Sean Benner & Nick Winand Head West of Oz! (DINK 2018)

Written by Neil Greenaway

Sean Benner & Nick Winand at DINK 2018.

Sean Benner & Nick Winand at DINK 2018.

West of Oz is an all-ages, western themed retelling of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz story produced by the Colorado-based White Stag Productions. Featuring a bounty hunting Dorothy Gale, a Munchkinland full of revolutionaries, and a fresh take on the mythology, the book is aimed squarely at bringing more young readers into the world of Oz while also doing it's part to improve the role of female representation in comics. At the 2018 Denver Independent Comic & Arts Expo in April, I was able to sit down and speak with Sean Benner and Nick Winand - the creators (author and artist, respectively) of the West of Oz series. Having just debuted the second and third issues as well as a trade paperback, the pair had quite a bit to talk about.

West of Oz #1, cover by Nick Winand.

Neil Greenaway: First off can I get just a brief synopsis of your book? What is West of Oz?

Sean Benner: For us we wanted to remake something form our childhood in a non-gritty, non-dramatic way. We wanted to take something we really loved and bring it to a new audience that isn’t as familiar with it. So, I grew up loving escapist fiction for children like Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Willie Wonka. All of that I loved and so the first thing I thought of was the Wizard of Oz, and we thought what would be the most cheesy, dark, gritty version of that world? And we thought of Dorothy Gale, Bounty Hunter. That would be the most ‘Oh, this is so hardcore!’ version. So, we took that idea and turned it into an all ages action/adventure story. We tried to keep as much content from the original novel as we could and really make something that anyone could pick up and read through and get a new take on the Wizard of Oz.

NG: All right, and where did you come into that Nick?

Nick Winand: Well actually we went to the Art Institute here in Denver and we decided we wanted to make a real property and push something out that was complete and finished. Sean wrote it, I kind of helped him co-write it, but it was mainly him. I started doing the art. And Jay Peteranetz actually got me into comics. I didn’t care about them at first, but he taught me how comics work, and I thought I might as well give it a shot. So we got together and did it in school, while in college, and knocked out the first issue.

NG: And now here at DINK 2018 you guys have got the 2nd issue and a new trade paperback, correct?

Nick: Correct.

Sean: Yeah. All in the last year, since DINK 2017 was the first thing we ever tabled at, our first convention - and we had no book for it. But in the last year we have put out three issues and a trade paperback just in time for DINK this year.

The West of Oz character sheet, from Sean Benner & Nick Winand.

NG: And is this a series that you have a definitive ending to? Or could you see this ongoing, is this something you could keep adding to?

Sean: I think from a writing perspective, we have encapsulated only the first novel in our first 9 issues, the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. There are 14 Oz novels written by L. Frank Baum and there are over 50 Wizard of Oz novels all together. We would love to continue with a new story, but we want to make sure each one is encapsulated enough that you could buy the TPB and feel like you get a whole book from beginning to end. And for Nick, he’s got so many characters that we haven’t got to use yet. Oz is much wider than what we have got to show so far.

NG: Now, is that problematic for you Nick? Are you trying to stick to the original interpretations of these characters or are you trying to make them your own?

Nick: That’s a good question. Because I like Wizard of Oz and I care about it. I don’t want to stray too far from it. Of course we always have to give a nod to L. Frank Baum, but at the same time his writing and my character design... It always ends up being a deviation - in a good way, to something that is new and fresh. It has been a new take on it, yes - but with the spirit of staying true to his story. Every time I do it I try to create something brand new.

NG: If you guys are to keep pushing forward, would you try to do a novel for each series?

Sean: The next book in the series is about the search for the rightful heir to the throne - which is supposed to be the queen. She was a young princess who had a spell cast on her that turned her into a boy, who was then sold to work on a farm. Her name is Tip. We snuck her into issue 2, to put a nod and to show that we do want to do that book. I would love nothing more than to write a transgender 'search for the king' book. That is an amazing opportunity to me and Baum wrote it in 1902. To me that is mind blowing and still pertinent today. I would love to do that one. And Nick has helped me work out a lot of what happened before our book. L. Frank Baum, every time someone asked about the origins of Oz, he would give them a new answer. So, we also have a script for a prequel book. I think Oz - if Nick is not sick of it, we would do Oz books for as long as people want to read it.

The West of Oz crew! DANIELLE HINES, SEAN BENNER, JEREMY TAVERAS, and Nick Winand at DINK 2018.

Nick: I think the only reason I would get sick of it is if people didn’t like it anymore. If everybody got tired of what we were doing, maybe I would need to try something else. But if people like it and are receptive to it, I say we’ll keep pushing until it’s no longer valid.

