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.

 

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Celliniesque : Alexandre Dumas -“Ascanio”

ABOVE: Bench-warming

I consider “Ascanio”, (which by all rights should be called “Cellini”), as a possible first novel in Alexandre Dumas’ central, continuous historical saga. That’s not an academic statement. It’s not first by composition (it’s from 1843) or by historical era (it’s set in 1540, and Dumas wrote plenty covering earlier periods.) But because of cameos from Catherine of Medici, Marguerite of Valois, and Diane de Poitiers in “Ascanio,” one can trace a very direct line from here to “The Two Dianas” to the Valois trilogy to the Regency romances to the Musketeer Trilogy to the Marie Antoinette Saga to the Napoleonic novels. Characters, historical or otherwise, spill over from one novel to the next. The scheme is not always as intentional (and never as literary) as Balzac’s in “The Human Comedy,” but Dumas’ ingenuity is seldom appreciated by modern critics, who may group the novels in trilogies or diptychs but rarely (ever?) as part of the near-accidental uber-saga I consider it to be.

“Ascanio” is inspired by passages from the scandalous “Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini,” the original tell-all tabloid memoir. It covers the great sculptor’s stay in France under the auspice of Francois I, as that King wrestles for control of Europe with the Charles V from “El Salteador,” (a novel that, by the way, is too unambitious to properly kick-start the conceptual chronological saga I propose.)

Court is lively at this time. Rabelais and the aging Montmorency cross paths, while Triboulet the buffoon plays under their feet. (That same Triboulet would eventually inspire works from Victor Hugo and Michel Zevaco, not to mention Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”)

The plot: The brilliant, brash, occasionally murderous, but always honorable Benvenuto Cellini moves from under papal eyes to Paris, (accompanied by a colorful retinue that includes dashing young apprentice Ascanio.) Cellini has his heart set on installing himself in the Tower of Nesle, which, two centuries after the events of “The Tower of Nesle,” is no longer a disreputable den of sin. Indeed, the Provost of Paris and his virginal daughter Colombe live there.

That the tower has occupants doesn’t deter Cellini (few things did, apparently.) He storms the tower and evicts the Provost. The Provost runs to get help from his protector, the Duchess D’Etampes, who is also the Queen’s mistress, and Diane de Poitiers’ main competitor. Meanwhile, circumstances lead both Benvenuto and young Ascanio to fall for Colombe, who has been promised to an icky old man. Who will get the girl? The master, the apprentice, or some decrepit creep? And how will Cellini’s colossal, hollowed out statue of Mars figure in the plot?

The answers to those questions are mostly obvious, but it’s a lot of fun getting there, particularly thanks to the many lively characters in Cellini’s entourage, all of whom get a chance to shine. The Duchess D’Etampes is another of Dumas’ brilliant political strategists, holding France together; Cellini himself is larger than life, and Dumas clearly saw a kindred soul in the artist who looked Kings and Popes in the eye. (Although the real life Cellini was more likely to stab those Kings and Popes in the eye than his Dumasian counterpart.)

The novel only falters with the characters of Ascanio and Colombe, both so pure as to become diaphanous.

ABOVE: Corner-hugging

RATING : COOL!

ABOVE: Dumas’ collaborator for the novel was Paul Meurice, (Auguste Maquet was kept pretty busy elsewhere around this period.) Meurice would go on to write a play based on the novel some ten years later, to Dumas’ discontent. The play in turn would inspire Camille Saint-Saens’ opera, “Ascanio” which is rarely revived but does have some charming ballet music.

#Yesallwomeninthe1600s : Theophile Gautier – “Captain Fracasse”

The Internet may have discovered sexual harassment last month, (and may abandon itself to some new wave of outrage next month) but women have been subject to pretty odious, relentless persecution throughout the sad, sexist annals of human history. Theophile Gautier’s “Captain Fracasse” is set in the France of Louis XIII (1601-1643, a. k. a. “Musketeer time”) and yet it works hard to answer a question that has plagued the female of the species from times immemorial: What are you supposed to do when some deluded dude just won’t take “no” for an answer?

According to Gautier, you get ANOTHER big, strong guy to stab the perv in the lung. It’s not the best feminist answer, but who can argue with results?

ABOVE: No means no!

In the 1820s, most of the literary luminaries of French Romanticism managed to cram themselves into Victor Hugo’s drawing room, in what was known as the Cenacle: Dumas, Musset, Balzac, Sainte-Beuve, Prosper Merimee…  Theophile Gautier was there, but he was wild enough to spin off the circle into his own satellite. The Petit Cenacle was termed thusly half in affection, half in acknowledgment that its irreverent, borderline Bohemian members (Nerval, Petrus Borel)  would not achieve quite the same level of glory as the parent congregation. Gautier had many achievements as poet and critic, though, including his popularization of the “Art for Art Sake’s” doctrine; he wrote an early vampire story in “La Morte Amoureuse,” and what may be the first big tale about mummies, “Le Roman de la Momie.”

