Monday, August 26, 2013

Shanowerthon! Eric's Oz-Stories, Part 2

 The second annual issue of Oz-Story Magazine brought four new stories by Eric Shanower. However, two were not prose stories. Oz-Story presented many new Oz stories in comic form as well as prose, and in some cases, Eric wrote a very short one or two-page story and a guest artist would do the art.

As said, Oz-Story 2 contained two such stories. The first, "The Greed Goblin of Oz," was drawn by Anna Maria Cool. At two pages, there isn't much to say except: the Scarecrow and Sawhorse rescue the Greed Goblin, who offers to grant them one wish each with one catch: the wish must benefit only them. What will they wish for?

The other story, "Skin Deep," was drawn by Archie Comics writer and artist Dan Parent. A young man visits Ozma's court with a bag over his head to protest a terrible enchantment that has been cast on him. He removes the bag revealing a very charming face underneath. What is his problem? Perhaps Dorothy won't like the resolution...

Being shorts, neither story is exactly a major piece of Oz writing, but they are fun just the same.

The first prose story is "Dorothy and the Mushroom Queen," accredited to pseudonym Janet Deschman. It re-appeared in The Salt Sorcerer of Oz and Other Stories under Shanower's name. Bungle, Dorothy and Flicker (making a prose reappearance from The Ice King of Oz) enter the underground, mysterious, beautiful, but very disturbing world of Ma-dul-ma-dun, ruled by Queen Piopelp, who cares only for beauty and loyalty from others to herself. Among Dorothy and her friends, she only finds Bungle worthy of any attention. While touring this world, Dorothy discovers many wonderful and disturbing things, but she fears that she may starve to death, and is not sure that Piopelp will let her leave!

This story follows in the vein of Giant Garden and "Gugu and the Kalidahs." Again, Shanower manages to remain true to Baum's creation while at the same time being dark and sometimes scary. In fact, this story even has a bit of a suspenseful ending!

The final new story is one of my favorite pieces of Oz fiction ever. "Abby" serves as a type of sequel to Jack Snow's The Shaggy Man of Oz. I won't say too much here so I don't spoil it for whoever hasn't read it yet, but I do want to talk about it at length, so I'll finish looking at the entire issue, then go back to "Abby." You were warned.

The titular Abby is the adult Twink from Shaggy Man, and one night, she gets an urgent phone call from her brother Tom, who is at their childhood home in Buffalo. Urging her to come and bring along their copy of The Shaggy Man of Oz, Tom has discovered that the projection television set their father invented is still working, and it's showing what appears to be Conjo's Island again. But Abby can't just swish off to fairyland. There are still things from Abby's past that she needs to resolve: her relationships with her now-deceased parents, her relationship with Tom, and even identifying as the heroine of a certain Oz book.

What makes "Abby" work is not the fantasy, but how human it feels. It beautifully tackles the question of what it'd be like to be a kid who went to Oz and never went back. Every time I read it—even before I read The Shaggy Man of Oz—I was struck by how human the characters of Tom and Twink were reinterpreted by Shanower. After I read the book, that appreciation was even better, given how flat Snow had originally written the characters of Tom and Twink. Shanower had to do a lot of invention, and once again, it all works within Baum's universe, though none of it takes place in Oz or fairyland at all.

Sadly, "Abby" has not been reprinted. The story is a very different tone from what was in The Salt Sorcerer of Oz and Other Stories. Hopefully, one day, it will be made available again.

Before I jump into my major fan-boying about "Abby," I had better mention the non-story work Shanower did on Oz-Story 2. Aside from the art director duties, he provided the back cover, which also served as a contest: "If Six Great Cartoonists Had Drawn Oz Comics!" Readers were invited to send the answers in to Oz story. Here we see Eric emulate the distinct style of six very different cartoonists.

I was considering having a new contest, but have decided against it in the end. The answers were revealed in Oz-Story 3, the winner being Don Vanni, who got a free copy of that next issue.

The artists are 1) Winsor McCay (based on his work in Little Nemo's Slumberland), 2) Harold Gray (based on Little Orphan Annie), 3) Carl Barks (based on his famous Disney Duck comics), 4) Jack Kirby (because it's Jack Kirby!), 5) Robert Crumb, and 6) Jaime Hernandez (based on his work in Love and Rockets).

This back cover is so great that it's alone worth tracking down a copy from a used book site!

And now to further commentary about "Abby."

While Abby is the main focus of the story, when the story was released, a lot of reader backlash sprung up over how Shanower reinterpreted the character of Tom in 1977. Without using the terms "gay" or "homosexual," the story revealed that Tom had just ended a seven-year relationship with his "lover" Michael. Some readers were upset that Eric had taken a pre-existing character and had made what they perceived to be a big change.

Eric's creative choice is justified. One, Jack Snow was gay, and like Jack Snow, the story finds Tom alone and without work. Second, Eric himself is gay. And third, what we know about sexual orientation today should let us know that this really shouldn't be a big thing. The story would have gone the exact same way if Eric had written about Tom's ex-girlfriend Michelle instead. The issue that the character was gay was quite blown out of proportion.

"Abby" was the first story I'd read that featured an openly gay character. At the time, the only other thing I'd read about homosexuality was an article in Charisma magazine that I found in our church's office. I remember reading it quite intently, and that it was the only article I read in it. Today, I also identify as a gay man and know that article was chock-full of misinformation about homosexuality, much of which popped up again recently in same-sex marriage debates. These two pieces of literature were quite at odds with each other. As it turned out, perhaps that article contained more fiction than "Abby.

"Abby" ends with Tom packing up and heading through the image projected by the television set onto Conjo's Island. Abby stays behind, deciding that she'll do a much better job of reconciling her life with her experience in Oz with her husband and children. The last thing Abby sees of Tom is Tom writing that Conjo has entered a vegetative state and he and Twiffle will be trying to leave the island for help.

So, now, what I want to know is what happened to Tom next? Furthermore, I'd love an entire Oz book written like this: a mature, adult approach to the world Baum created that doesn't need to do a dark revision. Perhaps, if Eric ever decides to write such a story, "Abby" could be included as a prelude.

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