Eric Shanower Talks To Me about Bronze Ages and Golden Bricks
Images of Skottie Young’s Wizard of Oz artwork for Marvel comics have been on the net for some time now and I just fell in love with what he was doing and this project quickly got vaulted into my must read category.
Young has been doing excellent work for awhile now but he seems primed with this project to ascend to even greater heights. Then, I found out Eric Shanower was writing it and it became the #1 comic series I was most looking forward to at the end of the year and continuing in 2009.
I present Eric Shanower as we talk OZ, Troy, faith and accidental deaths . . .
Jay — How did the current Marvel project come together? Was this pitched by you or was Marvel just looking to expand the Marvel Illustrated line in general, or was an OZ project something specifically they were looking to retell?
Eric Shanower — One day I received an e-mail from Chris Allo at Marvel asking whether I’d be interested in writing the script for a Marvel Illustrated adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I believe Skottie Young was already attached as the artist. I don’t know where the impetus came from at Marvel to do the project.
Jay — You’ve written numerous books in the OZ setting and I was wondering if you can speak on your first experience with or the experience that made OZ something that you’d want to dedicate your creativity and time to.
Eric Shanower — My first experience with Oz was seeing the movie version on television, the version with Judy Garland playing Dorothy. I really liked it, so when I found some of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books in a bookstore, I got one. I was six years old. My parents read my sister and me a chapter every night. I loved it so much that I wanted all the rest of the Oz books. It was about that time that I decided I wanted to write and draw my own Oz stories.
I actually did write and illustrate my own Oz books, starting at about eight years old. That’s never really stopped. At one point “my own Oz books” turned into “my own Oz comics.” There’s never been any major stretch of time since I was eight that I haven’t been involved in some sort of Oz project or another. In the ealry 1990s I tried to call it quits, but that didn’t work. I’m resigned to it now. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get out of Oz altogether.
Jay — Even with those numerous prior OZ related projects behind you, if I am not mistaken your forthcoming Wonderful Wizard of OZ project with Marvel is actually your first attempt at an adaptation of the work. I was wondering how the transition was to getting back to basics and in doing so did you find something, perhaps during research or rereading, about the story that perhaps stuck out at you more this time around than prior?
Eric Shanower — This project for Marvel is my first professional attempt at adapting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. When I was in fourth grade I did a series of pop-up illustrations that told the story. And over the years I’d certainly considered the idea of adapting Wizard for comics, as well as doing my own illustrated version of Baum’s text.
In re-reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz while I was adapting it for this project, one thing that stuck out for me was the paragraph in which the Soldier with the Green Whiskers directs Dorothy and her friends to wipe their feet before they step inside the Wizard’s palace. I find that attention to mundane detail in such an amusing manner so Baumian.
Jay — Are you familiar with Oz related novels by people like Philip Jose Farmer or Gregory Maguire. If so what do you think of them? What do you consider to be post-Baum work you most enjoy not of your hand, whatever the medium?
Eric Shanower — Of course I’m familiar with Farmer’s and Maguire’s Oz books. I’m an old Oz fan from way back. I found Farmer’s attempts in A Barnstormer in Oz to rationalize the magical aspects of Oz interesting, but wasn’t particularly captivated by the story. I really like Maguire’s Wicked when I began reading it, but it lost steam about halfway through. I like his Son of a Witch better overall, especially the relationship between Liir and Trism. I bought A Lion Among Men last month when it came out, but haven’t read it yet.
The post-Baum Oz works I like a lot are Merry Go Round in Oz by Eloise McGraw and Lauren McGraw, the fortieth and final book in the “official” series; Paradox in Oz and The Living House of Oz by Edward Einhorn, but I’m perhaps biased about those since I illustrated them both and published Paradox; and Anton Loeb’s illustrations for a Wizard of Oz abridgement from 1950.
Jay — This series obviously has an existing fandom outside of the standard comic book demographic. What do you think that people may find different from the series that they may have grown up with?
