February 2006

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Dorothy, Volume 1 by Mark Masterson

One of the more enduring rituals of my childhood was the annual watching of The Wizard of Oz. Honestly, I have never been much of a fan of the movie -- both Margaret Sullivan and those winged monkeys were a little too freaky -- but I was always front and center in the living room when disappointed Judy Garland started her trip to Munchkinland. I doubt that today’s kids can even imagine how it was to know that you could only see the movie once a year, that you had to watch it when it came on or you missed it. In a way, knowing that we only had that one brief chance to be part of it made a lot of people from my generation Oz fans who probably never would have considered the film, or books for that matter, otherwise. It was rare, so it was exciting. And because most of us '70s kids were TV kids first and foremost, it was through the movie that we learned about the books; it was because of Judy Garland that we ever heard of L. Frank Baum.

But still -- the important thing to remember here is that the movie scared the crap out of me.

I know enough about some of the more obscure Oz characters (The Patchwork Girl of Oz, Jack Pumpkinhead) to be certain that I must have read most, if not all, of the series at some point. The only story I really remember though is the first one and that is probably due to the movie more than anything else. But I do love the Oz mythology, the idea behind the Good Witch and Wicked Witch, the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City. I have seen the real Ruby Slippers at Universal Studios and in my family we have used the clichés enough times to own them a bit: “there’s no place like home,” and “we’re not in Kansas anymore." But while we all remember The Wiz with some “Michael Jackson was normal then” kind of fondness, I long ago let the world of Oz settle into some musty literary back shelf in my head – a place for friendly nostalgic return visits and occasional impressive short story releases (Leah Bobet’s “Displaced Persons” in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction for Teens is an absolute must read), but really a distant, quiet, already done to death kind of place. And then I got my hands on a comic named Dorothy and a new Oz -- and a new Dorothy -- quite simply blew me away.

I have a deep and abiding love for my comics guy Rick, who will, quite frankly, be part of my life forever. (This is a guy who ships me boxes of comics from Florida to Washington State and I can’t imagine trusting myself to anyone else.) Rick got me a copy of Dorothy after I saw the tiny little ad in Previews and promised a full refund if I was disappointed. I was sold from the second I opened the book and met Dorothy Gale, a sixteen-year old orphan who has been missing her parents for five years and writes in her journal: “Kansas is gray tonight. Kansas is gray every night. Kansas is gray like cigarette ashes. Gray like a dead man’s heart. Gray as dried spit on the sidewalk. Gray as those little pills Aunt Em keeps popping so she can forget how gray everything is.” Oh and don’t forget the next part of the entry: “I can’t get any good shit unless I drive all the way to Topeka.” Clearly, I was so not in that old familiar Kansas anymore.

This Dorothy has hair streaked a brilliant red, a piercing under her lip and a need for “the best shit” her pal Jason can provide. She’s on the road in her Uncle Henry’s truck because she is bored out of her mind, lost somewhere deep in her head, and desperate for someone or something to save her. The sad thing is, it’s only Jason and his bag of goodies that she thinks will do the job. (Maybe this Dorothy has more in common with Judy Garland than I first realized!)

Basically, Dorothy is a teenager in trouble and the tornado that takes her away is just one more step on the road to hell she’s already walking. Anything, anything at all, is better than where she is, because anyplace else is at least someplace. “My name is Dorothy Gale,” she thinks, “I don’t belong here.” And on the road trying to drive away from a storm, trying to drive to a place that will give her oblivion, Dorothy is only certain of where she should not be, who she will never be. She is only certain it has been five years and she misses them still. “My name is Dorothy Gale, and I swear now that I will never die in Kansas.” And so she jumps out the door of the truck as it flies into the air, she jumps out because at least that is something, that is something she can do. She jumps, and then she flies.

So, of course, Dorothy wakes up in Oz, but not in Munchkinland, not in any part of Oz that readers will recognize. And while she looks up at a very unfamiliar sky and wonders if maybe, hopefully, “it’s Colorado,” the text shifts and leaves her behind and takes the reader into another part of Baum’s world, a far more unfamiliar part. At the end of the first comic we meet the thin gray man who floats on a beam of light and has no legs. A man who remembers all the history of Oz and while he fears not “the kalidah, nor the foursquare ones, nor the nomes”; still, as the thin gray man enters the Great Hall he “knows he is a slave. Every time. He knows he is closer to death. The cold and the gray speak to his bones.” Okay, clearly no green paint and high pitched cackling are going to be needed to ratchet up the tension here.

