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Oz: Ozma of Oz: 09/23/15

Oz: Ozma of Oz by Eric Shanower: It's all about Bill.

Oz: Ozma of Oz by Eric Shanower is the third in a six book graphic novel adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novels. To understand why his version is so wonderful, one must see it in the context of the original and its other adaptations.

Ozma was first introduced in The Marvelous Land of Oz in 1904. She inherited a power vacuum left behind when the not-so-honest wizard of Oz left in his hot air balloon. In the third Oz book, Ozma of Oz, Ozma has settled in to her position as ruler of Oz, and now she's about to meet her match when Dorothy returns.

Now Dorothy's return to Oz in the books, while still often an adventure in itself, is set up as a normal part of her life. She is an adventurer and someone Oz can rely on in times of need. Oz is a magical land surrounded by desert and outside the earthly bounds but can be traveled to by near death experiences or by magical means.

In 1985 Disney released Return to Oz which draws from Ozma of Oz but has this strange need give a "reason" for Dorothy to want to return to Oz. They set up this entire insane asylum plot rather than let Dorothy's aunt and uncle to accept on faith that she had been somewhere and come back.

Remember in the 1939 MGM musical, Dorothy awakes from her adventure to realize she had seen fantastical stand-ins for the people she knew — the woman who hated Toto became the Wicked Witch of the West; ranch hands became the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion; and so forth. Oz adaptations seem incapable of ignoring the MGM movie (meaning the Wicked Witch always has to green skin, even though she doesn't in the book). If Dorothy's trip to Oz was a Jungian one as MGM implies and if it is the starting point for the 1985 film, then there can't just be a direct route to Oz.

A year after Disney purchased Marvel, Marvel began releasing a series of graphic novel adaptations of the Oz books. I swear these books are in part an apology for the whole psychological crap stuffed into Return to Oz. These books which cover the first six books, are a wonderful subversive homage to the originals.

So, if Dorothy didn't get to Oz through a psychotic break, how did she get there? In the same way that Gulliver got to Lilliput — shipwreck. Well, actually she's just tossed overboard during a bad storm and is washed ashore with one of the farm's chickens. She and Uncle Henry were en route to Australia for his health. She was along because she "was quite an experienced traveler .... so she wasn't easily frightened, whatever happened...." (p. 15) When the ship runs afoul of an ocean storm, Dorothy goes on deck to make sure her uncle isn't in danger. That's how she ends up once again risking her life and ending up whisked again to Oz.

Except Oz isn't the only magical land at the edge of death. It's just one kingdom. Dorothy ends up on the wrong side of the border just as the Nome King is planning to invade Oz. Oz should be ripe for the picking given the years long dictatorship by the Wizard and now with a child on the throne.

So on the one hand, Ozma of Oz is about Dorothy once again apart from her family, trying to get home. Now though, she has to find Oz before she can find someone who can then send her home. On the other, it's the first glimpse of Oz as a kingdom and our first look at it while it's at war.

Though it's primarily a story of one girl trying to find her way home, and another one trying to save her country, it's also an examination of gender, feminism, war, and colonialism set in a post apocalyptic wasteland.

They prefer the name Bill

While Dorothy ends up proving herself worthy of being Ozma's champion in this book, there's a second hero who is sometimes overlooked — Bill the chicken. Dorothy, being uncomfortable with non-binary expression, nicknames Bill, Billina. Bill, understandably upset by this turn of events but still needing Dorothy's companionship in this hostile environment, begrudgingly agrees to the moniker.

Bill tells it like it is.

Shanower and illustrator Scottie Young, though, take Bill's part in the book and uses it as the wedge to expand the social commentary already present. Much of that is done through facial expressions and body language — which is saying a lot since Bill is after all, poultry.

Through Bill, Shanower and Young subtly return to Ozma's never spoken again life as a boy before being returned to the throne. In all fairness, Baum never does re-address Ozma's life as Tip either but that can be taken as an unspoken message that Ozma is now a woman because she says so and that alone should be enough. For Bill who refuses to fully transition from one gender extreme to another just for the convenience of uncomfortable travel companions, there's room to examine gender expression.

Five stars

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