It’s a curious irony that Charles Dodgson is an extremely difficult writer to follow, and yet writers and artists of all kinds are constantly attempting to do just that.
Alice in Wonderland adaptations, parodies, reimaginings, homages, allusions and riffs are as common as can be, yet relatively few of them end up being worthwhile. That’s part of what makes Tommy Kovac and Sonny Liew’s Wonderland (Disney Press) graphic novel such a joy to read.
As difficult as following Dodgson may be, Kovac and Liew actually had an even more difficult task still. Their Wonderland was originally published as a six-part comic book series from SLG, part of the publisher’s 2005 licensing agreement with Disney (along with Haunted Mansion, Gargoyles and Tron), so not only were they doing a comic based on the original Wonderland books, but they were doing a comic based on a beloved, classic animated adaptation of those beloved, classic books.
That can’t have been an easy balancing act to strike, and yet if the creators were sweating at all during the creation of the work, it sure doesn’t come through in the finished product: They’ve produced a comic book that should amuse rather than insult fans of the original prose books, a comic that continues elements of the Dinsey movie without coming across as a cheap cash-in along the lines of the company’s direct-to-DVD sequels and prequels, and, perhaps most remarkably, a comic book that is recognizably theirs.
You won’t find Liew repressing his own style to serve the decades old character designs for the 1951 movie; this is Liew drawing his version of that version of the characters, moving them around the pages as if they were his own characters, and, with Kovac, creating new ones to fit in with them.
(Above: Liew’s version of Disney’s version of The Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse and Cheshire Cat, with original-to-this-series characters Mary Ann and The Queen of Spades)
They wisely eschew following Alice around Wonderland, and find another little human girl to use as their protagonist, although they didn’t have to look very far. Their was another one in the book (and the movie) already. Sort of.
That would be Mary Ann, the White Rabbit’s maid, whom he originally mistakes Alice for when he first sees her (One of the recurring jokes in Wonderland is that to the various talking animals, all human girls look alike).
Mary Ann takes her job quite seriously. In fact, her dedication to cleanliness crosses over into obsessive compulsive disorder and comes out on the absurd other side: She scrubs china so hard the patterns come of and tries to dust the dirt from dirt paths.
Her obsession gets both her and the White Rabbit in trouble when the Queen of Hearts is in the midst of accusing the Rabbit of treason and accidentally knocks a tart on to Mary Ann’s clean white apron. Snapping at the sight of a stain, she seizes the Queen’s scepter and brains her with it.
From there, the story is something of a chase and something of a romp through the environs of Wonderland, with the Cheshire Cat orchestrating events to keep Mary Ann and the Rabbit in trouble and The Queen of Hearts after them, for his own purposes.
The Tweedles, The Jabberwocky, The Duchess and the Cook, the Mad Tea Party and The Caterpillar, not turned into The Butterfly, are all encountered, as are the banished King and Queen of Spades, a deer tailor named Edward and sundry little talking animals.
What plot there is eventually coalesces around who should sit on the throne of Wonderland, but the narrative is mostly a dream-like series of encounters organized around pre-determined hot spots, with an extremely different lead character reacting extremely differently to situations Alice was faced with.
While Kovac obviously doesn’t engage in as much wordplay as Dodgson did, there are several notable instances that honor that aspect quite well (“Have you tried moth-balls?” Mary Ann asks the tailor when she sees the cloud of moths flapping around his shop. “Yes, and they were grand affairs,” he answers).
Thinking about it now, I’m having a difficult time thinking of another set of creators who have been given such a challenging task in producing a licensed comic book, and met it with such a superior answer as they do in Wonderland. In addition to its many pleasures as a work of fiction to be enjoyed, Wonderland is also a how-to book for the making of licensed comics.