ABOVE: With a pretty mustache like that? Of course Gautier knew about sexual harassment!

But Gautier’s most lasting success has been “Captain Fracasse,” a cloak-and-dagger romance that had several film adaptations last century, (one directed by Abel Gance in much the same style as “The Tower of Nesle.”)

ABOVE: I will defend the honor of this golden vagina!

The young Baron de Sigognac is living on reduced means in his dilapidated mansion when a band of traveling players shows up looking for shelter. It takes little more than a pleasant dinner to convince Sigognac to join the colorful thespians in their journey, and soon he adopts the stage name of Captain Fracasse. That’s a pun worth explaining: “fracasser” means to smash things, to break down ; a “fracasse” would be a fray, a big mess of a fight; it also implies a debacle, a failure. Captain Disaster would be an appropriate translation.

Sigognac has fallen in love, (a proper, respectful, requited love), with Isabelle, the ingenue of the crew. Isabelle is modest, sweet, perfect and boring in every way, and it takes only the briefest mention of her absent parents to suggest to us that she must have noble blood and may well turn out to be Louis XIII’s hidden daughter by the novel’s conclusion. She has eyes for no one but Sigognac, but has attracted the unwanted attention of the Duke of Vallombreuse. Vallombreuse is a despicable cad who one imagines carrying a pouch of roofies under his cloak, getting pumped up for his date rape by listening to whatever was the 1600s version of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” ( probably Bach’s “Tocatta in A Minor – Molto Molestoso.” )

ABOVE: “I know you want it… Must wanna get nasty… But you’re a good girl…. heyheyhey!”

Vallombreuse can’t quite believe Isabelle isn’t giving it up, even after he’s basically hurled diamonds at her face, so he does what any sensible gentleman in the 17th century would do: he contracts brigands to murder Captain Fracasse, and then abducts Isabelle. I know what you’re thinking: Surely Isabelle is seduced by this earnest display of affection? After all, few suitors are willing to go that extra-mile that involves killing and kidnapping!

But the unappreciative Isabelle is inexplicably angered by Vallombreuse’s maneuvers. Vallombreuse is of course too noble to actually reduce himself to the role of rapist, (or else Gautier is too shy to go there). The duke simply locks the actress in a room and waits for her mood to be more favorable.

This isn’t “Clarissa,” not entirely, but the situation will be familiar to readers of Samuel Richardson. It’s something to reflect on that, at one point in time, being abducted and brow-beaten into sex wasn’t a freak criminal situation but a relatable trope, something to contend with and prepare for: since women were more or less sequestered in the patriarchal home waiting for marriages in which they had limited say, both unwanted abductions and desirable elopements functioned through similar mechanisms.

Meanwhile, Captain Fracasse shows his would-be killers his fancy fencing moves, wins the fight, and goes to the rescue of Isabelle. The modern reader may dismiss Isabelle as a damsel in distress, in that she doesn’t save herself from the situation – but isn’t that yet another form of victim blaming? (“Why wasn’t she strong and empowered? It’s like she was asking for it!”) It doesn’t matter if she isn’t strong and empowered; most PEOPLE, men or women, aren’t particularly strong or empowered outside of our psycho-therapeutic parlance. It’s irrelevant: weakness doesn’t justify abuse.

So what matters is that Fracasse arrives and puts his sword through the Duke of Vallombreuse’s left lung.

Up to this point, “Captain Fracasse” has been a fine romance. The characters are stock, (literally, in the case of the theater troupe.) The history is non-existent, (notice I can’t tell you where exactly in the 40 years of Louis XIII’s reign it takes place, and I doubt Gautier could either.) It lacks the wit or drama of a Dumas, the mad over-plotting of a Zevaco, or the relatively fleshed out personalities of a Feval, but  it has charm and heart, specially whenever Gautier details the family life of the theater people.

ABOVE: Fracasse and the troupe

… But after the sword fight between Vallombreuse and Fracasse the whole set-up crumbles. It’s the worst sort of crumbling, the slow-motion, brick-by-brick un-mantling of the facade that has you looking at your watch wondering how long it can possibly take for a building to collapse. It’s not even crumbling, really; it’s deterioration.

SPOILER TIME:

Most stories wrap-up after the villain is eliminated and the lovers reunited. “Captain Fracasse” does too, but the wrapping is done very, very slowly by arthritic hands. After Vallombreuse is defeated, his father shows up, to reveal that Isabelle is actually Vallombreuse’s sister and therefore the near rape was 100 times creepier. That means Isabel and Captain Fracasse can marry, since she’s now nobility and no longer a paint-faced, hell-bound theater leper. Then we’re forced to watch with a profound lack of interest while Vallombreuse struggles between life and death (with Isabelle and Fracasse watching tenderly over him!) It’s not exactly Little Nell’s death, let me tell you; the reader will more likely feel alarmed by the possibility that the mustache-twirling douche might LIVE.