Eric Shanower — What I hope people find fresh about our new comic book adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is all the stuff that gets left out of most adaptations — for instance, the origin of the Winged Monkeys and the journey to Glinda’s palace. I also hope that we provide some small surprises for those readers intimately familiar with the original text. I think there are details of the text that are easily glossed over in reading that are going to be a little more noticeable when drawn in a comic book panel — for instance, the party at Boq’s and the idle courtiers in the Wizard’s palace.
Jay — If you are a fan of storytelling dealing with the fantastic, Dorothy Gale is one those characters that’s both foundational and transcending in terms of touching the mainstream heart. For myself, though she wasn’t the first to play Dorothy, Judy Garland was the vehicle that the character took into my consciousness. She isn’t however, an exact representation of Baum’s character and there is honestly something — in my mind — lost in the on-screen presentation, but what do you think the film did that perpetuated OZ into something more than just another fantasy-adaptation?
Eric — The 1939 MGM screen adaptation of The Wizard of Oz was a big deal for the movie studio, one of their prestige pictures, and it was wildly popular when it came out.
It’s a well-made and carefully crafted movie. Sure, it has its faults — such as the ridiculous line of Dorothy’s about not looking any farther than her own backyard for her heart’s desire because if it’s not there, she never lost it — try to make sense of that gobbledy-gook — but overall it succeeds admirably in capturing viewers and transporting them to the Oz it creates.
The Oz books themselves are indebted to stage and movie adaptations for their perpetuation. If the 1903 Broadway play hadn’t happened, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would probably have remained out of print and be forgotten today. If the 1939 motion picture hadn’t been broadcast annually on television since 1956, Oz wouldn’t have woven itself into the fabric of our culture. That’s one service that television has performed for us — perpetuated Oz.
Judy Garland was certainly a great performer, but for actually capturing the sense of the Dorothy Gale I know from the Oz books, I prefer Fairuza Balk’s performance in the 1985 movie Return to Oz. That movie fails to overcome its flaws, but Fairuza is one of the good things about it.
Jay — One of the reasons why I enjoyed the Return to OZ film was the definite horror tone that seemed more stressed than in the original. If we were to describe Skottie’s and your The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, would ‘horror;’ be one of the words we could be able to apply to it?
Eric Shanower — “Horror” definitely does not describe our Marvel Oz adaptation. This is a faithful adaptation of a children’s book. The author, L. Frank Baum, stated in his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that he sought to remove all blood-curdling incident from his story.
So while there is plenty of death — over one hundred and fifty beings are killed or die — and some dismemberment — the Tin Woodman chops off his limbs, for instance — and some scary parts — the Kalidahs and the Wicked Witch of the West — the tone and atmosphere of our adaptation are appropriate for the same readers that would enjoy the original book.
Jay — The artist of The Wonderful World of Oz series, Skottie Young, has had preview images up for awhile now, and they are just beautiful and made it one of those rare projects that I truly can’t wait to see. What do you think Young brings to the table that’s different in term of what it highlights from the story; be it in thematically, tone, or what have you, that differs from other Oz projects you have either read or worked on?
For myself, just in a few images it seems like he is world-building in manner I don’t really see often enough.
Eric Shanower — Skottie’s vision of Oz is his own. I’ve seen so many different versions of The Wizard of Oz — illustrations for the text, movie and stage adaptations, comic book versions. Some of them are more successful than others.
The best ones bring something uniquely their own to the experience, not just a regurgitation of something we’ve all seen before. Too many of them are just lifeless knock-offs of the Judy Garland movie or manglings of Denslow’s original illustrations for the book. Skottie’s Oz is one of the good ones — with its own life and look.
Jay — You’re an Eisner Award winning creator — both as a writer and artist — how did Skottie or any artist in general other than yourself get attached to the project? What does he do that you think perhaps you yourself wouldn’t have done?
