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John Carter: Warlord of Mars Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

I have to admit, I have a huge amount of respect for Marvel’s Collected Editions department. Their superb “Omnibus” line, aimed at collecting giant volumes featuring entire runs on particular characters or series, hasn’t just been reserved for their iconic stable of heroes. For example, we’ve seen a three-volume set of Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s Tomb of Dracula, along with complete runs of Jack Kirby’s Eternals and Devil Dinosaur. In celebration of the release of John Carter, Marvel has produced a single hardcover collection of their twenty-eight issue (and three annual) series John Carter: Warlord of Mars, from the mid-seventies. Featuring an all-star group of creative talents, it’s an interesting look at a classic comic book that doesn’t involve tights or spandex, instead offering pulpy old-fashioned adventure.

An alien adventure...

Of course, there’s something about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character that lends itself to comic book storytelling. As with any number of iconic characters, from Sherlock Holmes through to Tarzan, the stories of the Martian explorer were originally serialised chapter-by-chapter. They were only collected in book form once they proved successful with readers. So, in a way, the character seems suited to this medium, with its long-form narratives and on-going story arcs. It’s telling that the collection is dominated by two arcs running to at least ten chapters each, which might not seem that much in the era of decompressed comic book storytelling, but was quite a big deal back in the seventies.

I’ll concede that I’m generally a bit cautious around comic books from this long ago, if only because they generally don’t feature the strongest writing. In a way, however, John Carter: Warlord of Mars works because of the corny style. The somewhat stilted dialogue works well in context. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the sort of awkward ham-fisted writing wouldn’t feel a little out of place, but it fits quite in with the decidedly old-world aesthetic of Burroughs’ early space-farer.

A wing and a prayer...

“You talk quickly when your tongue is loosened with fear,” John Carter boasts to a fallen foe, in an especially corny early line. There’s a decidedly pulpy atmosphere to everything as Carter narrates the stories, as if transcribing them in the form of folk tales. “With all the super-human strength at my command,” he explains, “with my eyes only seeing a blood-red madness, I hurled myself at the great beast — and, with power even I did not know I possessed, killed the ape with but one incredible blow!” It almost begs to be read aloud, with lines like “it was this big!” And it works well in context.

Marv Wolfman opens the collection with a ten-issue Air Pirates of Mars storyline, while Chris Claremont almost closes it with the twelve-issue The Master Assassin of Mars. (The last issue is a one-shot written by Peter Gillis, while Wolfman and Claremont would collaborate on the third annual.) The series picks up as almost a sequel of sorts to Burroughs’ series, although there are elements of direct adaptation – with the first annual “loosely adapted” from The Ancient Dead, the first chapter of Llana of Gathol.

Here comes the science!

Chris Claremont, in particular, seems to enjoy the opportunity for good old-fashioned serialised storytelling – although that won’t be a surprise to anybody who is familiar with his Uncanny X-Men work, where threads could develop for what seemed like decades. Here, Claremont has a wonderfully pulpy tendency to open his chapters with a splash page based on the last panel from the previous installment. It lends his work a nice “previously on” vibe, as if we’re seeing the last minute of the previous adventure repeated, like we used to on the pulpy serialised Doctor Who. On the other hand, the arc tends to meander a bit, with a real strange segue early on that seems to take the adventure on a weird multiple issue tangent.

Claremont might play a bit with the comic book series’ continuity (for example, Carter encountered the Orovars in the first annual, but is surprised to see them in The Master Assassin of Mars), but he begins to craft his own in a definitive sort of way. He kills off characters, and creates new ones. The villain of his thirteen-issue epic escapes, as if being set-up to return in a year or so. Unfortunately, the series ended only one issue after that arc, soe Claremont’s run feels a little disconnected and unfinished. In a way, perhaps it’s intended to feel that way, in the same way George Lucas originally intended A New Hope to feel like a single episode in a serial viewed out of sequence.

A beast of a tale!

