Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Part One: “I Would Like to Have a Word with You about Songbirds”

Rainbow Captain America and Nebula

When Rainbow Captain America and the Green Squiggle finally confronted Ondcain the Lord of Bluebirds, Rainbow Captain America spent much of the time getting the piss beaten out of him.

Rainbow Captain America lived with his sidekick, the Green Squiggle, a single-dimensional literal green squiggle, in a neighborhood called Fertile Crescent, quiet save for the delightful daily songbird polyphonies, and their neighbor happened to be a villain called Ondcain the Lord of Bluebirds. Despite being composed of songbirds himself, he was a powermongery sadist who got his jollies playing practical jokes on neighborhood songbirds. The “Lord” in his name implied he liked to lord things over his own kind mockingly, as if to say living inside a human house made him a better bird. At first Ondcain was merely dressing the other songbirds in human clothes (business suits and dresses), and he laughed as if to say, “You are not as human as me!”

Rainbow Captain America would come home carrying groceries and see these little business-suited songbirds, and Rainbow Captain America would shake his head (the Green Squiggle had no head to shake because he was a one-dimensional literal green squiggle).

“Somebody needs to teach Ondcain a lesson,” said Rainbow Captain America.

“Maybe he’s just a weird hobbyist,” said the Green Squiggle. “Can you imagine the amount of patience it takes to put a business suit on a songbird? That’s pretty incredible.”

“I guess you’re right,” Rainbow Captain America said in a skeptical tone and continued to stare at the littlest besuited bird who seemed to be screaming in distress.

Then, one day, it became clear Ondcain was supergluing birds to branches. The little birds tried to flap to fly away, stuck fast by this Lord bastard. “That’s it, I’m not going to tolerate this anymore!” Rainbow Captain America said and threw the groceries on the ground.

The Green Squiggle said, “Not cool, dude. My Milano cookies are in that bag.”

Meanwhile, Rainbow Captain America knocked on Ondcain’s door, crossed his arms, tapped a ragey foot. He repeated the knock-and-tap routine until Ondcain opened the door, and Rainbow Captain America said, “I would like to have a word with you about songbirds.”

Long story short, Ondcain beat the piss out of Rainbow Captain America. He didn’t really have a chance.

The Lord of Bluebirds was a conglomeration of thousands of bluebirds, roughly gorilla-sized roughly and gorilla-shaped (as much as a conglomeration of thousands of birds can be any shape). Having a couple dozen bluebirds in the shape of a fist come down all over your body is no picnic. The other problem was Rainbow Captain America had no superpowers or even physical toughness beyond mountainous moral conviction.

He was a fortuitous recipient of a shape-shifting wish from an angelical monster who felt bad for the pathetic little guy, but when the angelical creature asked him what shape he wanted to be, he blurted out, “Rainbow Captain America,” but he should have specified the shield should be invulnerable or that he was at least a little stronger than normal, so he wound up with a shield that was just a bony outgrowth of his arm covered in skin with as many pain receptors as the rest of his body and a body as weak as the body he always had. Still, the yearning to embody the greatness of the identity he chose drove him to always do the right thing.

During his career as sidekick, the Green Squiggle had to witness a lot of unpleasant and painful losings, but as a one-dimensional literal green squiggle, he never actually had to receive any beatings himself, and he had to resist intervention because his one-dimensionality meant he sliced right through whatever fleshy body he’d try to fight. Fighting Ondcain, who was made out of thousands of birds, meant slicing him to a thousand dead-bird bits which seemed hypocritically to be far more songbird-cruelty than they were aiming to prevent. The Green Squiggle had zero anti-murder compunction, but he knew the boss would never go for the Ondcain slaughter. Still, he always made the offer: “I could totally just kill this dude if you wanted me to,” he said to Rainbow Captain America, splattered on the ground, redder than his normal rainbow. “I could slice this dude to pieces with very little effort.”

