[Above: It looks like a happy, generic “capture” of a raft of Oz celebrities! In reality, however, this John R. Neill art from GLINDA OF OZ (1920) depicts the great Sorceress of the South (left) as she summons some compatriots to inform them of the imprisonment of Dorothy and Princess Ozma on a sunken island in the Gillikin Country. Those pictured include (counter-clockwise from bottom left): Tik-Tok, the Woozy, Trot and Betsy, Ojo, the Frogman, Jack Pumpkinhead, Scraps the Patchwork Girl, and Button Bright. Apart from two Oz titles discussed below, Neill delivered his entire suite of pictures for each Oz assignment in black-and-white pen-and-ink work; the coloring of selected images – as above -- was done by the printer. It must have been a highly sympatico association!]
After writing and assembling well over one hundred of these blogs across the past seven years, I especially enjoy the “surprise” element that occasionally comes out of nowhere and prompts a topic for discussion. This month, the idea arrived almost simultaneously -- from several sources.
The first of these, of course, is the recurring realization that it’s the diverse (but Oz-centric!) illustrations that are responsible for a lot of the attention received -- and joy generated -- by these writings. Beyond that, I’ve also recently derived genuine pleasure while doing research for a forthcoming project, as it has meant reviewing the John R. Neill art – especially his color work -- in twelve of L. Frank Baum’s Oz volumes. While there are some currently available Oz book reprints that include these vibrant images, most of them are not overwhelmingly familiar, as (whether glossy plates or pigmented pages), Neill’s brightly-hued pictures were dropped from the series circa 1935 due to printing costs during the Great Depression.
This month’s swiftest inspiration, however, came via a lovely response to September’s blog. You may remember that it celebrated Baum’s whimsical ability to write “dark” characters and incidents while simultaneously creating stories suitable for readers of all ages. That theme garnered a happy post on The OZ Museum Facebook page from Terresa Mountain regarding the accompanying visuals. Quoth Terresa: “LOVE the artwork in my original books!”
Well, I don’t know Ms. Mountain, but I’m most definitely indebted to her for the personal enthusiasm that coalesced with the first two points above! That trifecta led to this October blog, and I hope many of you will share in the enjoyment.
[Above: Sometimes Neill’s art consisted of welcome portraits of new and veteran Ozians. In the picture above, however, he provides an all-encompassing panorama of a climactic moment in THE SCARECROW OF OZ (1915). As can easily be seen, our hero is but moments away from annihilation (as a sort of Joan of Arc of Oz), his destruction having been ordered by the horrific King Krewl (lower left). If one looks closely, however, Neill reassuringly offers proof of imminent rescue via an approaching army of Orks (top left).]
John R. Neill – who often used the abbreviation “Jno.” for his first name -- not only illustrated thirteen of Baum’s Oz titles (plus the six LITTLE WIZARD STORIES OF OZ and THE OZ TOY BOOK), but all nineteen of those written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, and the three he authored himself. Of course, there were countless other Neill pictures in magazines and additional books, but his Oz work is the enduring foundation of his legend, and it continues to endear him to countless children of all ages. Baum’s widow, Maud, once dubbed Neill “the Royal Painter of Oz,” a worthy (if historically underplayed) appellation.
Jno. was his own wizard at purveying the requisite beauty and humor demanded by the characters, settings, and plot twists and turns that permeated the original Oz books. Just below, in one of seventeen color paintings prepared for DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ (1908), he shows Dorothy, her “second cousin” Zeb, and the Great Oz himself as they are confronted by an underground den of dragonettes. It’s a dangerous situation, to be sure, but as one of the horrors casually confesses, “We dragonettes would love to eat you . . . but unfortunately, mother has tied all our tails around the rocks at the back of our individual caves, so that we can’t crawl out to get you.” The facial expressions provided by Neill for both the Wizard and the dragonette (at left) perfectly kick across the matter-of-fact, comedic tone of the moment.
