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“Horrors,” murmured Elphaba.

Turtle Heart tumbled to his knees. “She sees him coming,” he said thickly, “she sees him to come; he is to come from the air; is arriving. A balloon from the sky, the color of a bubble of blood: a huge crimson globe, a ruby globe: he falls from the sky. The Regent is fallen. The House of Ozma is fallen. The Clock was right. A minute to judgment.”

When I reviewed The Wonderful World of Oz a few months ago, gosh I have been doing this for some time, I mentioned in the comments thread that I have always been curious about the phenomenon of Oz fanfic. One of those undying fandom based forms of amateur literature that has long predated popular use of the internet – well Oz and Star Trek – subsisting through fanzines.

Gregory Maguire‘s book has since become a Broadway musical phenomenon (which introduced Kristin Chenoweth into our lives and consequently the amazing Pushing Daisies) and I have only now gotten round to reading it.

The story begins with Elphaba, known throughout the land of Oz as the Wicked Witch of the West, spying on the homely Dorothy and her three companions – a cowardly Lion, a Tin woodsman and an animated Scarecrow – while hiding in a tree-top. As it happens she is the main topic of conversation, the girl discussing just how angry the witch must be, what with her sister Nessarose having been killed by the Kansas farmhouse that mysteriously dropped out of the sky. Elphaba feels annoyed at this. It is irritating enough to be regarded with such fear by the people of Oz, but for them to try and theorise as to her motivations, what she thinks, how she feels – well that is an indignity too far. After all, no one but she knows the real truth.

Elphaba’s father was a preacher, violently rejected by the people of Munchkinland in favour of their ancient pagan idolatry. Her noble a woman of noble blood named Melena, who had hoped her husband Frex would become a bishop, or rise to a far more suitable position in keeping with her former lifestyle. Instead she found herself bored and lonely in the Munchkinland wilderness and took to drink, waking after an encounter with an itinerant peddlar to find herself pregnant. She could never tell if Frex was in fact the father of Elphaba, but as it happened the child’s bright green skin he took to signify punishment for some deep sin he had supposedly committed.

As such she grew up to become isolated and defensive, conscious of how others saw her as a freak. Melena would give birth to too more children, with Nessa the younger sister also physically deformed, having no arms, but welcomed by Frex as a gift from heaven (his sin it appeared had been expunged). Elphaba is sent to a private college, with Nessa to join her after some years, and there she meets the future ‘Good Witch’, Glinda, a pompous and stuck-up provincial aristocrat who takes an instant dislike to the emerald-skinned room-mate she was assigned.

Despite their mutual reservations Elphaba and Glinda become friends, their relationship based on a grudging admiration for each other’s intelligence. Oz is enduring turbulent times. The tyrant Wizard who occupies the Emerald City has demanded that all intelligent Animals be segregated from humans and treated like beasts. His spies are everywhere spreading propaganda, even the headmistress of Elphaba’s school, Madame Morrible, indoctrinates the girls under her charge to feel contempt for Animals and worship the Wizard. The injustices and suffering meted out against the ordinary people of Oz force Elphaba’s hand. Where her fellow students would prefer to discuss ‘what is evil’ in their clubs, or ignore the growing oppression against the peoples of neighbouring kingdoms, she decides that it is time to do something.

What impresses the most about Maguire’s book is how he retains so much of the spirit of Baum’s fiction, while expanding upon it, creating this epic work of Oz-fic. I truly regret choosing this book for the blog – I want to read it over a few days. There are lots of little touches I enjoyed – ‘tiktokism’; a sarcastic Cow’s comment “What’s your beef?”; and Elphaba’s two encounters with the Wizard, as well as the tragedy underpinning their relationship.

This is simply gorgeous stuff, a childhood classic infused with a genuine sense of adult despair and flashes of horror. I want to go back to Oz!

 

Midnight Kiss is a densely plotted, cleverly written and beautifully drawn tale of mayhem and mystery in fairyland. These fairies, however, use some pretty heavy artillery and most of them make the Hitler gang look like a teddy bear’s picnic. Add fabulous references to a Land of Oz fighting a vicious civil war, a bunch of fabulous creatures being hunted for their hearts and minds (literally) and you have one of the richest, most original, engaging and fast-moving graphic stories of the new century.

The above quote is taken from Michael Moorcock’s introduction to this comic book collection. I chose it as this fulsome praise convinced me to buy the book. Moorcock was approached by Lee for permission to use his dimension-hopping anti-hero Jerry Cornelius for this book. One of the most popular of Moorcock’s creations, one that he has in the past allowed other New Worlds authors such as M. John Harrison to use, Cornelius is a devious, dimension-hopping anarchist, perfectly suited for Lee’s story of a multiverse of fantasy realms. Given that this book had Moorcock’s stamp of approval, I bought it without hesitation.