Eric Shanower — Skottie was the artist for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz before I agreed to write the scripts. Marvel never asked me to draw the project, only script. I am very happy with that arrangement, since my comic book series Age of Bronze leaves me no time to draw another comic book series.
I don’t know why Skottie was asked by Marvel; that’s a question you should ask him.
I think Skottie’s work on Oz is excellent. If I were to have drawn this project, the look would have been much closer to my usual look for Oz, which is founded on John R. Neill’s illustrations for most of the Oz books following The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. W. W. Denslow was the original illustrator of Wizard, and I think I would have greatly taken his work into consideration if I were to have drawn this project.
Skottie Young, however, has started from scratch. His designs for Oz and the characters are completely his own. They’re rooted in Baum’s text, but they’re completely fresh and full of life. It’s a joy to see Skottie’s work for this project as each new page is completed.
Jay — With the second arc in the works and Skottie on board, Is Wonderful Wizard of OZ something that we can mark down as being on schedule as far as the creators can be accounted for?
Eric Shanower — As far as I know, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is on schedule. Skottie’s pumping out the work for the first series on a regular basis. Actually, I don’t know anyone else’s deadlines, so I really couldn’t tell you specifically whether it’s on schedule or not. I just turn my work in and it seems to me that everyone else is doing the same.
Jay — What I love about Oz — and you mentioned Barks with Disney — is that they are stories that seem to speak a universal language even more effectively than most via illustration . Is your Wonderful Wizard of OZ going to be dialogue heavy? Is it something you consciously think about in trying to not get In the way of visuals, especially when collaborating?
Eric Shanower — The Marvel comic book version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz isn’t dialogue heavy. That’s certainly one of the things I was conscious of while writing the script.
And believe me, it hurts to do balloon placements over Skottie’s art — I don’t like covering any of it. My intention all along has been to remain faithful to L. Frank Baum’s text while adapting it into a valid comic book. In writing the scripts I retained Baum’s dialogue to the extent necessary to convey the story while being conscious all the time of the pacing of comic book panels and pages as well as the information that the art would show. We’ll see how successful this was when the whole thing is complete.
I’m pretty confident I did at least a passable job, since I’m pretty experienced after decades of writing comics. At the beginning I had no idea whether Skottie’s and my collaboration would succeed, but his art has been wonderfully responsive to what I’ve supplied. I think it’s working.
Jay — What do you consider to be Baum’s greatest strength as a storyteller?
Eric Shanower — I think Baum’s greatest strength was in creating preposterous, impossible characters and settings and making them immediately believable — more than just believable — making them characters you want to meet and places you want to go.
Jay — Do you prefer Oz as a destination in Dorothy’s dreams or a real geography. Do you think the former takes anything away from the story?
Eric Shanower — I prefer Oz as a real place. If Oz is a dream, the potential for me to get there is far less. As a child, I believed in Oz for a little while and wanted so badly to go there.
Jay — You remark that your OZ novels became OZ comics at a point in your life. When did comics books enter your life? I realize you went to the Kubert school but in terms of a reader, what titles or creators attracted to you to the field?
Eric Shanower — The first comics I remember were Sunday newspaper comics, Tintin books serialized in Children’s Digest magazine, and a comic book adaptation of Disney’s Bambi movie.
These were all when I was younger than five years old. Within a few years I discovered Harvey Comics and became rabid for Richie Rich, Little Dot, Casper, Hot Stuff, and the rest — especially Richie Rich. I also read Disney Comics — love Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge — and the occasional DC or Marvel comic. I went through a period of reading a lot of Archie Comics, especially the digests. By junior high I was reading a bunch of DC superheroes — my favorites were Shazam! and the Justice League of America. I also read Mad magazine.
This was about the time I decided I wanted to be a cartoonist for a career. I got into Marvel in early high school — my favorites were the Fantastic Four and then X-Men. After high school I went to the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art.
