's giant hammering robot from Ozma of Oz:
Like all Oz authors after Baum, Bridwell also takes an opportunity to add new creations to the mythos: in this case a quartet of magically-mutated Nomes whose appearance and powers are probably more than familiar to most comic book readers:
Four super-powered Nomes? Unbeatable! Unless, of course, you gather the most amazing heroes ever to wiggle their fluffy tails! Captain Carrot is magicked away to fight these Nomish villains, along with the greatest rabbits in fantasy fiction: Hoppy the Marvel Bunny and Millie; Diana Prance, Wonder Wabbit; the Easter Bunny, the White Rabbit of Wonderland, the March Hare, Bo Bunny (from DC's comic book Funny Stuff), a rabbit from Walt Kelly's Pogo, and there's even a jackalope skulking around the edges. (Hey, where's Bugs?)
Desperate times call Captain Carrot to team up with the World's Mightiest Mammal! Chosen from among all others by the immortal eldersSalamander, Hogules, Antlers, Zebreus, Abalone and MonkuryHoppy the Marvel Bunny travels the burrows and warrens of the land on a never ending mission: to right wrongs, to develop understanding, and to seek justice for all! In time of dire need, young Hoppy has been granted the power by the immortals to summon awesome forces at the utterance of a single word...SHAZAM!:
As the story progresses, our heroes gradually discover the enchanted artifacts that were once the leading lights of Oz....
...encountering the big names of the canon (Scarecrow! Tin Woodsman!) as well the lesser-known but still beloved, like the patchwork flying creature known as the Gump:
Finally, in the ultimate face-off against the Nome King, all appears to be lost...until Captain Carrot unveils the ultimate weapon of mass destruction: an egg. Wonderland's Humpty Dumpty, to be precise!
The Nome King is defeated, Princess Ozma of Oz is restored, and all is good and right in the Land of Oz, thanks to our stalwart heroes:
End of story? Well, sorta...until Captain Carrot returns home to Earth-C, turning his attention from fighting underground despots to fighting a comic book deadline, only to be interrupted in the final panel by the arrival of Earth-12's Inferior Five, setting us up for the next Captain Carrot mega-crossover...
...which, sadly, never occurred. The good Captain and his Crew remained unseen until their recent appearance in Teen Titans and the apocalyptic miniseries The Final Ark, which is a pity. Cap Carrot remains one of the gleefully delightful and satisfyingly silly characters and concepts of the DC Multiverse, and it's a pity a home couldn't' be found for them on at least one of DC's new 52 Earths. (In the meantime, Cap gets to nuzzle up close to Zatanna, and that's not a bad fate as fates go, after all.) I'm a long-time Oz fan and I'm ever-delighted by comics that don't take their superheroic tropes too seriously, so I've long considered The Oz-Wonderland War to be among The Most Fun Comics Ever. With more kids than ever before reading classic fantasy novels and comics, it's the perfect time to reissue this series in a trade book format. How about it, Johnny DC? Do us Cap Carrot fans a favor, and salute Mister L. Frank Baum (and Mister Lewis Carroll) at the same time. In the meantime, remember that somewhere over the rainbow, there's a magical land where rabbits, dogs, pigs and turtles fight crime. It's not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It's not too far, far awayit's waiting for you, in the back issue bins of your local comic book shop.
Here's another page from my New York Comic Con sketchbook: a wonderful drawing by Kean Soo (Jellaby and other fine works)!
Lovely! (And not just because of the stunning subject of the sketch!) Kean has perfectly captured my usual bemusement at falling leaves. They puzzle me, they do. Why not hop on over to Kean's store and pick up his just-released Jellaby graphic novel and other fantastic books! Tell him Bully sent you!
Okay, everybody, sing along with me: Who's the Brit secret agent who's a love machine to all the birds? Bond! That bloke Bond is one bloody mothershag... Kindly please be quiet! But I'm just talking about Bond!
May 28th of this year (mark your calendars now!) is the 100th birthday of Ian Fleming, creator and writer of James Bond, British secret service agent. (He also created Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, but that's a whole 'nother post.) Whether you're a fan of or scoff at the sometimes brutal, occasionally elegant prose of Fleming, you can't deny his, and his creation's, impact upon world pop culture. And while the original novels and short stories that introduced Bond to a world desperately in need of a Cold Warrior are perhaps not quite suitable for a little stuffed bull's nighttime reading, they're still among my favoritesI think that From Russia With Love is one of the finer spy novels of the genre. Fleming has inspired hundreds of imitators, not merely in the movie field (everyone from Matt Helm to Austin Powers, Derek Flint to Bart Fargo owes a debt to Ian Fleming. And so do you!