“No, we do not kill,” said Rainbow Captain America pulling himself together and standing through the pain. That’s the sort of guy he was and one reason the Green Squiggle agreed to be his sidekick. “As long as evil stands, we stand against it.”

“Your morality can be such a pain in the butt sometimes,” said the Green Squiggle. If he had eyes, he would have rolled them. Still, he couldn’t help loving a poor, beaten-down dude who talks about standing against evil when he keeps comically collapsing over his own lawn ornaments.

It happened again the following day even though Rainbow Captain America was totally bandaided up, but the Green Squiggle knew his partner would keep going forever if he witnessed some sort of injustice. He knocked again on his neighbor’s door, said, “I don’t believe you listened to my point yesterday regarding the song birds,” and he got another similar beating.

The Green Squiggle had to find a way to convince Rainbow Captain America to stop cultivating constant losing/beating/breakage, but during this particular beating, the Green Squiggle noticed every punch from the conglomerated bluebird monster broke the necks of a dozen birds that made the first layer of the monster’s knuckles.

He pulled Rainbow Captain America aside, pulling carefully at his rainbow-colored costume at a point before his poor partner lost the ability to stand, and he said, “Look, dude, we got into this business to save songbirds from superglue chicanery, but look at all the mass bird death our confrontation is creating.”

Rainbow Captain America looked around at the bluebird carcasses (wiping blood from his eyes to see better). Ondcain stood aside, agreeing to the momentary pause, breathing hard (or imitating hard breathing) like a dancer too-caught-up in dancing so that the pause gave him an otherworldly disorientation, and dead and bloody bluebirds fell from his fists like dripping blood.

“It’s a no win, buddy,” said the Green Squiggle. “A no win. Let’s go.”

Rainbow Captain America stared at the scattered dead a long time, panting (more legitimately) from the beating he endured for the sake of similar little birds. He finally limped away in silence, clearly knowing his inability to win presently was actually an inability to ever win and an inability for humanity to ever win anything (though the Green Squiggle might’ve been projecting this last point).

“Good,” said the Green Squiggle following him away, uncertain that was the right word.

The bluebird monster laughed as they parted, wiping knuckle blood across his chest (blood from Rainbow Captain America and from the dead blue birds who made up those knuckles), like a badass and also like a terrible person. He laughted the same sort of laugh as all bullies who win.

Rainbow Captain America just moped around the house for a few days after the no win. He fed his chinchilla too many times. He ate cereal for all three meals. He watched a Three’s Company marathon for no reason and never laughed. All his rainbow colors looked a little ash gray.

“Hey, buddy,” said the Green Squiggle patting his back (carefully). “You’re starting to look a little shadowy, buddy. Wanna go throw the frisbee?”

But he didn’t answer until hours later: “Why bother?”

The Green Squiggle had to do something. One advantage of being a superhero is you know a lot of folks with superpowers. The Green Squiggle had this idea to solicit a shapeshifter to cheer up his buddy and flipped through the superhero rolodex under “S” for shapeshifter. He went to this one shapeshifter he knew called the Sea Yak and said, “I need you to imitate this bluebird monster, so I can cheer up my buddy.”

“What’s in it for me?” said the Sea Yak (most superheroes seemed the Green Squiggle like self-centered little glory-loving assholes like this dude).

“What’s in it for you is I don’t kill you. You should thank whatever sea yak deity you pray to every day I don’t slice you to ribbons. How’s that for a deal?”

“You’re a sucky superhero, bro,” said The Sea Yak, but he agreed to do it (he wasn’t wrong about being a sucky superhero which is why he couldn’t let his buddy slip into ashen darkness).

The Sea Yak showed up on time outside of Rainbow Captain America’s window pretending to be the bluebird monster, mimicking the conglomerated bluebird body perfectly (at least he was good at this one thing), and shouting “America is dumb.” He was improvising on the script the Green Squiggle had given him. He may have been a good shapeshifter, but he was a terrible actor. “Also, I tricked you into thinking the beating I gave you hurt the, um, the birds in my knuckles. My beating doesn’t hurt anybody. You only fell for my trick because you’re dumb. That means America is dumb. Because you’re America I guess?”