That was in the early 1980s when lots of small comics publishers began publishing all sorts of different kinds of comics. I was exposed to a wide variety. I still try to read a wide selection of comics from all over the world. And I still read, at least occasionally, nearly all the comics I just mentioned.
Jay — Your aforementioned Eisner Awards were both garnered for your Age of Bronze project/series. For those that may not be aware of the project I was wondering if you could briefly explain the impetus for the project and the inspiration behind doing what is very much an epic-work by yourself during that time frame and event.
Eric Shanower — Age of Bronze is my comic book version of the complete story of the Trojan War. I’m taking every version of the story that I can find — from Homer’s Iliad on down — and melding them all into one long, coherent story.
I’m reconciling all the contradictions between versions, setting it in the correct time period of the 13th century BCE, and removing all overt supernatural intervention. The idea for Age of Bronze was sparked when I listened to a book on tape called The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman. The story of Troy is what fascinates me, not history or archaeology.
Jay — Was the element of ambiguity or mystery that surrounds the Trojan War as an event that really exists as a semi-historical/mythological a draw?
Eric Shanower — Two challenges primarily drew me to Age of Bronze. One was that I’d have to figure out ways to deal with all the contradictions among the various versions of the story when I combined them. The other was that I’d have to figure out human-level reasons for all the supernatural events in the story. There’s a lot I enjoy about working on Age of Bronze, but those two challenges never cease to be engrossing.
Jay Tomio — Obviously OZ related material, and from reading Age of Bronze I’m assuming an interest in history and archaeology — who are your favorite novelists?
Eric Shanower — Some of my favorite books are The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, Sky Island by L. Frank Baum, and The Oxbow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. I don’t really have favorite novelists because I think some of the other books by these authors are stinkeroos — well, not Fitzgerald, I guess, although some of his short stories I can live without.
Jay Tomio — Is there a specific event in the other tellings of Troy that caused you specific trouble to reconcile and relate to for storytelling purposes?
Eric Shanower — There are plenty of events in the story of the Trojan War in which eliminating the supernatural caused me problems. The judgment of Paris was one, where three goddesses demand that Paris choose which of them to award the golden apple.
But so far I’ve always been able to find an answer to these types of problems somewhere during the course of my research. I found my answer to the judgment of Paris in the medieval Christian tradition of the story. That tradition made the judgment of Paris a dream. So I took that idea and put it into Paris’s seduction of Helen in issue #4.
Another problem was how to deal with the sacrifice of Iphigenia. There are two major branches of the Trojan War tradition, one where she dies and the other where the gods rescue her at the last moment. Both branches are well known, and since I’m trying in Age of Bronze to address all aspects of the Trojan War, I wanted to include both branches. I think I succeeded, at least within the parameters I’ve laid out for Age of Bronze.
In Sophokles’s tragedy Philoktetes, Herakles appears in the flesh at the end of the play to tell Philoktetes to go to Troy. Of course I’m not going to have a god in the flesh in Age of Bronze, so it took me a while to figure out a way to deal with that material. I’ve worked out a solid approach to it by now. I haven’t yet reached that part of the story yet, however, so it remains to be seen how it’ll all play out in detail.
Jay — Do you think in some way that perhaps the story of Troy has previously been minimalised by the fantastic? Do you think that the human drama in the wake of gods is heightened in their absence?
Eric Shanower — I don’t necessarily think that the story of Troy has been minimalized by the fantastic. It all depends upon how the story is told. Homer’s Iliad was a vital work back in the 8th century BCE and still is today; it’s full of gods and the supernatural.
I find the tragedies by Aeschylus and Sophokles in which they bring a god onstage to solve everything at the end much less interesting than the ones by Euripides in which the characters deal with things on their own.
But some of the medieval versions of the Troy story that eliminate the gods can be deadly tedious. It all depends on the purpose of the person telling the story and how that person handles the material. In Age of Bronze I’m specifically choosing to concentrate on the human drama.
