Grrl Riot : L. Frank Baum – “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz”(Oz #2 and #3)

ABOVE: You say you want a revolution?

L. Frank Baum based General Jinjur, (the hottie, haughty leader of the girls-only Army of Revolt that sweeps through “The Marvelous Land of Oz”) on his personal observations of the suffragette movement’s more salient figures. Jinjur is a proto-feminist tsunami; fed up with the patriarchal rule of the Scarecrow King, she marches into Emerald City ready to rule… but her gentle-sexed soldiers are easily seduced by all the pretty emeralds that litter the place. It’s all in good fun. Baum was ahead of his time in supporting women’s rights: his wife Maud was the daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, who toiled elbow-to-elbow with Susan B. Anthony; Baum was atypically close to his mother-in-law. (By contrast, Baum was grossly behind his time in his opinions about Native Americans – don’t look that up unless you want to further ruin your childhood memories.)

General Jinjur is far from the most daring gender-switcher in “The Marvelous Land of Oz,” book 2 in the Oz series, which was marketed at the time as “the continued adventures of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman,” as a warning to readers who expected Dorothy to return for the sequel.

They weren’t warned about other revolutionary developments in the novel.

(SPOILERS AHEAD?) Throughout the novel we assume we’re following the adventures of a boy with the Dickensian name of Tip. Tip stands in for the missing Dorothy Gale from Kansas but follows a similar journey toward centrally-located Emerald City. He’s accompanied by the Halloween horror that is Jack Pumpkinhead; a pun-loving Woggle-Bug; a Sawhorse come to life; and a Gump, which is basically a moose-head tied to two complementing sofas. Stopping the Army of Revolt and meeting up with beloved  characters from the first book is only tangential to Tip’s true mission, which is one of self-awareness.

ABOVE: Golf is played quite differently in the land of Oz.

You see, in a plot twist that anticipated “Metroid’s” Samus Aran by 80 years, it turns out that our boyish hero Tip had been a girl all along; and that he is actually PRINCESS  Ozma of Oz, the rightful ruler of the magical realm. I will not hazard guesses as to how confused the young readers of 1904 must have felt at this sexual switch-a-roo.  Tip himself – Ozma herself, I mean- approaches her momentous change with some understandable trepidation. Her fantastic friends are quite supportive, though:

“Never mind, old chap,” said the Tin Woodman, soothingly; “it don’t hurt to be a girl, I’m told; and we will all remain your faithful friends just the same. And, to be honest with you, I’ve always considered girls nicer than boys.” “They’re just as nice, anyway,” added the Scarecrow, patting Tip affectionately upon the head. “And they are equally good students,” proclaimed the Woggle-Bug.”


That Woggle-Bug, by the way, was such a turn of the century sensation that he earned himself a spin-off title, “The Woggle-Bug Book” (not to mention a Parker Brothers board game.) Transported to New York City, the Woggle-Bug has himself a grand-old-time, a sort of offensive reversal of Dorothy’s adventures: while indulging his perverted infatuation on a traveling dress, he encounters such fantastic American denizens as Oh Lawdy Mammies; wily yellow Chinamen, and fertile, penny-pinching Swede widows.


 

One of the first signs of Baum’s impatience with the whole concept of Oz comes in a preface where he outright begs his Oz-loving audience to let him write stories that aren’t Oz-related; his imagination compelled him to introduce new wondrous worlds on a constant basis. The audience, of course, wasn’t listening. So Oz it was. Baum was clearly of two minds, busy negotiating between his muse and commerce. On the one hand, he began to take seriously the idea of creating a chronicle of that country, to be the Balzac of children’s fantasy; but some other part of him wanted off Oz, and he would have gladly destroyed his most famous creation, making him the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of children’s fantasy.

ABOVE: Our little Tip really blossomed between books!

1907’s “Ozma of Oz,” the third novel in the series, is a compromise of sorts. Due to popular demand, Dorothy Gale is back as the heroine. While on a cross-ocean trip to our own earthly, down-under  land of Oz, a storm sweeps her off her ship and she winds up… elsewhere… this time accompanied by a talking yellow Hen called Bill. (Outraged by the inappropriateness of the name’s gender, Dorothy dubs the hen Billina, but that doesn’t make the clucking thing any more interesting; she’s no substitute for Toto.)

The thing is, Dorothy doesn’t land in Oz, and the title of the novel is as accurate as a carnival barker’s claims. In”Ozma of Oz,” Ozma only appears late in the game – and the action takes place not in Oz, but in the neighboring land of Ev. The Queen of Ev and her children have been kidnapped by the mischievous  Nome King, Roquat, who’s transformed them into ornaments. Dorothy’s mission is to rescue the Queen by guessing the Nome King’s fiendish riddle. (One serious weakness in the novel is that Dorothy doesn’t find the solution to the  riddle through deduction or ingenuity or any kind of effort: Billina the Yellow Hen just happens to eavesdrop on the blabbering King by accident.)

