Lost in Transition: Meet the Transgender Princess of ‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’
Hi, I’m Charlotte Finn. I’m a lifelong comics fan and a transgender woman.
Coming out as transgender means reassessing a lot about your life, your place in the world, and what that world’s been telling you about yourself before you even realized who you really were. In this occasional series, I’m going to be applying that reassessment to comics that feature people like me, or close to being like me, and look them over with a fresh set of eyes.
Are they good? Are they bad? Are they somehow both, at the same time? In this regular series, I’ll offer my thoughts.
The Marvelous Land of Oz
Script: Eric Shanower
Line Art: Skottie Young
Color Art: Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Letterer: Jeff Eckleberry
Assistant Editor: Michael Horwitz
Editor: Nate Cosby
Oz Created by L. Frank Baum
I saw The Wizard of Oz for the first time last year. That's a pretty good movie! You all should watch this obscure, little-seen, never-discussed motion picture right away.
Like everything else I do in my life, I took the most roundabout way possible towards L Frank Baum's magical Land of Oz, shown in that movie in glorious Technicolor and featuring the singing talents of Judy Garland. I'm mildly allergic to musicals, and since I used to be young and boring, any movie older than I was got written off sight unseen.
But then, I learnt about the character of Princess Ozma, and not long after that, I realized I was transgender --- so the path I took into Oz started with her.
The first foray was via the adaptations of the Oz books into comics form by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young. Shanower does a great job with the difficult task of adapting fully text descriptions into comics format, preserving the spirit of the original books. But the true standout of the Marvel adaptations of The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz is Skottie Young, whose artwork is Oz on a level that not even the iconic film can match.
Everything in Skottie Young's Oz is softly rounded, conveying a sense of potential motion even when everything is standing still --- this is a world that is fluid and ever-changing. Jean-Francois Beaulieu's lush coloring fits the popular perception of Oz as a land so full of color it feels about to burst off the page. Emotions, conveyed via body language, run the gamut from fear to joy to apprehension to anger without ever stopping for a minute at "boring."
The plotting matches the art (or rather, the art matches the plotting, since this is adapting a hundred year old novel). In contrast to the outsider Dorothy, the protagonist of Marvelous Land of Oz is a native of Oz, young Tip, who is being raised by the cruel old witch Mombi. Tip creates a pumpkin-headed man as a prank and it's subsequently brought to life by Mombi; later, Mombi threatens Tip with petrification, causing him to run away from home, and kicking off the adventure.
All this is by page fifteen, by the way. I'm just saying, how far into Game of Thrones did we have to get before people made of squash showed up?
Tip soon runs across the driving plot of the book; the revolt lead by General Jinjur, leading an all-girl army to strip the Emerald City of all of its jewels and rule over Oz. Currently Oz is ruled by the Scarecrow, but it's an illegitimate claim – the true heir to the throne of Oz, Princess Ozma, has been missing for years. Shortly, the Scarecrow is aided in his escape from the revolt by Tip and his friends, and along the way, everything from wishing pills to woggle-bugs of unusual size of high magnification to a flying sofa show up, carried through the plot on the wings of whimsy.
The Oz books, and by extension, this comic, were less fixated on a nailed down fantasy universe with clearly defined rules, and more on travelogues from a world with arbitrary, contradictory rules --- like all rules seem to be when you're growing up, of course.
One such set of arbitrary rules that General Jinjur is rebelling against is the rules that determine gender roles, and as a result she comes off as a sympathetic villain --- though still a villain, which is a difficult balance to pull off. The book steers carefully around the massive saw-toothed trap that is an all-girl army rebelling against women's work by having most of the protagonists be women also, and by having General Jinjur be upstaged by Mombi.
One thing about Marvelous Land of Oz that hasn't aged as gracefully, sadly, is the beauty politics. The all-girl army is composed of women chosen for their looks, so that no one could bear to hurt them. Mombi's wickedness is directly equated to her ugliness. The whimsy of the story is childlike in the best way, but the politics is childish in the worst. It's a sour note in a smooth symphony. However, I admire Skottie Young and Eric Shanower for preserving the original wording and outlook of the books, knowing full well that a hundred years of social change would render some of it woefully out of date.
One way that Marvelous Land of Oz is not out of date, however, is with the fate of the central character, Tip --- who turns out to be the most important person in the narrative, since Tip is actually Princess Ozma, transformed to look like a boy in order to be kept hidden. This happened to her as an infant, so yes, Ozma is literally assigned ‘male’ at birth, a transgender term for the gender they tell a person they are based on sexual characteristics shortly after being born. (In this case it’s a wicked witch instead of a doctor who’s great once you get to know them, but still.)
Upon this revelation, Tip/Ozma goes through denial, then quickly realizes that this is what’s meant to be, and all of Tip/Ozma’s friends treat her with acceptance and kindness. The vast majority of the Emerald City is glad to have Ozma as their sovereign, once she returns to reclaim the throne from General Jinjur. So really, this plot point in The Marvelous Land of Oz hasn’t aged at all and is not only ahead of its time, but ahead of ours.
A frequent defense of the regressive nature of many fantasy worlds is that they take place in Ye Olde Medieval Times But Let’s Add Magic, and therefore outdated attitudes just come with the territory. The Marvelous Land of Oz takes a different path, and postulates a world where the presence of the strange and unusual makes us more tolerant, not less so. In a world where your best friend is made out of straw and you got indigestion from a wishing pill activated by numbers, finding out that you’re not the boy everyone said you were supposed to be is small potatoes in comparison.
Learning about Ozma of Oz from a friend a few years back came just before my own personal revelation about being transgender, which I didn’t handle as deftly as Ozma does at the climax of this story. So it’s a story that carries personal weight with me. Like everyone else, I am a product of competing, at times contradictory, social forces, navigating the mixed messages of the world. The world told me to be one way, and so I put up a wall between myself and this side of myself that I didn’t want to acknowledge, and over the years, cracks appeared and I tried not to notice.
I don’t know that reading about Ozma of Oz and her story in The Marvelous Land of Oz was the crack that was always destined to bring the wall down --- but it’s a testament to the notion that stories have that potential, to break down barriers we have had up for so long they go unnoticed.
Fantasy is an anything-goes genre, and consequently it’s a genre where the personal biases of the creator can often be felt most keenly, judging by the presence or absence of what is in the narrative and in the world. From The Marvelous Land of Oz, I glimpse a creator who, like me, was product of the competing social pressures of his time, and whose unconscious biases are sometimes best left in the past --- and I also see a writer who had a sense of acceptance and compassion when it comes to people like me that too often is unequaled even by the creators of our era.
A final note: due to their age and them falling outside the purview of corporate-driven copyright extension, all the Oz books are public domain (though the movie The Wizard of Oz and its iconography is a different story.) There are other adaptations of this same story, even in comics --- Oz: The Manga is one I haven’t read, but that is adapting the same material. So Ozma of Oz is a public domain transgender princess just waiting there to be used by anyone, with a pre-made connection to one of the most popular movies of all time.
This was the first time I’ve read her story, and there’s no reason it has to be the last. The publisher of this adaptation of The Marvelous Land of Oz is part of a company that also makes animated movies about princesses. What’s stopping them is no matter of copyright, but only a matter of will.