Which he does, and what follows is beyond absurd. Let me condense:

VALLOMBREUSE: “Oooh, that sword in the lung has changed my outlook in life. I woke up from my coma respecting women and their right to sexual autonomy!”

FRACASSE: “And also my right to not be murdered?”

VALLOMBREUSE: “Of course, you big lug! You’re family now!”

ISABELLE: “OOOH! I love you, brother! You are the best brother a sister could ever have! Give me a big hug!”

*they hug*

ISABELLE: “Oooh. That’s a tight hug. Ok, brother, you can stop hugging now. Let go. Stop. Stop now. STOP!!!”

VALLOMBREUSE: “Pardon moi, sister! Garcons will be garcons!”

FRACASSE: “Ay ay ay. Thanksgivings are gonna be awkward!”

*The three of men chortle merrily.*

LE FIN

ABOVE: DUDE. She ain’t even conscious. That ain’t right.

RATING : COOL! for the early sections, SHRUG for the denouement.

Meet Me at the End of the Clearing : Peter David – “Stephen King’s The Dark Tower” (“The Gunslinger Born” through “Battle of Jericho Hill”)

“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed” – Stephen King, “The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger.”

ABOVE: Posing with the Posse

Like Honore de Balzac, (if the comparison isn’t too lofty) Stephen King didn’t necessarily start with any sort of organized, unified vision for his work. He only wrote about Maine because he knew Maine; he only  returned to horror again and again because branding was, and still is, the best business strategy for an ambitious writer. But as the years passed and the pages accumulated, the strange happenings in Castle Rock and Derry and Salem’s Lot began to share a more tangible geographical reality. Fans loved the little inside jokes and call-backs (I know I did) and King took every opportunity to make his “Constant Readers” feel welcome in a territory as lived-in as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County (is that lofty too?)

But those links between novels were never heavy or detrimental to any individual story. Not until the 90s anyway: some discontent and boredom must have snuck in, because when King scrapped Castle Rock in “Needful Things,” he did it with the glee of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Reichenbach Falls (THAT comparison isn’t lofty at all.) Like the end of Sherlock Holmes, the end of Castle Rock was not to be taken too seriously. (And neither were its author’s frequent threats to retire, although I imagine he’s only got two or three books left in him. Right? RIGHT?)

By the end of book 7 of “The Dark Tower,”  King’s fantastic Mid-world had gained density and sucked in all the “real world” novels into its landscape: people in certain quarters still haven’t decided if that was brilliantly meta or annoyingly self-indulgent. In any case, The Dark Tower was the symbolic linchpin turning King’s disparate efforts into a sort of Human Comedy (well, Human Horror Story, rather.) That’s how a fantasy series gave coherence to the work of someone who hadn’t been known primarily as a fantasist. (I’m probably right in suggesting his most conventional fantasy, “The Eyes of the Dragon,” which is a rough draft of ideas for the Dark Tower universe, is one of his least beloved books. Proof: No movie yet. They’ve made movies of, like, EVERYTHING  the dude ever wrote.)

ABOVE: Like this, which is sort of kind of based on how Stephen King once had to mow his own lawn. This movie is hilarrible. Horrilarious?

In the many “Dark Tower”-related graphic novels issued by Marvel over the last five years or so, writer Peter David does his best to honor the legacy of the series. He does this by imitating Stephen King’s more obvious tics: the conversational faux-folksiness, the repetition of terms (you can set your watch and warrant on it: half of the dialogue recycles the same stock phraseology.) Those tics, when not abused, give the world of his novels narrative cohesion. But David abuses them as much as King does in his latter books. No doubt David knows the boundaries of commercial fan-fiction: he has written everything from The Hulk to Star Trek novels. But by the hundredth time someone “sets a watch and warrant on it,” you wish he would stop being such a reverential fan; he needed to break free from the franchise, blaze new trails, and make up some new damn sayings, do ya kennit?

As for the artwork by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove: it is very beautiful but static. I’ve come to realize that I don’t always appreciate the “every page is a painting” approach to the graphic novel. What makes comics work best is the fluid transition between panels, movement INSIDE panels, liveliness, charm; not stiff gallery artwork.

ABOVE: STIFF artwork. Get it? Cuz of the corpse?

Compare a poem and a novel. The poem stops you, imposes its beauty, it creates an image; the novel invites you to flow through its story, it creates a world. They both have their place, but when one poses as the other, the results are typically unsatisfactory. Well, paintings are poems; graphic novels are, well, NOVELS. The inside pages in “The Dark Tower” are very good-looking, (and this is some of the best coloring  to ever come out of Marvel) but they’re too painterly; they represent poses, and not actions. It’s weird to fault a work for EXCESS beauty, but that’s where this gunslinger makes his stand in the sand.

RATING: Mostly GOOD ENOUGH, Sometimes COOL!