Peacekeeping in Oz

The final Oz novel by L. Frank Baum, Glinda of Oz, opens with Ozma and Dorothy deciding to pay a visit to the sorceress Glinda the Good. While there, Dorothy takes a peek at Glinda’s book that provides news of everything happening everywhere in the world. We learn that the book does not provide detailed accounts, but limits itself to the headlines and a brief summary, which does seem to foreshadow the news results from modern search engines. While browsing through the book, Dorothy learns that two of Oz’s peoples, the Skeezers and the Flatheads are preparing to go to war. Ozma promptly decides to put a stop to this nonsense. After a stop by the Emerald City to put the Scarecrow in charge during her absence, Ozma and Dorothy leave on a peacekeeping mission.

Dorothy and Ozma’s first destination is the mountain home of the Flatheads. As the name implies, these people all have flattened heads. In fact, their heads are flattened just above their eyebrows, which leaves no room for brains. So, they carry their brains around in cans. The Supreme Dictator of the Flatheads claims to be the smartest of the bunch because he has more than one can of brains, all because he took brains from others of his kind. It turns out, the Supreme Dictator is none too happy with Ozma’s interference and plans to imprison her. Thanks to some quick thinking on Ozma’s part, the two princesses escape and make their way to the island home of the Skeezers.

The Skeezers’ island has a great, glass dome and can be lowered into the lake. Queen Cu-ee-oh of the Skeezers isn’t much happier about Ozma’s interference and promptly arrests Oz’s monarch and her companion. She then lowers the island below the lake’s surface and commences to launch a submarine assault on the invading Flathead army. During the melee, Queen Cu-ee-oh is transformed into a diamond swan and forgets all the magic she knew to raise and lower the island. Dorothy and Ozma end up trapped and Ozma has no way to untangle the magic that lowered the island into the lake.

Fortunately, Glinda—remember this is a book about Glinda—sees in her big book that Dorothy and Ozma have been taken prisoner. She travels to the Emerald City and meets with the Scarecrow and Ozma’s advisors. They assemble a rescue party that consists of almost every major Oz character to date. This final book of Baum’s has some interesting perspectives on the limitation of magic in Oz and shows that it can’t simply fix every problem one might encounter.

Glinda of Oz was written at the tail end of World War I and was published in 1920, about a year after Baum’s passing. It’s clear he had things he wanted to say about the nature of war and war machines that can’t always be controlled by those who create them. The domed underwater city foreshadows many similar cities in later science fiction and fantasy novels. Although there’s a large rescue party at the end, it isn’t unwieldy. You get nice moments from the characters that make you glad to get to spend a little more time with them.

Although Glinda of Oz is the last of Baum’s Oz novels, it would not be the last Oz novel by a long shot. Baum’s publisher hired a writer named Ruth Plumly Thompson to take over the series. Between her and other authors such as illustrator John R. Neill, the canonical Oz series would continue until it reached forty novels.

Still, the real delight of the Oz series is that it was a series where both girls and boys could go on adventures. What’s more, both young and old could go on adventures. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em weren’t left behind on that Kansas farm while Dorothy had all the fun in a magical country. Those of us who write science fiction and fantasy do well to pay attention to Baum’s lessons. Over these posts exploring his novels, we’ve learned that Baum wasn’t perfect, but he left a series of novels that are still well worth reading. I hope this series has encouraged you to take a look at Baum’s Oz novels. If you have a favorite, I’d love to hear about it.

A Retread in Oz

The Magic of Oz was L. Frank Baum’s penultimate Oz novel. At “lucky” number 13, I expected great things. What I got was a rehash of story elements from earlier novels in the series. Hearkening back to The Road to Oz, it’s once again Ozma’s birthday. As the novel opens, our friends in Oz are scrambling to find the best presents for their beloved ruler. In the meantime, hearkening back to The Emerald City of Oz, our favorite nemesis, the former Nome King Ruggedo, is plotting his revenge on Dorothy and the gang. To achieve his aims, he teams up with a Munchkin lad named Kiki Aru, who lives high atop Mt. Munch. Because the mountain is so steep, the people who inhabit the mountain haven’t interacted much with the other people of Oz. This brought to mind the Frogman and Cayke the Cookie Cook from The Lost Princess of Oz. Even the conflict’s resolution recalls the ending of The Emerald City of Oz.

