Color me disappointed but not surprised that The Emerald City of Oz is the last of the Eric Shanower/Skottie Young Oz adaptations for Marvel. Shanower had said that they’d keep adapting them as long as they kept selling, but I remember thinking when they announced that they were going past the first book: “Are they going to try to adapt all of them, including the not-very-good ones?”
To explain why I’m not surprised, there are two things it’s important to know about L. Frank Baum. The first is that, like many entrepreneurs of the Gilded Age, Baum dabbled in a lot of things but wasn’t successful in most of them. He tried everything from owning a general store to running a movie studio, but the only thing he was really successful at was writing, and his most successful writing overall was the Oz series. (The three Oz books from 1914-1916, Tik-Tok of Oz, The Scarecrow of Oz, and Rinkitink in Oz, were all repurposings of other writings, the last two starting out as non-Oz books but becoming Oz books because those were easier to sell.) Much like Arthur Conan Doyle, he got tired of his most famous creation, and tried unsuccessfully to end it several times. Emerald City was his “The Final Problem”, as it ended with Oz being sealed away from the rest of the world forever. It was clear in the books leading up to it that his interest was flagging.
The other thing to know about Baum is that he wasn’t a very disciplined writer, and when he wasn’t reining himself in he tended to throw in whimsical ideas that didn’t do much for the story. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was one of his best-plotted books: it has a clear structure that allows all the characters their moment to shine both before and after the Wizard gives them their gifts (a structure which the MGM movie threw out with the entire third act, but never mind). However, there was one point where he got carried away. Remember the China Country chapter? The one that doesn’t advance the plot at all and could have been omitted without affecting the structure of the book in any way?
Well, The Emerald City of Oz is about 75% China Country-type chapters.
The first three books in the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and Ozma of Oz, are all excellent. The quality started to drop with the next book, the awkwardly-titled Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz; it’s the first in the series that’s a collection of episodes that don’t have a spine beyond “Get from point A to point B”, and it only introduces one character of note, Eureka (Zeb and Jim don’t count). The Road to Oz I’ve always thought is better than its reputation–it’s widely regarded as one of the weakest in the series–but the “point A-point B” plotting is explicit in the title, and the last chunk of the novel is basically a string of cameos from Baum’s non-Oz fantasies. It did give us Button-Bright, the Shaggy Man, and Polychrome, however.
Emerald City removes even the A-to-B travel and is mostly a picaresque of Dorothy and her aunt and uncle visiting the various whimsical communities in Oz–the biscuit people! The jigsaw puzzle people! There is a threat to Oz in the form of the Nome King gathering up various monsters to attack the Emerald City, and those chapters are interesting, but they don’t even affect the Oz characters until the ending. In light of the threat to Oz, however, Ozma throws the country off the Reichenbach Falls and the series ends for good, or at least for three years.
The seventh book in the series, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, was a return to form. The break seems to have revitalized Baum, and he broke away from the pattern of the previous three books. The protagonist, Ojo the Unlucky, is the first non-Dorothy protagonist since Tip in Land, and several characters of note are introduced. We meet the creator of the Powder of Life from Land, Dr. Pipt, and the Woozy, who’s a good secondary character. Two excellent new characters appear in the forms of Bungle the Glass Cat and Scraps, the titular Patchwork Girl. There’s a spine to the book again (Ojo’s quest to restore his uncle) rather than just a series of episodes.
Sadly, it appears that my worries have come to pass: sales presumably dropped enough on the adaptations of books 4-6 that Marvel wasn’t willing to continue the series through to the point where it gets good again. This is a shame on multiple levels: not only is Patchwork Girl one of the best Oz books, a character that’s as crazy as Scraps would have been perfect for Skottie Young’s style, and I’m sorry we won’t get to see his version of her. If another publisher wants to hire these creators to continue the adaptations, I’ll be right on board.
Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “Did you see that ludicrous display last night?”