07 September 2007

When Oz Turned Dark

Yesterday I posted about the latest issue of Oziana, the creative magazine of the International Wizard of Oz Club, which has the label "The Haunted Issue." It features a ghost story, a poem about Dorothy's three companions' resentments, and a horror tale of children finding a live, disembodied arm. As the editorial me warns on the back cover, it may be "troubling for sensitive children--and adults."

Exploring the darker side of L. Frank Baum's Oz isn't new. Though we can see roots of such reconsideration in Philip José Farmer's A Barnstormer in Oz (1982), I think deliberately dark images of Oz first reached significant audiences through comics. Oz Squad (1991-93) featured fiery explosions and gunplay, though the good guys were still the good guys. Oz, later retitled Dark Oz and The Land of Oz (1994-99), featured war in Oz, with many of Baum's characters twisted versions of themselves.

Since then, there have been more examples from the comics world:

There are more than I can keep up with. (And I haven't even mentioned the TV series inspired by Oz in the last decade.) Check out David Lee Ingersoll's rundown.

Many of these comics are written with deep knowledge, even fondness for the Oz books (or the MGM movie), just like Gregory Maguire's Wicked. But often they seem to follow simple formulas of inversion. The Scarecrow isn't a crinkly, floppy, fun-loving, king or counselor in the royal palace, but a homicidal maniac! The Tin Woodman isn't a kind, stiff, polished gentleman, but a killing machine! The Wizard isn't a good man, though (at first) a very bad wizard; he's a very bad man!

Ah, but it's the different kinds of homicidal mania and power madness that make these comics so interesting for all Oz fans, no?

Not really. Once I suspect that the writers and artists are just trying to push my buttons, their reconceptions lose power after a couple of looks. Dorothy as an alehouse hooker? A space-age assassin? A Goth teen? Ho hum. For me, those characters are usually less interesting to watch (and less dangerous for bad rulers to meet) than Baum's little girl.

That attitude guided my thinking on "The Haunted Issue" of Oziana. Can we create stories about Oz that are thrilling and scary and, yes, DARK, but don't require distorting all of L. Frank Baum's universe and characters?


Jay said...

Yeah, I know. I read Jack Snow's "A Murder In Oz" yesterday, and was impressed by the faithful attitude to the original Baum stories and yet how dark it was. I had the same conclusion you did: scary and bizzare Oz tales DON'T have to be messed up.

Maybe it's because I'm younger, but I personally find some Oz alterations (when done respectfully, such as "Dorothy" by Illusive Arts), very entertaining.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't mean to say that stories which change Oz greatly are necessarily uninteresting. Rather, if that's all they do, and if the changes are largely predictable, then even the reinvention loses its interest, dark or not.

I've got a copy of the Illusive Arts Dorothy around here, which I meant to review at some point. But I fear it's gotten buried. I do like that comic's winged monkey.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Twenty plus years ago there was a story published in Oziana called (correct me if I'm wrong), "The Eldrich Horror of Oz", in which it was revealed the Woggle Bug had secretly amputated two of his natural six legs and was only pretending to be a harmless puffed up academic eccentric when in reality he was the vanguard of the insect invasion. Or something.

I remember being offended and having an argument with Eric Shanower about how faithful one was allowed to be to the "real Oz" ... or something. Eric liked the story and liked the idea of a variety of Ozzes. My ideas have evolved.

J. L. Bell said...

Phyllis Ann Karr's "Eldritch Horror of Oz" was published in the 1981 Oziana, and then in the anthology Tales by Moonlight II, as I understand it.

Yes, I think people's ideas about what's acceptable in Oz fiction often evolve. I suppose there are also levels: publishable, canonical for other people, canonical for oneself, etc.

H.M. Woggle-bug, T.E., does sport six legs in the Queer Visitors comic pages, though only four in the Oz books. Quite suspicious indeed!

Jay said...

I always thought Baum just neglected to mention the Woggle-Bug's extra arms in the books. After all, there wasn't any need to in "Marvelous Land," and he made no major appearance in any of Baum's later novels. After reading the "Queer Visitors" stories, I've depicted him with four arms... and two legs.

J. L. Bell said...

In the Jackdaws' nest, Baum writes in The Land of Oz, "The Woggle-Bug found two handsome bracelets of wrought gold, which fitted his slender arms very well."

Plucking only two bracelets out of a huge pile of jewelry implies Baum imagined his highly magnified bug as having only two arms, as well as two legs.

Only after Walt McDougall had drawn the Woggle-bug with four arms for several weeks did Baum include that detail in his text for the Queer Visitors comics page. So I think this is an interesting case of Baum adapting his vision to fit his illustrator's. The plaid-crazed bug sports six limbs in The Woggle-bug Book as well.

I find the Queer Visitors and Woggle-bug Book tales to be too far afield from the Oz novels to incorporate them into my vision of Oz, but others stir them in happily.

Nathan said...

"Eldritch Horror of Oz" is essentially a Lovecraft parody set in Oz. I thought it was interesting, but I think it would be difficult to fit into a traditional conception of Oz for a few reasons.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, and I think a story that's so clearly a parody or mash-up of two works of fiction comes across as a stunt rather than a reimagining of either one. It's easier to dismiss than a fully explored new vision of Oz (or, for that matter, Lovecraft).