Adapted from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
I decided recently to pick up this series, a few months into its run, which necessitated searching out the first half-dozen or so issues on-line. I got them in a couple weeks ago, and acquired the current issues directly from comic shops, and have now read through them.
I don't think there's any need to introduce or summarize the basic story, which is now almost a century old. A Princess of Mars was actually the first published work by the creator of Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs, being initially published under a pen-name “Norman Bean” and the title, Under the Moons of Mars, in serial form beginning with the February 1912 issue of All-Story Magazine. Published in book form under Burroughs' real name and the current title in 1917, it became the first of what would ultimately be a series of eleven novels set on a fantastic, romantic version of the planet Mars that the inhabitants called “Barsoom.” The series is called variously the “Barsoom Series” or the “John Carter of Mars” series, and it is finally, after a century, going to become a major motion picture next year, under the title John Carter.
Although the popularity of Burroughs' second creation would quickly outstrip that of his first, for many fans including myself the tales of the red planet and its varied denizens are really dearer to our hearts than those of the lord of the jungle.
This is not the first comic adaptation of the story, but it is perhaps the most ambitious. Dynamite Entertainment as of last week has not just one but rather a total of three Warlord of Mars series going – the one under consideration now, joined a few months later by Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris (up to issue #5, I believe) and most recently by Warlord of Mars: Fall of Barsoom. I'll get to those latter two later.
As of issue #8 of the main series, we are most of the way through an adaptation that is an odd “enhancement” or “expansion” of the story told in A Princess of Mars. (Next issue, #9, is billed as the climax of that story although the series continues on.) A lot of work is clearly being put into it – I don't think Dynamite does much of anything by halves! The number of series in the “franchise” is one example – paralleled by the deluge of Green Hornet series that came out over the past couple of years. And they look good … maybe a little too good, but more about that in a bit. The story is being adapted by Arvid Nelson, adopting the “voice” of “ERB,” signed as such in a number of text pages such as the previous issues' recaps, notes on various aspects of Barsoomian history, society, and technology, and even in a few explanatory notes within the pages of the story itself. As I can see it, the “enhancement” part of the current adaptation seems to take place mainly within the first two issues, the only two that appear to have their own individual titles, “A Tale of Two Planets,” Parts One and Two. Here we learn a bit more about the background of John Carter and the green Martian who becomes his friend, Tars Tarkas. Carter does not actually make his “transition” from the cave in Arizona to the planet of the god of war until the end of issue #2, waking up there at the beginning of issue #3. From that point, the basic narrative so far follows pretty closely that of the novel. Maybe a little annoyingly, even though most of the first two issues consist of material added to the story, I've already noticed now by the end of issue #8 that some elements of the original novel have been passed over – most glaringly and disappointing because I always liked the character, the meeting of John Carter and the red Martian Kantos Kan. (I think when I was a kid one reason I liked him was his name and its similarity to my own.) Nevertheless, overall it is a pretty good retelling of the basic story.
The art, in the first two issues by Stephen Sadowski, thereafter by Lui Antonio is generally clean and attractive. I prefer Sadowski's, both in style and because his renditions of the green men of Mars seem to be slightly more in line with Burroughs' original descriptions, but Antonio's is quite able. “Slightly more in line with Burroughs'” renditions of the green men – neither Sadowski nor Antonio actually get them right, mainly in the arrangement of their features: bulging eyes widely set on the sides of their heads, able to move independently and look backward and forward at the same time (I bet that's useful in battle!); magnificent tusks jutting out of their massive lower jaw, extending up as far as the eyes; antennae-like ears protruding from the forehead or just above the eyes. I don't think I've ever seen an entirely accurate sketch. (And the film apparently doesn't get it quite right, either – but those are some magnificent tusks!) Most drawings and paintings render them more human-looking in their appearance but for somewhat reduced tusks and the olive-green skin. And their middle set of limbs are usually simply depicted as a second set of arms rather than something literally between arms and legs that can and do function as either. But those are relatively minor criticisms and not unique to this series.