The Wicked Witch -- “Her Majesty” reminds me a bit of the Queen in Snow White -- and I mean that as a compliment. As portrayed in Dorothy she has that same kind of majestic bearing, that same proudly cold demeanor. She looks like a stone bitch – a powerful and arrogant and fearless bitch, to be sure. Mostly, she looks evil and while Margaret Sullivan always creeped me out when I was seven, on the printed page this lady freaks me out way more. She’s grown-up scary, if that makes any sense, she’s impressively scary.

All of this is only Book 1. And that means that already, after only the first book, Greg Mannino and Mark Masterson, who created the Dorothy story, have managed to put the teeth back into one of literature’s most frightening characters. They don’t care about how she grew up or where she went to school or what her motivations are; they just want to make her one nightmare inducing big bad and on that score, most certainly, they have succeeded in a delirious and wondrous fashion.

In the succeeding books the story continues from Dorothy’s arrival and the brief glimpse of the Queen to include a robot dog (Toto returns!), an apparently powerful necklace, the first sighting of the winged monkeys and a hungry serpent. All of this is well written and beautiful to look at, but it pales in comparison to the staggering events of Book 4. It is in that book that we learn the Scarecrow’s story and for this reader, his incredibly original story is when I fully appreciated the brilliance of the creative team behind Dorothy.

One of the things that was lost in the movie was the politics of Oz, the power grabbing that motivated so many of Baum’s characters. Maguire certainly revisited this aspect of the story in a big way with Wicked but his interest was far different from the crew at Illusive Arts Entertainment who publish the book and are making this Dorothy real. With Book 4 we are suddenly reading about the risk that citizens take when they challenge a dictator, when they raise their voice above the crowd and insist that they be heard. It is an old message, and a powerful one, and by giving it to the Scarecrow the whole Oz mythology has been turned well on its head.

As impressive as the story is though, one of the most unique things about Dorothy is that it is a photographed comic. It is not drawn in the conventional sense but, as Anna Boersig, one of the co-owners of Illusive Arts explained to me:

We describe Dorothy as a comic created with live-action photography, computer graphics, 3-D and practical models. To break that down -- we use humans to portray some, but not all of the characters such as Catie Fisher as Dorothy and Greg Mannino as the Scarecrow [before]. We also use some physical models as well, such as TO-2, which Greg built. 3D models, such as the scarecrow doll, and scenery are added and then all are compiled together via computer. Our artists use programs such as Photoshop, 3D Max and Lightwave to enhance and alter the photographs, build "sets" and create other characters, such as the serpent.

While their methods might concern some comic purists, I am too pleased by the overall effect of both the writing and the illustrations (drawn, photographed, designed, whatever) to concern myself with how they accomplished this. In fact, I am doubly impressed by the amount of work that goes into each book, as “the chapters are created much in the way that movies are created, starting with storyboards, casting of characters, and creation of costumes.” It must be a ton of work, but the final product is lush and vibrant and full of both the bright intensity of the Oz landscape and the oppressive forboding of the Queen’s castle. And I have fallen in love with it -- it captivates me, entrances me and has breathed such new life into an old story that I am certainly not going to get into some sort of defensive argument about what a comic book is supposed to be. Dorothy is one of the most unique reading experiences I have had in ages, and that is enough to keep me as a satisfied customer of the series.

There is a very deep web site built around Dorothy with lots of information on the cast and the crew and a blog to provide updates on the story. The first four books have just been collected in a trade paperback edition making it easy for new readers to jump onboard. The four owners of Illusive Arts have only just begun with the Dorothy story; they plan to take this tale to 20-25 chapters and will tackle other titles as well.

Clearly Mannino, Masterson and Ray and Anna Boersig are dedicated to doing great and imaginative things in the world of books and movies (they also do short CG Sci-Fi movies and plan to release a few in the next year or two). They are not only taking Baum’s world into the 21st century in every way possible, while still remaining faithful to the original tale of a lost girl trying to find her way in the world -- but turning it on its ear so effectively that in a lot of ways they are crafting an entirely new book. I would say that Dorothy Gale is well on her way into the journey of a lifetime, but that seems too simple a definition of just what Illusive Arts is doing with this story. All I know is that they have created a world that beckons to be explored and characters that both attract and repulse. It is equal parts horror and fantasy, drama and darkest comedy. It is, quite simply, a modern-day version of the epic adventure that Baum always intended his stories to be. Dorothy is first rate storytelling on every single level and if you haven’t seen it yet then you are in for a treat -- you are in for the literary ride of a lifetime.

Dorothy is like nothing you have ever read, I promise. It will remind you of all the great and good things that used to happen everyday in the comic book industry; it will remind you just how great storytelling can be.

Dorothy Vol. I by Mark Masterson
Illusive Arts Entertainment 2005
ISBN 0976940701
144 pages