This is not to say the book lacks fun, it’s just that the best moments are more about the way these characters who have grown to know each other over several books interact than it is about the characters being in new situations. Trot, Cap’n Bill, and the glass cat go on a quest for a magical flower that constantly changes its blooms. Along the way, Trot and Cap’n Bill get into trouble and the glass cat, known for being a self-absorbed creature, must find help and save the day. In the meantime, we get to see Dorothy and the Wizard team up to create a magical birthday present for Ozma. During their quest, they stumble upon the villains trying to stir up trouble among the jungle animals. In a book like this which revisits so many plot threads from earlier novels, one might think the relationship between Dorothy and the Wizard would be hard to distinguish from the relationship between Trot and Cap’n Bill. However, Baum shows his deftness with characters and each set has their own, distinct “uncle-niece” relationship defined by their individual histories.

The Magic of Oz feels like one of those “filler” episodes of a long-running, but popular television show. It doesn’t really do anything to forward the story, but like the best of those episodes, you’re still happy to have spent time with the characters. Sadly, L. Frank Baum suffered a stroke and died about a month before this novel was released. I couldn’t find any information about his health at the time he wrote the novel, but this does feel like the work of a person struggling to provide a satisfying tale to hungry readers. He did write one more novel in the series, which would be published about a year after his death. We’ll pay our final tribute to L. Frank Baum in that post.

Marvel Comics in Oz

While reading L. Frank Baum’s original Oz novels, I discovered that Marvel Comics ran an Oz series from 2009 through 2012. Written by Eric Shanower with art by Skottie Young, the series adapted the first six Oz novels into comic format. Shanower is a long-time Oz fan and knows the books and characters well. He’s also an artist in his own right and I first discovered his work by finding his illustrations of Oz characters, which are strongly inspired by John R. Neill’s illustrations for the original novels.

Skottie Young started at Marvel drawing such titles as Spider-Man: Legend of the Spider Clan, Human Torch, and Venom. He was soon tapped to take on the Oz series. I have to admit, when I first encountered these adaptations the art almost kept me from diving in. It was a little more stylized and, well, cartoonish than my taste in comic book art. However, the more I looked at the art, the more I was reminded of the surreal illustrations Tim Burton drew while imagining The Nightmare Before Christmas. There’s something about the illustrations that’s warm and loving, but just a little creepy, which actually suits the material nicely. I warmed to Young’s style even more after watching a video where he told how Oz helped him find his preferred artistic style. I really love his take on Dorothy, the Wizard, and the Tin Woodsman, along with characters like General Jinjur and Professor H.M. Wogglebug T.E. from the later books. He also does real justice to scary characters like the Wicked Witch of the West and Road to Oz’s terrifying Scoodlers.

The comics are almost word-for-word adaptations of the novels, which means the adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has many notable differences from the famous MGM movie. That said, I noticed that Eric Shanower didn’t slavishly adapt the Oz novels when writing these comics. In his adaptation of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Shanower actually corrects a logic problem in the novel. Where L. Frank Baum gave us a deus ex machina ending, Shanower tweaks the resolution slightly and foreshadows it giving us some plot tension along the way. Yes, Shanower changes Baum, but he shows us how someone who knows and loves an author’s work can make it better. I suspect Baum would have approved.

After reading the six adapted novels, my primary complaint is that they didn’t continue to adapt the rest of Baum’s canon. Still, if you’re looking for a way to quickly see what the larger Oz universe has to offer, the Marvel Oz comics are a good place to jump in. They helped to refresh my memory of the first three novels, which I’d read several years ago. I then had fun seeing Shanower and Skottie’s adaptation of the three novels that began my current journey through Baum’s fantasy series. In 2020, Marvel brought the series out in three digest-sized volumes under the title Oz: The Complete Collection. Copies were available at both my local comic store and my local Barnes and Noble.