Another aspect of the art that I have to comment on, however, is the depiction of the red Martian women – most notably Dejah Thoris, the Princess of the first book. The artists, both in the interiors and on the covers – each issue has a number of variant covers by some really big names including Alex Ross, Joe Jusko, J. Scott Campbell, and others (one thing I really like about Dynamite is that for this series at least, the interior of the back cover gives thumbnails of all the covers for that issue so no matter which one you pick up you're not deprived of having at least small images of the others) – come just about as close as possible to depicting the Martians, including the beautiful women, as Burroughs himself described them and still have a marketable comic book! To quote the Encyclopedia Barsoomia wiki's disclaimer, “Burroughs described the Martian people as being scantily clad, 'undisfigured' by 'strange, unsightly pieces of cloth,' as Burroughs put it. ... [Thus] some of the images [on the wiki are] ... mildly erotic ....” Generally the Martians' only accoutrements were said to be martial ornamentation as well as harnesses to carry their various swords and other weapons. (Note: It can be argued that Burroughs did not mean literal nudity here - that in the immediately post-Victorian world in which wrote "naked" meant simply bare arms and legs - but I think the common understanding is indeed nude rather than half-clothed.) In previous comic book adaptations the men generally wore in addition in addition to the functional outfitting loincloths (as they usually do in this series), while the women wore loincloths plus ornamental jewelry and breastplates – more or less like the slave-girl get-up Princess Leia wore in Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi (which I've heard was directly swiped from a paperback book cover for Burroughs' Mars series). In this series, let's just say they wear a little less than that – mainly in that the “breastplates” are reduced to little more than small (tiny!) coverings for the nipples that must be attached by static electricity or something! (And some “dealer incentive” and “exclusive” covers for the Dejah Thoris series have less than that – what they call “risqué nude” versions of one of the other variants.) Tellingly, from issue #4 on (when Dejah Thoris makes her advent), the publisher added a “Rated Mature” notation. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Sure, I like looking at good-looking women as much as the next guy, but traditionally the entry-level reader for Burroughs' fiction is early-teen years or even younger. I once read that if you don't discover Burroughs by the time you're fourteen, it's too late - you'll never get it. But even though I intend to give A Princess of Mars to my thirteen-year-old nephew sometime soon (I gave him Tarzan of the Apes last Christmas – trying to do my part to introduce him to some good reading!) … um, there's no way I could pass this particular comic book adaptation of that novel on to him. His mom, my sister-in-law, would kill me! Yes, it comes closer to what Burroughs described, but reading the description in prose is different than seeing the typically over-endowed ladies generally drawn by modern comic-book artists in basically the altogether! Balancing authenticity with practicality – or rather marketability – is, I'm sure, something that the designers of the upcoming film wrestled with. I had a short email exchange regarding this with an email “pen-pal” a few weeks ago before the trailer was released that began with me whimsically asking “if they show the Martian women as Burroughs described them, do you think our wives will let us go see the movie?” You can see their choice in the trailer above. John Carter's clothes apparently even made the journey with him to Barsoom! But as for Dynamite's comic series, I have mixed feelings about rendering their appropriateness for adolescent readers problematic at the very least.
Even so, I am enjoying this series, and looking forward both to the issues that follow the next which promise continue the enhancement by following the adventures of Dejah Thoris and her people once John Carter is mysteriously transported back to Earth at the end of the first book, as well as seeing the expansion of the story in Dejah Thoris' own series – set five hundred years in the past (Martians are extremely long-lived) – as well as Fall of Barsoom, which is set even further in the past, thousands of years ago when a once lush, green world was beginning to dry up and die the long death which ultimately created the world in which John Carter found himself.
Kaor! (Literally a Barsoomian greeting, but what the hey, I'll use it to sign off.)