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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!
It was like an Abadazad museum. There were copies of the first three books…Little Martha in Abadazad, Queen Ija of Abadazad and the Eight Oceans of Abadazad
…that looked as old as Mrs Vaughn. A tiara that looked just like the one the Two-Fold Witch wore (I’m sure the rubies were fake, but they sure seemed real to me. Of course I’ve never seen a real ruby in my life). And best of all, hand-painted figurines of Queen Ija, Professor Headstrong, Mary Annette, Mister Gloom, Master Wix, and a whole mess of other characters. And they weren’t like the plastic junk you see in the toy stores. They weren’t even like those ridiculously expensive “collectibles” they sell to super-nerd adults who never got a life. This stuff – I wish I could explain it – it was like they weren’t based on the characters, they WERE the characters. Like each of those little figures had…I dunno…a soul or something.
I remember the first time I heard about Abadazad. It was featured on the sadly defunct Ninth Art review site. J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog‘s series received rave reviews, even talk of a Disney film adaptation shortly after the first issue, but that was not enough to protect the book from the implosion of publisher Crossgen. Fortunately Disney did acquire the rights to the series, but only three books out of a proposed eight were ever published. Here’s an interview with DeMatteis explaining what inspired the story in the first place.
What I am reviewing is in fact the second iteration of Abadazad, published by Disney in a format that mixes Ploog’s art with pages of text. DeMatteis introduces the clever premise that we are actually reading the diary of the main character, Kate, which has been enchanted. So the images that appear are in fact magical windows into the world of Abadazad itself, which Kate can look through – but sometimes the creatures she sees can see her as well. It’s an inventive wave of justifying the use of these colourful illustrations and text.
For most of her life, fourteen-year-old Kate raised her younger brother Matty. Her parents separated when the children were young and instead of having a typical childhood in Brooklyn, the two would read the novels of Franklin O. Davies together, describing the adventures of plucky young heroine Little Martha in a magical land called Abadazad. Their mother Frances was left a mess after the divorce, so retreating into this fantasy world afforded the children a welcome escape from the adult world of depression and misery they were trapped in.
Then one day at a summer fair, in front of Kate’s eyes, Matty simply vanishes. That was five years ago. Matty’s face has been on milk cartons and Kate has been seeing a therapist ever since. ‘Frantic Frances’, has retreated further into herself and her daughter has turned on her, in an attempt to alleviate her own guilt. “It’s been five years, Frances, he’s dead. Get over it.”
Kate meets an elderly neighbour, Mrs Vaughn, who owns an impressive collection of Abadazad memorabilia and even claims to have known Franklin O. Davies. At first Kate finds herself reminded of her own dead grandmother, but then Mrs Vaughn starts to say some strange things. Such as that Abadazad is real. She has been there and, what’s more, she was Little Martha. Kate argues that Little Martha was a white girl and Mrs Vaughn is an old black lady. She claims Franklin O. Davies made the character Little Martha white to sell more books, but the books are just adapted from her own magical adventures. Kate is halfway out the door when Mrs Vaughn says something even crazier. Her brother Matty is alive – and he is in Abadazad.
For the purposes of this review I read the first two volumes of the Abadazad series. While some might feel the pace somewhat slow, DeMatteis does a great job of introducing the character of Kate and establishing this more modern setting, contrasting her upbringing with that of say Dorothy Gale, or Little Nemo. Abadazad itself is a hybrid of Dr. Seuss and Oz – and Mike Ploog’s illustrations reminded me of the Seussian wonderland featured in Tom Fowler‘s Mysterius the Unfathomable.
By the second volume the story really takes off. There are repeated allusions to the censoring of children’s fantasy, with Kate surprised at what Davies left out for commercial purposes.
Warm, funny and sweet – travel to Abadazad.
I have read Bruno Bettelheim on fairy tales, as well as Sigmund Freud’s take on E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jung on mythical archetypes – do you ever suspect that they are missing the point? That on a basic level these are stories to be enjoyed by an audience looking for a little magic and whimsy in their lives, not psychoanalytic metaphors for our unconscious desires. If you ever have the chance, read the original French version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. It is a horror story really, taking an almost malicious delight in the tragic fate of Little Red Riding Hood. That feeling of dismay evoked by the final line of the story ‘and gobbled her up’, is the goal of the story. As entertainment it holds greater meaning than a desiccated moral imperative.
This is something that Linda Medley understands. Castle Waiting mixes and matches different fairy tales into a large jumble, a story containing many other stories, without pausing to consider the metaphorical meaning of each symbol, or archetype employed. What I find most interesting is that the title actually identifies the main character of the series (this large and beautifully presented collection is only volume one of an ongoing comic book) – the enchanted castle itself from the Sleeping Beauty story. Characters come and go, but it is the castle itself that remains constant.
Originally the king and queen of the castle ruled over a town known as Putney. They were both wise and fair and the inhabitants of the town were content. Unfortunately no royal heir had yet been produced and so the king travelled to visit a wise woman, who was in fact a white witch. Promising to help the royal couple conceive, the good witch Mother Medora and her dozen or so sisters (who all have names beginning with ‘m’, alliteration is a recurring theme in this book) set about making the necessary arrangements.
Medora had yet another sister, an evil black witch named Mald, who was insulted by the king’s slight. Accompanied by her demon familiar Leeds she sets about avenging herself on the royal family and so the tale of Sleeping Beauty plays out as in the familiar way. The castle of Putney is surrounded by impenetrable vines for a hundred years and the people of the town eventually leave. An handsome prince arrives at the appointed time, wakes the slumbering princess and then, to the dismay of the castle’s surviving inhabitants, she just takes off with her handsome lover!
Bereft of king or queen, the people of the castle try to go about their affairs as best they can. As the years pass they are joined by other adventurers and wanderers, such as Adjutant Rackham (who resembles a stork in a suit), Sir Chess (a well-built knight with the head of a horse), Sister Peace of the Order Solicitine (a most unique nunnery, whose history occupies the latter half of this volume), the plague-obsessed Dr Fell and finally Jain, who escapes from a loveless marriage seeking out the legendary Castle Waiting, known as a place of refuge.
Jain identifies herself as the Countess of Carabas and much of her past remains a mystery, including the parentage of the green-skinned infant she gives birth to at the castle. While the story of a pregnant lady travelling alone across the countryside looking for a place of legend might be thought to have an inevitable bad ending, Medley acknowledges the dangers faced by Jain on the road, while also relating her adventures with gentle humour. This has been described as a feminist retelling of fairy tales, which it obviously is, but it is also quite an affectionate and loving one. The principal characters are mostly women who have faced hard times, yet still laugh at their lot in life.
Slowly but surely Sister Peace becomes the centre of attention, with her stories of life with travelling performers, religious orders of bearded ladies and her flirtatious rivalry with the demon Leeds confirming her as a vivacious and bemused woman of God.
Medley’s art resembles the style of Jeff Smith, whose book Bone is a particular favourite of mine, perfectly accompanying the warm storytelling. Castle Waiting is also comparable to that series due to its use of contemporary dialogue, but Medley goes even further, introducing many aspects of our world into her fantasy concoction. Jain is even shown reading a copy of The Wonderful World of Oz at one point.
A beautifully captured fantasy world.