The Wonderful Land of Ev has half-amazing, half-disturbing sights that I suspect speak to Baum’s uneasiness with the “modern times” of 1907. In Ev the natural is (unnaturally) melded with the artificial. Lunch baskets and dinner pails grow on trees. There are Wheelers in Ev, terrifying humanoid/automobile hybrids, (this was a year before Henry Ford’s Model T erupted from the assembly line into the mainstream.) There’s face-shifting princess Langwidere, who practices an extremely advanced form of plastic surgery. And, most significantly, there’s Dorothy’s friend the wind-up Tik-Tok Man, one of the earliest robots in popular fiction, (again, Baum was ahead of his time; Karel Kapek wouldn’t even coin the word ‘robot’ for another 13 years.) Throughout, John R. Neill’s illustrations more than make up for any weakness in Baum’s ability to evoke the fantastic through description.

ABOVE: “Come with me if you want to live.”

So? is Ev short for Evolution? Or for Evil?

RATING: MASTERPIECES!!!

P.S.: “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz” were adapted for an unjustly forgotten 1985 Disney movie, which doled out delightful dollops of nightmare fuel for children in need of dark fantasy. (The 80s were good in that area: see “The Neverending Story,” “The Last Unicorn,” “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal.”)

ABOVE: This is not a horror movie, children. Promise.

 

Allan Quatermain # 1 : H. Rider Haggard – “Marie”

When we meet world-renowned adventurer Allan Quatermain in Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” he’s a zonked-out “opium-sot” in a den in Cairo, although he quickly recovers from his beastly state thanks to a little tough love from Ms. Mina Murray. Turning the clock back takes us to Allan’s very first chronological adventure, long before the days of “King Solomon’s Mines,” not to mention of his passing into public domain immortality. H. Rider Haggard’s “Marie” finds old Allan candidly reminiscing about his younger days in Zululand, and about the first love he seldom references elsewhere: the titular girl, Marie Marais, whom he becomes fixated on as an adolescent. However, Marie’s French Huguenot father has sworn an oath that her daughter will not debase her blood by marrying an Englishman. To complicate things, there are buzzards swirling about, as well as a shady, mustache-twirling Portuguese cousin who has set his sights on Marie.

MarieRiderHaggard.jpg

ABOVE: Look, the woman gets to shoot down Africans, just like the man. That’s really progressive, ok?

On the way to proving his true love, Allan must prove his shooting prowess, (a tense episode where he must bring down a kettle of vultures or face death is the novel’s best set-piece). Quatermain also gets involved in the real-life Weenen Massacre of 1838, when the Zulu Chief Dingane attacked a settlement, killing over 500 people. (If it’s not now fashionable to weep for the murder of white colonists – and their wives and children- then it’s worth noting that the bulk of the massacred were actually other Africans traveling with the Boers.)

ABOVE: Look at the dumb little kid with the gun to the right! Hahaha! For real, though; 185 children died during the massacre. Not funny

Haggard excels when writing action, (although his scenes are not as kinetic as those of his spiritual successor, Edgar Rice Burroughs.) And he is at least a convincing historian and travel writer when it comes to the Cape Colony struggles in the years before the Boer Wars. If only the romantic story weren’t so  melodramatic! Marie’s constant willingness to kill herself rather than suffer dishonor could have used medieval Italy as a backdrop, and Allan and Marie’s star-crossed betrothal makes Romeo and Juliet’s seem plausible. Also, Had Haggard read Manzoni?

Modern readers of Haggard’s novels have, of course, bigger things to complain about in Haggard’s work than the melodrama: they must steel themselves against the display of casual, unrepentant racism; but a case can be made for the quasi-friendship that exists between Allan and his loyal sidekick Hans “the Hottenhot,” which almost echoes the one between Huckleberry Finn and Jim in Mark Twain’s far more progressive book. And if Hans is given to bug-eyed superstitions and Allan sees fit to slap him around a little, what’s a few slaps between friends? Throughout, Allan complains of the absurdity of race prejudice even as he inevitably exhibits it himself. But then there’s a lot of prejudice going around. The Boers may have contempt for the Zulus, but they don’t think much better of the Portuguese, and you don’t want to know what the French think about the British. If one is willing to allow for context, Rider Haggard emerges as a well-meaning marvel of Victorian tolerance, only a little worse than the unjustly maligned Rudyard Kipling.

“Marie” is the first of the so-called Zulu Trilogy that also includes “Child of Storm” and “Finished.”

RATING: COOL!

Heroes and Monsters : Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill – “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” V. 1 and 2 (Re-Read)

“The British Empire has always encountered difficulty distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.”– “Campion Bond,” 1908, presumed ancestor to future spies.

