Ozamataz

I have spent the last week or so (when not sleeping off my medications) in a fairly continuous process of brainstorming, chewing over several new-to-me ideas and figuring out how to turn them into actual writing techniques.

I forget exactly what prompted me to revisit the Key & Peele skit I reposted some time ago, in which the duo performed a thorough piss-take on the silly (and often self-inflicted) names one so often sees among American football players. Of all the daft monikers they introduced to the world, one in particular seems to have caught the public imagination: ‘Ozamataz Buckshank’. The name Ozamataz has been ‘repurposed’ for any number of online game characters and social-media personas. I think part of the reason lies in the delivery: in the original skit, the name was pronounced in a drawl reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. It is, in fact, a fun name to say aloud, and I think that contributes to its popularity. But there may be more to it than that. A name like ‘Jackmerius Tacktheritrix’ or ‘Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar’ is too Pythonesque, too blatant in its silliness, to have much staying power. ‘Ozamataz’ is almost, but not quite, realistic; it could plausibly be an actual word.

And so, hearing the name again, I asked myself: If ozamataz were a word, what would it mean? 

It is fairly clear, at least, how Key & Peele (or their writers) came up with the name. It is a portmanteau of Oz with razz(a)matazz. My handy Oxford dictionary app defines the latter word: ‘noisy, showy, and exciting activity and display designed to attract and impress’. Oz, of course, was the name (or title) of the great and powerful and eponymous Wizard, whose magic consisted of little else but razzmatazz. Ozamataz must be the kind of razzmatazz in which the Wizard of Oz specialized.

Oz, by his own admission, was a humbug. He was, he insisted, a very good man, but a very bad wizard. This gave him an endearing quality that one does not usually find among frauds and con men. Dorothy and her friends very much wanted his magic to be real; and the Wizard’s three bits of real magic all worked powerfully on that desire, and gave three of the lead characters their hearts’ desires through a cunning twist on the placebo effect. The film, in this respect, is better than the book. Oz gave them recognition for the qualities that they actually had, but believed themselves to lack entirely: a diploma for the Scarecrow, a testimonial for the Tin Woodman, a medal for the Cowardly Lion. Alas, no amount of recognition could send Dorothy back to Kansas: placebos have their limits. But we leave Oz with the feeling that the Wizard not only meant well, but did well and even ruled well; even though his magic was three parts bluff and one part showmanship.

The American children who made up L. Frank Baum’s original readership felt this quality keenly. None of Baum’s other books were very successful, but children took Oz to their hearts. They loved the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman precisely for the brain and heart that they themselves never knew they had; and they loved the Wizard for the very real magic that he could do, despite thinking of himself as a humbug. Literature is full of characters who are merely flawed. The heroes of Oz are heroic precisely because of the battles they fight to overcome their flaws – battles that they win, generally speaking, without knowing it.

Baum did not want to write any sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was the children who made him do it. After several years, he gave in to the overwhelming pressure of his fan mail (and the dead, gloomy silence with which his other works were received), and wrote The Land of Oz, a brilliantly successful sequel, and a comic-strip spinoff, which was successful without being brilliant. Still further delays followed before he began the long string of Oz sequels from Ozma of Oz to Glinda of Oz, the fourteenth book in the series. He then died; but Oz did not die with him.

On the whole, none of the sequels matched the quality of the first two books. At the time, Oz was something fresh: a joyous head-on collision between the traditional European fairy tale, with its trappings of magic and royalty, and the anarchic humour of the American tall tale. The first Oz books represent a spree of inventiveness never seen in either of those literary forms, and seldom rivalled in the fantasy genre of later times. After that, Baum had to ration out his creativity more carefully. Most of the later Oz books have glimmers of the original brilliance, enough (eked out with shameless recycling of the original material) to keep the fans entertained and the letters (and royalties) coming in.

