Last weekend Danielle and I went to Borders so Danielle could check out the Buffy graphic novels and I could pick up Watchmen. While in the graphic novel section I started looking around to see what new books were out in this space and I came across Beyond Wonderland and Return to Wonderland, two comics in Zenoscope‘s Grimm Fairy Tales line. From the busty cover on Beyond Wonderland, I thought it might be like Clamp’s Miyuki-chan in Wonderland.
But reading the back cover, I was intrigued. This story sounded a lot more like American McGee’s Alice. I was very curious to see where the writers would go with the Alice story. Tim Burton had already made his movie considerably darker than the Disney version we were all calibrated against. It was certainly a neat idea – what if an older Alice returned to Wonderland. But it was still kept from being too insane for kids, albeit older kids this time around. What if Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland had been rated R? You might have ended up with something like Grimm Fairy Tales’ Alice stories. So I delved into the books. And let me just say that from here on out THERE BE SPOILERS!
Although they have released some new books that take place chronologically before it, the first book you’re meant to read is Return to Wonderland. The book lets you know it’s on a whole different level from the start – the first scene has the original Alice slit her wrists. You then find out she is married with two kids. And things are a bit messed up with her family as you start finding out right away. Her daughter is having sex with her boyfriend and going out to smoke pot. Her son is turned on by graphic violence. Her husband is visiting an abusive prostitute. And she is on the couch catatonic. In fact, throughout most of this book she just sits there with her creepy, creepy rabbit.
Eventually the daughter, Calie, ends up in Wonderland. Like Tim Burton’s movie, it follows the general outline of the Alice in Wonderland that you know, but creepier. She drinks the “drink me” cup and becomes too small, eats the “eat me” cake and becomes too big. She goes through the door and ends up in Wonderland. She meets Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (kinda – but I don’t want to ruin too much for you). She meets the caterpillar and even ends up in the woods with signs everywhere. The authors use this for a chance at a great visual gag.
But, this truly is an insane and evil version of Wonderland. Lest you doubt, THIS is the Cheshire cat:
This series is not just Alice in Wonderland rated R, this is Alice in Wonderland as horror movie. Everywhere Calie turns she finds people out to kill or rape her. No one is trustworthy and it takes her a little bit to catch onto that. Eventually you learn that when he mother went into Wonderland part of her psyche stayed there and that’s why she’s been so weird in the real world. Now Wonderland wants to do the same to Calie. When she finally escapes from Wonderland, her mother commits suicide in the real world. Then Calie meets her grandfather who tells her the true nature of Wonderland and why it’s so hellish – it is an alternate dimension that wants to take over ours. We must sacrifice a child every generation to keep Wonderland from coming into the real world. Things get a little more complicated in the second book and I think I need to reread this one, especially this part. When Calie returns home, her brother has killed her father because he believes the father’s philandering has caused the mother’s suicide. In a nod to Through the Looking Glass, Calie pushes her brother through a mirror into Wonderland. She hopes that this will both keep him from jail for killing his father and allow him to be the child sacrifice for their generation. She escapes to NYC with her boyfriend.
The second book, Beyond Wonderland is nothing like what you’d expect from the book cover I have up there. It has almost nothing to do with Alice and Calie doesn’t even go to Wonderland. Yes, it’s a great fan service cover, but quite deceptive. At any rate, in this book we find out the fate of her brother. Namely, he becomes the new Mad Hatter and he resents his sister for sending him to this madhouse. As Wonderland begins to merge with the real world (because something about the brother as the sacrifice doesn’t take), the book becomes even more like a horror movie. People all around Calie start to die and then eventually she is pursued. Another guy who claims that HE is her grandfather and the previous guy is her great-grandfather (see, this is why I need to reread these books), tells her that the first story is a lie and that Wonderland has actually been feeding on these sacrifices. It ends on a huge cliffhanger that I’m not about to spoil, but let’s just say that I can’t wait for the third book to come out so I can see what happens!
It has become cliche to talk about how Watchmen changed the comic book landscape. It was one of the first graphic novels and its dark view of the comic book world lead to reboots of everything from Batman to Spider-Man in a darker guise. It was both a sign of the times (the 80s) and a sign that an entire generation had grown up on comic books and wanted to keep reading them, but not if they were going to be all cheesy and kiddie. One innovative thing Watchmen did was to tell the backstory, not as a flashback, but as a series of newspaper clippings, book excerpts, and in-world advertisements. This legacy continues in newer titles. For example, in Beyond Wonderland part of the story is told through Alice’s diary:
and Calie’s blog. (as well as her brother’s blog)
The great thing about using Calie’s blog is that you also get a feel for her personality via the graphic design of her blog.
So, what do I think of this series? Well, the good thing is that I want to see how it ends. So the story is compelling enough and they left it on enough of a cliff hanger that I want to get the last book. That said, neither this series nor the Tim Burton movie have quite given me what I was looking for. Tim Burton’s movie is mostly about how Alice needs to grow up and become assertive. She grows as a woman and it works. In a sense. that movie could have taken place in any fictional universe, Burton just happened to choose Alice in Wonderland. With Grimm Fairy Tales, they had the ability to go adult and, for example, have the Red Queen be truly murderous or perhaps have the Jaberwocky a truly gruesome creature. I’m having a bit of trouble getting across exactly what they could have done differently, but I’m left feeling as though I’ve asked someone to scratch an itch on my back and they’ve scratched every part of my back but the part that itches.
I guess it also helps to confess that I do not like horror movies. The violence tends to feel too gratuitous. Perhaps what I wanted was a book that explored how an adult would see Wonderland. It needn’t be overly sexual (although a little would be ok) nor overly violent (again, a little is fine). But I felt that even though Tim Burton’s character was old enough to get married, she still was quite a bit childlike (although I do guess that’s part of the point of the movie). It’s hard to give a definitive recommendation on this graphic novel series without haven’t read the last one. It’s possible that the ending will leave me unsatisfied. But I do think they have done a really good job in taking the Alice mythology into a new direction. Wonderland not as a dreamland, but as a demonic dimension is a pretty neat basis for a horror series. If you take a look at the Zenoscope website you can see that their artists specialize in fan service covers that, while likely attracting some readers, tends to mislead about the tone of the story inside. I do have to worn you about the following with my recommendation – treat this as if it were a rated R movie. It has strong profanity, it has nudity (although it is not porn – they go to great lengths to have objects covering all parts what would be covered by a revealing bathing suit), drug use (for two pages), and I’m sure some other stuff that’s pretty bad. So don’t read it if you’re opposed to seeing rated R movies for religious or other reasons. And DON’T let your kids read this unless you are sure they are mature enough to handle the content and the images. It’s vivid enough that I’m surprised I didn’t have nightmares last night (and I almost never have nightmares).