Rainbow Captain America couldn’t take anymore. He put down his cereal bowl, turned off the Three’s Company marathon, unwrapped the bathrobe and towels he cocooned himself and his unwashed rainbow costume in and marched out to the street, ready to beat some bluebird monster tail.

But he was very bad at fighting. It wasn’t just the complete powerlessness. It was the total lack of skill. He was like an old man doing kung fu if he only saw kung fu on television. The Sea Yak shrugged and dropped and said, “You got me, dude.” Still, Rainbow Captain America kept savaging the monster as best he could.

Rainbow Captain America was deep in the fury and could only release awkward and unpleasant gutteral snarls and slobber until the fed up Sea Yak, bothered more by slobber than the beating, said, “You got me, dude. That’s enough. I’ll never do evil again.” He walked away. Rainbow Captain America stood there panting, his own knuckles bleeding from the ecstasy of monster beating.

The Green Squiggle hoped he’d see his buddy smile again given this chance to beat someone for the first time. But there was no smile, and the color remained ash gray.

Rainbow Captain America did get some of his old color back over time for no reason other than the normal numbing of past misery sinking deeper into the sea of personal history. When he called the Green Squiggle to more adventuring, villainy abating, morality disseminating, all the old inanities, the Green Squiggle said, “Why?”

Rainbow Captain America said with no smile or irony, “Why not?” a certain ineffable misery eternally stuck in the bassline gravel of his response, but that was good enough for now.

Operating on a Higher Plane: The Appeal of Dr. Strange

635a2eb0387fa22479793ac677d16e18

The entrance of Dr. Strange into the Marvel Cinematic Universe gives Marvel the opportunity to explore on screen a type of character they’ve left so far underexplored. I don’t mean that he’s magic. I mean that he’s an asshole. But that’s what you love about him. Like all other great Benedict Cumberbatch characters, he just doesn’t have time for your nonsense. He’s too busy being awesome. And saving existence from extra-dimensional threats, yadda yadda yadda, but mostly it’s the awesomeness. Other than perhaps Tony Stark or Thor, MCU has spent much of its time exploring lovable lunks legitimately motivated by decency and good will. Tony Stark and Stephen Strange make no hesitation in demonstrating their inherent superiority within their fields and indeed seem motivated partially by displays of great virtuosity (and maybe saving people’s lives every once in a while, sure, granted). The problem then is how to translate that into two hours and sell it to people who have not yet, as I have, fallen in love with Dr. Strange. An added problem with Dr. Strange is the complexity of his internal mythology. Tony Stark at least exists within a world of speculative possibility. Dr. Strange, on the other hand, has his own otherworldly mythology nearly as complicated as the greater Marvel Universe. But comic book fans are arguably defined by an appreciation of narrative complexity, the capacity to demonstrate and appreciate great virtuosity within arbitrary parameters, and the tenacity to tackle difficult-to-love characters and love them even harder for it. The average movie going audience, not so much. Dr. Strange especially refuses compression or simplification. He always operates on a higher plane, and that’s why you have to love him.

Since the announcement of a movie based on Dr. Strange, who has been my favorite character since I started reading comics, I’ve offered myself as official Dr. Strange scholar to anyone willing to listen, but it takes a lot to explain the Lovecraftian, multi-dimensional mythology-within-mythology (“You see, there are three main god-like beings who give him power, and they’re called the Vishanti, and Agamotto is the one who looks like the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, and that’s the guy whose eyeball Dr. Strange wears around his neck,” etc.); I readily correct speculation based on nonsense (“Mads Mikkelson can’t be playing Mephisto if he’s a former Ancient One ally since Mephisto is not a dude). I fear I’ll soon degenerate into Ancient Mariner-like babbling to strangers in the delighted delusion that this movie’s existence means somebody cares (“Get this: the god-like being he calls on to generated unbreakable red bands is Cyttorak, the same god who gives Juggernaut his power, so the power of Juggernaut is only one fraction of his awesomeness. That’s an interesting factoid, right? Right?”). However, film adaptations tend to simplify this geek-pleasing gratuitous level of intricacy using cheap tricks to cut through dense mythology and narrative/character complexities that take longer-form stories (like comics) years and years, pages and pages, volumes and volumes to develop. Film is just a structurally limited and inevitably less complex medium than serial storytelling forms like comics.

