Saturday, October 07, 2006

Oz Squad #4

Oz Squad #4, Patchwork Press
writer: Steven Ahlquist
penciller: Andrew Murphy
inker: David Lee Ingersoll
letterer: Mike Sagara
editor: Adam Miner

I don’t believe in coincidences. So, I’m not surprised that I found another issue of Oz Squad today, the same day I discovered that Roger Waters is performing a sold-out concert series at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend, recreating Pink Floyd’s famous Dark Side of the Moon. What’s the connection? I should explain.

Several years ago, shortly after my comic book collecting career began, I found two early issues of a little known series called Oz Squad. In this contemporary interpretation of Baum’s classic characters, an adult Dorothy was a special agent in charge of the Gale Force, an elite team of agents comprised of her three friends from the yellow-brick road: a now-existentially philosophizing Scarecrow, a heavily armored Tin-man (known colloquially by his common name Nick), and the Lion, who, not so cowardly, transformed from man to beast with ease. The issues I read featured the team, having established a diplomatic treaty between Earth and Oz, battling Rebecca Eastwitch and her flying monkeys over the coveted blueprints for the potentially lethal Tik-Tok, if I remember correctly. (I could look them up, but I feel like I’d be cheating.) I enjoyed them and wanted more. Hundreds of comics shop visits and a few Comic Cons later, nothing. Today, with little else to do, I easily convinced my galpal to go to the Frank and Sons Collectibles Show here in Southern California, a weekly pop culture/sports memorabilia warehouse expo. Thumbing through some quarter boxes to fuel the A Comic A Day challenge for a few weeks, I found it: Oz Squad #4. I knew we had to go to Franks and Sons for a reason.

What’s Oz Squad have to do with Roger Waters, you ask? Well, the answer is as long as my previous paragraph, so bear with me. My senior year in high school, my friends and I first heard of the Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon connection, which claims, in a nutshell, that Pink Floyd intended that their best-selling album become an auxiliary soundtrack for the MGM classic – an idea truly ripped from the psychedelic seventies. Intrigued, my friends and I researched the specifics, purchased the album, rented the movie, and tested the theory, with surprising results. Indeed, potentially hundreds of moments throughout the Wizard of Oz synchronize with various musical or lyrical patterns from Dark Side of the Moon, so much so that the effort must have been purposeful. Since our initial attempts at synchronicity were crude, one night we downloaded the Wizard of Oz (before downloading was a common practice, and by actually connecting the television to the computer), digitally arranged the moment when the two mediums met (after the third roar of the MGM lion, if you must know), and looped the album to run its length a complete two and half times through the full length of the film. Without going into more detail, I insist, you must try it. Since then, I’ve been a Pink Floyd fan, and had I realized Roger Waters was in town, I would’ve made an effort to see his concert tomorrow night. Instead, I found an issue of Oz Squad. That’s the connection.

Now, on to an actual comic book review, shall we? In Oz Squad #4, Tik-Tok has turned to the dark side and is climbing his way to the top of the New York City underworld by assassinating competing mobs. Dorothy and her team have forty-eight hours to find him before the CIA relinquish his diplomatic immunity and pursue his arrest. Anticipating their arrival, Tik-Tok sets up a decoy to distract his old friends; Tin Man loses his legs in a garbage crusher, and the Scarecrow doses himself in gas to avoid a henchwoman’s blowtorch attack. In the end, the CIA arrest Tik-Tok’s decoy, so the real deal is still at large, but in light of their near defeat, the Gale Force settles for an opportunity to nurse their wounds. An interesting tale of Phyrric victory.

Steven Ahlquist isn’t simply writing a “contemporary interpretation of Baum’s classic characters,” as I originally described. Ahlquist has sophisticatedly explored how icons of innocence, like Dorothy and her iconic friends, would react and transform through today’s cultural and political lens. Further, each character has not only conquered their memorable shortcomings, but has been consumed by their own self-confidence, transforming the Lion, for example, into a bestial warrior willing to dive headfirst into danger. The Scarecrow seems content dwelling in the dark recesses of his own mind, and the Tinman is so passionate about his work, his state-of-the-art body is often ironically mangled in battle. However, Dorothy is the most compelled of all, still trying to maintain the sanctity of Oz in our world’s tumultuous political landscape. Ahlquist sums her up perfectly when Tik-Tok wryly muses, “Our only hope now is that Dorothy has not lost her penchant for walking into traps.” Then, again, when Dorothy beseeches him to repent of his crimes, “And you once claimed that you were unaffected by your aunt’s Baptist teachings.” Some writers would have been tempted to exploit this concept as a comedy of errors, with satiric jabs at the source material, but Ahlquist establishes a legitimate character study, one part modern fairy tale, one part black comedy, one part psychological thriller. Everything Oz would’ve been if it was intended for adults in the first place.

Artistically, Oz Squad isn’t the best-drawn book, but it gets the job done. Murphy has a handle on dramatic blocking and panel layout, and he and Ingersoll pull off some impressive effects with just line and ink, but color would’ve added some necessary depth to these otherwise stark pages. Ahlquist may write some insightful stuff, but every Oz Squad issue I’ve read thus far builds to an explosive action sequence. Ruby slippers, a yellow-brick road, an emerald city . . . these characters have always been colorful.

I will have to dig up those old book sometime soon, because I think this issue was released a significant amount of time after the others. The author’s embittered notes at the end of this story imply that some vested third parties have tried to stick their fingers in his pie, so I wonder if his dynamic ideas sparked as much fanaticism for this series as I’ve had trying to find it these past several years. That’s what happens when your head explodes with dark forebodings of classic literature. Unfortunately, I’m right back where I was before – humming, “If I only had another issue.” De-do-de-do-do-do-do.

4 comments:

David Lee said...

KF -

If you want to get the whole series in spot, Oz Squad is being collected. The first volume is available here. A second collection, featuring art by Terry Loh, is in the process of being put together.

Matte said...

I have never tried to do that Wizard of Oz/Dark side of the Moon, but I was aware that they wanted that to happen. Could you imagine how cool that would have been. Like finding a stock of Generic Viagra right there just for you.

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David Lee Ingersoll said...

And, just this year, Steve has released a new Oz Squad novel -
Oz Squad: March of the Tin Soldiers. The ebook version can be found at that link. A dead tree edition can be got through Lulu.com.

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