The later books are somewhat spoilt by sentimentality. Baum kept dragging in the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman long after he had run out of things to say about them, because the children demanded it. In the fourth book, straightforwardly entitled Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, he brought back the two leading characters from the first book, and completed the ensemble. Ozma taught the Wizard real magic, and Dorothy made her permanent home in Oz; and that, though it was just what the fans had asked for, killed them both. The essence of the Wizard is that he was a humbug who accomplished good and great deeds by clever fakery; the essence of Dorothy is that she wanted to go home. Without their essence, all that remained was a rather twee appearance. But if the fans of Oz could tell the difference, they were not experienced or critical enough to tell why the revived Wizard and Dorothy were less successful than the originals.

Baum’s death did not end the clamour for more Oz books. The series was handed off to Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote more than twenty books in the series before tiring of her own formula. She gave it up in 1939, the very year that the film version of The Wizard of Oz brought Baum’s creation to a new mass audience. The series was then continued by John R. Neill, who had illustrated every book from The Land of Oz on. Neill wrote three more books before his own death.

At this point, Ozamataz begins to resemble Ouroboros, the world-serpent biting its own tail. The next author of an official Oz book (after the hiatus of the Second World War) was Jack Snow, who had been a twelve-year-old Oz fan when Baum died, and became a Baum scholar when he grew up. The fans had captured the citadel; and they have been there ever since. In the 1970s, two more of Ruth Plumly Thompson’s books were published by the International Wizard of Oz Club; this fan organization went on to print many more Oz books over the following decades. Most recently, Sherwood Smith’s three Oz sequels have been officially recognized by the Baum family trust.

On the other hand, Gregory Maguire’s revisionist retelling, Wicked and its sequels, has been officially snubbed, for good reason. The moral of Wicked, as of so much modern nihilist fantasy, could be summed up in a sentence: ‘Evil is Cool, and anyway, it was forced to be Evil because Good is Even Worse.’ This is a sentiment that Baum (like nearly all of his generation) would have regarded with plain horror.

And then there is the straightforward Oz fan fiction, not commercially published, and not officially recognized or deprecated by anyone.

We can say that Ozamataz, the peculiar fake-but-effective magic of the Wizard, leaked out of the books, made its tour through the lively century-long phenomenon of Oz fandom, and eventually came full circle as the fans grew up to write Oz books themselves.

In this wider or larger sense, ozamataz could be defined as the particular blend of creativity and publicity that inheres in a self-sustaining fandom, which has the power to call forth new work in the canon if the original authors cease to supply it.

Oz, of course, is not the only franchise with this kind of ozamataz. Sherlock Holmes was a still earlier example. Arthur Conan Doyle thought he had done with his famous consulting detective when he killed him off at the Reichenbach Falls; but the fans would not let ill alone, and forced him to go on writing stories about the resurrected Holmes for thirty more years. Since then, everyone and his dog has had a go at writing unofficial Holmes stories. The pastiches are beyond counting, from Sexton Blake to House and Sherlock.

Several of the modern media franchises have definite ozamataz. Star Trek, after the early cancellation of the original series, was kept alive by fan fiction, and Pocket Books’ line of Trek novels became a stepping-stone for many young science fiction writers of the 1970s and 80s. Today, the Trek franchise has entirely escaped the de facto control, though not the de jure ownership, of Paramount Studios. Groups of fans from America to Turkey have produced films in the style of the original series, some as remakes of the original scripts, some with new material written for the purpose.

Doctor Who had a large and thriving fandom when the BBC axed the series in 1989; the novels and radio plays kept coming all through the show’s 16-year hiatus, and in the end it was a lifelong fan of the show, Russell T. Davies, who brought it back into production. When Davies left the revived series, he handed it off to Steven Moffat, another old Whovian, who first came to notoriety as the screenwriter of the parody, Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death.

