Now in Paperback: A Princess of Mars
Roger Langridge (script)
Filipe Andrade (art)
The in-house ads Marvel Comics ran for their ongoing new series featuring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first great creation, John Carter of Mars, were enough to strike terror into the heart of the bravest warhoon. The ads were full of exclamation points and went on about how “cool” it was to save an alien world, and it was easy enough to draw a connection between this new comics series and the new $300 million dollar Disney live-action movie due to hit U.S. theaters on 9 March. The movie features a speaker-thumping soundtrack, video game-style action sequences, and a pair of sexy young actors in the lead roles – it’s clearly geared for the under-30 (and perhaps under-20) crowd, and long-time ERB fans might have looked at those in-house ads and quailed at the thought of some clueless writer trying to make their beloved John Carter cool.
The approach fatally won’t work – Burroughs was creating a hero, not an anti-hero, and only anti-heroes can really be cool (one hopes the producers of the forthcoming Superman movie understood that before assembling their own $300 million). And this is ironic because otherwise, the two mediums involved – film and comics – are perfectly suited to the fantastic science fantasy Burroughs first spun a century ago when he serialized “Under the Moons of Mars.” In fact (especially given the, shall we say over-earnest charms of ERB’s prose style), the story of John Carter is arguably better served in a visual medium than in prose – at least prose as Burroughs delivered it.
This is mainly due to the ahead-of-its-time visual opulence of ERB’s conceptions here: when ex-Confederate soldier John Carter is mystically transported to the alien world its inhabitants call Barsoom, he finds himself in a place of garish colors, soaring sights, and lots and lots of beautiful naked people. Burroughs thought up a planet of brilliant ochre sunsets and shining, swift-flying moons, of technologically advanced cities whose golden towers are connected by air-ship travel and yet whose people fight duels with longswords straight out of Prince Valiant. It’s little wonder illustrators of one kind or another flocked to that creation, including comics illustrators.
Marvel Comics tried its hand at John Carter of Mars back in 1977, with Marv Wolfman writing and the incomparable Gil Kane doing the art, and for a few issues it was sublime good fun. But the artwork quickly deteriorated, and the writing meandered into fairly mundane sword-and-sandals melodrama – the hurtling, clean-limbed fervor of ERB’s creation was lost in the muddle, even though the series itself lasted a few years. Most of the staple elements of the John Carter stories – weird aliens, beautiful women, daring adventure, futuristic technology, and a central character who essentially has superpowers (the much lighter gravity on Barsoom gives John Carter’s Earth-conditioned muscles amazing strength, and idea that would be eagerly gobbled up by teenagers Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, who later created a certain caped character whose superpowers came from the fact that his new planet had a much weaker gravity than his homeworld) – are also staples elements of comic books, but even so, the 1970s adaptation must be judged a failure. Reading those issues, you’d never get a sense of the sheer exotic fun of the original novels.
That sense of fun is the signal triumph of Marvel’s latest attempt at bringing John Carter of Mars to the comics medium, John Carter: A Princess of Mars, which survives being “cool” by also being witty, dramatic, and compulsively readable. Writer Roger Landgridge has some Marvel experience with 2010’s utterly delightful Thor: The Mighty Avenger, and he brings to a fairly decent adaptation of ERB’s first novel A Princess of Mars a great knack for pacing and a sweet-tooth for wisecracks (when John Carter shrugs off his green Martian captors, he yells, “Get your filthy paws off me, you damn dirty lizards!”). In this series – the first five-issue story arc of which is collected in this graphic novel – he’s joined by artist Filipe Andrade, whose exaggerated, surreal pencils work to underscore the alien-ness of Barsoom (likewise the work of colorists Sunny Gho, Arif Prianto, and Benny Maulana, who work to infuse the landscapes with all the burn oranges of the real Mars as seen from Earth), even at the cost of not-infrequently making John Carter and the various humanoids of Mars look even more alien than the various monsters and ten-foot-tall four-armed tharks our hero encounters on every page. Andrade’s John Carter has a fat wedge of cheese for a nose, abs that look like the underside of a caterpillar, and flowing black locks that seem alive and fairly irritated. It’s a visual style even more distinctive than Gil Kane’s, and only time will tell if it becomes equally venerated.
The same waiting game holds true for the entire series, but this is certainly a memorable start.