Visions of Barsoom

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I didn’t start reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels until I was in college, but I was already familiar with John Carter and his friends, thanks to their appearances in comic books.  In fact, Carter’s association with comics goes all the way back to Famous Funnies, one of the first comics to run original material , instead of reprinting newspaper strips.

This series ran from 1939-41, starting at four pages each and expanding to eight pages. This sounds skimpy by modern standards, but it wasn’t unusual for anthology comics from this period.

A John Carter of Mars newspaper strip ran from 1941-43.  Produced by ERB’s son,  John Coleman Burroughs, the strip had a look very similar to Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon, in that it had a classically illustrative art style and no word balloons.  As for the stories…well, one sequence features John Carter fighting the chicken men of Barsoom. Yes, you read that correctly; the chicken men. (Barsoom is what the locals call Mars.)

Occasionally, though, the surrealism would reach Alice In Wonderland proportions. In one story, Carter was told by a plant creature to “Say something funny! Before I wilt away!  It’s been simply ages since I heard anything to make me laugh!”  He apparently hadn’t heard about the chicken men yet.

Artist Jesse Marsh, who developed a fan following while chronicling the adventures of Tarzan in the 1950s, tackled John Carter as well, with three issues scripted by Paul S. Newman.  Marsh’s visualization of Barsoom could get positively psychedelic at points, with red blobs (clouds?) floating through the air.

His visualizations of the main characters was also unusual. In the original books, Carter, his princess and Tars Tarkas were nude, or nearly nude.  In later comics, they would wear what could be called traditional fantasy wear (loincloths, tunics and such). However, Marsh dressed all of them from head to foot—including the Thark.

The Newman/Marsh version is the version of John Carter and company I met first, even before the novels, so seeing them clothed has never been a problem for me. On the other hand, a sculptor named James Killian Spratt has been taking ERB’s original descriptions quite literally, and doing a graphic adaptation of “Princess” that’s…well, graphic. If you’re familiar with the work of Richard Corben, you probably have a pretty good idea what this looks like. If you want to see for yourself, go to: www.erbzine.com/mag13/1301.html. Definitely NSFW.

In the early 1970s, Carter appeared in DC Comics, first as a back-up to Tarzan, then as a co-star in a short-lived title called Weird Worlds. This run featured some striking art by Murphy Anderson and Gray Morrow.

In the late 1970s, the ERB licenses migrated to Marvel Comics, and John Carter, Warlord of Mars went for approximately two dozen issues.  While the DC comics were primarily adaptations of the novels, the Marvel stories were primarily new adventures, including one interesting attempt to combine the real Mars with Barsoom. In issue 22, writer Chris Claremont sent Carter and Dejah Thoris on a climb up the sheer walls of a canyon that suggested the Valley Marineris on Mars, although the canyon on Barsoom was even deeper than the one in the real world.

Thanks to last year’s John Carter movie, and the fact that many of the Barsoom novels have gone into public domain, there’s been a resurgence of new Mars comics. Marvel has published adaptations of the first two books in the series, A Princess Of Mars and The Gods of Mars. Marvel also published World of Mars, a prequel to the movie, with the same costume designs and visuals.

Dynamite Comics is offering both adaptations and original adventures. At the end of 2012, the ongoing comic Warlord of Mars was adapting the third Barsoom novel (coincidentally, also called Warlord of Mars.) Meanwhile, another ongoing comic was chronicling Dejah Thoris’ solo adventures, roughly 400 years before Carter’s arrival (As you may know, Barsoomians live a very long time.)

Dynamite has also been finding unusual ways to explore the red planet. The Fall of Barsoom is set 100,000 years before Carter features the development of the atmosphere factory, which plays a role in A Princess of Mars. In Warriors of Mars, another limited series, Carter meets a previous visitor to the red planet, one Gullivar Jones.

Jones is the protagonist of a 1905 novel by Edwin Arnold. The original title of the book was Lt. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, but that was changed to Gulliver of Mars, complete with the alternate spelling, when the book was reprinted in America. Marvel tried to bring Jones to the comics in the 1970s, with a handful of stories in different titles.  Before the Dynamite story, Jones and Carter actually appeared together in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 2, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s mega-mash-up of pop culture heroes. Some literary scholars say that Burroughs was influenced by Arnold’s novel. Whether or not that’s true, the two visions of Mars fit together better than you might expect. Both “Fall” and “Warriors” were written by Robert Place Napton.

Another recent adaptation of A Princess Of Mars, published as a book by Sterling, features distinctive art by a European writer/artist named I.N.J. Culbard.  His art is very simple, with a minimum of linework, but it catches some of the alien quality of Barsoom.

Nearly all the comics I’ve mentioned here are available in some form. As of  early 2013, both the Carter and the Dejah Thoris monthly comics are still going strong, and some of the earlier issues have been collected into trade paperbacks. Dark Horse has reprinted the Jesse Marsh issues; the DC stories and the earlier Marvel run.   The more recent Marvel comics are also available in paperback form.

I’m going to recommend that you go to your Local Comics Shop first, to check for these items. However, if there isn’t a Local Comics Shop in your life, there are some mail-order options, such as www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.

 
 

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