NG: Nice. You had talked a little bit about a prequel. If you did a prequel, would that in any way be based on one of the stories Baum told? Or would you try to make that story your own?

Sean: So, L. Frank Baum really mythologized it a lot. He says the Wizard came to Oz – there’s a couple different versions of how he got there – but once he got there, he met the King and became the advisor. Then there was a war with the witches, and that’s where the King and the Queen died and the Wizard took over. So, he laid the framework over the 14 books. "Oh, I mentioned this here, and this here, and this here." Having read all of them, you can really piece it together. But we really added to it, too. Our main character would be the Woodsman because he was a normal guy, a normal logger, and then he got drafted into the war of the witches. That backstory really maps the story out for us to lead directly to the events of our first book. You’ll see the Woodsman, just like in the original - is sort of trapped in his house in the woods and he needs someone else’s help to escape. So the last panels of our prequel would be him going into that house and getting trapped. Narratively, we want to keep the same group of characters and make it 20 years earlier maybe? No, longer than that. So we can do a lot of, "Oh look, it’s that lady who had the cow in issue two, but now she’s a little girl! Oh hey, that’s that witch when she was a lot younger." We have a lot of, would you say backstory for the witches?

An unfortunate beginning for the witch. An interior page from West of Oz, written by Sean Benner with art from Nick Winand.

Nick: Yeah, especially with that war that goes on, that the Woodsman is drafted into. That whole war itself is huge. It’s just one giant episodic tale by itself.

Sean: And a lot of times we feel like our witches - like our first witch is a gag appearance. She is on one page and she looks up and sees something falling and says, ‘is that a house?’ and gets crushed.

Nick: That’s all you get to see of her really.

Sean: Yeah. But she would be a very central character in the prequel book.

NG: Now with Oz recently being revisited in Wicked and trying to tell the backstory of the wicked witch, do you take anything from that? Or is that completely aside?

Sean: Ah, I loved Wicked. Have you ever seen it?

Nick: Actually, I haven’t seen it.

Sean: So yeah, I have read the first two books and then I started the Lion Among Men but I haven’t finished that yet. I think Gregory Maguire's version is brilliant. But I think he is doing a fundamentally different thing where he is adding a drama element, and we’re taking out drama and adding comedy. But his Elphaba is amazing. I think any novel or story that’s going to be based around a strong female representation has to have a character fairly similar to his Elphaba because she was so well written.

NG: There’s another question: in the original Oz, Dorothy is the picture of naivety when she starts and she grows into a stronger character through her experiences to the point that in the end you would almost think she could deal with real life. Since you guys are writing her as a bounty hunter from the beginning, is there a reason she is that strong at the start?

Nick: The main reason why we did that is so we could thrust her into a world where there is more action and adventure that she can deal with from the get go. That way the war she is dealing with at the very beginning is more dangerous, more exciting, more fun to be part of.

West of Oz Vol.1: No Place Like Home, cover by Nick Winand.

Sean: Yeah. Less of the ramp-up till you can get to the part where she can deal with life, and we did realize that was her central development arc. So, our main arc for Dorothy has her feeling that can solve her family and everyone’s problems, realizing there’s things that she can’t do alone, and being willing to ask for help. Our book starts out, right at the beginning, someone offers her help and says I can help you pay for that. You don’t have to worry about your family’s ranch if you don’t want to. A guy comes along and says, "Hey, you should be getting married soon anyway. Here’s an opportunity to take care of your problems and take the easy way out." And she is like, "I can take care of it myself."  Then at the very end of the arc, when she goes back to Kansas we definitely touch on that. It wasn’t just something we threw in, those are our bookends. The representation of her in the real world thinking I can take on anything myself, and then her getting back and realizing there are things you need to accept help from others for. I really liked that arc. Bigger than that though, I read through the novel and just took notes. Dorothy is an 8-year-old girl and she’s involved in 4 homicides of people and they kill well over 200 animals in that original book. I just couldn’t put an 8-year-old in that place. I would also hate to do an adult female character who is a damsel, because I am married to a woman who is a military veteran. My family is full of women with service time also and so I don’t know how to write that damsel character. I know how to write a strong female who 'don’t need no man'. I can do that. I have been around those women all my life and they have all been married, so they’ve gone through this personal arc I am trying to write as well. I have a lot of reference for that. And for me - I think it’s important to give little girls something to represent them, but there’s a lot of women who could use a strong representation out there as well.

NG: If you guys are trying to stick close to the novels but trying to make it your own as well, are there any additions? Any new characters, for instance?

Nick: I don’t think so…

West of Oz TPB credit page, art by Nick Winand.

Sean: Yours really. Nick comes up with characters to add into the scenes, one an issue at least and they are more like-

Nick: Side characters

Sean: Environmental characters almost.