The steam-punkish Victorian England that Alan Moore put together for  1999’s”The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is almost as densely referential as the world of Warren Ellis’ subsequent “Planetary.” There’s some friendly competition between those titles and creators- and both inspired plenty of imitators during the last decade. Every recent team-up culled from the public domain owes much to how the mysterious “M” brings together no-nonsense, heavily-scarfed Mina Harker, (from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”); former adventurer, present opium-sot Allan Quatermain, (from H. Rider Haggard’s books); Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo (from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island”); H. G. Wells’ Hawley “Invisible Man” Griffin; and the dichotomous disasters that are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

ABOVE: The Astonishing X (traordinary)-Men

Peripherally involved are Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars; we find out that a previous generation of Leaguers involved Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver, the Baroness D’Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Russell Thorndike’s Doctor Syn, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo- the Minutemen to the League’s “Watchmen”. Loftier and subtler literary references also abound, from one-panel nods to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Emile Zola’s “Nana,” Anthony Trollope’s “The Warden,” and Henry James’ “The Bostonians”, to other allusions I would never have sussed out without some looking around, like the cheeky nods to Susan Coolidge’s series of Katy novels, or to “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

In any case, Sherlock Holmes is dead (or-is-he?) and has left a power vacuum that allows treacherous forces to rise against the British Empire. In Volume 1, the League battles against evil, metaphorically Celestial forces (that is, against Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu-Manchu, not then in the public domain and therefore not mentioned by name); in Volume 2, the evil forces become literally Celestial, as we find out what truly happened during “The War of the Worlds.”

Moore’s intent might be in tying together literary creations in Wold Newton fashion, but his satirical barbs are aimed not so much at the heroes of his own literary youth as they are at an Empire in absurdly grimy decay. Here’s the sardonic, “in-our-next-issue” Narrator, indulging in xenophobia while teasing an imminent battle against Martian invaders:

“Lord love us! Can our nation’s doughtiest defenders quell the influx of these queerly-behaved foreign devils who show no sign of attempting to adapt to our time-honored English way of life, with cricket on the green and ladies bicycling to Evensong?”

P.S.: The annex to Volume II is its own marvel of fictional geography. Less marvelous was the 2003 film adaptation- a critical and popular flop that had Moore divorce himself from future Hollywood projects and is nonetheless being primed for rebooting because why not.

ABOVE: You’d forgotten this existed, hadn’t you?

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!!

 

 

Youth is Brief and so is this Post : Marc Guggenheim – “Young X-Men”

ABOVE: They’re not even all that young!

From “Young Liars” to “Young X-Men.” Marc Guggenheim’s brief, largely unremarkable series from 2008 followed up on work by Craig Kyle and offered a team of semi-noobie muties: Wolf Cub, Rockslide (who’s totally not “The Thing”), Joss Whedon’s misused Blindfold, Dust, and the intolerable Ink, a character who may be the biggest mistake in the long history of tattoo-related mistakes. This assortment of teenage nobodies at least acknowledges their redundancy: when asked about his name, Wolf Cub curtly says, “Wolverine was taken.” A typical example of mediocre Marvel product from nearly a decade ago.

RATING: SHRUG

Sadie Dawkins and the Spiders from Mars : David Lapham – “Young Liars”

“This is the story of the life and death of Sadie Dawkins, the most amazing, beautiful, exciting, smart, funny, amazing, ( I KNOW I said that already!) gorgeous, smokin’, kick-ass, cool, so-so cool woman that ever was or ever will be…”

ABOVE: Space Needle.

…or so claims unreliable narrator Danny Noonan at the beginning of David Lapham’s “Young Liars,” an 18-issue would-be explosion of punk-rock attitude and nearly nonsensical story-telling.  Don’t ask me to say much about the plot: it involves a crew of uber-hip 20-somethings wreaking havoc in New York and beyond, escaping from Spiders from Mars… and piling up layer upon layer of lies in the process, which at times makes for a very frustrating read.

Lapham suggests an accompanying soundtrack for each issue: his mix is heavy on Bowie and the Sex Pistols, and is far more 1978 than 2008, which is when the story takes place- not that it is grounded on anything like a temporal reality. In the process of straining much too hard to find its niche between realistically gritty and psychedelically spacey, “Young Liars” forgets to be compelling or comprehensible. Untimely (or is that merciful?) cancellation by Vertigo means that the story cuts itself short with an ending which would be unsatisfactory if I hadn’t found it almost a relief: there wasn’t a character in these pages that couldn’t be described with the adjective “insufferable.”

This never quite came alive f0r me in, not like “Murder Me Dead ” or the awesomeness that was “Stray Bullets.” That doesn’t really knock down Lapham in my book, (if “The Strain” didn’t do it, why should “Young Liars”?) But I do head into his stand-alone graphic novel, “Silverfish,” with some trepidation.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH