Ah, nostalgia! Be it that old cartoon, a favorite toy or a comic book from days gone by, isn’t it great, when out of the blue, the memories come flooding back, and you’ve no choice but to exclaim “Holy Crap! Remember…?”
One of the most popular trends in comics for the past decade has been using popular characters from fairy tales or classic literature in modern or otherwise unusual settings. Another recent trend in comics has involved the use of the many characters from L. Frank Baum’s Oz series of books, either via straight adaptation like Marvel’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz or as a genre mashup of sorts such as in Big Dog Ink’s Legend of Oz: The Wicked West. The world of Baum’s novels has also been recently explored outside of the world of comics with the Broadway hit Wicked, the TV miniseries Tin Man, and Sam Raimi’s film Oz The Great and Powerful. Back in the early nineties, long before this resurgence really took hold, an independent comic book named Oz Squad placed Baum’s classic characters into a dark and gritty setting that was quite different from the magical fantasy land of the original novels and the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.
Oz Squad was created and written by Steve Alquist and ran from 1991 to 1996 for a total of ten issues published by Brave New Words and Patchwork Press and a 48-page special one-shot published by Millennium Publications. The backstory of the comic reveals that, after Dorothy Gale returned home from Oz, she opened a gateway that allowed for passage between the two worlds and allowed Oz to adopt some of the same aspects and problems of twentieth-century America. The main story follows a fully-grown Dorothy and her three friends the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion as they form a crimefighting task force that deal with threats from both Earth and Oz. The first issue pits the foursome against a malfunctioning Tik-Tok (perhaps best known to most from the bizarre 1985 film Return To Oz) who has gone insane and embarked on a killing spree on Earth, and later issues followed the group as they battled a Wicked Witch known as Rebecca Eastwitch and travelled back in time to meet historical figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Joan of Arc.
As expected, each character in Oz Squad was given a modern makeover by Alquist in order to appeal to Nineties comic tastes. For example, the Tin Man was equipped with a number of advanced technological weapons and the Lion is able to change back and forth into a human in order to blend in while on Earth. It is also revealed that Dorothy’s connection to Oz has slowed her aging process, and her portrayal as the gun-toting, tough-as-nails leader of the group is a dramatic departure from the wide-eyed innocent most people remember from Judy Garland’s performance in the 1939 film. During the comic’s original run, many hardcore Oz fans were horrified to see these beloved characters in such violent and mature-themed stories, while others praised Alquist for closely adhering to the books’ mythology while giving it a modern twist. The comic did enjoy a small cult following that appreciated the updates to the characters and settings that showed that Alquist wanted to do more with Oz Squad than simply write a violent, exploitative parody of the Oz books.
Looking back on Oz Squad a good twenty years after its original launch shows that Alquist was truly ahead of his time with this approach. The trend of putting characters from classic literature in modern and/or mature-themed settings has been embraced by the mainstream comic-reading public in current books such as Vertigo’s Fables and The Unwritten, Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales, and even Alan Moore’s controversial graphic novel Lost Girls. We’ve even seen the “Merc With a Mouth” mixing it up with Moby Dick and Tom Sawyer in the pages of Marvel’s Deadpool Killustrated recently. Despite its high-concept premise, Oz Squad was also fairly experimental at times. One issue late in its run introduced Dorothy to the actual L. Frank Baum, which mirrored the same meta nature of Morrison’s Animal Man and Gaiman’s The Sandman.
The entire run of Oz Squad has been collected in two trade paperbacks that can be purchased from Amazon and can likely be ordered from a number of fine comic shops, and in 2011, a prose novel entitled Oz Squad: March of the Tin Soldiers was published that follows the further adventures of Dorothy and her crew. While Oz Squad is not immune to many of the visual and storytelling aspects that date several Nineties-era comics when read today, there are a few hints of substance and innovation within its somewhat silly main concept and might make for interesting reading for any fans of the later books that take classic characters in new and interesting directions.