The God-Machines of Oz

Over the course of the Oz series, L. Frank Baum introduced quite a few magical items that should give our heroes almost limitless power. These include the magic picture, which allows Princess Ozma, ruler of Oz, to see what’s happening at a given time anywhere in the world, and Glinda the Good’s great record book, which automatically records absolutely every event taking place in the world all the time. And here I thought Santa’s book listing all the naughty and nice children would be enormous! In Book 11 of the series, The Lost Princess of Oz, Baum asks what would happen if these items, which he’s used to create some deus ex machina endings, disappeared along with Oz’s ruler. What transpires is an entertaining quest story as Dorothy and many of her friends seek the lost Ozma.

As soon as Dorothy discovers that Ozma is missing, she gathers characters from many of the Oz books to search high and low through the land to find out who captured the Princess and absconded with the magical items. Not only is the picture gone, but so is the Wizard’s magical bag of tricks. Four parties go on the search. The book largely follows Dorothy’s party, which is the largest. Betsy Bobbin, Button-Bright and Trot join Dorothy, the Patchwork Girl, the Woozy, the Wizard, the Cowardly Lion, and the Sawhorse on a sojourn to the Winkie Country. A suddenly talkative Toto joins the party as well.

Meanwhile in a remote part of the Winkie Country, Cayke the Cookie Cook discovers that her solid gold dishpan has also disappeared. This proves a terrible tragedy, since she can no longer make the awesome cookies she’s known for. So she sets out with the wisest man … er, frog in her part of Oz, the Frogman, to go find out who stole her dishpan.

This feels like one of those books that Baum wrote to please all his fans. He tries to work in every great character from the ten books before this and he actually does a pretty respectable job. I admit, I found myself cheering a bit when Cap’n Bill appeared and was left in charge of the Emerald City while everyone was away. The only person I really missed was Pollychrome, the Rainbow’s daughter. Not only does this book give us a return of many favorite characters, the new characters are just as memorable as the old. I couldn’t help but smile every time Cayke the Cookie Cook appears. We meet a race of sentient Teddy Bears and our villain has the unfortunate name, Ugu the Shoemaker.

As the novel progresses, we learn that Ugu has gone on a mission to capture all of Oz’s magic for himself. And yes, while I think making really awesome cookies ought to be considered a God-like power in its own right, it turns out Cayke the Cookie Cook’s dishpan has powers she didn’t realize. As befits a novel about a power-hungry man trying to control all the land’s God-machines, he’s undone by one that he didn’t know about because it came from a land outside of Oz.

All in all, The Lost Princess of Oz proves to be an enjoyable tale, if a bit unwieldy at times as all the characters vie for the spotlight. This wouldn’t necessarily be a good book for a first-time reader of Oz to dive into, but it’s a great book for fans looking to spend time with old friends.

Oz in the Wild West

The Oz novels of L. Frank Baum take the kinds of ideas that appeared in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and give them a distinctly American spin. One of the few ways Baum could have made them more uniquely American would have been to have put Oz in the Wild West. As it turns out, comic book writer and publisher Tom Hutchison of Big Dog Ink did just that with his series The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West. I met Tom at El Paso Comic Con a few years ago and bought the first two graphic novels in the series. Since then, I’ve purchased the next two. Given my read-through of Baum’s canon, I thought it was time to revisit Hutchison’s take on Oz.

The Volume 1 graphic novel largely follows the plot of Baum’s first novel and the 1939 MGM film. As one might expect from the premise, the settings and characters are changed to match the wild west setting. Dorothy is an adult and Toto is her horse. The Tin-Man is a Marshall who could really use a heart. The Scarecrow is a Native American “puppet” who is filled with straw and can’t speak. The Cowardly Lion moves more-or-less directly into the story, although he does wear make-up and a crown. The climactic showdown between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West happens back on Dorothy’s farm in Kansas. Of course, it is presented as a western showdown, but water is still involved. I’ll leave it at that to avoid too many spoilers.