As referenced in last month’s blog, the indefatigably vengeful Nome King campaigned to conquer Oz and/or the Ozians across a number of books in the series. Ruggedo continually dismisses all acumen but his own dubious intelligence, which generally and repeatedly leads to his downfall -- this time in TIK-TOK OF OZ (1914). In retaliation for the Metal Monarch’s stupidity and misbehavior, the omniscient, all-powerful Great Jinjin (sneezily named Tititi-Hoochoo) sends Quox the Dragon as “an Instrument of Vengeance” to overthrow the Nome ruler and banish him from his underground kingdom. Ruggedo manages to chain the mannerly monster when he pokes his enormous head into the cavern throne room, but Quox effortlessly raises “one claw” and then touches “the catch of the great jeweled locket that was suspended around his neck . . . [and] at once, it opened wide.” As eggs are fatal to Nomes, the six that swiftly emerged from the locket and began following the King everywhere he went were more than enough threat to send the sovereign into leg-lifting terror (see below) and – eventually – into a mad scramble over Quox’s head, down a long tunnel, and out and away from the innocent-looking hen vessels.
A bit later in the same story, Ruggedo attempts to sneak back into his vast domain by touching a magic spring in one of the rocks on the earth’s surface. An underground passage is quickly disclosed, and the King might have succeeded in his surreptitious return to his realm but for the surveillance of one of Frank Baum’s most endearing creations, Polychrome the Rainbow’s Daughter. Her power of perception enables her to lead (among others) Tik-Tok, the Shaggy Man, and little Betsy Bobbin of Oklahoma to pursue the former king to the massive Metal Forest, where “more treasure was gathered . . . than is contained in all the rest of the world – if we except the Land of Oz, where perhaps its value is equaled in the famous Emerald City.” In the process, Baum ties up several threads of plot, and Ruggedo is corralled; meanwhile, Kaliko, the new and (if only temporarily) worthy king of the Nomes kindly allows him to remain, powerless, in the subterranean caverns he knows as home. Below, we see that Neill perfectly portrayed that single-minded rascal – and his observer – in the act that led to all of this denouement!
A bit of vintage Oz chronicling is represented in a color plate (below) from THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ (1918). All aficionados know the title character’s back story; he tells it to Dorothy when they first meet in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900), as well as in such stage musicals as THE WIZ and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. Understandably, Baum himself repeats it in the book that bears the Tin Woodman’s name, which gave Neill a chance to illustrate a moment of the saga. For those who might require or welcome a recap: Nick Chopper was once a flesh-and-blood woodsman in the Munchkin Country, where he and a beautiful maiden, Nimmie Amee, fell in love. Their plan to marry, however, was thwarted by the Wicked Witch of the East, who kept the girl as a slave and wouldn’t countenance losing her. The harridan thus enchanted Nick’s ax, so that it gradually “de-limbed” and beheaded him. In Oz, of course, there was a magical solution at hand, as Nick’s good friend, Ku-Klip the tinsmith, replaced each severed body part with a new one made of tin. “But” (as Jack Haley so nobly phrased it in the 1939 MGM movie) “the tinsmith forgot to give me a heart”; as a result, the Tin Woodman could no longer return Nimmie Amee’s love. He set out to find a heart so as to continue the relationship but was unexpectedly caught in a rain storm and “rusted solid” -- until Dorothy came along and oiled him back to physical vigor.
The tale of Nick Chopper’s renewed commitment to (and search for) Nimmie Amee serves as Baum’s plotline for THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ. Below, Neill shows us not only Nimmie Amee and the human Nick, but one of only two or three pictorial glimpses of the Wicked Witch of the East in the entire Oz series. If you know your hoztory, you’ll remember that all one usually sees of that malevolent soul is her feet and/or shoes; she, after all, is the villainess who is squashed by that tumbling house from Kansas!
