Top 10 Oz Illustrations, Part 5: The Road to Oz, Illustrated by John R. Neill

Last week, due to being busy with some fairly big changes to the site (which required it to be temporarily taken down for maintenance,) I did not write this next installment as I had planned. But this week, I'm back at it again, and I'm super excited because today I'm reviewing what is, as far as illustration, my absolute favorite Oz book.

The Road to Oz, published in 1909, was the fifth Oz book, and it is the first Oz book to use only black and white illustrations. Now, you might be thinking this is a step down in quality from the rest of the series, given that by now we've come to expect full color illustrations. You may be right, if not for a couple things that really make this book pack a punch:

First off, the lack of color was creatively compensated by some of the most immensely detailed drawings in the entire series; and secondly, the original edition was printed on colored paper (almost like construction paper, but bound in a book.) There are many modern editions that aren't printed on colored paper, but luckily, I own a copy that is, and this is what I've decided to use as my source, so that you can get the full aesthetic experience of this truly remarkable Oz book.

Let's get started!

10.) Billina and Tik-Tok (From Chapter 14, Tik-Tok and Billina): Even where the illustrations are small and simple enough not to need a whole lot of detail, Neill still makes very elaborate use of crosshatching and texture so as to be consistent with the rest of the illustrations in this book. This is not to say that this illustration (and the other half-page illustrations in this book,) are not as skillfully done, or that they're not prioritized as much. Here, we see the enormous effort that Neill expended on each of his drawings for this book, and that's a big part of what makes this book such a treat.

9.) "Polychrome Danced Gracefully to the Music" (From Chapter 15, The Emperor's Tin Castle): By this time, we've already seen Neill's progress from being a timid follower of the precedent set by Denslow in the first Oz book to fully embracing his own style and creative aesthetic. This book further establishes Neill's individual approach, not so much by his use of detail (which is actually not even consistent throughout the Oz series,) but in his effective presentation of expressive movement. We've seen some examples of this fluidity in the previous installment, but here we see that that fluidity is still an integral part of his work, (and, as we'll see in the weeks to come, it always will be.) This lively depiction of Polychrome's graceful dance moves is just one example of the stylistic nuance that makes Neill Neill.

8.) "Polychrome--The Rainbow's Daughter" (From Chapter 5, The Rainbow's Daughter): Just as in the image above, we see Neill's expressive depictions of movement and flow, but what's even more captivating about this image is his unsparing use of fanciful details. In the lower right-hand corner of the image, we see two little rabbits wearing tailcoats. Who else but Neill would take detail to that extreme?? No one! This is why I love his work so much, and, I suspect, why he's so enduringly popular as an Oz illustrator.

7.) "In the Royal Palace of Oz" (From Chapter 20, Princess Ozma of Oz): Here, once again, we see Neill's incredible use of detail, only this time applied to architecture. Scrolls, pillars, ornate doors, and even a fireplace, are all drawn with the precision of a wood-cut. (It's interesting to note that L. Frank Baum was often referred to as The Royal Historian of Oz, and the level of precision in this illustration makes it look almost like an engraving that would have been found in history books of the period. Maybe this was an intentional jab at the Royal Historian monicker?)

6.) "'O, Jellia Jamb! I'm So Glad to See You'" (From Chapter 18, The Emerald City): The amount of detail in this illustration is extreme, and while there is a lot of architectural precision, there is slightly more of an element of fun and whimsy than in the previous illustration, which only hinted at the expressive human element that is front and center here. Besides this, one can't help but smile at some of the statuary that adorns the staircase. Where else in the world, (besides maybe an Oz theme park,) would you expect to see a statue of the Scarecrow or the Tin Woodman?

5.) "Polly Sipped a Little Cold Tea" (From Chapter 6, The City of Beasts): Just as with number 8 above, this illustration is brimming with whimsical details. Aside from everything else, (the food, the dishes, the foliage,) there is a group of insects wearing top hats in the lower right-hand corner, making for an effective finishing touch to complete a delightfully charming depiction.

4.) The Shaggy Man Thinking (From Chapter 11, Johnny Dooit Does It): Every illustration in this book has a direct narrative purpose, without any illustrations being used as decoration, (as in The Marvelous Land of Oz, for instance,) yet we can still appreciate the pronounced element of decoration in this drawing. Firstly, notice that this is the only full-page illustration in the entire book that does not have a caption. That right there suggests that this image is not intended to depict any particular scene. Also, notice the row of pots at the bottom. There is no mention of such architectural details (or of any architecture at all, for that matter,) in this part of the book, which is, in fact, set in the wilderness. Yet, the decorative elements add a degree of fancy that gives this book its charm.

3.) "'You!' They Yelled" (From Chapter 9, Facing the Scoodlers): This image is wild with whimsical details, and it only takes one close look at the scoodlers (the creatures that are pointing their fingers,) to see how. Each scoodler's face and body is made up of objects such as telephone receivers, bottles, anchors; as well as symbols such as playing card signs, currency signs, and other ornaments. This is not only a very creative use of the detail that is obviously a recurring theme of this book, but it also presents these villains in a less threatening light. Whereas the text makes no mention of them being adorned with this kind of symbolism, it was perhaps Neill's addition of these elements that made them scary but familiar to young, impressionable minds. If that's the case, then we owe him a debt of gratitude for helping to keep childhood trauma at bay.

2.) "Drinking the Health of Princess Ozma of Oz" (From Chapter 23, The Grand Banquet): If detail is the recurring theme in the illustrations of this book, then this illustration is the piece de resistance! It will most likely take repeated viewing of this image to be able to pick out all the little details it contains, from the faces of all the guests at the dinner party, to their individual expressions, to their gestures (including the scarecrow's clumsy handling of a wine glass with his padded fingers), to all the different table setting and fixtures. A true symphony of detail that is unmatched by anything else that can be found in an Oz book!

But wait! If I'm raving so much about this image, then why isn't it in the number one spot? I actually wanted to put this in the number one spot, but, to take an objective stance, I felt that there was one other illustration that was more deserving of that honor...

1.) Dorothy and Toto's Progress (From Chapter 15, The Emperor's Tin Castle): Here is an image that truly makes a statement. Neill has, by this time, become so distanced from the impositions of Denslow's style, that he is unabashedly (and even a bit savagely) critical of the work of his predecessor as a whole. Dorothy's sideways glance at her former self as drawn by Denslow, along with Toto's more derisive gestures at his former depiction, are all manifestations of what Neill must be thinking at this point. "I'm the Royal Illustrator of Oz now!" he seems to declare, "And nobody can take my place. Just let 'em try to best me!!!" Arrogant? Maybe. But we still can't help but agree...

Do you agree with this list? What other illustrations from The Road to Oz do you like? Please let me know in the comments. I look forward to our chat...

Till next time!

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