Star Wars fandom has a more complex and ambiguous relationship with the creator of its franchise. In the earliest phase, the fans contented themselves with the strange ritual activity of watching the original film over and over, obsessively, often dozens of times – a substantial act of devotion in the pre-VCR era, when each viewing meant paying admission to the cinema. They collected the toys, posters, comics, and other merchandise, of course. But the real breakthrough came after George Lucas himself lost interest in his creation. Once it became clear that he would never tell us what happened after Return of the Jedi, a host of fan writers and young SF professionals brought us the Expanded Universe, more or less with the blessing of Lucasfilm. The Expanded Universe received a heavy shock with the release of the prequel films, which contradicted much of the fan canon. Many of the fans hated the prequels, but they accepted them as canon, and the Expanded Universe was reworked to fit the new official corpus.

Then Lucas sold the whole Star Wars franchise to Disney. The corporate entity known as ‘The Mouse’ first thrilled the fans, by announcing that Episodes VII through IX would be produced at long last. Then it alarmed and consternated them, by handing the job of directing Episode VII to J. J. Abrams, and leaking bits of story and casting information, which suggested that this would be yet another ham-handed Disney effort to cash in on a creative property that it might own, but did not understand.

Then came the war.

Earlier this year, The Mouse announced that the entire Expanded Universe was no longer regarded as canon. The slate is being wiped entirely clean. A new canon of post-Jedi stories is to be called into being, starting with Chuck Wendig’s widely panned Aftermath. The far superior work of Timothy Zahn, as well as decades of writing and other creative work by countless fans, has been summarily dismissed. You could hear the screams of the neckbeards from Greenland to Antarctica.

So what will become of Star Wars? History suggests some possibilities that ought to give Disney pause. Several years ago, Hasbro, through its Wizards of the Coast subsidiary, made a similar head-on attack against its own customers. The third edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons game had been a resounding commercial success. Part of that success was due to the crowdsourcing of the basic rules. D&D 3.0 and 3.5 were based on the ‘d20 System’, an open-source rules set to which many hands contributed. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tabletop role-playing games based on that system. Players can move freely from one setting to another without having an entirely new set of game mechanics to learn; settings and adventures written for one game can be easily adapted for another. D&D benefited hugely from this creative cross-fertilization.

But the bean-counters at Hasbro were not satisfied. They wanted to recapture control of the D&D franchise, to make it their own exclusive property again. And the only way to do that was to abandon the d20 System and create a new, incompatible set of rules. This was bad enough; but Fourth Edition D&D was a conceptual disaster. All previous versions of the game had attempted to recreate the tropes and atmosphere of sword-and-sorcery fiction on the tabletop. D&D 4.0 tried to recreate online role-playing games on the tabletop. Instead of being a game about a fantasy world, it was a game about another game. And the complex real-time mechanics of something like World of Warcraft, which work smoothly enough when you have computers and server farms to do all the heavy calculation, are impossibly cumbersome when human beings have to crunch all the numberrs with pencil and paper. The Fourth Edition failed abysmally; and since Hasbro discontinued all the Third Edition products when it released the new system, the fans were left to twist in the wind.

They were rescued from this fate by a tiny startup company. Paizo Games released its own heroic fantasy rules based on the d20 System (which still remains in the public domain, available for anyone to use). Pathfinder is cleverly reverse-engineered to be maximally compatible with D&D 3.5, while introducing certain changes that tend to make the mechanics more elegant and streamlined. It is exactly what D&D 4.0 should have been. At first, Paizo did not even have the money to release Pathfinder in print; the original rules were made freely available for download as a PDF file. This was a stroke of genius. Thousands of disaffected D&D players switched to the free Pathfinder rules, then clamoured for printed and bound copies. That gave Paizo the pre-orders it needed to start mass production of printed Pathfinder products; and now, if you go to any tabletop game shop (except Games Workshop, which sells only its own proprietary kit), you will find racks full of Pathfinder products and a distinct dearth of D&D offerings.