It’s my intent that a reader doesn’t need to know any other version of the story in order to derive great satisfaction from Age of Bronze. But I think a reader who does know other versions of the story, including versions with supernatural elements, will get more out of my version simply by contrast.
Telling the story of the Trojan War without supernatural elements is the most interesting way I have to tell it. I hope that others find it interesting too, no matter what their state of belief in the supernatural. I was sent a newsletter from an organization of people who believe in the Greek pantheon. In it they reviewed Age of Bronze.
I was relieved to find it was a favorable review. But then, maybe I shouldn’t have worried, since I’m not seeking to denigrate anyone who believes differently than I do. I’m simply presenting what I find the most valid take on the story for me at a specific time in a specific format using specific tools and style.
I certainly have no problem creating comics with fantastic and impossible elements. Anyone who’s read my Oz comics can immediately see that.
Jay — Were you at all familiar with the Marvel Illustrated line prior to getting the call to OZ? Is there a tangible difference in having a publisher like Marvel behind an OZ project? It seems like something they have been behind strongly since the announcement.
Eric Shanower — When Marvel contacted me about adapting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz I certainly knew that they had recently begun a line of comics adapting classic literature. I may have seen some of the Marvel Illustrated comics in a comic store, but I hadn’t looked at any in detail.
Many comics publishers have published similar lines over the years since the success of Classics Illustrated decades ago. Many of these more recent efforts haven’t lasted too long. Even Marvel’s attempt in the mid-1970s didn’t last more than a couple years.
However, I have been absolutely amazed by the support Marvel has shown this Oz project. And I’m grateful for it. The support has been quite strong. I hope it pays off. I certainly believe that the work itself warrants it. I think the timing and market might be right for such a project.
I’ve noticed that while this project is certainly under Marvel’s Illustrated imprint, they have been marketing it almost like it’s own thing, separate from everything else they publish. And certainly it has little in common with Treasure Island or The Last of the Mohicans or other works like that, both in the style of Skottie’s art and in the expectations of the public. Similarly, it has little in common with Spider-man or The Incredible Hulk.
The potential for a work as well known as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to reach a mainstream audience is huge — especially when the graphic novel collection of the series is published. We’ve still to see whether that potential can be reached. And that’ll depend on factors over which I have little to no control, factors like marketing, publicity, and distribution. But Marvel is a large comics publisher with decades of experience, so I think if anyone can make this work, Marvel can.
Whatever happens, I’m enjoying writing the scripts, I’m enjoying Skottie’s artwork, and I expect to enjoy the ride for however long it lasts.
Jay — What are your thoughts on a marketplace that seems to be moving to the collected format or graphic novels in general more and more. If everything else was even, would you rather present a project one-and-done or is their still something to the month-to-month story that makes it artistically essential or even optimal in your mind?
Eric Shanower — From a distribution standpoint, at least in the USA, the movement toward graphic novel format is good. It’s also a format that seems to be more acceptable to a mainstream audience. I tend to think of story ideas more as a whole than as a serialization, so I prefer the graphic novel format. But I am certainly flexible enough to deal with different formats. I conceive of both Age of Bronze and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as unified works whose final form is the single graphic novel, but obviously they both are appearing as serialized comics first.
I think we’d lose a tool for telling a certain type of story if serialization were to disappear entirely. I don’t think any single format is essentially better than another. Each story should dictate its publication format. It would be nice to have many varieties of format financially viable in order to present a wide a range of material.
Jay — What is your favorite comic book work of your own not related to OZ or Age of Bronze?
Eric Shanower — My favorite comics work other than Oz and Age of Bronze is An Accidental Death which was written by Ed Brubaker. It’s about two teenage boys living in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the late 1970s who become involved in the death of a teenage girl.
Shortly after Ed and I met each other we discovered that we had both lived in Guantanamo as kids in the 1970s, though at different times. We decided that one day we should do a comic story together involving Guantanamo. The result was An Accidental Death.