In fairness, the continuity’s probably the biggest problem with the series, at least early on. It seems to assume the reader is familiar with the world Burroughs created in A Princess of Mars. Notes helpfully translate the Martian world for Earth or provide a means of converting Martian units to imperial measurements, but there seems to be a lot taken for granted. The reader is just sort of thrown in and expected to pick up on the jargon associated with the fictional universe, with terms like “equilibrimotors” used without any real definition, and the history of Mars gradually explained to the reader.

In fairness to Marv Wolfman, who sets up the series with a lengthy introductory run, he does provide us with a very brief history of the lead character in the first issue. We discover, in snapshots, how John Carter of Virginia came to be John Carter of Mars, but there are some strange dependencies in place. The first villain in the series traces his roots back to the climax of Burroughs’ first adventure and, as the story unfolds, we occasionally get glimpses of John Carter’s time on Earth or discover the stories of the people who share this universe with him. While I’m sure that those familiar with Burroughs’ work will appreciate the fidelity to the fictional universe, it is more than a little bit disorienting for the new reader jumping in.

Not so fast, princess!

Of course, Wolfman and his fellow authors face a fairly significant problem in crafting follow-on tales to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ iconic hero. The simple fact is that the world has moved on since the adventures of John Carter were published. Looking back over it, it’s hard not see John Carter as a typical colonial fantasy about a white man who visits a different world, seduces their princess and imposes his own rigid morality over their ancient customs. Those are the types of stories that readers may have enjoyed in the early years of the twentieth century, but times have changed and – in fairness to Wolfman and Claremont – the writers seem to realise that.

Indeed, a lot of John Carter’s enemies here seem recognise the almost imperialist attitude of the “outworlder.” The Martian scientist Tallus conspires to destroy “the Jasoomian who had destroyed so much of Barsoom’s time-tested tradition”, as if the author concedes that Carter has imposed many of his own values on the planet. In fact, an early chapter pits Carter against another alien who has arrived on Mars, the mysterious and sinister T’rallaa, who literally feeds off the native population. Is John Carter that much different, using his natural abilities to effectively tame a wild planet?

Big green men...

Hell, Wolfman even concedes that John Carter is a product of his time, and that he can’t help but hold the imperialist and racist beliefs that were established at the time he departed our planet. One can’t help but cringe when he provides a decidedly colonial take on the continent of Africa. “On my world, there is a place called Africa,” he explains. “A dark, savage land ruled by men who eat other men.” Wolfman knows that this is absolute nonsense – it isn’t true, nor was it ever true.

However, Carter accepts it because that’s what somebody like John Carter thought at the time, using narratives and stories to justified their colonial aspirations. Speaking of a native “hoodoo”priest, Carter can’t help but paint him as a sinister force who probably needed to be replaced by more civilised men. “Again I noticed the twisted grin spread across the Hougan’s face; it was obvious he enjoyed torturing white men.”

Men aren't from Mars...

Wolfman doesn’t directly criticise his lead character, but he does make several rather pointed observations. “I thrive on action,” Carter confesses, “and times of peace try my limited patience.” That hardly sounds like a stable leader, or one suited to create a new and peaceful world. Wolfman suggests that violence is self-perpetuating cycle, a self-sustaining fantasy that John Carter willingly feeds into. On his trip to Ancient Egypt, Alexander the Great muses, “What a vicious circle it is — we needed armies to conquer enemies — now we need enemies to conquer to pay for our armies.” In that respect, it seems like Wolfman is very lightly prodding his lead character, and daring to question the morality he must hold, and to accept that he is a product of a very different time.

A lot has happened since those adventures were first published, and both Wolfman and Claremont acknowledge this. Indeed, both authors explore the fact that the character was published in a world that had yet to experience the Second World War. Claremont even titles one of his chapters Night of the Long Knives – appropriately enough about an attempted purge. As such, it’s hard to not to read the story of the secluded city of Horz as a condemnation of isolationism, as the city minds its own affairs, sitting atop troves of culture and history without any desire to engage with the other inhabitants of the planet. Wolfman goes a step further and pits Carter against a new type of imperialist, a far more sinister type of extremist determined to resurrect the “dying world.”