Marvel Studios in particular, as this decade’s masters of pleasing both general audiences and hardcore geeks, is especially fond of these cheap simplifications, but we tend to forgive the dilution of our beloved complexity amid the rapturous sobs of gratitude. Take, for example, this question: Why does Gamora hate Thanos? That small element of the comic book lore alone has as much complexity as a Thomas Hardy novel, but the Guardians of the Galaxy movie cheaply boils it down to one line: “He killed my parents in front of me.” Well…not exactly…but in just a second of film, despite the extreme simplification, we love Gamora and hate Thanos, and the movie is so great, who cares, right? The fact that a Guardians of the Galaxy movie even exists is enough argument against my overly particular quibbles, right? I fear, however, with the more personally beloved and more internally complex Dr. Strange, the delicate balance between gratitude and my offense at simplification may break the wrong direction.

That higher plane Dr. Strange operates on makes him less like Peter Quill and more like Dr. Who or Sherlock Holmes, struggling to relate to normal humans, having transcended human normalcy through a mix of natural genius, exhaustive self-education, and relentless dedication to his field. He’s more like Liam Neeson in Taken than Bruce Willis in Die Hard: he has a “particular set of skills,” and we delight in watching him practice this set of skills to the mortal detriment of his targets. Dr. Strange’s targets happen to be demonic, godlike, and/or cthuloid entities, but the principle remains the same. Marvel Studios tends more toward the normal, relatable, lovably-flawed Bruce Willis-type of character: Steve Rogers is the bullied, scrawny kid with quixotic ambitions; Bruce Banner is a timid and introspective nerd; Peter Quill is a normal guy acting out an 80s movie fantasy; Scott Lang is a well-intentioned but bumbling dad who Robin Hoods his way to jail (much more relatable than Hank Pym, the genius inventor who more commonly plays the role of Ant Man in the comics). When a character is a less relatable higher-plane-type, like Tony Stark or Thor, Marvel Studios tends to use grounding characters (like Pepper Potts and Jane Foster) who balance the beyond quality with overt discombobulated earthiness; or origin plots, the classic lofty-character-falling-from-grace gimmick that balances out the otherwise transcendent skill set (Tony has his injury, and Thor is humbled in exile, stories already well known to hardcore fans). If you have read the comics in the last few decades, you’ll see Thor is still an arrogant god despite experiences in humbling exile, and Tony Stark is still an arrogant billionaire genius despite various physical or psychological challenges – through decades of history, they’ve had hundreds of falls from grace and glorious returns to create the tapestry of their present character, and longtime fans appreciate the well-worn, threadbare comfort of each characters’ humanity as it weaves in the most complex ways with all their transcendence and brutality. Like any worthy relationship, it takes work over years and massive love/hate frustration.

However, the eternal return of origin stories gets especially tedious, and hardcore fans certainly wouldn’t tolerate hearing about radioactive spiders and cosmic rays a third time, so Kevin Feige claimed early in the Dr. Strange movie rumor-disseminating process that we would not have another origin story, and this came as some relief. But later rumors and set images and the teaser trailer have reversed this claim – Dr. Strange would be an origin story after all – so amid the joyous weeping and the ululations of “Oh, to be alive at such a time as this!” there is the more subtle antithetical “this again” which I have to struggle against hearing inside my own head.