Our last three pieces of art are selected from Neill’s most elaborate and exotic Oz color plates; they were created in 1910 for what was, at that time, supposed to the final Oz book, THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ. (Ultimately, it was only number six of Baum’s fourteen -- and of the forty in the official series.) As with DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ two years earlier, the artist actually painted the seventeen color images required for the volume and its cover. Then, publishers “Reilly & Britton printed these with embellishments in metallic-green on a background of metallic-silver,” a process explained in the extraordinary THE BOOK COLLECTOR’S GUIDE TO L. FRANK BAUM AND OZ by Paul R. Bienvenue with Robert E. Schmidt (El Segundo, CA: March Hare Books, 2009). The authors also note that the stunning, shimmering. and expensive effect lasted for only the very first printings of THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ.
That title is notable on several other counts, as well -- perhaps most importantly because it brings Dorothy, Toto, Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry to live permanently in Oz. Upon arrival, the two aging but spry relatives are turned out in the very finest of Ozian garb: “Henry, you look like a play-actor,” is Em’s observation, to which Henry ripostes, “An’ you, Em, look more highfalutin’ than a peacock.” Dorothy walks them about the Emerald City palace gardens before leaving them to explore on their own (“You’ll be perfectly safe anywhere”), but neither aunt nor uncle knows what to do when they come “face to face with an enormous lion.” Prepared to meet her doom, Em tries one defense: “Henry, I’ve heard as savage beasts can be conquered by the human eye . . . .” She then “glared at the immense beast” with “a determined countenance and a wild dilated eye,” and it’s perfectly understandable that our old friend, the Cowardly Lion “began to appear uneasy and disturbed. ‘Is anything the matter, ma’am?’ he asked, in a mild tone.” Neill perfectly captured the confrontation (above), and the trio were soon fast friends.
During their initial days in Oz, Em and Henry are also given a more expansive and fully conducted tour of some of the countryside by Dorothy, Toto, Billina the chicken, the Wizard, the Shaggy Man, the Sawhorse, and the Soldier With the Green Whiskers. Dot, dog, and fowl briefly wander away from the rest, and in the course of one of their side adventures, Dorothy befriends and carefully counsels the dour King of Bunnybury, leaving a much wiser and infinitely happier ruler (and kingdom) in her wake:
What must have been a beyond-classic Neill painting still maintains plenty of magic, even shrunk down to THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ book-size page. The touring party – after adding the Tin Woodman to the group – swings by a “new mansion,” just built for the Scarecrow. According to Baum, it “was shaped like an immense ear of corn. The rows of kernels were made of solid gold, and the green upon which the ear stood upright was a mass of sparkling emeralds. Upon the very top of the structure was perched a figure representing the Scarecrow himself, and upon his extended arms, as well as upon his head, were several crows carved out of ebony and having ruby eyes. You may imagine how big this ear of corn was when I tell you that a single gold kernel formed a window, swinging outward upon hinges, while a row of four kernels opened to make the front entrance. Inside there were five stories, each story being a single room.” Below, the beloved man of straw struts forward in best fashion to greet his guests – thanks to Jno.
The John R. Neill achievements presented above were created in the years between 1908-1920. His complete Ozzy tenure, however, encompassed almost forty years of employment, from 1904-1943, and his style evolved with experience, elan, and the changing fashions of the times. It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that, at any given moment, the man had an incontrovertible, immeasurable genius for bringing to life the peoples, worlds, and sojourns recorded by the Royal Historians.
Neill evermore remains an undeniable and incomparable force for Ozzy magic. Thus, it’s a pleasure to remember “Jno.” and to share a very, very few of his miraculous – and very real – “works of art.”
[Please note: The best hard cover reprints of L. Frank Baum’s fourteen Oz books – which include all their original color and black-and-white artwork by John R. Neill (and, in the case of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, by W. W. Denslow) – are currently available from Books of Wonder/HarperCollins Publishers and may be purchased through Wamego’s The OZ Museum Gift Shop: https://ozmuseum.com/collections/books-and-writing
Article by John Fricke