It remains to be seen whether Star Wars fandom will reject the new Disney canon and cleave loyally to the old Expanded Universe. They have the disadvantage that nobody can reverse-engineer the original films. Disney will always have a hold over the fans through its control of the copyrights. But fan fiction and fan art operate in a world right outside the fences of intellectual property law. It may be that the ozamataz of Star Wars will be preserved through a kind of fan samizdat; that the really dedicated (and therefore profitable) fans of the franchise will tune out the official Disney offerings, and keep their own collaborative work as a separate canon in its own right. Or it could be that neither the Disney canon nor the Expanded Universe fandom will thrive. One thing is certain: The hand of Oz, the Great and Powerful, has been turned against The Mouse, and The Mouse brought it on itself.

I do not mean to give the impression that ozamataz has become exclusively a property of game and film franchises. The works of J. R. R. Tolkien exhibit ozamataz par excellence. Tolkien’s story, in one respect, is curiously like Baum’s. After the publication of The Hobbit, he was bombarded with letters from children wanting ‘more about Hobbits’. But being a more serious and scholarly writer than Baum, and haunted moreover by a legendarium that he had been working away on for over twenty years, he was unable to tread Baum’s path. He did not grind out dozens of children’s books about the further adventures of Bagginses and Tooks, as he might have done. Instead, he wrote The Lord of the Rings; and the ozamataz jumped to an adult audience. The entire modern category of epic fantasy is the offspring of his work. The magnum opus was traduced on film through the efforts of well-meaning, if not well-informed, Tolkien fans, and so became known to hundreds of millions. At the opposite end of the media scale, a tiny but devoted coterie of fans write and publish pseudo-learned journals about Tolkien’s invented languages. Nobody has yet got round the Tolkien estate’s blanket prohibition on the commercial publication of fan fiction; but when Tolkien’s copyrights expire, we shall probably see that as well.

A few other literary properties have ozamataz: most notably Harry Potter. One fandom exhibits the strange property of anti-ozamataz. The Wheel of Time had millions of readers, but did not attract a large community of creative fans; there is, I believe, comparatively little Wheel of Time fan fiction or fan art. This may be because nearly all the imaginative elements in the series were stolen from earlier and better writers, and any free play being done with those elements is happening in those writers’ fandoms – most notably the fandoms of Tolkien and of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. But the reverse ozamataz shows up very clearly in the Amazon reviews of the later Wheel of Time books. Nobody has begun a series with such lavish promises, or so blatantly failed to keep them; though George R. R. Martin may eventually come close. Beginning with about the fifth book, and with increased volume and stridency thereafter, Jordan’s fans complain about the glacial pace of the story, the bad writing, the endless chasing of side issues and subsidiary characters. Hundreds of the reviews, both on Amazon and on innumerable fan blogs, end with the reviewer swearing never to buy another instalment; but all too often, that same reviewer will return to the series like a dog to his vomit, and make all the same complaints, with the same hollow threat, about the next book.

It reminds me of an old joke – speaking of dogs. An old Kentucky colonel was sitting on his veranda, sipping julep and greeting the neighbours as they passed by. His old yellow hound dog lay near him. Every so often, the dog would lift up its head and emit a heart-wrenching howl of pain and distress.

‘What the nation is the matter with that dog?’ a visitor asked.

‘Oh, don’t pay him no mind,’ said the colonel. ‘He’s just a-settin’ on a nail.’

‘A nail! Well then, why don’t he get up off of it?’

The colonel thought gravely about this. ‘Well, sir, I reckon it only hurts enough to complain.’

Some fandoms are held together by admiration for a creative artist’s work; some by emulation. And then there are those, like Jordan’s fandom, or the Star Wars fans when discussing the prequels, that are held together by the shared pleasure of criticism, because it only hurts enough to complain. The one impulse leads to fan fiction; the other, to fan deconstruction. Both are legitimate amusements, I suppose; but I know which I would rather spend my time on.