As far as little stuffed me is concerned, pretty darn exciting. While the rest of the world is worrying about whether or not Amy Winehouse is gonna do the theme song for the new Bond film (A: nope), I'm more interested in seeing what the tie-in books will look like. I don't collect Flemings the way I do Wodehouse, but I have several copies of many of the Bond books, and part of the fun is the gorgeous and iconic cover design on the many editions from the 1960s through today. In addition to the exhibit show at the Fleming Collection, the UK's Royal Mail issued this year sets of James Bond book cover stamps, showing the evolution of the 007 classics. Collect 'em all!:
The early Fleming book covers ranged from subtle to lurid, from literary to pulp fiction (the latter especially on the iconic Pan UK paperback series, several shown below with the yellow rounded title box at the top of the front cover):
Ah, they don't make 'em like they used to, you sigh, gazing over the classic iconography of Bonds-gone-by. As Sean Connery himself might tell you: "That'sh not very bloody accurate." In recent years the good design folks at Penguin Books have turned out several series of eye-catching and vibrant book jackets for the Bond series, reflecting in their work the reverence and love collectors and readers have for the character and series. I'm very fond of this recent Penguin Modern Classics design, which re-invented the book design as high literature alongside other Penguin Classics: using a gunmetal-grey modern horizontal bar, an modernization of Germano Facetti's 1960s Penguin Modern Classics design. It's accompanied by photographyin some cases using stills from the motion pictures:
Sadly, these covers are out of print now, replaced by a more "commercial" approach using the same photography but large lettering and more symbolic imagery:
The Penguin Modern Classics redesign isn't my favorite, sacrificing the classic Penguin look for more newsstand-friendly larger typography. But if this book cover series seemed to be a step backwards in my book (no pun intended), then the next set of Penguin Bonds was a bold leap forward by utilizing iconography and design of the past. This series referenced the old pulp covers in colorful, brilliant painted covers, each like a mini-movie poster for the book, uniform in design but each featuring their own typography and visual elements appropriate to the plot, as well as those famous Bond Girls:
I've treated myself to the entire set o' these, and gorgeous they look on my bookcase. If you like 'em, you're in luck: these are the current editions now on sale in bookstores, and you can, as they say, collect 'em all. Each of the Fleming Bonds is available in this gorgeous redesign, with another volume coming this fall: Quantum of Solace, collecting all the 007 short stories in one volume. Those short stories are already in the individual books like For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy, so this volume isn't a must-have unless you simply must have it for the cover art. Which, judging by the Bond Girl on the cover, suggests to us that maybe Scarlett Johansson is starring in the new 007 movie. If so, good show! Scarlett Johansson: Always a Very Good Thing.
But wait? Are those The Best Bond Covers Ever? Well, until recently I woulda said yes sir, but the forthcoming Penguin uniform hardcover edition (being release May 28th in the UK, no scheduled date yet in the US) is about to give 'em a run for their money. The entire Fleming series of James Bond novels has been redesigned with new cover paintings by Michael Gillette: bold colorful graphics of the great Bond Girls from Honey Ryder to Gala Brand, from Vesper Lynd to Tracy di Vincezo, from Vivienne Michel to...um...to Miss Pussy Galore: Check out some of them, but keep your eyes in their sockets, please:
Wow. I love these designs, and to paraphrase Ash Ketchum, "gotta get 'em all." Even the penguin in the Penguin Books logo is getting in on the 100th anniversary celebration act:
You can see the entire series and read more about the Fleming cover redesigns at the Penguin UK website...be sure to click on the small cover thumbprints to get the really huge blow-ups of each and every cover.
Everybody has their favorite Bond actors and moviesbut if you've never read an Ian Fleming novel, you owe it to yourself to pick one up and see how Britain's super-spy started out. You might be surprised: Bond's a rougher, crueler, more ruthless and misanthropic character in the books than the movies, minus most of the gadgets and wisecracks but with plenty of action, thrills, and that trademark writing trick known as "The Fleming Sweep," in which Ian tells us about Bond's likes and dislikes in travel, clothing, food and wine, giving us an entertaining brand-name review of the products he's using. Whichever book you choose, you'll find Fleming's characteristic touches. My favorites are Casino Royale (the recent movie was in many ways remarkably faithful to the book, more so than any Bond movie since the late 1960s), From Russia with Love (a solid novel that works as a spy thriller even if it didn't star Bond), and the very atypical The Spy Who Loved me (in which Bond is merely a supporting character to the life story of a young girl). The weakest of the book is The Man with the Golden Gun, so I wouldn't recommend it for your first Bond novel. But if you go for one of the recent Penguin Books editions, you can pretty much know that although you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, those covers are pretty amazing too.