Oz Squad Rules!
-Kevin Smith – Director
I do admit to thinking that this sounds a bit like Steven Ahlquist’s take as revised by Joss Whedon, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good idea. It just means someone needs to get Steven Ahlquist and Joss Whedon into the same room and see what they come up with.
It’s such a bizarre series, so totally inappropriate, yet I really enjoyed letting go and rolling with the craziness. The Tin Man has laser cannons? Sure, fine. Why not? I liked the sick humor, I liked the hard-boiled/fairy tale dialogue, I liked seeing flying monkeys getting shredded. Now I want to go reread these comics!
I… I… okay, I admit I kind of liked it. See? That’s how on the fence about Oz Squad I am. One part of me is jealous that I didn’t think of it first, and the other part thinks it’s blasphemous creative necrophilia – and I mean that in a nice way.
The most repellent published work with the name Oz in the title I have ever seen.
Steve Teller – Critic and Oz Collector
I love that quote by Steve Teller. By now I think Mr. Teller has probably seen far more repellent works with the name of Oz in the title. Or with Oz referenced in the contents. In 1991, however, the Oz Squad comic was probably a bit of shock – especially to someone who hadn’t been paying attention to what was happening in the comic industry. The majority of comics were being sold out of comic book specialty shops. The publication of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the mid-Eighties had inspired superhero comic creators to write darker and more adult material. Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles (originally a violent parody of superhero comics) had become runaway success that helped launch the so-called black and white explosion. Small comic companies were sprouting like weeds. One of those was Brave New Words, a publisher based in Rhode Island. BNW published a variety of comics by a variety of talents. The most prominent creators were Matt Howarth and Donna Barr. But BNW’s best selling title was Oz Squad, the brainchild of writer Steve Ahlquist. It fit the zeitgeist – a children’s book series updated for the grim’n’gritty 90’s. The high concept premise was “What if Dorothy and the gang grew up and became secret agents?”
Oz Squad, the comic, was published from 1991 to 1996. The first two issues sold well enough to warrant reprints. There were ten regular issues and two specials. Ahlquist wrote them all. Issues 1 to 4 were penciled by Andrew Murphy. Ande Parks inked the first issue, Dan Shaefer inked two and three and I inked the fourth.That fourth issue was put out by Patchwork Press, a publisher that stepped in when Brave New Words ceased business. Gus Norman, Dave Ray, Tom Sutton and I were the artists involved in the unfortunate Millenium Special, an attempt to restart the series at a larger publisher. The final six issues, with art by Terry Loh, came out under the Patchwork Press banner. The Little Oz Squad Special was also published by Patchwork.
Was the comic any good? This website wouldn’t exist if I didn’t think it was. It’s easy to find fault in Oz Squad. No one who worked on the original series (with possible exception of Mike Sagara) was very experienced. The art wasn’t always the best fit for the story. After the first four issues the plotting got either very loose or way too expansive. If you hadn’t read Baum’s original books you might not have understood who some of the characters were or what their place in the story was. Yet … I’ve experienced quite a few of the adaptations, sequels, spin-offs, rehashes, reboots and re-imaginations of Oz and I’d say that Ahlquist hits a lot of high points. He remembers what many authors forget – Oz is both a whimsical and a dangerous place. And Dorothy kicks ass.
Most of what works in Oz Squad comes from Steve Ahlquist’s stories. Instead of doing the obvious and writing a one-note, “dark”, Oz-characters-as-superheroes scenario he went world building. There are whole secret/alternate histories of Earth and Fairyland behind his stories. Oz Squad is more Grant Morrison/Doom Patrol than Alan Moore/Watchmen or Frank Miller/Dark Knight Returns. It takes what’s great about Oz for “kids” and transposes it to an “adult” paradigm. It gets and transcends its own joke.
Oz is a weird and creepy and silly and wonderful place. Inanimate things come to life. A man chops himself to bits and his bits are replaced by tin. Bugs become highly magnified and thoroughly educated. Monkeys fly. Kalidahs want to eat you. A little girl (get Judy Garland out of your head, Dorothy is about six when she first comes to Oz) has the drive and determination to travel to the Emerald City and out again and back and then off to find Glinda. She might get discouraged but she never gives up. Ahlquist knows this. Ahlquist gets the simultaneous wonder and absurdity and terror of it all. Every issue tosses some cool bit of invention and/or smartassedness at you. The diminishing octuplets. Castle Munchausen. The real reason the Scarecrow is alive. Why rich kids get more presents. The time paradoxes. The Cold War Squad. The Lone Gunman and his magic bullet. And so much more.
In 2007 Ahlquist collected and annotated the series in a two volume paperback edition. A definitive one-volume edition, published by Tumbletap Press followed in 2009.