Geek Punditry #21: A Complete Trip Down the Yellow Brick Road

No matter what your particular fandom is, there are many different strains of Geekery – the Viewer just watches the movies or shows, the Shipper is obsessed with who is (or should be) hooking up with who, the Collector wants the merch, the Debater just likes to argue – and all of them are perfectly valid. One of the more difficult ones to be, though, is the Completionist. The Completionist is someone who wants to read, watch, or play every incarnation of their favorite franchise, no matter what. (When you cross this with the Collector, you wind up with someone who can open a museum.) Being a Completionist can be time-consuming or all-encompassing if you allow it to be, which is why I try to restrain myself, because I definitely have Completionist tendencies. I can refrain from reading every Star Trek novel ever written, but I definitely want to watch every movie and TV series in the franchise, even the one I don’t like. (Yes, that’s singular.)

Completionism is more difficult with some properties than others, of course. Fans of modern franchises like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter have it relatively easy – the number of books, movies, and TV shows is comparatively small and all of them are easily available for anyone who wants them. A George R.R. Martin Completionist’s fear is that the series will never be finished, not that they won’t be able to find it. But it gets much more difficult if you’re a Completionist for an older property, especially one that has lapsed into the public domain. For example, I’m a big fan of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz, and if I really wanted to, I could spend the rest of my life trying to complete my experience in that world and never have a chance of success. When Oz is mentioned, the average person usually thinks of The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 film starring Judy Garland and absolutely zero suicidal Munchkins, no matter what Freddy Campbell told you in sixth grade. The movie is, of course, a legitimate classic, and everybody has seen it. Fewer people have read the novel it’s based on, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although most people are probably at least vaguely aware that it exists. What even fewer people understand, though, is just HOW MUCH Oz content exists in the wild.

Wait a second, I think Google Image Search may have screwed something up here…

Baum himself wrote 14 novels about Oz, plus assorted short stories, some stage plays, and even a couple of silent movies. After he passed away, his position of “Royal Historian of Oz” was passed on by the publisher to Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote even more books than Baum before the title got passed along again. All in all, the “original” Oz series consisted of FORTY different books by seven different authors before it was retired in 1963. Not that the authors retired, though. Many of them wrote other Oz books later in life, although those are not usually counted among the “Famous Forty,” as they are known to Ozites. 

But this is only the beginning. In addition to the seven official “Royal Historians,” other people started to put out their own versions of Oz, even before the earliest books started to slip into the public domain. W.W. Denslow, the illustrator of the original Wizard of Oz, tried doing his own Oz stories without Baum after the two had a falling-out, although they didn’t enjoy the staying power of his collaborator. Some of Baum’s own children wrote Oz books that wound up getting squelched when they were sued by their father’s publisher for violating their copyright. But once the Baum books went into Public Domain, things exploded.

A quick explanation of Public Domain, just in case there’s anyone who doesn’t know what that means: when someone makes a creative work, they (or their employer, if it’s a work-for-hire) automatically own the copyright to that work. Copyright can be sold, transferred, or licensed, but only the copyright owner has the legal right to profit off that specific work in any way. Eventually, some time after the creator’s death, copyright expires and these creative works lapse into what is called Public Domain, which means that nobody owns the rights any longer and anybody is free to create their own derivative work based upon it. It’s the reason why so many people do their own versions of Shakespeare’s plays and why there are ten billion different versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – you don’t have to pay anybody to use the story, but you still get to trade on the public opinion of the name to build your audience. Copyright laws have changed over the years, mostly due to the efforts of the lobbyists working for the major IP holders (Disney in particular) trying to get it extended over and over again, but eventually it does end. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens when Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, finally enters public domain next year.

Another masterpiece brought to you courtesy of Public Domain.

Having said that: a work can be in public domain, but the derivative works can still be copyrighted. The Baum Oz novels are in public domain, but the MGM movie is not, so you cannot use any elements specific to the film in your own work without paying up. The best example of this came with Return to Oz, the 1985 Disney film that you may remember as giving you nightmares when you were seven years old. The movie was based on the second and third Baum books, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, and they were free to use those elements, but they also wanted one of the most iconic symbols of Oz: the Ruby Slippers. The problem is that in Baum’s books, Dorothy’s magic shoes were silver. MGM changed them to Ruby to better show off their Technicolor process, and they still owned the copyright on Ruby Slippers, so Disney had to pay them for the right to use Ruby Slippers in the film. Crazy, right?