The story begins with a boy named William being confronted by a gang of gun-toting Unseelie Fae, mistaken by him for vampires. Moments before he is captured, Matthew Sable and Nightmare De’Lacey arrive and decimate the heavily armed fairies. The mystically empowered duo explain to William that he is what they call a ‘rational’, someone who believes that one world and reality exist. Sable explains that millennia ago an event called the shattering occurred, with each realm of faerie separated into different dimensions. What normal humans, rationals, assume are fictional worlds or fantasies are actually each unique threads within the multiverse.

William has become the target of a conspiracy to create a demonic demiurge due to his own mysterious parentage. A series of assassinations are being carried out against different creatures of fantasy across a number of worlds. Now that William is under the protection of Sable, two murderers for hire called Jonny Cool and The Flickman, are contracted to recover him. They slaughter their way through several dimensions in pursuit of their quary. A third story thread concerns a police investigator known as Einhorn trying to discover what is behind the series of murders relating to the conspiracy. Each of the protagonists are drawn to the Land of Oz, torn apart by a civil war between the forces of the evil Scarecrow and President Dorothy Gale.

I am sorry to report that I found this to be a bleak and dispiriting story. Despite the warm introduction from Moorcock, Midnight Kiss resembles a derivative, grim ‘n’ gritty take on Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. The excellent blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics recently proposed a dark take on Robin Hood for satirical purposes. Wouldn’t you know it, the Sherwood Forest archer appears here, consumed with feelings of revenge towards Matthew Sable (for reasons too silly to go into). Our heroes use their magical abilities to sprout dayglo guns and swords from their arms, slaughtering their opponents with impunity. At times I was confused as to what distinguished them from blood-thirsty antagonists Jonny Cool and The Flickman. Of course the break-neck twist in the final issue addresses just that ambiguity with groan-worthy results. Poor William is also just another derivative messiah-child, being dragged along in a state of constant confusion until the plot demands that he suddenly assert himself.

As to Jerry Cornelius’ role in the proceedings, well he’s basically a bag-man. His ability to cross dimensions is here employed to run errands on Sable’s behalf. I found this especially amusing as Moorcock cites Lee as having ‘got’, Cornelius’ function as a character. Tony Lee’s afterword mentions that other writers had misused the character in the past, without consulting his creator. I assume this is a reference to Grant Morrison’s attempt in his seminal book The Invisibles, there named Gideon Stargrove. Ironically I thought the unauthorised use of the Cornelius concept was far more successful than the fully approved one in Midnight Kiss.

Ryan Stegman’s art may suit the material, blood clotting on the panels and breasts thrusting outwards, but once again it reminded me of the bad old days. If you look at the cover image below you will notice a huge robot. Yes, that’s The Tin Man.

A huge disappointment.

The cyclone had set the house down, very gently – for a cyclone – in the midst of a country of marvellous beauty. There were lovely patches of greensward all about, with stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits. Banks of gorgeous flowers were on every hand, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage sang and fluttered in the trees and bushes. A little way off was a small brook, rushing and sparkling along between green banks, and murmuring in a voice very grateful to a little girl who had lived so long on the dry, grey prairies.

So many classic books have been immortalised on film and subsequently replaced in the minds of the public by their celluloid cousins. The Wonderful World of Oz is one such book. Even the title is different! Perhaps if the Michael Jackson/Diana Ross film had done better, we would all think of it as The Wiz. As it is Judy Garland’s singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow and the thematic quote ‘there’s no place like home’, have captured our imagination, not Baum’s original text. Even the meaning of the film has changed our understanding of the story. The Wizard of Oz ends with Dorothy realizing all her adventures were a dream. The grimmer 1980’s sequel Return to Oz and opens with the young heroine being locked away in an asylum due to her psychotic delusions.

Baum makes it clear that the Land of Oz itself is a real place, one that exists outside the ‘civilized world’. Dorothy is swept away when a cyclone snatches her aunt and uncle’s house, transporting it to the bright and colourful country so far from the grey Kansas landscape she grew up in. When she steps outside the house she is greeted by the kind Witch of the North and a strange people known as the Munchkins, who congratulate her on having killed the wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy is shocked at the accusation and insists she did not mean to kill anybody. The Munchkins thank her regardless, as they had been enslaved for many years by the powerful and evil witch and make her a gift of their former tyrant’s silver slippers. When Dorothy asks how she can find her way home again, the good Witch of the North explains that Oz is far away from America, cut off from the rest of the world by vast deserts that are impossible to cross. She recommends that Dorothy travels along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City and ask the great and powerful Wizard who lives there for help.

