You know the story. A tornado sweeps a little girl and her dog to a magical land. There she meets a Cowardly Lion, a Tin Woodsman lacking a heart and a Scarecrow in search of a brain. Writer and creator of Critter, Tom Hutchinson envisions a very different version of the L. Frank Baum novel. Or is it?
In Wicked West Dorothy’s home is Kansas, but she’s a bit older than you would imagine. Mind you, Dorothy Gale in the Oz books becomes immortalized at a young age and appears to have the wisdom of an older woman. Dorothy of the Wicked West doesn’t have a dog named Toto. That’s her horse. Hutchinson transports Dorothy to the Land of Oz, but it’s not so magical. Rather, it’s more Sergio Leone with flying monkeys.
Hutchinson’s adjustments to the tale are ingenious. This a story from which you can actually learn something about writing. For example, take Hutchinson’s reworking of the yellow brick road. First, he imagines it to be gold. Then, he takes into the account the culture of the west. This means there’s not much of it left. The dearth of bricks equate to Dorothy’s passage through town to town as more guesswork than purpose. Since these roads may not be the correct ones to travel, Dorothy’s choices generate the opportunity more conflict. All this from writer Hutchinson just shifting the setting and following through.
Our Dorothy wears six-irons, and she’s not afraid to use them. Some may think that this is a massive, cutting edge rewrite, but not really. Baum was a turn of the century feminist. Dorothy in the books was a problem solver, a heroine, not the cliché damsel in distress. So given the western backdrop, it makes perfect sense that Dorothy would strap on a pair.
Dorothy meets a cowardly lion, but this fellow’s more of a spectacle than before, and it’s all dipped in a spaghetti western sauce. Because this is a semi-period piece, cowardly becomes clownish. It’s really just remarkable how Hutchinson translates Baum into a galloping oater.
Some things stay the same. Dorothy talked to her dog Toto. She does the same with her horse, a common occurrence in westerns and exaggerated to the max in Brisco County Jr. Hutchinson laces her dialogue with a rhythmic twang that lends even further authenticity and reading pleasure to the exercise.
The wicked in the title also applies to the tone of the tale. Baum’s stories were meant for children, but children that weren’t shielded from violence. The Tin Woodsman for example was one of the first cyborgs. He was an ordinary man that was hacked up by the Wicked Witch who tortured him by keeping him alive as tin that would rust into immobility. So, when Dorothy uses her guns, it’s not that great a leap. Likewise, the presence of hookers not choosy about the gender of their clientele isn’t a grand difference from the magical sex change Baum imagined for Ozma of Oz. I won’t even hazard a guess if Baum actually spoke out for gay rights. There certainly seems more than mere flourish in Baum’s works.
Of coure none of Hutchinson’s ideas or dialogue would amount to a bean on a hill if not for the startling artwork of Alison Borges and Kate Finnegan. These ladies make Dorothy’s excursion into Oz, however mature, always respectful. I’ve received e-mails about readers suggesting that Hutchinson’s Critter is a T & A book and I shouldn’t be recommending it. Bite me. Critter is more than cheesecake. In any case, Wicked West should satisfy those looking for more “dignified” artwork.
What impresses me most is the foreshortening, the angles, the illusion of life that Borges bestows. Kate Finnegan’s colors capture the haunting beauty of the west, as well as the splashes of vivid magic and Dorothy’s aesthetic style.
Wicked West offers a mighty fine variation on L. Frank Baum’s genius. It preserves his feminist leanings while judiciously upping the content a notch for a more mature audience.
Ray Tate’s first online work appeared in 1994 for Knotted. He has had a short story, “Spider Without a Web,” published in 1995 for the magazine evernight and earned a degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh. Since 1995, Ray self-published The Pick of the Brown Bag on various usenet groups. In the POBB, as it was affectionately known, Ray reviewed comic books, Doctor Who novels, movies and occasionally music. Circa 2000, he contributed his reviews to Silver Bullet Comic Books (later Comics Bulletin) and became its senior reviewer. Ray Tate would like to think that he’s young at heart. Of course, we all know better.