Dr. Strange’s origin superficially reads a lot like Iron Man’s (and Stan Lee, who created Dr. Strange with Steve Ditko and Iron Man with Jack Kirby, loved the physical-injury-as-motivator story as much as he loved the classic dead-relative gimmick). Like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange started as an arrogant expert in his field disinterested in humanity; in the case of Strange, he was an arrogant brain surgeon who suffered nerve damage in a car accident and was no longer able to practice, a grounding factor not unlike Stark’s heart injury. Here’s where Stark’s and Strange’s stories diverge a bit: Stark has a family history and natural genius for technology (lumping him with another Hollywood favorite: the chosen one with greatness thrust upon him who must choose to responsibly use his gift); Strange, in contrast, must learn a brand new craft from a base of zero knowledge. Strange, in seeking a cure for his hands, finds the Ancient One who teaches him various forms of magic, and Strange soon becomes the greatest practitioner. Granted, some writers frame this progression from zero knowledge to mastery as a chosen one narrative, but the original and most common version of this story is that Stephen Strange encountered an unfamiliar craft and mastered it no time, a level of unrelatable virtuosity far beyond Tony Stark, a natural tech-genius raised in a tech-genius household. Here’s another basic difference: Stark is limited by what technology has the capacity to do; Dr. Strange is essentially limited by nothing.

A criticism sometimes lobbed at Dr. Strange by longtime fans of other comics is that his presence in the story functions as a lazy deus ex machine for lazy writers. In his defense, he has a long history of being poorly used outside his own comic, but that doesn’t mean his deus ex machina tendencies are necessarily a problem. Sure, when he shows up in a story at the last second – say, when Scarlet Witch has already killed Thor, and nobody else can stop her – and he is the only one who can save the day, sure, that’s a lazy deus ex machina. But his capacity to solve essentially all problems beyond any other character is not intrinsically a flaw. He could generate a spell to eliminate all crime in New York and put Spider-Man and Daredevil out of business, but he doesn’t because that’s below his interest when fundamental natural and supernatural forces require him to focus elsewhere. Here is a brief list of his powers just off the top of my head: flight, teleportation, mind reading, hypnotism, astral projection, generation of unbreakable bonds, at least three varieties of force blasts, generation of fire and mist, and the list goes on. In my favorite Dr. Strange story, he created life out of essentially nothing. However, Dr. Strange is one of the few superheroes whose power functions more like an anime character. He increases his own power to match the situation. He finds a new magical object or he accesses some hidden or forgotten or deep recess of power based on the fact that he’s a badass and a genius and has such a vast store of knowledge and power, not based on sloppy storytelling. If Spider-Man spontaneously manifested the ability to fly because this is the only way the writer could imagine him beating the Green Goblin, this would be ridiculous, partly because Spider-Man’s power range has remained roughly the same for half a century. In contrast, in Bleach, when Kenpachi is fighting Nnoitra Gilga, and he suddenly announces that he can double his power by using both hands on his sword, that’s not sloppy storytelling, that’s badass, but it’s a different kind of storytelling than American comics. Anime characters are constantly expected to increase power and excel at their particular brand of fighting. Likewise, if Dr. Strange meets an obstacle he can’t overcome with his present set of abilities (which is often in his stories) then he finds a way to outsmart his enemy or access new power to win.

Then there’s the other grounding method: Rachel McAdams will appear in the Dr. Strange movie as a Pepper Potts-like character who has no correlation in the comics, but Dr. Strange in the comics most often has no grounding character and arguably has no need for a grounding character. The closest thing Dr. Strange has to a powerless human counterpart or damsel in distress is his servant Wong, but Wong is an initiate in the same cult from which Strange learned his art so hardly a stand in for normal non-initiates. Strange’s most common love interest is Clea, the niece of his greatest enemy, Dormammu, a godlike being whose power is exponentially greater than Strange’s. Clea is also the daughter of Umar the Unrelenting (easily the greatest character name in comics and one of the most underrated badass female villains). Dormammu and Umar are both Faltinians, godlike energy beings who have each on various occasions ruled the Dark Dimension. Clea, in the Game of Thrones-like subplot of constantly-shifting royal succession, has also functioned as queen of the Dark Dimension. As much as I appreciate Pepper Potts as a counterpoint to Tony Stark, Clea as a half-flame-god queen of her own dimension is not quite the down-to-earth gal Friday type. It’s nothing new for arrogant pricks of great genius to be paired with a grounding character – Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Who, characters who operate on a higher plane who need the lower-plane normal to translate their geniusness. But nobody reads a Sherlock Holmes story for Watson. He’s that little dash of salt that makes the cake taste better.