Dorothy and her dog Toto set out immediately, soon coming across three new companions. They rescue a talking Scarecrow from a Munchkin crop field; the Tin Woodsman from being rusted in place in a forest; and meet a cowardly Lion, who longs to be King of the Beasts, but is too afraid. When Dorothy tells the three companions that she is travelling to meet the Wizard living in the Emerald City to ask for his aid, they all offer to join her on her journey. The Scarecrow longs to have a brain, so he can think like other men and not be thought of as a fool. The Tin Woodsman used to be a real man and wishes to have a heart again, so that he can fall in love with the woman he left behind. The Lion is desperate to gain some courage, as he is tired of being frightened all the time. The journey is long and perilous, with the group chased by the beastly Kalidahs and forced to cross a magical poppy field. Finally they arrive at the Emerald City, only to be commanded by the Wizard to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Only then will he consent to giving Scarecrow a brain, the Tin Woodsman a heart, the Lion courage and Dorothy a way to return home to Kansas.

While I was reading this I found myself comparing the text to the film throughout. It was the same years ago when I read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and had the theme tune to Dogtanian and the Muskahounds stuck in my head throughout. This is a great shame, as Baum’s writing is both simple and beautiful, with Dorothy’s companions symbolic of the hardships suffered during the 1893 Depression (farmer, factory worker and soldier).

This is a fable that deserves its long-life.

Something, something has got to happen soon, Milena thought. I need something new to do. I’m tired of the plays, I’m tired of the Child Gardens, I’m tired of being me. I’m tired of sitting bolt upright on the edge of my bed all night, alone. I need someone. I need a woman, and there isn’t going to be one. They’ve all been cured. The viruses cure them. Bad Grammar. I love you is Bad Grammer?

Some years ago I bought Geoff Ryman’s book Was, a unique take on BaumsThe Wizard of Oz , in a sale. I never got a chance to read it and eventually sold my copy, along with most of my possessions, the first time I moved to Australia. Now I feel like running to the largest book store I can find in Sydney and hunting it down. I have not been this excited by a writer since I first discovered Samuel R. Delany.

In a brisk introduction titled Advances in Medicine (A Culture of Viruses), Ryman establishes his vision of this future London and the principal character a Czech orphan named Milena Shibush. Cancer was cured via a contagious benevolent virus that rewrote DNA to allow the human body to photosynthesize sugar internally, preventing the triggering of tumour cells metastasizing due to genetic damage. The viruses continued to mutate, becoming intelligent and coding information into each new host, until a hive-mind developed called the Consensus, which directed and guided humanity. Culture and history became transferrable diseases, with newborn infants suddenly becoming infested with the collected works of Shakespeare, annals of past events and languages. Utterly transformed, the skin tone of the human race is now a universal russet purple. Also, the curing of cancer had an unexpected after-effect – no one lives beyond thirty-five.

Got all that? Good. Milena is not like the other children. Her parents are deceased. The virus payload never took as an infant, so she was forced to actually read as she was unable to keep up with the other children. At the age of ten children undergo a process called being ‘Read’, where all their experiences are distilled by Consensus in order to determine what their future professions should be. Milena has never been Read. When she finally received a payload of viruses that took it caused her to become so ill she was deemed unsuitable for the process. After she recovered, it seemed to her as if Consensus had forgotten to harvest her. She was placed as an actress in London. She is different, estranged from the other adolescents and children, more impulsive, imaginative, distrusting of the viruses and due to ‘Bad Grammar’ is attracted only to women.

Milena’s loneliness and lack of interest in the robotic performances of Shakespeare she has to take part in as part of her ‘career’ – every actor recites their lines and paces the stage exactly as Consensus tells them the original performers did, in a perfect recreation of the Elizabethan era – leave her feeling increasingly isolated, until one day she meets the love of her life. One day she hears a voice sing with a richness and understanding superior to any recording. The singer in question is a genetically engineered polar-woman named Rolfa, descended from humans who chose not to join Consensus, but become intelligent polar-bears instead. Unlike the socialist Utopia of the purple-skinned humans, the ‘G.E.’ polar bears mine for ore in the Antarctic and sell it for profit. They are the last capitalists. Rolfa, like Milena, is a freak who enjoys opera and poetry instead of business. Where the ‘squidgy’ girl is paranoid and reserved, the woman who looks like a bear is raucous and inspiring. Their love is not permitted by either Consensus or Rolfa’s Family, forcing them to make a tragic choice. Milena dedicates her short life to orchestrating her lover’s opera based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

I have not even scratched the surface of this amazing book. Ryman’s characters are fascinating creations – the dangerously deluded Thrawn McCartney, Cilla an actress colleague of Milena’s so good she cannot actually tell whether she is self-conscious or acting – contained within an elliptical and time-jumping plot. The intelligent viruses resemble Richard Dawkin’s theory of memes, which he wrote about in The Selfish Gene ten years before The Child Garden was published. This is an exhilarating mixture of science and culture, a novel set in the future that revolves around Dante’s epic poem.

Outstanding.

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