Volumes 2 through 4 of the series have largely followed the plot of the second novel, The Marvelous Land of Oz. Dorothy is on the sidelines of the action and we now follow the adventures of a boy named Tip. Although her adventures are on the sidelines, Dorothy’s arc is continuing the story as it wraps up in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Jack Pumpkinhead teams up with Tip. In this version, Jack is a former palace guard from the Emerald City who wears a pumpkin bandana to cover his disfigured face. Meanwhile, General Jinjur has taken over the Emerald City. Although the overall plot is inspired by The Marvelous Land of Oz, Hutchison draws in story elements and characters from several of the later Oz novels. We meet the Patchwork Girl and the glass cat along with their creator, Dr. Pipt. The Sawhorse has also entered the story.

Reading the Oz novels, it soon becomes clear that Baum did not plot any kind of story arc for the series as a whole. Each novel is written as something of a standalone story, though new characters introduced in earlier volumes appear in later volumes. One of the things I like about Hutchison’s adaptation is that he takes this vast universe of characters and weaves them into a tighter narrative arc. Hutchison recently ran a Kickstarter to fund the next few issues of Legend of Oz and I was one of his supporters. I’m looking forward to seeing where he takes the story after the first four volumes.

If you want to check out The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West, you can pick up the graphic novels at https://bigdogink.com. Also, watch Kickstarter. I gather Hutchison will be running another Legend of Oz campaign later this year and that can be an opportunity to pick up back issues. For those seeking out single issues, the Volume 1 graphic novel covers the original six issue mini-series. Volume 2 begins the on-going series with a new issue 1. The end of volume 4 coincides with issue 15. There are also two related mini-series. One covers the origin of the Scarecrow and the other is an adventure involving Tik-Tok.

Lessons from Oz

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful with my family. I enjoyed the movie and thought it was a respectable prequel to L. Frank Baum’s wonderful series of fantasy novels. It was by no means a perfect movie. I felt many of the characters lacked depth and many of the performances could have been stronger. Still, I liked how it told the story of a flawed man could find a way to live his ambition and be a good man at the same time. In many ways it seems true to the story of L. Frank Baum himself and many of us who want to entertain others through our stories.

Marvelous Land of Oz

I almost dread it when a new Oz film comes out. Invariably people who talk about it will compare it to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland. Before I proceed, let me say that I absolutely love the film and think it’s a fun adaptation of the first book in the series. However, because it’s only an adaptation of the first book in the series, it only scratches the surface of the whole wonderful world that L. Frank Baum created. People who only know the 1939 movie have never met Queen Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Hungry Tiger, or the mechanical man TikTok. They have never traveled to the countries surrounding Oz such as Ev and Ix or known villains such as the Nome King or the witch Mombi.

What’s more, the 1939 movie popularized one of the clichés that’s almost guaranteed to set my teeth on edge when I read it in a submission to Tales of the Talisman. That’s the ending where “it was all a dream.” The 1939 Wizard of Oz did that ending well, and partly it was done well because there are subtle hints that it really wasn’t a dream after all. I don’t recall seeing the ending done well in any submission to the magazine and it’s almost grounds for an automatic rejection. I won’t tell you not to do it, because you might be the person who convinces me they can do it well—but go there at your peril! Just to note, that is not the book’s ending. In the Oz books, there’s never a doubt that Oz is a real place.

One of the things I find especially fascinating about the greater world of Oz and L. Frank Baum as a writer is that he not only wrote stories and books, but he experimented in other media as well. He wrote one of the first ever newspaper comic strips, Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz which appeared in 1903. He also had a film studio and made at least three Oz films in 1914. It’s not entirely clear to me whether Baum viewed these ventures as primarily promotional or as artistic explorations in their own right. In either case, I applaud him and think writers can take a lesson from this. Writers should be encouraged to step away from their comfort zones and try telling stories in different media from time to time. These days, there are many possibilities open from audio to computer animation and beyond. Trying something new can only further your growth as a writer and take you to a wonderful new place in this journey called life.

Open your eyes to grand visions, experiment with other media and other forms of writing, avoid clichés (but if you don’t want to, just make sure you’re going in with your eyes open!). These are just some of the lessons we can take away from L. Frank Baum’s marvelous world of Oz. Learning some of these lessons might just help you achieve a few of your ambitions in ways you never expected.