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Monday, July 24, 2006

 

Return to Oz

I didn't attend Comic-Con in San Diego last weekend. This is too bad, because it's always a great excuse for me to visit fellow Mountain contributers Dave and Hilary (no, really! check the archives!). And now that they're new and improved with extra baby power, skipping the event was making me pretty blue.

The weekend was far from a wash, however. First, Dave was kind enough to chase my want list around the show, scoring me two issues of the sublime Haney/Aparo Brave and The Bold--I hereby request Dave to post a summary/commentary of the deeply wack B&B #98, especially considering that it's currently missing from H's index project at the Comic Treadmill. What's more, my family and I made the short trip down I-91 to the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, MA for the new East Gallery exhibit "The Wonderful Art of Oz", presented on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of author L. Frank Baum's birth.

We've visited the museum a number of times; each has been worthwhile, including a presentation of pre- and post-revolution Russian children's book art, a collection of illustrations for Margaret Wise Brown stories, including Goodnight Moon--and there's always Eric Carle art on display in the West Gallery, from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Very Lonely Firefly, etc. This time they've outdone themselves with one of the most impressive collections of illustration I've ever seen. My own sense of awe is rooted by having lived with many of these drawings for more than 30 years in book form; actually seeing the originals in person took my breath away.

The show is arranged, loosely, in the plot order of L. Frank Baum's original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Work from subsequent books and miscellany follows.

The first piece is a huge color lithograph circa 1900 produced to promote the book, featuring WW Denslow's famous title page drawing of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman clasping hands. From there we see various examples of Denslow's inked production art, over graphite, including the copyright page, chapter headers and the wonderful two-page spread of the field mice drawing the sleeping Lion through the poppy field. Interspersed are more recent interpretations from Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, Lisbeth Zwerger, Andy Warhol (a print of Edith Hamilton as the Wicked Witch which I last saw at the Warhol show in Brattleboro a year or two back) and others.

Following this strong start the show shifts gears, becoming a testament to the gorgeously fine linework and imagination of John R. Neil, who took over art duties with Baum's second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and who continued on the series long after Baum's death in 1919. Neil's control of his brush is simply awesome: the strands of Dorothy's hair, the tatters of the Shaggy Man's clothes, the stitches holding together the irrepressible Patchwork Girl. The last is one of the show's centerpieces, in the form of the oversized original drawing for the wraparound cover of The Patchwork Girl of Oz, seventh book in the series. The image here really, really doesn't do it justice.

The exhibit wraps up with some items of special interest to me, sunday comic pages from the early 1900s, including a wordless Denslow page and an unpublished 1905 strip credited to Neil. I found this strip fascinating (assuming I remember the description correctly) for its inclusion of the Woozy, a very odd character (see image, desperately grasping tree) who first appeared in the books in 1913's Patchwork Girl. In the strip, featuring the Scarecrow, the Woozy appears to help bring to life a crabby pancake person who inexplicably floats through the air. Best exchange, filtered through my weak memory:

Scarecrow: You nearly scared me to death!

Pancake guy: Well, you scared me to life, so we're even!

All of this is topped off by the museum's great bookstore, containing an exhaustive selection (perhaps the wrong word, as it seems everything is accounted for) of children's picture books. The Oz island featured every single Oz book and Baum non-Oz title in print, as well as a few decidedly out-of-print items. The latter included a find that just about makes up for missing San Diego: a stock of the first four Eric Shanower Oz graphic novels--all signed by the artist. The clerk explained to me that the books (as well as items like the official Oz maps we bought for Abe) were provided by the International Wizard of Oz Club.

If you love children's books, if you're into American history, if you appreciate illustration, if you're anywhere near Western Massachusetts between now and the end of October, you owe it to yourself to see this exhibit.

Comments:
Now THIS is a post I can get behind. When I was little I read as many of the Oz books as I could find in our small beach library. I've always been more of a word than an illustration person, but I still remember the beauty and detail of Neil's artwork. I just loved the early 1900s hairstyles on the women. I didn't know why they all looked so different -- I thought it was Oz-style -- but the bobbed and waved hair with long flowing dresses were impossibly elegant. I have collected some of those old books, but I need to step up my collecting for Rosemary. At what age did your kids start appreciating the Oz books? I can't believe the exhibit won't travel. It sounds amazing.
 
Theo and I read the first four Oz books when he was 4 or 5 years old. He liked them, but lost interest fairly quickly. Abe, on the other hand, has had a deeper, more sustained interest in the books (and film). Starting when he was 2-1/2, we began reading the series, and we're now up to book #8, The Scarecrow of Oz. We're on a bit of a hiatus; Scarecrow starts out slowly with unfamiliar characters, and his immediate interest has turned to acrobats, clowns, Green Arrow and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen.

Abe's 3rd birthday party was Oz-themed, and he says he wants another one when he turns 4. Then again, he also claims to be an emergency medical technician, and insists he can breathe underwater.

This exhibit would be a great thing to do if you, ahem, came east to show off your baby.

As far as collecting goes, I now have 13 of Baum's original 14, (in 6 different formats, missing only #9, Rinkitink in Oz) plus a first edition of second author Ruth Plumly Thompson's Speedy in Oz that belonged to my uncle as a kid. The bookstore had maybe 12 of Thompson's sequels in Del Rey paperback editions, which I had never seen before.
 
If you are an Oz fan and are already in the Northeast, you may want to check out the Munchkin Convention this August in New Jersey. You can get the info from this website:

http://mywebpages.comcast.net/munchcon

Just click on the schedule tab to see what they have lined up.

You can also check out the Oz Club at www.ozclub.org
 
Thanks for the links!
 
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