Bill Bryan's Long, Strange Trip Down the Yellow Brick Road
by Gary Scott Beatty
"Indeed," wrote L. Frank Baum in the introduction to Rinkitink in Oz, the tenth book of his famous Wizard of Oz series, in 1916, "I think you will find this story quite different from the other histories of Oz, but I hope you will not like it the less on that account."
Bill Bryan might have used similar words to Oz fans when the first issues of the Oz comic book were published in 1994. Many different writer/illustrator teams had tried their versions of the world of Oz in the past, with mixed reaction. Did the comic book series, originally printed by Caliber through 20 issues, eight "specials" and two softcover collections, elicit criticism from Oz novel fans?
"Very little," said Bill. "Maybe there was criticism, but I didn't hear about it. The movie fans recognized the main characters. The Baum fans must have seen that the secondary characters, locales and Ozzian races were being used, so it was obviously a respectful extension of the original books. There had to be people who weren't thrilled, or found it to be a ravaging of Baum's Oz, and people who don't enjoy the language of comic books, but that's natural.
"I got a lot of positive response, though. I was pretty grateful."
Bill came to the project with a deep respect for, and understanding of, Oz illustrators of the past. "My main inspiration is John R. Neill -- not so much W.W. Denslow. Neill's work was more graceful, representational of people and occasionally heroic and moody, while Denslow's was always whimsical, though charming and touching.
"For the Oz series, these people had to be eerie and exotic, but noble. You have to see that there are people to cheer for, even beneath the severe faces of Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow in their evil states. They're still heroes. That gets to be revealed.
"I like the old silent movies of Oz. There are a plethora of them. When you see these actors with their extreme costumes and dark, slashy mouths and shadowy eyes -- they're clown like and a bit spooky. That inspired me.
"And let it be said, I've never seen an Oz artist I didn't like."
The Oz comic book series was an immediate success, a response not shared by most "small press" comics. "The first several issues took off really well, which pleased us all," said Bill. "It inspired our friends at Caliber to do T-shirts, pins, special issues, art prints and special covers.
"It excited Ralph (Griffith) and Stu (Kerr), the writers, to just blaze with ideas. They wrote all those specials besides the regular series. It scared the heck out of me. I thought, 'I'll have to draw all this stuff.' I struggled a little at the beginning. Then I stopped worrying and just let it flow in the most interesting way I could." Bill felt more confident with each issue and found the creative challenges interesting.
What did Bill think of the direction the plot was going at Caliber? "I was a little overwhelmed with the plot at first," he said. We had all this war strategy, all this 'real estate' of Oz to cover and all these characters involved. So much had to happen in the first five issues. You know, I like to pull back, have closeups, have people eating -- but the quality of the writing was fine. Very informed. I thought the whole plotline from one to 15 was great.
"Later plot directions didn't challenge me as much because I had grown accustomed to knocking out these characters and I was having a great time finding ways to make the pictures work even better without color. I also got to insert little human things into the story, like when someone mourns a dead person or stops and eats or puts on clothes or when Dorothy sees for the first time that she's grown up and cries. The fellows let me do that and that was me. Stu was willing to occassionally use psychological elements and I really relished that."
Bill's habit of constantly drawing no matter where he is takes some getting used to. "Guys, I know, thought I was nuts because at a couple of convention get togethers on Saturday night I would draw, always. I was catching up on sketches that I was commissioned to do that Saturday at the convention. None of the other artists were doing that, they were relaxing. When I realized what I was doing, I really felt like a freak!"
The Caliber years were a time of development for the direction the Oz comic books would later take. "We did a couple of newspaper, magazine and TV interviews for Oz and a lot of other Caliber titles. We had Chet Jacques editing for a while. He works with the McFarlane Toy line. He wrote some very amusing editorials. He's a student of the Baum books and came up with a lot of good ideas. Gary Reed and Jim Pruett were extremely encouraging to me, something I always appreciated."
In 1997 the Oz books, and Bill Bryan, moved to Arrow Comics with the launch of Dark Oz. Why the split from Caliber? "That was a 'look of the book' thing, in my opinion," said Bill. Caliber always used diverse material. Even so, Oz was shaping up into a battlefest. In the later issues at Caliber it was all skirmishes and military coups and I couldn't imagine a company with somewhat adult, film noir, savage barbarian, and occasional hip, funny stories having in its lineup a classic children's book/musical movie turned war story. I don't think it fit in even with all their diversity.
"Now, Ralph and Stu write wonderful war stories, but it was maybe out of line with the 'feel' that the other Caliber books were projecting. I personally prefer more psychology, humor and irony. Stu is perfectly capable of doing all this, it just wasn't his desire.
"At the same time Ralph and Stu, along with talented Randy Zimmerman, wanted to resume their company of a few years ago, so Oz and Randy's War of the Worlds became two of the new, popular Arrow titles. I might have been burned out by the end of Straw and Sorcery, but, I suppose I'd grown accustomed to the denisens of Oz, so I went with.
"I'm still interested in working with Caliber. I'm interested in working with Randy as a writer or inker, but there's so much to do now.
Dark Oz became the most violent of the comic series, with characters dropping all over as the world was magically voided out to make way for the current Land of Oz series. "The sheer tragedy, the complication of allies staying with or turning on the heroes, or coming in at the end, the valour in the face of doom of Lion and Amber, the tension and surprise of Ozma having a book that cancels out matter, and the outrageousness of the whole idea - all make the Dark Oz story arc quite fascinating," said Bill.
The current series gives Bill and chance to rethink the characters and bring them into line with his own evolving vision. "Oz relaunching as Land of Oz was due to Gary Bishop wanting to write it, people wanting to see more Oz and my wanting to draw it," said Bill. "Since the first couple of issues, I'm more interested in drawing it because Gary uses inventive story devices, like music lyrics and child characters, exploring how they might deal with life in Oz. And, of course, Scarecrow and friends get to be good guys. We have the chance of making them consistent with the personalities that we know in their Baum (and MGM) form. I get to supply some of the story content and can only hope I don't distract from the pacing.
"We're on number eight now and just about acquiring the Oz-mosis to know what the other guy's doing, planning, needing - what our strengths are. Pretty interesting. Randy and the other contributors have many more stories than I have. I've found a lot of new ways to handle black and white artwork and more tricks to come, which is exciting."
Bill is excited about Arrow's handling of Oz. "It's nice to be in a company which boasts such titles as Simone and Ajax and War of the Worlds," he said. "We've had Bill Messner-Loebs inking number six and more to come. Bill, besides having a fine reputation in comics, has drawing quality which is bursting with organic energy!"
"I've been able to have guest artists doing pin-ups and back covers. There are few things I like better than seeing another artist's version of a character that I designed."
Bill still draws constantly. There is much to do and nothing he likes better. Some day, he is convinced, he will catch up. "You know," he said, "I draw at parties, but I still haven't learned to draw in my sleep."
All artwork is Copyright by its respective artists and publishers.