Jay — You have this OZ-catalog and life-long passion, you have this monumental undertaking in Age of Bronze, are you able to think of the beginnings of the next massive project from you post-AoB? Do you have an idea of what that may be or are you completely focused on the Marvel and completing Age of Bronze?
Eric Shanower — Age of Bronze is only one third finished. It’s going to be quite a few years before I reach the end. And I’m hoping that the Oz series will continue for many years, too — I’m already working on the script for the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and Skottie’s really enthusiastic about drawing the entire series.
So I don’t have any plans for projects beyond these. Of course, I have ideas for other projects, but I don’t know yet what I’ll actually be interested in working on when I reach the point of decision.
Jay — Age of Bronze eliminates supernatural or the mythological element from the story. From various interview of yours this choice was made after what seems to be a change in your own fundamental philosophy.
I was wondering if you cared to discuss this at all as I find it rather intriguing — being a rather grounded, practical person who also runs a site dedicated to books mostly speculative in nature (not to mention having lived in he South for a portion of my life and now not 45 minutes from the very heart of the Roman Catholic Church) and seeing some strange sorts! I notice that many novelists you mentioned above are actually known to be rather devout.
Eric Shanower — I used to be a devout Christian. I went to church every Sunday until my mid-twenties. But about that time I began to face the fact that there was no genuine basis for what I was saying I believed. So, as any intelligent being will do when faced with new information, I had to adjust my outlook. Age of Bronze, despite my eliminating all overt supernatural content, is to some extent about the relationship of humanity to a higher power.
I certainly have no problem enjoying works by people who believe in the supernatural. Just because I don’t believe the same thing, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy their stories. I also have plenty of friends who believe all sorts of things I suspect are kind of nutty. But just because I don’t have much respect for their beliefs doesn’t mean I don’t respect those people. I do.
Jay — Your name is and rightly so a name that may fans of OZ associate with as perhaps a choice as the definitive OZ illustrator currently. Is there anything negative that comes from being attached to something like that?
I realize it’s most likely something spoken of towards people from the outside but is their any negative to perhaps being something as even semi-legendary as a Don Rosa but being in a way type-cast? Or do you think Age of Bronze has penetrated the market place enough to avoid that?
Eric Shanower — I hope I am type-cast to some extent as being an Oz illustrator. But if I am, that hasn’t prevented me from doing other work. Certainly Age of Bronze has eclipsed my Oz work and I believe I’m best known for Age of Bronze now, which is okay with me, since that’s where my primary effort currently lies. I haven’t felt that either Oz or Age of Bronze has negatively impacted the other.
Jay — Do you think the landscape is right for a new major OZ product in film? Who would you like to see attached to such a project either as cast or in terms of a director?
Eric Shanower — Film isn’t my field — I’m a cartoonist. I’m sure that there’ll be a motion picture version of the Wicked stage show before too long, and I know of a couple other Oz movies that are in some stage of production. But is the landscape right? I think the landscape is always right for an excellent movie, Oz or otherwise.
I don’t care who’s attached to any Oz movie project as long as the end result is worthwhile. Of course, I’d like to see my friends who are connected with show business considered first. So, to drop some names that most people won’t recognize, I’ll say Chris Innvar, Scott Thompson, Edward Einhorn, Fred Barton, Marc Lewis, and of course my partner, David Maxine. And I should be an extra in an Emerald City scene or something like that — or if it’s animated, I should voice a bit part.
Jay — Do you have single visual of OZ, be it art or from film that sticks out to you as a definitive embodiment of OZ in your mind?
Eric Shanower — Yes. There’s a John R. Neill illustration that for me captures all the emotional weight of Oz.
It’s from The Road to Oz, the fifth Oz book. In it Dorothy, Toto, Button-Bright, Polychrome, and the Shaggy Man stand on a hillside looking at the Tin Woodman’s tin castle. Anyone who goes and looks at it will probably react with a “Hunh?” But I make no excuses. It’s purely a personal reaction that comes from a long association with that book in particular.