Adventures in Oz

by Eric Shanower
Genre: all-ages fantasy
Context: published in a collected edition by IDW in 2006; originally published by First and Dark Horse from 1986-1993

This comic has page numbers! Looking back, the Act-I-Vate Primer had page numbers, too, but Abe Sapien and Actions Speak both lacked them. It’s hard for me to take a publisher serious if they don’t number the pages in their books. How are things supposed to be cited? It’s like they’re not willing to adhere to the dress code despite wanting to be taken seriously for so long.

Another important question: how am I supposed to know if I skipped a page? It’s easy enough in a book, as page turns are usually mid-sentence or even mid-word. However, in a printed comic, a page is a narrative unit. While things will occasionally cross or occur in the gulf between panels, I don’t recall ever seeing a comic story somehow cross the page turn. It’s the equivalent of having a paragraph finish on every page in a book. Given the fact that narrative jumps from page to page are pretty important in comics (i.e., page 12 ends on a cliffhanger of someone’s surprised look, page 13 cuts elsewhere), I’ve gotten accustomed to accepting that the start of a page might be in a place or time far separate from the action of the previous page. It makes it hard, then, when I skip a page, force the next page into my comprehension of the story, and don’t realize I missed a vital sequence until pages later.

In fact, awareness of the page as a unit is probably one of my prerequisites for thinking an artist is really, really great. Aragones and Mignola, (from my first two reviews) know how to do this. JH Williams does it. Jack Cole does it. Being able to stage a page clearly so that it means more than just a series of panels, being able to control the pacing and eye movement of the reader — this is the iron foundation of a cartoonist over which flash and style can be added.

End the ranting. Adventures in Oz is a really pretty book. It’s a collection of smaller graphic novels that Shanower’s produced over the years, so there are a number of complete stories. It has a “This book belongs to” plate at the beginning. If I were a kid who enjoyed Oz, Narnia, and Wonderland, this book would be perfect. The plot progressions and syntax aren’t challenging, but they’re not necessarily fluff, either. They occupy that sweet spot of truly all-ages.

The book is slightly oversized, which does a service to the art. I first encountered Shanower as an inker over Steve Rude (and maybe an artist of the backup stories?) in Nexus, where he was a perfect fit. Like Rude, Shanower walks the fine line between classic illustrator and quality storyteller: his realistic anatomy and technical linework don’t get in the way of the sense of motion that’s integral to comic storytelling.

This is helped by the colors. Oh, goodness, the colors. For the first two novellas, there are vibrant flat colors that match closely the nice work that First was doing at the time. The last three, though, have amazing watercolors that, to me, redefine what painted comics can be.

(‘Cause I hate painted comics. Alex Ross, while a fantastic draughtsman, will never be a comic artist in my mind. Similarly, comics with overly digital colors, with gradients and lens flares and muddy blurs that obscure the linework make my eyes glaze and dry.)

I don’t want to drag this out anymore, but I just want to say that the soft washes of the watercolor model shapes and show light while receding behind Shanower’s linework where harder paints or arbitrary digital fills would take over, respectively making the art more static or mechanical.

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