This is why Benedict Cumberbatch, who has played Sherlock Holmes and nearly played Dr. Who, is such obvious casting for Dr. Strange – so obvious the announcement of his casting seemed so mundane, I could only say, “Well, duh. He’s been playing Dr. Strange for years now.” The appeal of the Cumberbatchian character, Dr. Strange included, runs counter to a whole batch of not-so-true truisms of storytelling that are ultimately simplifying tricks more than absolutes. The idea that characters should be likable, vulnerable, lesson-learning normals in order for audiences to relate or at least have someone present who stands in for normality is as much nonsense as “write what you know,” the most egregiously false of all writing clichés. Arthur Conan Doyle may have known a lot about crime fighting, but Stan Lee was no magician – thank Hoggoth he wrote Dr. Strange anyway and ignored that terrible advice. More accurately, the material for storytelling is the tension between the familiar and unfamiliar in various measures. Similarly, creating a likable, normal, vulnerable, relatable character is only a simple starting point and only vital when placed in contrast with unlikable characters and/or unlikable tendencies within that likable character. A normal character gains most vitality in being placed in contrast with abnormal circumstances or abnormal characters; stasis is the substance of stories only in its interruption.

Likewise, a character who operates above our mundane normalcy may seem unrelatable but becomes vital precisely in contrast to our own mundanity. The appeal in listening to Jimi Hendrix is not in how easily I relate to his guitar playing skill (I don’t play guitar at all, for the record) but in his virtuosity far beyond seemingly-normal human capacity. The appeal of virtuosity doesn’t have to be related to any real skill. Kids could make up a game out of throwing random objects at random targets – the parameters are irrelevant – but the kid who demonstrates greatest virtuosity will become admirable within parameters that only came into existence moments before. This is even more significant in fictional worlds where writers have the freedom to make up all the parameters. Stan Lee and subsequent Dr. Strange writers made up the rules of his magic (with a healthy dose of Lovecraft tributes/ripoffs but based on imaginary scenarios nonetheless) and they set up entirely fictional obstacles, and the capacity of Dr. Strange to demonstrate great virtuosity using made up skills to overcome made up obstacles becomes as exhilarating as the guitar mastery of Jimi Hendrix. Stan Lee from the very beginning set up seemingly impossible obstacles, unbeatable god-like enemies though we only had Lee to believe about how unbeatable these godlike enemies actually were. Dr. Strange’s first enemy was Nightmare, the embodiment of all nightmares, and Strange demonstrates great magical skill, breadth of knowledge, and practical cleverness in overcoming Nightmare, and in doing so, our admiration comes from this heightened level of skill, not his normalcy.

Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Strange’s appeal is in both his humanity and his super-humanity. The appeal of his humanity comes from the complexity of flaw and failure layered into the sediments of his history but remaining in many stories sub-textual motivations longtime fans know and new fans feel viscerally. Even beyond this, Dr. Strange is unique among heroes informed by intrinsic fractures in that his inter-dimensional travels are often embodiments of introspective journeys inward in which he explores all the unfolding dimensions of his own soul. In this sense, normalcy in art, any art, is grossly overrated, and the delight in the multifaceted complexity of supposed escapism is grossly underrated.

That being said, I am eternally grateful that a Dr. Strange movie exists even if the movie must, by necessity of the form, be a pale shadow of his greatness.

