Daily Illuminator

September 25, 2015: Oz And Ends: John Kovalic Talks Munchkin Oz

Steve Jackson Games CEO Phil Reed phoned me, last summer, anxious to discuss an idea he had: Munchkin Oz. Phil is a bit of a mad genius. Munchkin Oz was something he'd wished to do for a while, and he asked if I'd draw up a cover, to try and sell folks on the concept.

I'd grown up in England, and L. Frank Baum's classic books weren't things kids read there, for the most part. There was the movie, yes, but Phil was adamant we'd be keeping to the books. I was intrigued. I was also in London, but I travel with pens (Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pen, thanks for asking), pencils (Palomino 602s) and paper (4-ply Bristol Board). "Emergency cartooning" is a thing that happens more often than you might think, where Munchkin is concerned.

Munchkin Oz Kovalic Oz sketchAt the time, what I knew of Oz you could fit in a silver slipper. Now, I was pretty sure there was a Tick-Tock man involved (though I didn't know it was spelled "Tik-Tok"), a Pumpkinhead, someone named "Ozma," and that the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion were all fair game. I sketched up two covers: one, featuring Dorothy riding the Lion, while the other centered around Spyke (Munchkin's main mascot) with Jack Pumpkinhead, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man.

The Green Light was given on the second cover (it was deemed "more Munchkin"), and I inked it up. Then I started reading. Baum's Oz books were a revelation, to me. They are, simply put, brilliant, full of timeless wit and wordplay, and unbounded imagination. The characters were hugely entertaining: Tip; Ozma; H.M. Wogglebug T.E.; General Jinjur; the Gnomes; the Wheelers; the Sawhorse; the Gump - the freaking GUMP - and on, and on, and on! I adored it all.

The original illustrations (by both W.W. Denslow, and then, from the second book on, John R. Neil), were also wonderful. However, they felt very Victorian, to me: lovely, but dated, and of a definite, long-removed time. It was not a look I felt was right for Munchkin. But I was stymied for a another direction. When we found out Munchkin Oz had gotten the go-ahead, the deadline was fearfully short. I hadn't settled on an overall look for the characters, yet, save the few who were on the cover. If ever there was a time to panic, this was it.

Munchkin Oz: Not The Oz You Are Looking For Fortunately, it was about then that I discovered Marvel's six Eisner-award-winning Oz graphic novels. And they blew me away. Written by Eric Shanower (I've been a fan of his writing since "Age of Bronze"), and illustrated by the ridiculously talented Skottie Young (one of the great comic art stylists of today), I'd peeked at these books a few years ago, but never got around to picking them up. Until now. Shanower is something of a Baum disciple, and the graphic novels are as lively as the original books. At the same time, Young's inspired graphic imagination brought Baum's world to animated, immediate life.

This was an Oz for the 21st century – wickedly playful and smart, beautifully rendered with energy and excitement. It was the affirmation I needed to break from the 1900s illustrations, just go my own way, and roll with it. In other words, treat it as I'd treat any other Munchkin project: by having a blast! It was insane, the amount of fun I had with these drawings. Of course, Munchkin Oz wouldn't be what it is without Andrew Hackard's own ridiculous wit thrown into the mix. After a day of drawing Wheelers and Winkies, seeing a Curse card like This is Not the Oz You're Looking For would leave me giggling helplessly. (Or possibly it was the deadline pressure – sometimes it's hard tell.)

Munchkin DoorsAnd as always, Steve Jackson Games' incredible art department took my silly sketches, and made them look far better than I could ever hope. The colors on the Munchkin Oz cards really pop, adding depth and dimension to the original art. I'm always grateful to work with such hugely talented folks, but in this particular case, they really bought out the colors and craziness of this truly magical land. I've been reading the Baum Oz books now to my six-year-old daughter, at nights, and she's enthralled with them – as kids have been for the last century, and longer. It just took me a bit of time to catch up to what most kids have known all along. The world of Oz is, indeed, wonderful, and I'm so glad I got a chance to get to know it.

-- John Kovalic, Munchkin illustrator

(Find Munchkin Oz at your local Target store or online here.)

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