Top 10 Oz Illustrations, Part 9: The Scarecrow of Oz, Illustrated by John R. Neill

This week and last week, I've been working around the clock on fine-tuning my marketing while the whole state of California (where I live) was placed on lockdown. Because of the chaos, and my additional work, I haven't been blogging as much, but, as I've committed to this series, I will always find the time to finish what I started.

Speaking of California, it gives me great pride to write about this particular Oz book, as its two main characters, Trot and Cap'n Bill, (who were carryovers from The Sea Fairies and Sky Island, two of Baum's non-Oz titles,) come from La Jolla, which is in San Diego county. (None of the books mention this explicitly, but there's plenty of historical evidence to strongly suggest that it is so.)

This book, as well as most of Baum's Oz titles from the 1910s, have a very different flavor from his earlier works. Maybe it was the fatigue that inevitably resulted from writing way more about Oz than he would have liked, or maybe it was his old age, (he would die of angina pectoris in 1919,) or maybe it was the chaos of a world at war. It doesn't make these books better or worse than the others. They're just different.

And the illustrations are very different as well. While they are no less attractive than the earlier works, I find that they have by this time fallen into a monotonous pattern, almost as if John R. Neill was also getting tired. Whereas prior titles were much more creative; for instance, the Road to Oz's multicolored paper, The Emerald City of Oz's metallic green ink, and Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz's splendid watercolors; it just seems that he doesn't explore different techniques as much in these newer books. Therefore, finding illustrations worthy of top ten lists such as these is becoming more and more challenging, and I find that there isn't as much to comment on that hasn't already been said of other illustrations.

But, having done my due diligence, I believe I've found some real winners in The Scarecrow of Oz. So, enough chatter. Let's hop to it!

10.) Tailpiece from Chapter 14: One skill that Neill has demonstrated time and time again is his creative use of borders. While one's first impulse might be to draw a box completely around the image, Neill blends the border into the main subject on one side, (usually the bottom, as seen here.) The result is a three dimensional look such as in this image. The border encloses the background texture (which, I feel the need to point out here, was indicated by Neill but ultimately filled in by the printers,) throwing the main figures into relief while giving the illusion of depth. It almost feels like we are watching a live play on stage, and can perhaps reach out and touch the characters.

9.) Full page illustration from Chapter 14: The more obvious quality of this image is, of course, the expressive movement it conveys. But underneath that, you can see a lot of other interesting details. Evidently, the witches are in a hurry to get going, and you can see that one of them, in her haste, is riding with her broomstick backwards. Also, (and this is highly unusual, even for Neill,) the house appears to be cut into a kind of cross section at right. Normally there would be a wall in that place, but Neill leaves the wall off so as to show us the witch that stays behind and watches her companions leave. (It's been a long time since I've read this book, but maybe she's the boss and she's sending her subordinates to run an errand for her?) No matter who she is, this character is evidently very important to the story, so much so that Neill chose a more diagrammatic depiction in order to include her where he couldn't otherwise.

8.) Full page illustration from Chapter 24: Here we see some of the the animals of Oz congregated into a group portrait. What I like about this one is its nearly symmetrical composition, which includes the Wizard's nine tiny piglets in a playfully neat little row at the bottom. Besides this, I also appreciate that each animal's personality is subtly shown. For instance, the Cowardly Lion looks half-scared, whereas the Hungry Tiger has a wistful look about him, almost as if he's longing for his next meal. It's these expressions that have in no small part endeared Neill's illustrations to generations of Oz devotees.

7.) Color plate from Chapter 15: Here we have another delightfully playful illustration. The Scarecrow's (reparably, thank God,) disembodied head smiles up at Cap'n Bill, who has just been transformed into a grasshopper by one of the evil witches we encountered in number 9 above. Even in such a convoluted situation as this, we still feel at ease knowing we are among friends. The composition is also comforting, as it visually encloses these elements in a sort of U shape. It's an incredibly weird illustration, but we still get the feeling that everything's going to be alright.

6.) Illustration from Chapter 4: Here we see Trot and Cap'n Bill enjoying a melon that they just found. Meals are always intimate times we spend with those we love, and this illustration very cleverly conveys that intimacy by filling in each character (as well as other main parts of the image) with a halftone. This almost suggests that we are not meant to look at this activity. It would be an unwelcome intrusion on the sanctity of mealtime. But we still see the image, and we involuntarily respect the distance we feel from these characters. We're only eavesdropping. We're only listening in, and can observe the activity without feeling like we're invited to take part in it. It's a mixture of "come here and watch" and "go away," and we are forced to acknowledge these somewhat conflicting admonitions.

5.) Illustration from Chapter 3: Much of the skill of an illustrator is determined by their intuitive knowledge of what to leave out as much as what to include. Here we see just enough to know that Cap'n Bill is in a dark place and is using a candle to light his way, even though said dark place is not obviously shown. Also, his use of a border on this image might seem superfluous on the surface, but it frames the composition very neatly so that we have enough white space to keep from being overwhelmed.

4.) Full page illustration from Chapter 1: Here we see a sort of homage to The Sea Fairies, Baum's 1911 novel, and the book that first introduces us to Trot and Cap'n Bill. I say this because The Scarecrow of Oz mentions a whirlpool without making any reference to mermaids, (with the possible exception of one passage from Chapter 2: "Trot was almost sure that unseen arms were about her, supporting her and protecting her.")

But regardless of whether mermaids are actually present in this book, this illustration is yet another example of expressive movement. You can see the flow of the water, and how it gracefully follows the sweeping arc of the mermaid's body. Neill is evidently a natural at this sort of drawing, as we've seen time and time again. Bravo, John!

3.) Full page illustration from Chapter 21: Besides expressive movement, John R. Neill is also very skilled at depth. Here we see the figure of Ozma drawn in bold lines in the foreground, whereas each successive character is drawn more thinly the further back we go. An excellent rendition of a complicated subject.

2.) Color plate from Chapter 2: The serene composition and color scheme of this image is one of the things that draws me to it, but the real attention-getter is the caption at lower right. Here, as in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, we see what appears to be a trend in the use of captions in Neill's illustrations. He doesn't just let the printers add captions underneath the images any longer. Instead he draws them in himself with his skillful hand-lettering. Well done!

1.) Table of contents: Usually, the tables of contents in the Oz books are presented decoratively, while still maintaining a kind of separation from the rest of the images on the page. Here, however, the table of contents is a part of the image. A cleverly executed visual presentation of what is usually an essential but run-of-the-mill part of a book.

Do you agree with this list? Which Scarecrow of Oz illustration do you like the best? As always, please let me know in the comments section.

P. S. I've run into some potentially major technical difficulties when composing this blog entry, so you may not hear from me next week. But, of course, if I fix the issues in time, you will. Just in case you're wondering where I've gone off to, that's probably why. But don't fret. I'll be back soon, hopefully.

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