The great trouble of any writer, in this world of soundbites and YouTube and virtually free publishing, is to stand out from the crowd; to get his work noticed. The traditional methods of promotion hardly work at all any longer, unless backed by (at minimum) the hype machinery of a major motion-picture studio. On the other hand, an obscure and unheralded artist may suddenly ‘go viral’. When this happens, or at least, when it endures beyond the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ prescribed by Andy Warhol, it is proof of the power of ozamataz.

The question, then, is how to attract ozamataz. Can one catch that particular kind of lightning in a bottle, or draw it down with a lightning rod? There do not seem to be any sufficient qualities to guarantee that a work or a franchise will develop a self-sustaining fandom. But perhaps we can identify the necessary qualities; and if we can work with those things in mind, we may increase our chances from zero to something that gives grounds for hope.

For it is the fans, in the end, who work the real magic when it happens. Would you know the secret of Oz, the Great and Powerful? Look behind the curtain, and you will find it: ten thousand geeks in hall costumes.


 

Read about what makes Ozamataz possible in ‘Legosity’.

Comments

  1. Interesting; I was actually introduced to Oz through Volkov’s Soviet respin of it (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Volkov_(writer)), which seems to have kept a tighter grip on the same subcreative crystal ball used to view the Oz of the original book. I think Volkov was somewhat better at asking the questions of why the whimsical things were there, and what the implications of that were (e.g. in the second book, a disgruntled toymaker named Urfin Juice discovers the Powder of Life from the original books, but employs it to construct an army). The practical upshot of having the country divided between two good witches and two bad witches is that the middle of the country is a giant no-man’s land; the Yellow Brick road is in disrepair and the whimsical perils are interspersed with a gauntlet of more mundane perils such as gaping chasms, raging rivers, and infestations of sabre-tooth tigers — turning the whole thing into more of a Fellowship of the Ring travelogue. After the bad witches are both dead and a more self-confident ruler is installed at the Emerald City, it gradually starts to look like a proper country.

  2. Wow – I am really looking forward to the rest of this series.

  3. Stephen J. says:

    I love this essay simply because–with some slight paraphrasing from yours truly–it has officially won its Jargon Lifetime Achievement Award with this sentence: “The ozamataz will be preserved through fan samizdat.”

    I sincerely think you could make this sentence the motto of Bondwine.com and put it on your business cards. I will be repeating that gleefully to myself all day.

  4. Excellent work.

    Another franchise with a lot of ozamataz: “Firefly”. A fan movie and copious fan fiction are credited to “Firefly”. More than that, much like Star Trek, it was the fans that convinced the bigwigs at Universal that a “Firefly” movie might not be a bad idea.

    As it turned out, it was quite a bad idea monetarily, which is a damn shame, as the movie itself is a classic, but I suppose that that’s neither here nor there.)

    “Firefly” is also the source of the best non-Sherlock Holmes/Night Land fanfic I’ve ever read. Some no-name wrote a series of chapters in a story called “Father”, about Mal learning that he had two sons. And it was better than any of the post-Serenity comics that came out, and those weren’t even bad.

    …For that matter “The Night Land”, of all things, thanks mostly to Andy Robertson, has a robust collection of ozamataz. The best fanfic I’ve ever read, period, is, of course, “Awake in the Night Land” by John C. Wright.

    • I keep hoping that, through judicious use of catch-phrases and well-timed Christmas presents (lets just say the Wright kids are now all old enough this year) “The Middleman” TV/comic book series will draw down the ozmataz lightning.

      My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity.

  5. RandyJJ says:

    I would comment on your posts more often, but it seems that I have nothing worth saying in comparison. Well done and thank you.

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  1. […] Wonderful Wizard of Oz” long before “The Hobbit” was published. Hat tip to Tom Simon for reminding me of this fact. There are probably others, but Baum is a really obvious example that […]

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