OzCon International was virtual again this year, kind of a shame when I’d been getting used to going annually. Still, better safe than sorry, and I believe the typical resort isn’t even open again yet. Colin Ayres and Erica Olivera again co-hosted the program, which was a combination of live and pre-recorded material. The live stuff was all on Saturday, but I’ve also watched many of the other videos, which were released throughout the weekend. I’m not going to talk about everything, but I will cover what I saw as the highlights. There was a discussion of Toto with Sam Milazzo, Ryan Jay, J.L. Bell, Jay Davis, and OzRoy Chase. They brought up some interesting points about his characterization, his breed, and L. Frank Baum’s eventual decision to make him talk. Regarding what kind of dog he is, there’s an offhand description in The Scarecrow of Oz that he’s “a fuzzy little terrier dog.” Erica interviewed Karyl Carlson and Eric Gjovaag on their Queen Ann in Oz, and Paul Dana on his Oz books. And Eric Shanower and Skottie Young talked about how they got involved in creating the Marvel Comics adaptations of the first six Oz books. As far as the live content went, Tara and EmKay from the Yellow Brick Pod talked about their podcast and sang a few songs. I hadn’t seen them before, but they’re very enthusiastic, and I liked the various outfits they wear for their videos. Scott Brogan and Robert Welch talked about some of the effects used in the MGM film. I was particularly struck by how the matte paintings worked. The Oz Film Manufacturing Company and Matilda Josyln Gage were also topics of interest. Eric Shanower gave a detailed overview of his research on the stage play The Tik-Tok Man of Oz and the people involved in the show. Erica, Mikey Dee, Caitlin Masters, Colin, and David Maxine talked about Philip Jose Farmer’s A Barnstormer in Oz, which I’ve never read, but maybe I should. It’s very much not a typical Oz book, but more an attempt to rationalize the story of the first Oz book and explain the fantasy land in a more science fiction sort of way. David mentioned how terrible the reception was from many Oz fans at the time the book was released. I don’t think it was entirely fair, since it’s not like Farmer was trying to negate the established series, just give his own take on it. I will admit that I have a preference for tales that are consistent with the canon, as it feels like they’re part of a bigger history instead of just stand-alone, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed some other stuff. I do think that, when you’re a big fan of something, it’s difficult to separate your feelings on media on their own merits from how they present your fandom. And this can work both ways, as I’m sure I’ve rounded up quite a bit when it came to fairly mediocre stories because they came across as authentic to my own vision of the fairyland.
The panel I was both really looking forward to and kind of dreading was the one on Ruth Plumly Thompson, with J.L. Bell, Atticus Gannaway, Eric Shanower, Erica, and Mari Ness. I tend to be pretty defensive of her books, and I know some fans (including one of the panelists) who hate them. Mari, who’s reviewed all of the main Oz books, reiterated her point about how, while Baum’s books often focused on the outcasts of society, Thompson’s were generally more concerned with declining royalty and aristocracy, and even her American visitors tended to be more well-to-do than Baum’s. This unfortunately also included some influence from the Southern Lost Cause myth, fairly innocuously in Grampa but in a disturbingly racist way in Silver Princess. Baum was occasionally casually racist in his fantasies (he was way worse elsewhere), but Thompson was usually worse. I do think a lot of this was due to ignorance and carelessness more than maliciousness, but that doesn’t make it okay, and it kind of makes Silver Princess all the worse. There was some discussion on Facebook recently about how a lot of Thompson’s stereotypes at least appear to be a result of her borrowing wholesale from earlier fairy tales and such. The Red Jinn has Black slaves in Jack Pumpkinhead and Purple Prince, and while that’s certainly cringeworthy, I didn’t think it came off as active support of racism so much as that they were in the Arabian Nights, so they’re there too. Then in Silver Princess, there’s material that sounds like it’s straight out of defenses of American slavery, so there isn’t even the semi-defense of the slaves just being there to add exotic flavor. Having read most of these books as a rather sheltered white teenager, I noticed some of the more offensive stuff, but there were subtle elements that eluded me, and I have to wonder if I wouldn’t have liked them as much if I’d been more aware. That said, when I’ve seen people look down at Thompson, it isn’t the racism or classism that comes up that much (that’s really more from fans), but more that her Oz was too twee and saccharine, and her style patronizing compared to Baum’s. That’s true to an extent, although she actually toned that down somewhat for Oz compared to other kids’ stuff she wrote. People have also noted how dark her Oz tales can be, which seems kind of contradictory to the last point. Much of her Oz is dangerous and unfriendly, and there’s the occasional creepily surreal bit like the road out of Fix City in Royal Book. There’s still a sense of whimsy and a tone that suggests nobody is ever really in serious danger, but it kind of undercuts Baum’s more utopian view of Oz. But overall, I think Thompson was a fun and inventive writer who had a penchant amusing dialogue and brisk narratives (with some exceptions); and I like that she mostly added to Baum instead of supplanting him. Oz is big enough to include both Baum’s philosophical wanderers and cheerful laborers and Thompson’s proud, old-fashioned little kingdoms and cult-like themed communities.
Lurline willing, next year in Pomona!