When Dorothy Went Sequential: Comic Strips from The Revelator Years

The Wizard of Oz Comic Strips from 1907 – 1917

THE REVELATOR was a proud and ear­li­er pro­po­nent of The Wiz­ard of Oz comics, run­ning the entire L. Frank Baum series from its incep­tion as a nation­al Sun­day fea­ture in 1904 through to the final dai­ly strips star­ring Toto in 1917. Indeed THE REVELATOR, ben­e­fi­cia­ry of a hith­er­to unheard of licens­ing arrange­ment with Baum, car­ried the strip as an exclu­sive for a decade. It is dur­ing THE REVELATOR years from 1907 to 1917 that The Wiz­ard of Oz com­ic strip inno­vat­ed the char­ac­ter­is­tics that would influ­ence lat­er comics lumi­nar­ies such as Mil­ton Can­iff, Chester Gould, and Charles Schultz.

 

A series of strange news­pa­per reports appeared in 1904, cul­mi­nat­ing in a “Procla­ma­tion Extra­or­di­nary” that read:

From the Land of Oz to the Unit­ed States. Here they come! The Scare­crow and the Tin Wood­man, Jack Pump­kin­head, the Wog­gle-Bug, the ani­mat­ed Sawhorse, and the Gump! They are on their first vaca­tion away from the Emer­ald City and the Land of Oz. They want to romp with the chil­dren of the Unit­ed States.

It was true! Dorothy and a cohort of her remark­able friends from Oz had escaped the con­fines of the book and land­ed smack-dab in the Sun­day comics’ sec­tion of the nation’s news­pa­pers. The com­ic fol­lowed the suc­cess of L. Frank Baum’s The Won­der­ful Wiz­ard of Oz in 1900 and occurred in con­junc­tion with the 1904 pub­li­ca­tion of The Mar­velous Land of Oz.

The com­ic was called Queer Vis­i­tors from the Mar­velous Land of Oz and its tie to the lat­est addi­tion to the Oz book series was obvi­ous, a cal­cu­lat­ed bid to acquire new read­ers and a form of adver­tis­ing that harkens for­ward to the media tie-ins for today’s block-buster movies. Queer Vis­i­tors was writ­ten by L. Frank Baum and illus­trat­ed by Walt McDou­gal, bet­ter known as a polit­i­cal car­toon­ist. It ran for 27 episodes from August 1904 to Feb­ru­ary 1905, in news­pa­pers through­out the coun­try, THE REVELATOR being one notable venue. Both Baum and McDou­gal expressed admi­ra­tion for the qual­i­ty and fideli­ty of the feature’s repro­duc­tion in THE REVELATOR, and it was com­ic clip­pings from its pages that they passed on to friends.

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Although beau­ti­ful­ly ren­dered — and the Sun­day comics were sump­tu­ous visu­al treats at the turn of the cen­tu­ry—Queer Vis­i­tors can­not be con­sid­ered that influ­en­tial on the comics medi­um. Queer Vis­i­tors occurred at a time when the com­ic strip was still in the throes of invent­ing itself and the pre­sen­ta­tion owed more to book illus­tra­tion than what we would now con­sid­er a com­ic strip. There was a sense of con­ti­nu­ity in the mis­ad­ven­tures of Dorothy and her friends but each Sun­day sto­ry was self-con­tained and pub­lished as a sol­id block of text by L. Frank Baum sur­round­ed by McDougal’s illus­tra­tions. Word bal­loons were used occa­sion­al­ly but these were not essen­tial to advanc­ing the sto­ry.

Inter­est­ing­ly, a sec­ond Sun­day com­ic strip fea­tur­ing the Oz char­ac­ters ran almost coin­ci­den­tal­ly with Queer Vis­i­tors. This strip, Scare­crow and the Tin­man, was writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by the orig­i­nal artist for The Won­der­ful Wiz­ard of Oz, W. W. Denslow. Denslow shared the copy­right with Baum for char­ac­ters from The Won­der­ful Wiz­ard of Oz, and pro­duced his own com­ic fea­ture after their falling out. Scare­crow and the Tin­man ran for only 13 episodes from Decem­ber 1904 to March 1905. It was nev­er fea­tured in THE REVELATOR, comics edi­tor Solomon Thore­au report­ed­ly refer­ring to it as ‘infan­tile’.

