It’s amazing how many artists, authors, filmmakers, poets, and creative personalities feel a need to put their own distinctive stamp on Alice’s Wonderland. From creative stage productions to creepy films to horrible television shows, there’s just something about Alice. She casts a spell over us. Lewis Carroll knew not what he wrought when he brought Wonderland into our world, and various Wonderland-related permutations have continued unabated ever since. The newest addition to the Alice oeuvre, however, doesn’t feature that white pinafored girl at all. Author Tommy Kovac and Sonny Liew had an entirely new spin in mind when they produced six single-issue comics simply entitled Wonderland. I ask you this: Who is the one character in the original story that is alluded to and but never seen? If you’ll cast your mind back it will come to you. Mary Ann. The White Rabbit at one point mistakes Alice for his own maid. So without further ado Kovac and Liew decided to tell her story, now collected in a single handsome volume for public consumption. Wonderland has its own missteps and shortcomings, but by and large it comes off as a pleasant ode to Carroll’s vision, with a fun storyline and art that stands up to its material.
Cast your mind back to the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is the tale of the maid, Mary Ann. Returning to the White Rabbit’s home, Mary Ann hears conflicting reports of an "Alice monster" that wreaked havoc throughout the kingdom in her absence. When a misunderstanding leads to the Queen of Hearts mistaking the White Rabbit as a traitor, it’s up to Mary Ann and the rabbit to escape not just the queen, but a Jabberwocky, a Cheshire Cat, and the sudden shocking appearance of the Queen of Spades. Worst of all, some of the local animalia are under the distinct impression that Mary Ann will fill Alice’s shoes (so to speak) and go against the monarchy. Quite a lot to deal with for a girl who feels more comfortable cleaning palaces than living in them.
When you think of Carroll-inspired comics, your mind goes one of three ways. You will start to imagine something like Brian Talbott’s jaw-droppingly lovely Alice in Sunderland (a must-purchase for any true Alice fan), the sad little Hatter M books, or you will think of the various lamentable manga editions of the original story, utterly lacking in creativity or wit. Wonderland is different. Right from the start it throws you off with a girl dressed not unlike Alice but in what is clearly a maid’s attire. Then you notice that there’s a distinctive Disney-like smell to the enterprise, but to what extent does the book owe its characters’ personalities to Disney’s version of the tale? Well, there is look of each character right off the bat. The Cheshire Cat is the same purple and pink striped trickster from Disney’s film (sans the Sterling Holloway voice, of course). The caterpillar is now a butterfly, also per the movie. Really, everyone looks similar to their Disneyfied counterpart, but it’s not as if they are stills lifted from the movie. Artist Liew has given each one his own distinctive touch. They’ve been elongated, stretched, and manipulated. They wear the colors of Disney, but the flavor is distinctly different.
What’s more, as an artist Liew has a keen sense of how to produce a good comic. He’s received Eisner nominations before, and some may be best familiar with his work on the Flight anthologies. His panels constantly change angles and views of the action. He’s a real fan of the sudden silhouette, and there’s even a hint of manga about his surprised Mary Ann. The result is a lush, handsome hardcover volume, full of color and thick sturdy pages. One does wonder who inked and colored this book (it gives no indication) so we will just have to assume that that was Mr. Liew as well.
There is a bit of Disney influence beyond the look, however. Certainly it does not care to introduce many characters from the original story that did not make the movie’s cut. You will find no stories involving the Griffin or the Mock Turtle (though they do peek out from an early sequence). No Dodo. You do, however, get to see the Duchess and the Cook, neither of whom ever made the original cut. There is a Jabberwock, a strange cousin to Tenniel’s original. And the three little girls who lived at the bottom of a treacle well? They may be my favorite characters here, being that they are creepy as all get out.
Kovac’s writing isn’t particularly Carroll-esque, which is fine. It doesn’t have to be. He does make the occasional lunge for a Carroll-like sensibility, however. There is at least one original poem in this book that seems somewhat inspired by the original Alice, but Kovac is really at his best when he has characters making off-handed comments. For example, when the Queen of Spades commands Mary Ann to recite a poem her response is, “Oh, I never learnt anything fun or frivolous as a poem. But I could recite instructions on how to get hair-oil stains out of an antimacassar.” That kind of thing. I like Kovac best when he’s at his most peculiar. I would have liked him to pluck out more words like “antimacassar” and sprinkle them about the text too.
As for the story itself, it’s fine. The central point is whether or not Mary Ann would consent to ruling Wonderland if the other kings and queens were gone. She seemingly receives help from the never visualized Alice in this reluctant quest, which is more than a bit confusing. I appreciated that Alice, by this point, is now onto her Looking Glass adventure and has no need to return to Wonderland. Just the same, it’s not entirely realistic that Alice would even know who Mary Ann was, let alone aid her in any manner. That’s just one brief problem with the conclusion, however. By and large it holds together. The ending is a bit jumbled (throwing in a Cheshire Cat psychedelic experience is fairly unnecessary) but not too damaging.
On the back of the dust jacket for Wonderland there sits a quote from Carroll’s original text. “And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversation?” Clever jacks. They knew what they were up to. Altogether Wonderland acts as a rather good introduction to the proper Alice in Wonderland in addition to being a fun story in and of itself. As for the Disney-look of the piece, be so good as to remember that Dali himself had a hand in that particular version. The newest addition to the Alice oeuvre, and certainly worth a peek.
On shelves March 17th.
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By the way, in case the Disney connection to this story is confusing to you, I learned this fact from The Comics Reporter, "If the advertisement on the back cover is to be believed, Slave Labor Group is doing four comics based on Disney properties: Haunted Mansion, Gargoyles, Tron and Wonderland." SLG originally published the issues of Wonderland that came out prior to this full volume. So there you go.