As L. Frank Baum was writing the Emerald City of Oz, his intention was to end the series with that book. (Of course, he couldn't have predicted that this plan would backfire with the addition of eight more books.) John R. Neill must have factored this into his plans to illustrate this installment of the Oz series, because the illustrations are probably the most lavish of any Oz book so far. A fitting climax to a phenomenal book series!
What makes this book different from any of the others in the series is that, while the combination of detailed black and white illustrations plus watercolor plates make it almost identical in style to Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, there was an added ingredient that skyrocketed the sumptuous and elegant quality of this book's presentation: metallic green ink! (You might not see very much of it in this entry, because the edition from which I scanned these is not very well-done in that regard. You can still see the green ink, but it's not as shiny as in the original.)
Without any further ado, let's begin our visual exploration of this climactic Oz book:
10.) Guph and the Whimsies (From Chapter 6, How Guph Visited the Whimsies): As was often the case with Neill's illustrations for the Oz books, he made his best efforts to tone down the scary factor on some of the villains. Here, the Chief of the Whimsies, who can be seen plotting with General Guph of the Nome King's army, doesn't look all that menacing, but rather, as the name implies, whimsical. To present these villains in a less threatening way was easy when it comes to the Whimsies, but, as we'll see in a few moments, Neill would be immensely challenged in this regard, particularly when it comes to a villain that is so sinister that I wonder how Baum even got away with creating him.
9.) A Princess of Oz Sweeps the Floor in Kansas (From Chapter 3, How Ozma Granted Dorothy's Request): Here we see none other than Dorothy Gale engaged in housework at her home in Kansas. What's particularly interesting here is that Neill took what might very well have been a dull, boring image, and livened it up with some Oz characters in the decorative border around it. Notice how Neill even references Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, (the fourth book in the series,) by adding a few gargoyles towards the bottom left-hand corner.
8.) Copyright Page: I have always loved how Neill drew clouds in his illustrations. In just about all of Neill's cloudscapes, you can see the wind pushing the clouds from behind, but here he takes that wind movement and turns up the dial. The result is an even more fluid and dramatic cloudscape. And he even makes room for some very elegant typography towards the top right-hand corner.
7.) The Royal College of Oz (From Chapter 9, How the Wogglebug Taught Athletics): As I alluded to in the previous entry, Neill's treatment of architecture in his Oz illustrations is particularly impressive in its accuracy, its attention to detail, but above all else, in its believability. This looks like it could be an engraving from a child's history book of the period, (probably, as was also previously mentioned, a playful jab at Baum's designation as Royal Historian of Oz.)
6.) The Cowardly Lion (From Chapter Seven, How Aunt Em Conquered the Lion): Neill's use of contrasting line widths is especially effective here, as we see his boldest lines around the figure of the Lion. This, of course, duly emphasizes the main focal point of the image. Besides this, his delightfully mischievous grin is also well-rendered in a way that only the fanciful and expressive Neill could pull off.
5.) Headpiece from Chapter 2: Here we see something that is a little unusual for Neill. This image appears rushed and effortless, but that's what makes it so beautiful to look at. The fresh, open lines and loose pen strokes make for a spontaneous rendering that is not often seen in Neill's work, but the way these come together to present the image is both refreshing and very effective.
4.) Dorothy (From Chapter 5, How Dorothy Became a Princess): Here, the composition is especially well-done. As Dorothy pulls back the curtain, the shadow that it casts against the wall behind her throws her whole figure into sharp relief. This not only makes for a somewhat dramatic presentation, but it also centralizes her character metaphorically. This chapter is about her and her ascension to the Ozian nobility. The dramatic contrast between light and shadow appears to further accentuate the fact that this is a life changing moment for her.
3.) Guph Visits the First and Foremost (From Chapter 11, How the General Met the First and Foremost): As I alluded to in number 10 above, Neill would face a pretty major challenge when it came to portraying villains in a way that wouldn't give children nightmares for a week. This was perhaps the biggest challenge he had in this regard. The First and Foremost of the Phanfasms is horrible--and even that is an understatement! He and his people are enormously powerful beings, with the ability to shapeshift, perform black magic rituals that (at least to my mind) border on the satanic, and can wreak utter havoc with the greatest of ease. When General Guph tries to recruit them in his efforts to conquer Oz, he realizes the Phanfasms are so powerful that he can't think of anything to offer them in exchange for their assistance, instead proposing that they simply take pleasure in destroying happiness.
But Neill's depiction, while being true to the book, is comically expressive, and indeed almost playful. The snarling bear head on the man's body, while it definitely looks evil, is really not much unlike some of his other animal depictions, and the look of terror on Guph's face is almost enough to elicit a chuckle. Thanks again, Neill, for keeping the kids safe from being scarred for life.
2.) Aunt Em and Uncle Henry Land in Oz (From Chapter 6, How Guph Visited the Whimsies): One of the hallmark characteristics of Neill's work is his fluid depictions of movement and action. Here, we can see Aunt Em and Uncle Henry magically appear in the Emerald City, but while they might have just plain appeared from one moment to the next, without anything in between, Neill instead adds a puff of smoke, and a slight downward fall for the two characters. This only serves to further dramatize this definitive moment in their lives. They no longer have to worry about their hardscrabble existence in The Sunflower State, but can now live luxuriously as Ozian royalty. So, Neill must have thought, why not usher them into their new life with pomp and circumstance!
1.) Headpiece from Chapter 18: I chose this one for the number one spot only because it has a very interesting backstory.
By this time, Neill's prowess as an illustrator became much more well-known primarily from his work on the Oz series. It was the Oz books that catapulted him into stardom from his humble beginnings as a Philadelphia newspaper cartoonist, and as a result, more and more work came his way. One of the other publications he worked for on a regular basis was The Ladies' Home Journal. At this time, with his work in such popular demand, he was having to shoulder the pressure of these other assignments in addition to his work on The Emerald City of Oz, so what does he do?
Well, at least in this case, (although we have to assume he's done this many other times,) he simply recycled one of his Ladies' Home Journal illustrations to make this charming depiction of Ozma in her boudoir with (strange juxtaposition) a candlestick phone.
This reminds me of how Walt Disney did the same with his animated films. One example that comes to mind is how he reused the scene with Wart and his hounds in The Sword in the Stone (1963) to make an identical scene for The Jungle Book (1967) involving Mowgli and his wolf pack.
Anyway, I have to applaud Neill for how well he handled the professional burden of increased fame and popularity.
Do you agree with this list? Which Emerald City of Oz illustrations did you like the best? As always, let me know in the comments. I look forward to our little chat.