“WICKED” – A GREAT COMIC BOOK MUSICAL
Think about that while I discuss an insanely popular Broadway musical in this week’s column that isn’t “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” It does, however, inspire lots of comic book-related thoughts.
It’s only a coincidence that as my three year-old daughter gets hooked on “The Wizard of Oz,” I took the wife to see “Wicked” on Broadway last week. For those who don’t know about it, “Wicked” is an alternate take on the “Wizard of Oz” story, casting The Wicked Witch of the West in a much better light. It works as both a piece of musical theater and a clever concoction of plot mechanics. I have my quibbles that I’ll need to watch the movie again to get over, but it was an enjoyable evening.
And, as usually happens with me, I couldn’t help thinking about comics as I sat in the Gershwin Theater. Here’s why:
The RetCon: I laughed after the show when I overheard the conversations from amused patrons of the arts who couldn’t believe the way the story twisted “The Wizard of Oz.” These are people who wouldn’t know what a “RetCon” was if you spelled it out. And that’s what “Wicked” is: a giant retcon of the movie based on L. Frank Baum’s books. I can’t think of any other play or movie that so completely depends on a previous play or movie to tell its own story. “Wicked” is just smart in that it does it with a movie that everyone has seen and whose base material is in the public domain. I’m not an expert in this field, so I’ll leave it to someone else to point out any story points in “Wicked” that are specific to the movie and not the original L. Frank Baum works.
The “Oz” Comics: During the intermission, I was on my phone adding all of the Eric Shanower/Skottie Young “Oz” hardcovers to my Amazon wish list. I’ve only read the first one. (I reviewed it here.) I need to catch up on those. They’re beautiful. My biggest problem with the first one was just that the story was so familiar — and so episodic, and the plot so obvious — that I wasn’t as excited by it as I might have otherwise been. As the stories move past the movie after that, I look forward to the ‘new’ adventures.
Pop Culture References: “Wizard of Oz” is a source for a great many pop culture references these days, from the ruby red slippers to “Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!” and “There’s no place like home.” The writers of “Wicked” found cute ways to incorporate all of those references into the show in new and different ways. They usually sneak up by surprise on you, often being spoken by someone else, imparting new meaning on an old, familiar saying.
There’s something else I’ve learned from reading countless comics and stories about writing comics, and that’s this: You can write a comic that gets its fuel from pop culture references, but it’ll have to move past that to stand on its own and become its own thing. A long string of winks and nudges won’t get your series anywhere. Developing characters and dramatic situations is what will make your story memorable.
“Wicked” does that in spades. It’s not just a matter of contrasting the “Legally Blonde”-ish Glinda with the green-skinned girl who’d be the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s the character arc they both go through, leading to an ending that’s telegraphed pretty clearly at the end of the first half or beginning of the second. But the arc will make you look at the characters in the movie in a whole different light, and mostly for good reason. “Wicked” pulls off the trick of being believable.
“Luke, I Am Your Father:” I don’t want to spoil it, but I thought it appropriate to use a pop culture shorthand right now to point out that “Wicked” has one of these moments.
Secret Origins: The show bends over backwards — perhaps a little too much — in the second half to give origins to too many characters. Have you ever wondered who The Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and The Scarecrow really are? They shove that all in with the second half.
Continuity Gaffes: I need to see the movie again, but I do have some questions I’d like to see answered. The most obvious one is how it is that the three characters Dorothy walks down the Yellow Brick Roads with have managed to lose their memories completely in the movie. They don’t remember how they got there, do they? Or, at least, you’d think they’d have something more to say to The Wicked Witch of the West, since they all had personal interactions with her. Suddenly, in the movie continuity, she’s just a scary old broad they’d rather avoid. You’d think it would be more personal.
Chekhov’s Gun Fires: Everything that gets paid off in “Wicked” is set up strongly. Some of it is almost too obvious in its set-up, but give them credit for not having the surprises feel forced. There’s always some line of dialogue or some lyric earlier in the show that leads to the twist. The gun is always put up on the wall before someone pulls it down and fires it. This is a basic drama tip that more comics could benefit from, rather than just pulling a Surprise Mystery Villain on the last page with little notice or reason. There’s a difference between a shock and a surprise. The former is cheap, while the latter is well-constructed.
Third Generation Copy: You know those comic book artists whose work is clearly influenced by one specific artist of a previous generation? You can tell they’ve never drawn from real life, and all the previous artist’s quirks have been taken for gospel and then slightly twisted even further by the next artist into oblivion. A copy of a copy doesn’t often work.
It works in “Wicked” in this way: The actress playing “Glinda” isn’t playing the movie version of the character, who is so saccharine sweet, high-pitched, and over-the-top annoying that she deserves this musical getting made about her. No, the current actress on Broadway is doing her impersonation of Kristin Chenoweth doing “Glinda.” I can’t picture another role being more tailor-made for a performer than that of “Glinda” being made for Chenoweth. And the current actress does an amazing job playing the character as you’d imagine Chenoweth would, but also in backing it up by being a powerful and strong singer/actress herself. Yes, in a vocal duel the Wicked Witch will always win, but Glinda’s got some serious pipes, too.
Context Counts: Have you ever seen a panel or a page from a comic book and not liked it, only to love it when read in the context of the total comic book? Sometimes, a quick excerpt isn’t representative of the whole. Sometimes, seeing a tree means missing the forest.
I had that problem with “Wicked.” I had heard the soundtrack for it first and was generally bored by it. Seeing it in the context of the staged musical, though, means understanding the songs better. And now I can’t get “Gravity” and “Popular” out of my head.
The next time you decide to hate a comic book based on the one-page preview you saw of it online, keep that in mind. Oftentimes, the whole is much better than the preview of that piece you saw.
Everything Is Adapted: The musical is based on the novel “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire. The songs are all new, but the musical is, in the end, an adaptation of the book.
That’s “Wicked.” It’s not based on a comic book, but it has many of the same features as one. It’s a colorful set with a steampunk look. It has crazy costumes and makeup-laden characters. Monkeys fly above the crowd. It works very hard to fit into the continuity of an earlier story. It features several secret origins. And the whole thing is one big RetCon. I can’t imagine how that Spider-Man musical can compete with all of that.
Bonus link: Comics Should Be Good had a comic/musical mash-up with “The Wicked She-Hulk” a couple years back.
AND IN CONCLUSION
When this column runs, I’ll be on vacation, adrift on the sea of humanity that gathers every day at The House of Mouse. I’ll try not to bore you next week with a slide show of pictures of Marvel merchandise. But if I do find anything with Uncle Scrooge on it, I’ll be reporting back. He’s the greatest of the Disney characters, and somehow the most overlooked by the parent company.