Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Magical Mimics in Oz

About 1920, Reilly & Lee received a letter from an enthusiastic Oz fan. In light of L. Frank Baum's death, if they needed someone to write Oz stories for them, he was ready. He was turned down. They had already selected Ruth Plumly Thompson, and this fan was only twelve years old.

Despite his dismissal, this fan continued research into Baum's life and works, and later worked for several radio stations. He also began writing short stories and columns for magazines. So, in 1943, when he heard of the death of John R. Neill, he brought his offer to the table again. His name was Jack Snow.

Reilly & Lee had put the Oz series on a brief hiatus while looking for a new Royal Historian and illustrator. Mary Dickerson Donahey was offered the Oz series, but although she would have loved to, a series of already thirty-six books had too many characters and too much back story to keep a track of. In 1944, Snow was selected to continue the series.

In a perfect world, Snow would have immediately cranked out an Oz story, it would be illustrated and on store shelves in time for Christmas, 1944, and business would resume for Oz as usual, but that was not to be. While Snow turned out a manuscript quickly enough, the paper shortage and labor difficulties due to World War II prevented a 1944 publication.

Snow suggested Frank Kramer, an artist who had done illustrations for many of the same types of magazines that Snow had worked on, take over as illustrator. Frank O'Donnell agreed, and the illustrator was in.

Sadly, The Magical Mimics in Oz, Snow's first Oz book, did not see print until 1946. Although a brave promotion strategy was enacted, the book failed to sell as well as other Oz books. Note that there had been a four year gap since the last Oz book, so there was plenty of time for enthusiasm to die down. A 14 year old child who had received Lucky Bucky in Oz for Christmas would have been 18, and the just-concluded war had brought about new and exciting developments in the real world that, in the minds of the American public, put fairy tales to shame.

But how was Magical Mimics? Well, Snow did not have the same fears that Mary Dickerson Donahey had experienced. Instead of trying to remember every detail of all the previous Oz books, Snow went back to the Oz Baum had left the end of Glinda of Oz. (Reportedly, Thompson approved of this.) This has since become the standard way most subsequent Oz tales begin. Snow's Oz would be a refreshing step back instead of trying to work with the messy world Thompson and Neill had developed Oz into.

Ozma calls Dorothy to her study to inform her that she and Glinda will be attending a Grand Council with Queen Lurline in the Forest of Burzee. In her absence, Dorothy will govern the Emerald City.

That's the first two chapters. Much of the first chapter was an expanded tale of how Lurline made Oz into a fairyland. The third chapter tells us what she did next: place a spell on the Mimics of Mount Illuso, the twin mountain of Mount Fantistico of the Phanfasms, so they could not harm a citizen of Oz. Already Snow is delving into the world Baum had created and expanding on it in his own way.

But now Snow does his biggest deviation from Baum as the villains come in. He had just established the Mimics, who can take any form they choose, but their most fearsome power is taking someone's form by casting themselves on their shadow, the victim becoming completely immobile. The leaders of the Mimics are Queen Ra and King Umb, and when they discover Ozma and Glinda have left Oz, they turn into giant birds and fly to Oz, where they steal the forms of Dorothy and the Wizard, and then have them carried back to their mountain.

In the cavern that Dorothy and the Wizard are dropped into, a light shines after the Mimics have left and frees Dorothy and the Wizard from their enchantment. A little wooden man named Hi-Lo arrives and takes them in an elevator to his home on the mountain, where they meet his wife in the village of Pineville, where Princess Ozana lives. She made the citizens out of a pine forest, for she is a fairy who has been tasked to keep an eye on the Mimics. When Dorothy and the Wizard tell Ozana of their plight, she is unaware of Umb and Ra's departure. (Sneaky devils!) She begins to make preparations to go to Oz, and allows Dorothy and the Wizard to enjoy one of Snow's most whimsical creations: Story Blossom Garden.