Dr Strange and the Avengers pig latin

Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, vol. 1 (review)

Ziggy first page

In Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, Vol. 1, written by Ron Baxley, Jr., and illustrated by Vincent Myrand, a Welsh Corgi named Ziggy bravely navigates multiple familiar fantasy worlds (Neverland, Oz, and Wonderland), and Baxley likewise bravely and expertly navigates multiple conflicting narrative rule systems to create a prime example of the inevitable endpoint in the development of fantasy, what you might call the exponential pastiche.

Pastiche became catch all term for a variety of techniques for intertextual referencing in analysis of postmodern fiction (e.g. Slaughterhouse Five is a pastiche of war fiction, sci fi, and confessional memoir), as if such a technique suddenly came into existence after WWII, but pastiche has been intrinsic to children’s narratives from the very beginning. Fairy tales passed down orally inevitably mixed up multiple narratives elements and styles with anachronistic present day cultural elements for maximum (exciting or terrifying) impact. As cultures increasingly intermixed, the pastiche mixed even more erratically. Witness, for example, how Norse and Greek myth mix freely in Medieval tales or how the pagan King Arthur is searching for the Christian Holy Grail.

Then came the golden age of children’s book publication (heavily referenced throughout Ziggy) starting, arguably, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and spanning through the publication of the Peter Pan books and plays and L. Frank Baum’s massive oeuvre of Oz sequels and other similar fantasy books. This great golden age had such a significant impact that other great periods in children’s book publication seem to be echoes of this period. For example, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Maurice Sendak published during what was conventionally identified as the postmodern period, but their pastiche was more in keeping with Wonderland and Oz than the current trends in novel writing. Another monument to the value of this period is the continuous publication of Oz sequels (several of which Baxley himself has written) after Baum’s death and the posthumous publication of his last Oz novel, Glinda of Oz, in 1920. What defines the post-Wonderland style of pastiche is placing the protagonist firmly in the present (Alice is unmistakbly a girl of the 1860s), and the fantastical elements he or she encounters are a mix of familiar elements from across the culture (Carroll, for example, did not create Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, characters from orally passed down and apparently authorless nursery rhymes – let alone mythological creatures like gryphons or unicorns) mixed with original characters. This is done with a heavy sense of ironic humor that predates postmodernism by a century. The Alice books are able to manage the necessary chaos of this pastiche technique with charm and cleverness, but this chaos is hard to manage. The significant development of Peter and Wendy and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the inclusion of a definite plot thread, identifiable geography (including maps in many cases) that can’t be simply dismissed as dreams, and, most significantly, an internal rule system. The internal rule system is the most important feature of any fantasy series since the fantasy world has no necessary obligation to follow the rule system of our world, but audiences can view the fantasy as a success or failure by its consistent adherence to its internal rule system: an elf must act consistently like an elf in Middle Earth, and so on.

To take a preexisting and already heavily pastiched story world like Neverland or Oz is to tiptoe the minefield of conflicting narrative rule systems, and Baxley, as an experienced Oz chronicler, manages this feat expertly. Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic starts by rooting Ziggy, the Corgi protagonist, in Welsh mythology where Corgis are treated as steeds for elves. The narrative moves quickly to Neverland where pixie dust and happy thoughts allow any sentient being to fly though animals are not endowed with speech. Baxley then introduces an original reinterpretation of a preexisting element: the crocodile has become essentially a demon lord of undead pirates. Baxley introduces several villains throughout the first volume (some familiar, some reinterpretations) that seem to be set up for pay off in later volumes because, in the episodic structure true to the source material, Ziggy moves on to another adventure instead of fully culminating this crocodile conflict. Ziggy next enters Oz where animals can speak, but flight is only possible with wings. Since the pixie dust retains its efficacy from the previous adventure, this is a direct overlay of Neverland and Oz rule systems. In this adventure, Baxley further integrates superhero tropes as Ziggy accompanies a flying monkey in his conflict with an evil mad scientist right out of old Captain America comics. Baxley doesn’t take the easy way out by segregating tropes and rule systems; he piles it all on top of each other. It’s remarkable that this pastiche-of-pastiche actually works. Part of its success comes from the charm of Ziggy himself who must overcome his anxiety (framed anachronistically in a contemporary manner just as Alice’s own concerns are anachronistically Victorian) to defeat overwhelming odds and eventually face all the accumulating villains, but that’s the key to managing the superficial chaos of cultural mix-and-match: a charming character like Alice or Wendy or Dorothy or Ziggy can guide us delightfully through any scenario.

