There was a second Virtual OzCon yesterday, this one with a Halloween theme, which means it addressed some of the potentially darker aspects of the series. There are some SPOILERS in here for several Oz books and the film Return to Oz, so proceed with caution.
Mombi was a major topic of discussion, both her portrayal in the books and in other media.
She’s an interesting character, a villain who’s a formidable threat but not quite as over-the-top nasty as the Wicked Witch of the West. She enchants Ozma and keeps her prisoner, but it’s not entirely clear what she’s getting out of it, aside from a servant, which could be enough for her. And it’s not like she’s trying to curry Ozma’s favor if she ever is restored; Ozma, as Tip, clearly hates her and she doesn’t care.
She does say that the Wizard of Oz taught her some magic tricks in exchange for hiding Ozma, but these couldn’t have been real magic, and the Wizard being the true villain doesn’t really fit his characterization in later books. Still, she must have been telling the truth about this, as Glinda was using her lie detector pearl. Hugh Pendexter’s Oz and the Three Witches makes a good attempt at reconciling the different accounts of the Wizard and Mombi’s history. In addition to bringing back the Wizard and having Ozma welcome him with open arms, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz has the Ruler explaining that not only did Mombi keep her prisoner, but also her father and grandfather, and suggests that she ruled the Gillikin Country until the Good Witch of the North conquered her.
Ruth Plumly Thompson brought Mombi back in Lost King, and Eric Shanower mentioned that she felt more like a typical Thompson villain than the character Baum wrote. I do think Thompson tended to have her villains, even ones she didn’t make up, totally lacking in subtlety, and that applies to her version of Mombi. Still, this is Mombi after having been through quite a bit since her last appearance. In Land, Glinda gives the witch “a powerful draught which will cause you to forget all the magic you have ever learned,” but it’s not clear as to whether she could learn magic again from scratch if she found a way to do so. Lost King takes an approach to this where she’s unable to work any spells, but has kind of found a way around that with kitchen-based magic like baking powder that can make anything rise and gelatin that can solidify an entire sea. Maybe the fact that Mombi can still work certain types of magic is part of why Ozma has her executed in that book, but it’s still both out of character and tacked on. Just don’t let her near the kitchen, and she should be just as powerless as before.
I also found it weird that Dorothy and Mombi recognize each other in Lost King when there was no account of their having met previously. Susan Saunders’ Dorothy and the Magic Belt and Jack and Larry Brenton’s Ork give occasions when they do meet, plus additional proof that Mombi is still dangerous even after forgetting her magic, but of course those were written years later. She seems to be a villain who largely flies under the radar, desiring power but not to the extent of the would-be conquerors, and with some pretty impressive magic but still relying on trickery rather than magical force. Even in Lost King, she doesn’t want to rule anything, just to get a valuable position and her powers restored. But if she really did rule the Gillikins, maybe she was different in her earlier days. I’ve questioned before how, if Mombi ruled the country, she could get a job in a Gillikin kingdom before the events of Lost King, and still going by Mombi. I guess she could have ruled under a different name (Paul Dana gives her birth name in his writings, and maybe she used that), but it seems like someone would have made the connection at the time of Land. Thompson basically glosses over this by saying that the history books in Kimbaloo were incomplete. Other versions of Mombi discussed included the cross between her and Princess Langwidere from Return to Oz, who’s more imposing than either of those characters in the books; Cinar‘s more amateur Mombi, who at least in the English dub had the same voice as Billina; and the fairly generic wicked witch of that name in Journey Back to Oz. I guess you could say Baum himself sort of started the Mombi in Name Only trend, as her character in His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz is clearly modeled on the Wicked Witch of the West, who was called “Momba” in an earlier film.
A discussion on Return to Ozand how well it adapted Baum’s vision included some talk on the themes Walter Murch tried to address, which didn’t always come across that clearly in the finished product. Apparently they’re defined more clearly in the novelization, which I haven’t read. As Dina Massachi pointed out, some scenes were taken almost directly from the books, but they lacked the whimsy of Baum’s writing to make it less scary. I think they got Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead pretty much right, but other aspects were made more disturbing. And it could be argued that Dorothy really IS insane in the movie, or at least that her experiences were just vivid dreams like in the MGM film. I wouldn’t say believing things that aren’t true should be considered insanity unless it’s causing someone to hurt themselves or others. Then again, Dorothy is having trouble sleeping, so maybe that counts. But I think it’s more that, even if Oz isn’t real, Dorothy is a child with a vivid imagination in a very practical setting, and she has to learn that she can keep her fantasies as long as they don’t interfere with her day-to-day life, which is sad but hardly something that requires incredibly primitive electroconvulsive therapy. Of course, I much prefer to think Oz is real.
At other times during the event, Kiki Ebsen (Buddy Ebsen’s daughter) sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and answered some questions, and Erica Olivera gave a Halloween-themed quiz. I did well on it up until the final two questions, which were based on the animated Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, a show I haven’t seen. Something else that briefly came up was how Thompson’s Oz books tended to be more conservative than L. Frank Baum’s, something I didn’t really realize reading them for the first time (mostly as a teenager), but that seems more glaring upon rereading. It often seems like whether someone will like the Thompson books depends on how old they were when they read them, but I don’t know whether that’s because her books aren’t as palatable for adults, or a sense of purism when you grow up thinking Baum was the only valid Oz author. I know I was aware that several people wrote Oz books before I read any of them, and the fourth one I read was Cowardly Lion (not only a Thompson book, but one of her weaker ones), so I didn’t really question that Thompson’s books (and even John R. Neill’s, as crazy as they were) were part of the franchise. And while I find some aspects of her books more problematic than Baum’s, I still have fun rereading them. There’s kind of a rhythm to them that I like, especially the dialogue, if that makes any sense. A lot of her lines just stick in my mind. But I know people who don’t like her writing at all. It seems to be a popular approach for fans to place the events of books they don’t care for into alternate universes, as per Edward Einhorn’s Paradox. While I’m not against that idea, and have used it myself to some extent, I really like the idea of Oz having an ongoing history to which pretty much anybody can contribute, including me. Even in Paradox itself, Ozma is trying to restore and find out more about her own version of Oz. Alternates are acknowledged, but they’re not all equal. I guess you could consider me the opposite of a purist in some ways, as I like to incorporate references to other apocryphal works in my own stories. On the other hand, I have my own idea of what feels like Real Oz to me, and some stuff doesn’t really fit even when it doesn’t contradict the original books. It’s always going to be somewhat arbitrary, but I tend to be more of an inclusivist.