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Baum prob­a­bly nev­er intend­ed to con­tin­ue his com­ic strip beyond 1905. He had oth­er dreams, oth­er books to write, and the strip had served its pur­pose of intro­duc­ing a new audi­ence to the Land of Oz. How could he have pre­dict­ed the unsus­pect­ed turns of events that would forge a new friend­ship and a new direc­tion? Baum had a life­long love for all aspects of pub­lish­ing, serv­ing as a news­pa­per edi­tor for The Aberdeen Sat­ur­day Pio­neer as well as print­ing an ama­teur news­pa­per called The Rose Lawn Home Jour­nal. He rec­og­nized qual­i­ty and this no doubt inspired his Christ­mas let­ter of 1904 to THE REVELATOR. The glow­ing let­ter made its ways into the hands of Solomon Thore­au who, encour­aged by its clos­ing lines, “Oz and THE REVELATOR were made for each oth­er,” respond­ed with an admir­ing let­ter of his own. The two men’s friend­ship was cement­ed by the dis­cov­ery that both had been born in the vil­lage of Chit­te­nan­go, New York. Baum and Thore­au nev­er met but they main­tained an epis­to­lary friend­ship that last­ed until Baum’s death in 1919.

In con­junc­tion with the pub­li­ca­tion of Ozma of Oz in 1907, Baum tak­ing advan­tage of what he had learned from the Queer Vis­i­tors strip, approached Thore­au with a rad­i­cal new idea: a dai­ly com­ic strip fea­tur­ing his char­ac­ters. It’s uncer­tain who first sug­gest­ed this would be exclu­sive to THE REVELATOR but the tim­ing was oppor­tune. THE REVELATOR had recent­ly tran­si­tioned from a week­ly to a dai­ly in response to the demands of its ever-increas­ing audi­ence. Both Baum and Thore­au saw the ben­e­fits of the arrange­ment. Baum would ben­e­fit from the asso­ci­a­tion with one of the nation’s most trust­ed news sources. THE REVELATOR fore­saw the latent pos­si­bil­i­ties in the new medi­um, rec­og­nized Baum’s genius, and had the funds to rec­om­pense him in appro­pri­ate fash­ion.

Baum, employ­ing the same approach he pio­neered with Queer Vis­i­tors, had the events of his new strip imme­di­ate­ly fol­low those of his lat­est book, Ozma of Oz. But the sim­i­lar­i­ty end­ed there. He made no attempt to translo­cate his char­ac­ters to the Unit­ed States but instead let them remain in Oz, the new adven­tures — and what grand adven­tures they were! — seam­less­ly pick­ing up where Ozma of Oz end­ed. The evil Nome King, already intro­duced in Ozma of Oz, was Dorothy’s chief antag­o­nist in the news­pa­per strips.

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The new strip was titled L. Frank Baum’s The Wiz­ard of Oz, empha­siz­ing both cre­ator and the inau­gur­al vol­ume in the series. Baum plot­ted the adven­tures and took par­tic­u­lar pride in them. The artists were nev­er acknowl­edged, how­ev­er, the impres­sion being that the sto­ries were sole­ly the prod­uct of Baum’s prodi­gious tal­ents. Ini­tial­ly, and also serv­ing to main­tain the seam­less con­nec­tion to the recent Oz books, the artists aped the dis­tinc­tive style of John R. Neill. Neill him­self may have con­tributed but remained uncred­it­ed. Com­ic his­to­ri­ans still debate whether Neill pro­duced the sleep­ing Ozma mod­eled after a draw­ing by the deca­dent artist Aubrey Beard­s­ley, an allu­sion that would have been missed by Baum but might have been appre­ci­at­ed by the more ‘adven­tur­ous’ read­ers of THE REVELATOR.

The influ­ence of Neill per­sist­ed for well over a year, but the artists grad­u­al­ly assert­ed more indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, a process accel­er­at­ed by the pos­i­tive response of THE REVELATOR’s read­ers. Baum rel­ished this response, as doc­u­ment­ed in his let­ters to Thore­au, for it placed a pri­ma­cy on the sto­ry­teller rather than the artist. Baum was inspired to new heights of cre­ativ­i­ty, where­in he took full advan­tage of the medi­um and laid the foun­da­tions for the adven­ture com­ic that would influ­ence so many sub­se­quent news­pa­per strips. The tit­u­lar char­ac­ter in Harold Gray’s Lit­tle Orphan Annie along with her dog Sandy owe much to Dorothy and Toto. Sim­i­lar­ly, Mil­ton Can­iff in Ter­ry and the Pirates intro­duced a young pro­tag­o­nist, this time male, and thrust him into the exot­ic locale of Chi­na where he con­flict­ed with the Drag­on Lady, a female proxy for the Nome King. Although per­haps the least sim­i­lar in con­tent, Chester Gould has often acknowl­edged his debt to Baum’s Wiz­ard of Oz in his cre­ation of Dick Tra­cy, cit­ing in par­tic­u­lar the fan­ci­ful menagerie of char­ac­ters that inspired his own rogue’s gallery.

