Friday, March 09, 2012

The Original Martian Manhunter

I was busy riding on a steamroller all day yesterday, but if you remember back two nights ago I promised to show you J'onn J'onnz doing a startling transformation that was also an imitation! Can you guess who it is he's imitating in these panels? (Hint: it's not Richard Nixon. That's Rich Little's gig.)

Panels from Martian Manhunter v.2 #9 (August 1999), script by John Ostrander, pencils and inks by Tom Mandrake, colors by Carla Feeny, separations by Heroic Age, letters by Bill Oakley

Now my first guess was that he was trying to cosplay as this guy:

Panel from Amazing Spider-Man v.1 #100 (September 1971), script by Stan Lee, pencils by Gil Kane, inks by Frank Giacoia, letters by Artie Simek

But it wasn't, even tho' it would have been fun to see J'onn try to juggle Gwen and MJ as well as taking care of his elderly Aunt Maytian.

Nope: J'onn's formation of two extra arms is a tip o' the chestplate to the original good-guy Martians...and by "good-guy" I mean not the Martians with the falling capsules on Horsell Common, with the death rays and the tripod walking machines and the Red Weed and the uuuuulllllaaaaaaa.

Nope: not the Martians of War of the Worlds, but rather those of Edgar Rice "Hey, I Created Tarzan" Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" novels (now it begins to ring a bell, perhaps?) beginning with 1917's A Princess of Mars. Yep, that same John Carter that is now a major motion picture with terrible reviews ("A giant, suffocating doughy feast of boredom"— Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian) but the pretty-cool looking special effects, now appearing beginning today at a theater near you. (With my usual luck in going to the movies, I'll probably wind up seeing The Lorax by accident instead of John Carter, so I'm keeping my distance for the moment.) Burroughs' swashbuckling romance/adventures gave us the history of the world of Barsoom (that's Martian for Mars, of course) and its native race of little big green men:
[A]s I stood watching the hideous little monsters break from their shells I failed to note the approach of a score of full-grown Martians from behind me.

Coming, as they did, over the soft and soundless moss, which covers practically the entire surface of Mars with the exception of the frozen areas at the poles and the scattered cultivated districts, they might have captured me easily, but their intentions were far more sinister. It was the rattling of the accouterments of the foremost warrior which warned me.

On such a little thing my life hung that I often marvel that I escaped so easily. Had not the rifle of the leader of the party swung from its fastenings beside his saddle in such a way as to strike against the butt of his great metal-shod spear I should have snuffed out without ever knowing that death was near me. But the little sound caused me to turn, and there upon me, not ten feet from my breast, was the point of that huge spear, a spear forty feet long, tipped with gleaming metal, and held low at the side of a mounted replica of the little devils I had been watching.

But how puny and harmless they now looked beside this huge and terrific incarnation of hate, of vengeance and of death. The man himself, for such I may call him, was fully fifteen feet in height and, on Earth, would have weighed some four hundred pounds. He sat his mount as we sit a horse, grasping the animal's barrel with his lower limbs, while the hands of his two right arms held his immense spear low at the side of his mount; his two left arms were outstretched laterally to help preserve his balance, the thing he rode having neither bridle or reins of any description for guidance.
That's John Carter's narration describing the first adult Martians he meets in A Princess of Mars: his (and our) introduction to one of the finest and noblest alien characters in all of fantastic literature, Tars Tarkas, the warlord who befriends and aids Carter in his adventures.

Some of our contemporary ideas of Burroughs' Martians come from the colorful illustrations on the front of paperback editions of the Barsoom books:

...especially those of fantasy's top artist Frank Frazetta.

Until this weekend we've had little opportunity to see one of Burroughs' Martians on screen. There was a cheap knock-off film produced in 2009...with Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris (!!!), but more intriguing was the possibility of an animated John Carter movie in the 1930s by Bob Clampett. Sadly it was never produced. Who knows how popular the Mars books would be today if it were? Here's a glimpse of what might have been, altho' without any four-armed Martians:

But...and here's where it gets really interesting...Barsoomians really come to their visual zenith in comic books adapting or based on the John Carter books. Let's look at some of their portrayals, shall we? (Yes! Lets.)

Here's the first John Carter adaptation: Four Color #375, an abridged but generally faithful version of A Princess of Mars:

Cover of Four Color #375 (February 1952), pencils and inks by Jesse Marsh

Jesse March's Martians are more frog-faced than other portrayals, but they retain their impressive bulk, dangerous upwards-curling fangs and double set of arms.

Panels from Four Color #375 (February 1952); pencils, inks, and letters by Jesse Marsh

Burrough's impressive trademark world-building—Carter's narrative gives us solid history, culture, and traditions of the Martians—come to life in these comics.

