Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lions and tigers and bunnies, oh my!

L. Frank BaumToday 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 elders—Salamander, Hogules, Antlers, Zebreus, Abalone and Monkury—Hoppy 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 away—it's waiting for you, in the back issue bins of your local comic book shop.


Anonymous said...

Holy cow!
She's absolutely nailed both Tenniel and Neill's styles!

If we're talking about the same illustrator" goodness, she's got range!

smatano said...

ME WANTY! Thanks Bully! I must now go find these books.

Unknown said...

I'm with you on this one Bully. My old Oz-Wonderland comics have gotten a mite yellow. I'd love to see this reissued.

Just as long as Judd Winick doesn't get his hands on Hoppy!

tlyoung88 said...

Can someone tell me who the talking horse is supposed to be? He was known as Mister Horse and helped Rodney Rabbit get to the Nome King's Lair. The horse later helped Little Cheese secure the magic cap.

I assume they couldn't get the rights to the Sawhorse but I don't recall a talking horse in Oz.

Feel free to email me at tlyoung at yahoo dot com.

Bully said...

Do you mean The Sawhorse, tlyoung? He's a talking sawhorse with a log body and head. He first appeared in the second Oz book, The Land of Oz, and is frequently seen in the sequels by Baum and the following Royal Historians of Oz.