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One of the cen­tral mys­ter­ies of L. Frank Baum’s The Wiz­ard of Oz is what pre­cip­i­tat­ed its tran­si­tion from an adven­ture com­ic to a gag strip in 1913. Was it orches­trat­ed by the strip’s cre­ators and their desire to blaze new artis­tic direc­tions, hav­ing already estab­lished the pre­cepts of the adven­ture strip? Was it the result in chang­ing pub­li­ca­tion sched­ules? THE REVELATOR retreat­ed from a dai­ly to a week­ly and then to an inde­ter­mi­nate sched­ule that ran­kled its ardent fans, THE REVELATOR being one of the few voic­es of rea­son as nations dis­solved into chaos on the brink of World War I. Regard­less of the impe­tus, the new direc­tion was to prove equal­ly influ­en­tial, estab­lish­ing the tem­plate for a whole new style of strip and one appro­pri­ate to the ever-decreas­ing atten­tion span of the tur­bu­lent mod­ern world.

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The final days of L. Frank Baum’s The Wiz­ard of Oz are of par­tic­u­lar inter­est, so close­ly are they inter­twined with the U.S. and its par­tic­i­pa­tion in World War I. By this time the strip had embraced its lov­able pooch Toto, long a favorite with read­ers, and grant­ed him both tit­u­lar empha­sis and a men­tal life that dwarfed that of the human char­ac­ters. It’s no sur­prise that Charles Schultz declared Toto the spir­i­tu­al god­fa­ther to his own Snoopy, mak­ing ref­er­ence to these late era Baum strips as inspi­ra­tion.

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But why the sud­den polit­i­cal ref­er­ences to the Rough Rid­ers in the last weeks of the strip’s run? Short­ly after the U.S. entered World War I, Theodore Roo­sevelt received approval from Con­gress to raise four divi­sions to fight in France, to essen­tial­ly reestab­lish the Rough Rid­ers that had proved so effec­tive dur­ing the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War. Final approval, how­ev­er, still required per­mis­sion from Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son. Hav­ing heard that Pres­i­dent Wil­son read THE REVELATOR with his morn­ing break­fast, Roo­sevelt approached Baum with the sug­ges­tion that he incor­po­rate the Rough Rid­ers into the Oz strip, no doubt think­ing this would rein­vig­o­rate both the public’s and the president’s sup­port of the Rough Rid­ers. Roo­sevelt did not take into account the require­ments of a gag strip, which by its very nature will inspire laugh­ter, gen­tle or oth­er­wise, for its sub­jects. Accord­ing to two of Roosevelt’s offi­cers, Seth Bul­lock and James Garfield, Roo­sevelt was out­raged that the strips sug­gest­ed he and his vol­un­teer corps were more inter­est­ed in sies­tas than train­ing or bat­tle.

On May 19, 1917, Pres­i­dent Wil­son sent Roo­sevelt a telegram refus­ing him per­mis­sion to raise his new divi­sions of the Rough Rid­ers. Roo­sevelt assigned blame to Baum and THE REVELATOR, blind to the schisms he had already opened in the Repub­li­can Par­ty and his own denounce­ments of Wilson’s for­eign pol­i­cy. Although no con­crete evi­dence has been uncov­ered, the sud­den ter­mi­na­tion of L. Frank Baum’s The Wiz­ard of Oz strip with­in two weeks of the telegram exchange between Roo­sevelt and Wil­son is clear­ly sug­ges­tive of cause and effect. As is the fire that destroyed two of THE REVELATOR ware­hous­es con­tain­ing issues from that peri­od. We are only left to won­der what fur­ther per­mu­ta­tions of the strip might have been wrought in the ensu­ing years if it had per­sist­ed. We are only left to regret the mas­ter­pieces we might now be read­ing in the Fun­ny Pages as a result of its immea­sur­able influ­ence. These remain to be dis­cov­ered by adven­tur­ous read­ers who pur­sue their own dream jour­neys to the Land of Oz.

 

Bel­gian-born Marie Ger­aud has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about comics and sequen­tial art. She pro­vid­ed the French lan­guage anno­ta­tions to The Gnome King of Oz, by Ruth Plum­ly Thomp­son, the twen­ty-first in the Oz book series, as well as to Richard Corben’s Den in Métal hurlant (omnibus edi­tion). Marie Ger­aud thanks Chad Woody and Jim Siergey for access to their per­son­al col­lec­tions of Oz mem­o­ra­bil­ia. This essay was trans­lat­ed from the French by the Rev­e­la­tor staff.