Illustrating Barsoom

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There are some subjects that seem to be touchstones for science fiction and fantasy artists.

When an artist is learning to draw or paint there are certain subjects at which they all must try their hand. A landscape. Flowers. Animals. Children. With varying degrees of success, the artist has to have at least tried to depict certain types of scenes from low lighting, moody, introspective pieces to high energy, action scenes. The artist has to experience what it is like to capture these elements on paper or canvas.

For the science fiction and fantasy illustrator the subjects become more specific. Planets, spaceships, castles, warriors (male or female) brandishing swords or spears, dragons or other creatures. You simply can’t call yourself a fantasy artist unless you have tried to depict one or all of these illustration tropes. You don’t necessarily have to have them in your portfolio or even have actually shown them to anybody, but they should be part of your experience as an artist.

Princess_of_Mars_largeAnd for some fantasy artists their experience would not be complete without having at least tried depicting Barsoom.

Barsoom, as most science fiction and fantasy readers know, is the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs introduced us to Barsoom in his very first novel back in 1912. Published in the All-Story Magazine in serialized format with the title Under the Moons of Mars (and under the pseudonym Norman Bean) Burroughs introduced us to Confederate army veteran John Carter who travels to a Mars that never was, a dying planet filled with monstrous creatures, four armed tusked tharks, giant white apes, red skinned men and, of course, the red skinned princess Dejah Thoris.

JohnCarterofMarsBurroughs’ serialized story was published as a novel in 1917 and was given the title A Princess of Mars. That first edition was illustrated by Frank E. Schoonover, but he was only the first of what would become an army of illustrators who all have tried their hand at depicting Burroughs’ Barsoom.

Barsoom is a popular subject for science fiction and fantasy illustrators partly because of the romance of the story but also because Burroughs’ description of weapons, armor and costume (or rather, lack of costume) excited the imagination of the book’s readers. A Princess of Mars can beconsidered the seminal novel in the genre of Planetary Romance or Sword and Planet. The book is a wellspring from which much of our modern science fiction tropes originated.

And the details of the book, so lushly described by Burroughs, have inspired artists of all stripes, to try to depict them.

barsoom-vallejoAside from Schoonover, artists like J. Allen St. John, Roy G. Krenkel, Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Michael Whelan, Joe Jusko and a horde of others have tried their hand at illustrating Burroughs’ Barsoom. And that is just in America. Foreign editions of the book had their own artists take on the task enthusiastically, and there have been many, many editions of the book since its debut.

Barsoom has been a favourite subject of comic books. There have been numerous comic book adaptations from thos DC and Marvel Comics as well as a host of other comic book companies. The eponymous Princess, Dejah Thoris has long been a favourite of pin-up artists because of her infamous lack of costume. Burroughs’ describes most all the characters in the book as being completely or at least near nude. A beatiful red-skinned Martian Princess is all the description most pin-up artists (or any artist, for that matter) need in order to go to town on a depiction of Burroughs’ Barsoom.

Just google the word Barsoom, or the name Dejah Thoris and a myriad of depictions will spring up. Some will come from Disney’s film adaptation, JOHN CARTER, but most will simply be artists, using whatever medium they use, to capture the magic and the wonder of Burroughs’ Barsoom.

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6 COMMENTS

    • I agree. There is no other artist (other than maybe Frazetta) who is so closely linked to Burroughs’ stories, although I prefer his illustrations for the Pellucidar books and for The Moon Maid books. Undeniably the master.

  1. “A Princess of Mars” started me on a path of discovery thru books and unlocked my imagination. Bought the book second hand, in paperback, with no cover. Years later the reissue with Frazetta covers showed me things my mind could not conjure. That set remains in my library and is taken down on occasion for a rereading. Thank you for the brain poke that just improved my week.

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