Nick: Participants. I think we stay true to the story overall - the main thread of the story. But aesthetically, character design wise, we stick to those main beasts that are close to what he first envisioned. The ones I add in, they are just an accent to what L. Frank Baum originally created.

Sean: And I think they are some of the most popular things. We have very stylized munchkins, dressed in the garb of Mexican revolutionaries. They are having their war against the witch, trying to fight for independence. They look like revolutionary Muppets or like wild west bandit\Muppets. I think the only major character change we have made is that we left Toto in Kansas. We went through the book and the only thing he says, ever on any of the pages is "Arf". He usually says it multiple times on every page. I am not going to letter that that many times in 9 books.

Nick: It’s useless for us. Everything else is pretty much the same exact way the original book was

Sean: And then it gives us another reason for Dorothy to pine for her home. She misses her doggie. Just one more reason to get her home, right?

NG: You guys had the first issue a year ago, you’ve got the second issue and the trade.

West of Oz #2, cover by Morgan Beem.

Sean: And the third issue. We got Morgan Beem, she does The Family Tree for Image right now, she is doing great. She did the cover for issue 2. Then Jorge Corona, he’s been doing Number One with a Bullet for Image, he did the issue 3 cover. We were really blessed to get them to agree to work on our project and they really enjoyed it. So, when we found out we could get them for covers I thought - no, we are doing the next 2 issues, we can’t just do one. If we got both of them we’re going to do 2 and 3. We’ll just push.

NG: So, what is included in the trade?

Sean: We included the first 3 issues, a cover gallery, a little write up I put in there, and then we put a special thanks page for all the people who were exception donors during our Kickstarter. We really couldn’t have got off the ground without those people. We produced the book all digitally without any pay or compensation and then monetized it. We were going to put it out either way, but we couldn’t have made all 3 unless we had strong supporters.

NG: And has the support been pretty strong? Do you guys hear good feedback?

Sean: I always make anyone that wants to buy the book at our table look at it and I say if you don’t like it don’t buy it. I only want people who like it to buy it. Our largest fanbase so far has definitely been in Mexico.

Nick: We have a huge fanbase down there.

Sean: Yeah. A lot of digital rewards and digital packages we offered sold great but when we did our first physical book we didn’t offer fulfillment to there. So, our next projects we are trying to stretch outside of the US. It seems like maybe people are watching the Wizard of Oz more often in other countries right now.

West of Oz #3, cover by Jorge Corona.

Nick: It seems like a lot of the people who have the exceptional fulfillment of the Kickstarter tend to be outside of the US in the first place.

Sean: Yeah, a lot of UK, Australia, we even had one in India, a couple in Sweden and Denmark.

Nick: Europe in general likes us. But our main focus besides getting it out here in the states has been Mexico. They loves us and we want to be able to give them what they need when we do the next Kickstarter.

Sean: And a big thing for us is we are really trying to get the book in front of as many publishers as we can. And we know you have to have 3 issues before anyone will even consider picking you up. So, we made sure to get our first three in a TPB, and we have shopped it around. We are going to go to Rose and Emerald City this year and hit up Image and IDW and Boom and everyone else. Really the next push is to show we don’t need their help. Maybe that will encourage them to help us.

NG: What happens moving forward? What’s the plan for the next issue?

Nick: We are actually deciding that stage right now, figuring it out.

Sean: Yeah, right now with the middle of April and we’ve done enough work together and enough crowdfunding that we could have a new Kickstarter out as soon as the beginning of May. We could be working on the Kickstarter for issue 4, 5 and 6 and then we would have that out around or before September. I would hope. If we can start it in May we can get it out before September, and then there will only be the final 3 left - 7, 8 and 9. We plan to have those done before DINK next year. So, we should have all 9 issues done in the next 364 days. Oh my God that sounded terrible!

West of Oz: all three issues and the trade paperback at DINK 2018.

Nick: That’s crazy. It’s nuts. I started sweating.

NG: That about covers it for the questions but I do have one more to close. If people wanted to see more from you guys, if people want to find you online where are they going to look?

Sean: The easiest place to find us is either Facebook or search West of Oz on Kickstarter we are the only one that will come up. We do a lot of our news on both sites, so either Facebook or Kickstarter. Our twitter account is woefully unattended but we have a twitter, it’s @westofozcomic.

NG: All right. Is there anything else that you would add?

Nick: No, I just want to say thanks for interviewing us today, it’s been really good.

Sean: And thanks to everyone who likes the book. It’s a really great thing to make, and it’s a fun thing to hear people have feedback for us.

NG: Awesome. Thank you both for your time.

Sean Benner & Nick Winand at DINK 2018!