Let me not forget to give credit to the illustrations of Vincent Myrand who is more reminiscent of Quinten Blake’s illustrations of Roald Dahl stories than John Tenniel’s clean-lined, relatively realistic Alice illustrations or or John R. Neill’s similar illustrations of the Oz books. It may have most in common with W. W. Denslow’s original Oz illustrations: the playful lines, the more childlike sense of proportion, the vibrant colors. However, the squiggly quality of the lines and the loose color fill is so reminiscent of Blake’s technique, it makes me wonder if Ziggy will soon enter one of Dahl’s worlds in future volumes. Together, Baxley and Myrand give plenty to look forward to in future volumes.

Information from the author:

Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, Volume 1 is available in the comics section/front of Book Exchange of Ft. Gordon Blvd. in Augusta, Ga., Top Dog Pawn (and comics) on Washington Rd. in Augusta, Ga., Silver City Comics in Cayce, S.C., Scratch N Spin in W. Columbia, S.C., Punk Monkey Comics in Forest Acres in Columbia, S.C., Planet Comics in Anderson, S.C., the Little Red Barn art shop on Hwy. 278 in Barnwell, S.C., and The Caroline Collection antiques in Denmark, S.C. It is also available outside the region at the All Things Oz Museum gift shop in Chittenango, New York and Comics ‘N More in Easthampton, Massachusetts. It may soon be available in Bodacious Books and Baubles in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts and The Book Tavern on Broad St. in Augusta.

Ron has a contest going on where if people find a custom mini-figure of Ziggy from Skittychu Clay and Art in Augusta at one of these places in S.C. and Augusta above and agree to have their photo taken with the figure and his graphic novel and have their likeness used via social media, they will be able to keep the mini-figure absolutely free.

Ziggy figure

Oz, fantasy, and science fiction children’s and young adult author Ron Baxley, Jr., a former educator of approximately 20 years and published author of 25 years, has most recently had an Oz collection, The Oz Omnibus of Talking City Tales and an Oz/Wonderland combined co-written with James C. Wallace II, Of Cabbages, Kings, Queens, Flying Pigs, and Dismal Things, published by Maple Creek Press of Mysteria Filmworks in Cincinnati Ohio (http://www.maplecreekpress.com ) and has independently published a volume of a fantasy, Corgi graphic novel with some Oz content, Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, with art by Maine artist Vincent Myrand and layout and lettering/bubbles by Ali Tavakoly (email rbaxley37@gmail.com for information on obtaining Volume 1 of this independent project or look at the list of stores in which it is available). Ron Baxley, Jr. has been formally invited as a guest author in Authors and Artists Alley in Oz-Stravaganza, a festival in Chittenango, New York in the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, for six years, has been formally invited as a special guest author or guest author at Oz festivals and science fiction cons since 2010, and was recently awarded the honor of a lifetime membership by the International L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Foundation in Chittenango, New York in June for his lifetime achievements in the world of Oz.

For more information, go to http://rbaxley37.wix.com/ronbaxleyjrofoz, search for the Ziggy Zig-Zags the Light and Dark Fantastic group Facebook page, seek Oz fan Sera Alexia Starr’s Facebook page, Ron Baxley Jr. An Official Author’s Group Chat With Book Updates (https://www.facebook.com/groups/196187527438597/ ), and/or befriend Ron on Facebook.