This one shot cost Disney seven times your annual income.

Anyway, once the copyright finally ended on the earliest Oz books, the ones by Baum, it became legal for anybody to tell their own versions of or use elements from that story as they wished. From SyFy’s Tin Man miniseries to the classic musical The Wiz, the public domain nature of Oz has led to hundreds if not thousands of derivative works. And here’s where it gets hard to be a completionist: not only is there simply too much stuff out there to read or watch it all, it’s almost impossible to even create a comprehensive list.

A while back, I decided to try to compile a list of Oz books and short stories, but even with the help of websites like The Royal Timeline of Oz or their sister website, Wikipedia, it became apparent that the sheer volume of what I was attempting to do made it nearly impossible. I started putting together a Google Sheet with all of the different Oz books I could find, a list that as of this writing is breezing past 400 different works and still going. That’s to say nothing of the hundreds of Oz comic books (a few of them are on my Sheet, but not nearly all) or countless movies and shorts that have been built around Baum’s universe. By the way, I invite anyone interested to take a look at my sheet and let me know what I’m missing – I may never finish the list but I’ll never stop adding to it either. It’s the Completionist in me.

You see, in addition to the “official” works, dozens of other publishers have taken it upon themselves to continue the stories, both in ways that are faithful to Baum’s original works and others in ways that Baum may never have considered or even approved of. That’s another aspect of Public Domain: the fact that anybody can make a derivative work can often draw upon people who are doing so not out of love for the original property, but in an attempt to subvert it. Earlier this year, for example, we saw the release of the film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, which takes A.A. Milne’s beloved icons of childhood joy and innocence and turns them into bloodthirsty horror movie slashers. Give me a break.

Oh, bother.

Look, I like horror movies. I like slasher movies. I like goofy slasher movies. But I don’t care for people who take a crap on precious childhood memories. Characters like Pooh and Tigger are beloved by children all over the world – do they really need to see Pooh gutting somebody with a chainsaw? Full disclaimer here: I have not seen Blood and Honey, nor do I intend to, because it’s the concept itself I dislike. (Quick note to mention that it’s the original Milne books that are in public domain, not the more well-known Disney version of Winnie the Pooh. Man, it always seems to come back to Disney, doesn’t it?)

That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for a dark derivative of an old story, of course. Let’s run down the Yellow Brick Road again to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, a novel of Oz that tells the life story of the Wicked Witch of the West. Like the original Wizard of Oz, Wicked is a fine novel that has been somewhat overshadowed by its own musical adaptation, but no matter which version of the story of Elphaba you’re enjoying, it’s definitely a more mature version of Oz than Baum ever wrote. With Wicked, though, Gregory Maguire was using Baum’s backdrop to tell an intriguing story, something with interesting social commentary, something that had a point. I have no problem with that whatsoever. What bothers me is when someone twists an icon of childhood without a good reason to do so, when somebody creates something shocking just for the sake of being shocking. I don’t care for that. I don’t respect it. And everything I’ve seen of Blood and Honey makes me feel like that’s what the movie does. If I’m wrong, by all means, let me know.

Anyway, the point is that with all of the Oz out there, it seems impossible that I’ll ever get through it all. I’ve read all of the Oz books Baum himself wrote, but I haven’t made it through the rest of the Famous Forty yet. I’ve enjoyed Eric Shanower’s original graphic novels and I loved the adaptations of the Baum originals he did with Skottie Young for Marvel Comics, but Zenescope Comics’ Grimm Fairy Tales has a whole Oz spinoff line that I’ve barely touched upon. I’ve still got three out of four Wicked Years books to read, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the series by later authors like March Laumer or Baum’s own great-grandson Roger S. Baum. And this is to say nothing of the “official” productions that are still coming out! The International Wizard of Oz club produces an annual magazine, Oziana, which always includes new short stories (and sometimes even short novels) set in Baum’s world. And as they had the utter temerity to begin publishing Oziana back in 1971, before I was even born, it seems quite unlikely that I’ll ever be able to track down every piece of Oz media that exists.

Slow down! I’ve got twelve decades of IP to catch up on!

But that isn’t going to stop me from trying, is it?

Completionism is a fool’s game, my friends, and it’s a game that most of us are doomed to lose. But even so, it can still be an awful lot of fun to play.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is most definitely not writing this column just to give people ideas for what to get him for Father’s Day, his Birthday, Christmas, or International Oz Completionist Day. 


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