In this garden, plants tell stories when picked, based on what they are. Roses tell love stories, tiger-lilies tell jungle tales, and weeds tell action hero stories. Subtle humor on Snow's part, quite worthy of a Baum successor. At the chapter's close, Dorothy is told a bedtime story by a poppy, which harkens back to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, though this poppy is definitely not of a malignant nature.

Meanwhile, the other people in the Emerald City are struck by the sudden change in Dorothy and the Wizard, how they have forgotten things they knew and secretive and dismissive of others. Ra is looking through Ozma's magic books for a spell to counteract Lurline's enchantment on Mount Illuso, but fails to find it before dinner, which they attend to avoid looking too suspicious. Toto, a late dinner arrival, immediately sees that Ra and Umb are not Dorothy and the Wizard. We are left to assume this is how well he knows Dorothy. At any rate, he blows the Mimics' cover and they flee to the magic room and lock themselves in, finding the enchantment, stealing the Magic Belt, and turning into hideous batlike creatures and flying away just before the other palace residents break down the door. Uncle Henry is sent to Glinda's to gather a report on what happened from the Book of Records, while the Magic Picture assures everyone that the real Wizard and Dorothy are safe.

On Mount Illuso, while Umb and Ra are shocked to discover Dorothy and the Wizard gone, they waste no time in dispelling the enchantment, so all the Mimics soon swarm to the Emerald City and quickly conquer it, immobilizing regular people as they duplicate them, sedating the animals by magic, and tying up the Scarecrow and Scraps. Ozma and Glinda return and defy them as they might, they cannot overcome the Mimics.

Ozana has summoned giant swans to carry them back to Oz, but realizes they are too late to prevent the invasion. Upon arriving, Ozana proves that magic against her is useless and restores Lurline's enchantment to protect the people of Oz. The Magic Belt is returned, and Ra and Umb are rendered powerless. All the Mimics' victims are free again, and the Mimics are enchanted into mirrors, which are shattered, returning them to Mount Illuso. (The mirrors are magically repaired, so Jellia doesn't have to worry about cleaning up all that glass!)

Ozma invites Ozana to stay in Oz, where she can still keep an eye on the Mimics. Her village of Pineville and Story Blossom Garden are transported to the Quadling Country, where the Mimics cannot get to them. A grand celebration is held in honor of Ozma's return, the defeat of the Mimics, the wit of Toto, and the new Princess of Oz, Ozana.

While the style change from Thompson, Neill, and even, in some ways, Baum may have thrown off some readers, The Magical Mimics in Oz is a refreshing story after going through the past several Oz books. Snow's story is humorous, exciting, and bold. And even though there are some nasty villains, by the story's end, they are disposed of and rendered powerless, in classic Baum tradition.

But still, Mimics was not a commercial success for Reilly & Lee. As I cited above, after four years with no new Oz books, the audience could easily have lost interest, especially with the lastest developments in the real world. Children were less interested in fairy tales at the time, and more entranced by what could be achieved through science and technology. The magic of Oz was just a story, while the new craze in science fiction, which both Snow and Kramer had worked in, showed what might actually happen. Unlike Thompson and Neill, who had introduced magic automobiles and airships to Oz, Snow abstained from bringing new technologies to Baum's fairyland.

Kramer, sadly, received some of the blame for the book's financial disappointment. He had not been a children's book illustrator before, and while his work is fine, when compared with the art of the legendary John R. Neill, something feels lacking. Kramer's art was also inconsistent at times. He draws Toto looking as like a different breed of dog each time.

Anyway, despite the commercial disappointment, Reilly & Lee didn't write Snow and Kramer off as a failure, realizing that it might take time to bring their audiences back to Oz. This new author and illustrator team would return to Oz very soon.

1 comment:

Sam A M said...

I was just finally reading the latest Baum Bugle on Frank Kramer "the Lost Illustrator of Oz" and it made eager for a Blog about this new change for Oz.

Not a disappointment!