Panels from John Carter of Mars #1 (April 1964); pencils, inks, and letters by Jesse Marsh

Dell would publish three Four Color issues of John Carter (and Gold Key would reprint them in the 1960s), including the usual impressively colored Gold Key "pin-ups" on the back covers.

DC acquired the rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs' books in the early 1970s, giving us some amazing Joe Kubert issues of Tarzan. John Carter adventures first appeared as back-ups in Tarzan and were later featured in Weird Worlds, with spookier and more threatening-looking Barsoomians than the Dell comics.

Cover of Weird Worlds #1 (September 1972), pencils and inks by Joe Kubert

Weird Worlds also adapted the original stories, but with a little more grit and adult adventure than the Dell version. But just like Major Nelson's Jeannie, egg-born Dejah Thoris had no belly-button.

Panel from Weird Worlds #6 (July 1973), script by Marv Wolfman, pencils and inks by Sal Amendola

The DC series gave Burrough's four-armed Barsoom natives an uncanny and alien design even further removed from Earth perspective.

Panels from Weird Worlds #5 (April-May 1973), script by Marv Wolfman, pencils and inks by Sal Amendola

And if you ever wondered what a Martian skeleton look liked, well, wonder no more:

Cover of Weird Worlds #5 (April-May 1973), pencils and inks by Michael Kaluta

Hey! Tarzan's doin' all right for himself!

Splash page from "Combat!" in Weird Worlds #5 (April-May 1973), script by Dennis O'Neil, pencils and inks by Dan Green

Naw, I kids the Tarzan. That's actually David Innes, hero of ERB's hollow Earth high-adventure Pellucidar books, also adapted in Weird Worlds. But by 1973 DC lost the license to publish Burroughs comic books, and Weird Worlds shifted to spotlighting Howard Chaykin's Ironwolf series. What, no Tarzan or John Carter comic books at all? Pfui, true believers! Just wait until 1977 and then step across the metaphorical street between the big two to find the Burroughs heroes at Marvel Comics!

Cover of John Carter: Warlord of Mars #5 (October 1977), pencils by Gil Kane, inks by Pablo Marcos

Marvel's John Carter: Warlord of Mars had a respectable 28-issue run (plus three annuals), and was unique in that it gave us the first "authorized" new tales of Barsoom: stories retconned between the Burroughs adventures (much like, in the same period, Marvel's Star Wars gave us tales that happened between the first and second movies). In fact, since A Princess of Mars ends (much like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) with the hero spending years upon years on the red planet before being returned to Earth, all of these adventures actually fit during these two sentences in the pentultimate chapter of Princess:
For nine years I served in the councils and fought in the armies of Helium as a prince of the house of Tardos Mors. The people seemed never to tire of heaping honors upon me, and no day passed that did not bring some new proof of their love for my princess, the incomparable Dejah Thoris.
This gave us plenty of opportunities to see the Sensational Character Find of 1917, Martian Tars Tarkas:

John Carter: Warlord of Mars #9 (February 1978), pencils by Gil Kane, inks by Rudy Nebres

If he wasn't fighting at John Carter's side like J'onn J'onnz fouight alongside his allies in the Justice League, then Tars Tarkas was fighting Carter himself. The big green galoot just loved his fighting, is what I'm saying.

Cover of John Carter: Warlord of Mars #13 (June 1978), pencils by by Carmine Infantino, inks by

They fought, and fought, and fought and fought and fought...well, the comic wasn't called John Carter: TV-Watcher of Mars, after all.

Panels from John Carter: Warlord of Mars #1 (June 1977), script by Marv Wolfman, pencils by Gil Kane, inks by Dave Cockrum, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Joe Rosen

Here's a nice character bit (although Walt Simonson's early pencil style is all but obliterated under some heavy inks by Rudy Nebres) between John Carter and Tars Tarkas. Much like another man off his world, the lesser gravity helps JC leap taller than the highest skyscraper.

Panels from John Carter: Warlord of Mars #15 (August 1978), script by Marv Wolfman, pencils by Walt Simonson, inks by Rudy Nebres, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by John Costanza

The first half of the Marvel run of John Carter was written by Marv Wolfman, but Chris Claremont took over the scripter reigns with #16 with a variety of pencillers (including one ish by Frank Miller). Chris Claremont writing a book which featured a strong fighting woman barely clad in her itty-bitty outfits? That'll never happen again.

Non-consecutive panels from John Carter: Warlord of Mars #22 (March 1979), script by Chris Claremont, pencils by Mike Vosburg, inks by Ricardo Villamonte, colors by Bob Sharen, letters by John Costanza

Hey! She's kinda got a belly-button! I call shenanigans! No navel for you, egg girl!

