Top 10 Oz Illustrations, Part 1: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Illustrated by W. W. Denslow

For some time now, I've been wanting to write a series of blog posts detailing my top 10 illustrations from each Oz book, mainly because the Oz books were my introduction to the Golden Age of Illustration.

I first read the Wizard of Oz for a class assignment when I was twelve years old, but it wasn't until I first laid eyes on the original illustrations at thirteen that I fell head-over-heels in love with them, as well as with the entire Oz series, so, as you can imagine, this is a topic that is nearest and dearest to my heart.

I'll be putting these posts out once every week, each post revealing my top 10 illustrations from each Oz book. Although I'd like to focus on Baum's original fourteen Oz books, there are a few others I can share here, so I'll definitely be in this for the long haul. (Roughly about five months, by my count!)

For this list, I've decided to leave the color plates out because, while they're all exquisitely done, they're all the same, which doesn't especially lend them well to categorization and commentary. Also, because they're so well done, including them would just make them more difficult to classify in a list, since they all pretty much vie for the number 1 spot. Other lists in this series may include color plates, provided that they're more differentiated. I can also write a separate list with my top 10 color plates from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, if you want me to. Please let me know in the comments, and I'd be happy to oblige.

Now let's dive right into it:

10.) Axe and heart (tailpiece, chapter 16): One of the things that really grabbed my attention when I first saw these illustrations is the sheer number of them. Almost every page you turn to has an illustration on it, even if its purpose is only to add some kind of decorative element rather than directly illustrate the plot. Yet these are not just doodling for the sake of having more illustrations. They definitely add a kind of beauty and charm to the book that it might not have otherwise.

9.) The Golden Cap (sequence): This warrants a bit of background: Another thing I love about this book is that it's fundamentally different from the famous Judy Garland movie--almost as if they're two entirely different stories. One of the biggest differences is that, whereas the movie portrays the Flying Monkeys (which are called Winged Monkeys in the book) as inherently evil creatures that exist solely to do the Wicked Witch of the West's bidding, the book portrays them as servants beholden to whoever possesses the Golden Cap. After the Witch is melted, Dorothy takes the Golden Cap and uses it to summon the Winged Monkeys, who are a big help to her. Because Dorothy is one of the good guys, the Winged Monkeys do good under her direction. It's a little bit like the Genie in Aladdin, and just like the Genie's lamp, the Golden Cap can only be used to call the Winged Monkeys three times, hence this sequence.

Just as with the axe picture above, these decorative elements make this book a visual feast, and I think it would be lacking if not for these ornamental niceties.

8.) The Scarecrow's pole (chapter 4): As you'll see more of later on, the illustrations in this book are so profuse that they're often juxtaposed against the type on the same page, but what's especially skillful is they way they go about doing this. The arrangement is such that you can take them both as a cohesive whole, and not just text and pictures on a page. The images appear to be playing with the text, and vice versa. This, as well as the bold use of color throughout, are what I believe to be among the elements that made this an innovative children's book for its time.

 

7.) Chapter 19 title page: Another thing you'll notice as you thumb through this book is that each chapter has its own title page. It's hard to think of any practical reason why they chose to do this, however, it adds yet another visual element that I, for one, can't help but be thankful for. Out of all the title pages, I chose this one because it's one of the most expressive, and it also appears less "flat" than some of the others.

6.) The Brave Winkie Army (chapter 12): One of the most charming things about Denslow's work is that he often uses repetition for comic effect. Here, for example, you can tell that they're three entirely different people, yet the facial expressions, the positioning of the arms and legs, and even the position of the spears in mid-air as they drop, are all uniform, which to my mind evokes a highly exaggerated sense of solidarity among them. Yes, they're all running away from something that they're afraid of, but the fact that they're all doing it in the exact same way is further indication of their singular purpose.

As a side note, this book isn't the only one where Denslow uses this device, as it seems to be a staple in just about all his work, particularly his children's books.

 

5.) The Wizard is blown away (chapter 15): This is yet another example of the unity of illustrations and text on the same page, as we discussed on number 8 above. This one is especially interesting because of the anchor descending from the balloon at the top, with a rope in between leading the way. We're going to read from the top to the bottom of the page anyway, since that's what we always do when we read anything, and yet this illustration enhances that downward movement of the eyes, which might otherwise be as mundane as reading the newspaper.

 

4.) Chapter 21 headpiece: Here we see Denslow's brilliant use of hand-lettering, but we also see how each element is delicately well-balanced. One thing that Denslow could have done differently, though, was to leave the crown off the Lion, since he didn't become the King of Beasts until after this scene. This is just a minor detail, though, and I still find this whole page to be very well-composed, as the text and images interact with each other as they do in numbers 5 and 8 above. And the hand-lettering definitely adds a nice touch.

3.) The Field Mice pull the Cowardly Lion out of the Poppy Field (chapter 9): This has got to be one of the best examples of the same-page interaction between text and images. If this weren't an illustrated book, the text would fit less than one page by itself, so by that logic, the illustration pretty much dominates this entire spread. And yet, the movement of the image from top right to bottom left complements the text, which does pretty much the reverse. This is, on the whole, a very well-balanced and well-composed page spread where the interaction between the text and images is very nicely arranged.

2.) The Scarecrow gets stuck on a pole in the river (chapter 8): Here we see not one, but three separate illustrations, across three separate pages, sequentially detailing the awkward movement of the Scarecrow as he tries to guide a raft through the river--only to get himself helplessly stuck in the mud. Denslow doesn't normally do this, but, as someone who does a lot of animation, I personally can't help but admire his use of this device, which almost gives this book the feel of a televised Saturday morning cartoon.

1.) The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman carry Dorothy out of the Poppy Field (chapter 8): This is probably one of the most iconic images from the book, and it's easy to tell why. The large poppy in the background is not just a decorative element, but it also adds a subtle layer of drama to the whole composition. It appears to symbolically scream impending danger, (which, both in the book and in the movie, the Poppy Field most certainly was!) The surreal size and placement of the poppy looks apparitional and ominous, as it looms largely, appearing to say, "run away while you still can!"

Do you agree with this list? Which Wonderful Wizard of Oz illustration do you like the best? And were there any you wish I had included? Do you want to see a separate list with the top 10 color plates? As always, I look forward to reading your comments.

Till next time!



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