Marv Wolfman's & Ted White's The Oz Encounter
In August 2005, Hunger Tiger Press released The Oz Encounter, a hardcover edition of a story that originally appeared as Volume 5 in Weird Heroes: A New American Pulp (Pyramid, 1977), a mixed anthology/novel series. Hungry Tiger publishes books, music and comics on the theme of the Oz universe, as initially envisioned by L. Frank Baum.
The original Oz Encounter resulted from an inadvertent collaboration between Ted White - science fiction writer and former editor of Amazing and Fantastic - and Marv Wolfman of The New Teen Titans fame. Ted White came up with the idea of putting his character, parapsychologist Doctor Raymond Phoenix, into the mind of a comatose girl who dreams of the Land of Oz.
White first introduced Doc Phoenix in an anonymous short story in Volume 2 of the Weird Heroes series. Doc Phoenix, modeled after the legendary pulp hero, Doc Savage , is a polymath with a great physique and superhuman fighting skills but no magical powers. Also a self-made millionaire - not out of greed, but rather to fund his world-saving research, Phoenix has a superior intellect that lends itself to parapsychological exploits:
Because of Doc's unique mental abilities, he'd quickly discovered that anyone other than he, attempting to enter a mind, would instantly accept the patient's illusions. They would be sucked into the patient's thought patterns. Only Doc was able to resist and move freely in another's mind.
Wolfman finished the project, adding his own touches in this, his first novel. In the tradition of Doc Savage's "Fabulous Five," Wolfman attempts to create an ensemble feel for this adventure. Doc Phoenix's "brain trust" includes Linda Monteleone, a brilliant spy turned good, George Steffan, a brilliant attorney, and 'Moose' Moynihan, a brilliant programmer/theoretical physicist. Yet these sidekicks' banter is both implausible and painful to read:
"It seems to me," Steffan butted in, "that our bomber just may be a bit too knowledgeable."
"What are you trying to say, shyster? And how about saying it in English?" [asked Moose.]
"I am saying, my rather large and grotesque friend, that I would be inclined to believe the only persons sufficiently familiar with the working operations of our complex are those who work here."
"See? I told you he couldn't say it in English. C'mon, lawyer, tell it to us straight."
"Very well, Moose. For the children among us--are you paying attention, Moynihan?--this would appear to be an inside job."
"You sure, mouthpiece?"
The Oz Encounter falls within the tradition of science fiction stories incorporating elements of the Oz universe by such well-known authors as Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson and Philip José Farmer. This particular book manages to recreate Oz, but with added menace. Divergences from the Baum series are satisfactorily explained as products of the comatose child's unconscious mind, springing from her relationship with her father.
Wolfman's writing style, to my great disappointment, is straight out of comic books. And not the more sophisticated, thoughtful graphic novels I started collecting in college, either. Instead, I encountered my worst stereotype of comic book writing. Inspired by pulp fiction should mean daring prose, right? Sadly, the intriguing setting and suspenseful plot are burdened with stilted verbiage:
Doc backed off, rising to the surface, then looked about for land; there was none as far as the eye could see in any direction.
The water began to shift, hardening with every moment. Doc scrambled onto a floating log while the thickening process advanced. Within a minute the surface below Doc had been turned to gravel that Phoenix was able to walk on without discomfort.
The villains, except for the Shaggy Man, are not sufficiently developed to be memorable. One brainless but nearly unbeatable henchman does seem prescient of those frustrating video game bad guys you have to shoot fifty million times before you can move on to the next level. The Shaggy Man gone evil is cool, but his motivations turn out to be external to the Oz universe. This story, ultimately, does not take place in the "real" Oz, but in a young Oz fan's mental projection.
Yet, The Oz Encounter may very well please fans of the Oz aesthetic. The pages are attractively laid out with a striking phoenix emblem on each page whenever Doc Phoenix is in the "real" universe. Each time Doc enters the child's dreams, the layout switches to the same font and chapter headings used in Baum's original series of Oz books.
Stephen Fabian's black-and-white illustrations, in contrast, are exciting examples of pulp sensibility: dark and mysterious (though without any bodice-ripping, in keeping with the children's book influence).
Like the story itself, this hardcover volume is an oddly choppy mix of pulp novel and Oz nostalgia. On Wolfman's website he admits he hasn't read The Oz Encounter since he wrote it almost thirty years ago. I wonder why.
(The Oz Encounter. Hungry Tiger Press, San Diego. 2005. $24.95)
 alt.Pulp FAQ. Michael Rogero Brown. On line at http://thepulp.net/PulpFAQ/index.html. Last updated in 1995.
 Review of Philip José Farmer's Barnstormer of Oz. Michael Korolenko and Katherine Neville. The Baum Bugle #76, Spring 1983. Reprinted at http://www.pjfarmer.com/reviews.htm.
 Today's Views (blog). Marv Wolfman. On line at http://www.marvwolfman.com/todaysviews.html.