Marvel's John Carter ended with Annual #3 as their license on the ERB characters ran out, but these Marvel issues were later published as trade paperbacks by Dark Horse. They're over the top and have a lot of the same visual and narrative tricks as Marvel's superhero comics, but I like 'em a lot: they've got a genuine, if sometimes goofy, charm, good art, well-portrayed characters, and an attention for and respect of the source material. Here's a bonus two-page text feature from issue #1, including Dave Cockrum's early designs for the Barsoomians. How abruptly did the Marvel series end? So quickly that unused John Carter artwork was later recycled in Marvel's Star Wars comic book. (Remind me to show you Leia's adventures on a barely-disguised Barsoom some day!)

Although not with the frequency of the 1970s, Burroughs' Martian characters have endured in comic books through the 21st Century, including a Dark Horse team-up with Tarzan and the return of the characters to Marvel in two formats: straight adaptations of the books as well as John Carter movie tie-in comics.

Even our beardy pal Mister Alan Moore, no stranger to the attraction of now-in-the-public-domain stories, included Martians (with Tars Tarkas) and John Carter in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Panels from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen v.2 #1 (September 2002), script by Alan Moore, pencils and inks by Kevin O'Neill, colors by Ben Dimagmaliw, letters by Todd Klein

I started this journey through the sands of Mars gathered between the big green toes of Tars Tarkas with a Edgar Rice Burroughs allusion in the pages of Martian Manhunter, but I've saved the biggest connection between DC's and Burroughs' big green Martians for last: they were both guests of the Legion of Super-Heroes at the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duplicate Lass (altho' Tars Tarkas appears to be hiding his extra limbs beneath his cloak) You know the old wedding proverb: "One Martian at your wedding, soon tears you'll be shedding. Two Martians at your vows, all the joys that life allows." I've highlighted our green guests below (click image to Barsoomisize):

Page from Superboy Starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #200 (January-February 1974), script by Cary Bates, pencils and inks by Dave Cockrum, letters by Ben Oda

But wait! That's not the only connection between the Martians of DC and the Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I've been re-reading the original ERB books, and the skill with which Burroughs fills in the history and culture of Barsoom is pretty impressive. The narration by John Carter would be great travel guides to Barsoom (if you cut out all that boring kissing). Anyway, I found this passage in the original text of A Princess of Mars thats hints maybe the two green alien races may be more closely related than we previously suspected:
Tars Tarkas folded his limbs beneath him and crouched down by the map to study it alongside myself. He nodded to me grimly, acknowledging the weariness of both of our bodies, and the dread of even more deadly battle to come. He gave me a sideways look, and a slight smile touched his grim lip as, reaching into his hip pouch, he said,

"I would scarcely recognize you, John Carter, beaten and bloodied as this. But there is no other mortal upon Barsoom whom I would have fight by my side. Take this refreshment and relax, my friend."

He handed me a small dark wafer, disc-like in shape, as he himself bit into another one. Although none of the Martian food I had yet consumed had proven unsettling to me, it continued to surprise me. I nibbled tentatively at the edge of the wafer to discover its crumbly biscuit texture melted on my mouth, followed by the smooth sweet taste of the wafer's filling: a butter-like spread but ambrosial to my tongue, like fresh cream from my homeland of Virginia. I swallowed in surprise and delight and took another, larger bite. Tars Tarkas curled his mouth up in that approximation of a smile I have described before to watch me consume the wafer. "Delicious," I said.

"And empowering," Tars Tarkas nodded. "They are a delicacy of the warlord class and a much needed respite on the battle trail. The provide energy and succor as well as a moment of relief. They are called in our language ch'oh'kas, although the Red Barsoomians have named them oh-ryeos. They are prized and delighted in by every Barsoomian."
Wow! Uncanny, huh?

Let's lift our glass of milk and whatever cookie we happen to have lying around in a toast to Edgar Rice Burroughs, for giving us hundreds of grand adventures around, inside, and beyond our world, for passing the narratives of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke; Carson Napier; David Innes; Bowen J. Tyler; but most of all today, all hail John Carter, Dejah Thoris...and Tars Tarkas, the original Manhunter from Mars!

Final page from Weird Worlds #7 (October 1973), script by Marv Wolfman, pencils and inks by Sal Amendola


-- MrJM said...


-- MrJM

Delta said...

Wonderful retrospective. Thanks so much for that.

Michael Jones said...

Thanks tons!

Jon Jermey said...

Just don't tell the Tarkas's daughter that she's adopted...