Stay sharp, John Carter...

The mysterious Council of Five ascribe to the science of eugenics, itself a practice that was increasingly popular during Burroughs’ time, but became far more taboo after the Second World War. “We understand that Barsoom is dying,” a loyal soldier explains. “There are not enough resources for all our people. Therefore, we will cull only the best that Barsoom has to offer. The rest will be eliminated.” The Great One (a title not too far from “The Leader”) seeks “to seed Barsoom anew.” The scheme seems to be to claim the surface from its current occupants so that it may be given to stronger and purer stock.

As Carter notes, these plans amount to nothing more than “mass genocide”, while the Great One insists that he is only trying to “rekindle” his “lost dreams”of what Mars once was – perhaps to build an empire that will last a thousand years. If Wolfman concedes that Carter might carry a hint of the imperialist tendencies of his time, and the out-dated attitudes of a turn-of-the-century gentleman, the writer is careful to juxtapose him against the more sinister excesses that this sort of thinking developed during his absence.

John Carter of Earth?

While Carter may have taken a Martian princess for his bride, he isn’t a misogynist, as the villains are shown to be. Showing Thoris some kindness, the vile Gargan immediately expects some… erm… gratitude. When she refuses, he get violent. “Are you like all the other damnable teases that have preyed on me all my life?” It’s an interesting juxtaposition, as Wolfman seeks to portray Carter as a decent man who holds some of the prejudices of his time, in contrast to actual villains displaying more sincere racist and sexist attitudes.

In contrast, Claremont adopts a slightly different approach. He offers us the suggestion that world itself has moved on, and tries to tell stories using these characters in a way that reflects the world that has evolved in the fifty years since the characters were developed. For example, he allows John Carter to introduce Tars to the concept of “guerilla warfare”, something that is a lot more relevant to a Vietnam-era audience than it would have been to a reader emerging from the Great War. Tars doesn’t necessarily adapt well to it, finding it an uncomfortable fit. “This isn’t my way of fighting, John Carter.”

Out of this world...

And, naturally, Claremont indulges some of his own passions here, giving us more pro-active female characters than fans of the original series might have been fond of. In the first few pages he wrote for the title, John Carter is apparently murdered by a female assassin. “Holy Issus, what manner of woman are you?” a guard demands. She replies, “Haven’t you guessed, Padwar? I am your death!!” Under Claremont, Dejah Thoris suddenly becomes a lot stronger and proactive. She holds her own in a sword fight with a master assassin, seeks revenge for her lover and impersonates a deadly assassin. Claremont is quite the fan of strong women, and it helps to feel like he’s updating the fictional universe for a more modern audience.

That said, one can also detect some of Claremont’s kinkier quirks in the work here, even if they aren’t developed to the extreme that we’d see in Uncanny X-Men. In the pages of The Master Assassin of Mars, we witness Thoris forced to give herself “body and soul” to another man, against her will. It recalls all those moments of mind control and slavery that Claremont seems so fond of. In fairness, however, Claremont carefully ensures that it is Thoris herself who avengers herself on the slimy Chan Tomar. Still, Claremont also gives us an annual titled Amazons of Mars!(Although that was plotted by Wolfman, and only written by Claremont.)

A solid run...

Aside from the fantastic writers, John Carter: Warlord of Mars features some truly top-tier artistic talent. Gil Kane provides a portion of the art for the first ten-issue arc, though I think Kane’s art was inked just a little bit too heavily. On the other hand,Carmine Infantino does an excellent job on a short story featuring the dead of Mars. His artwork is brilliantly evocative, and features some truly awesome double-page spreads packing some fascinatingly macabre imagery. The collection also features some pretty solid contributions from Frank Miller, Dave Cockrum and Walt Simonson. I don’t think any artist is doing career-best work, but the entire collection looks pretty nice.

I will concede, though, to being just a tiny bit disappointed with the oversized hardcover collection. It might have been nice to include an introduction from either Wolfman or Claremont, or even a brief piece contextualising the series in Marvel history. It is, after all, quite different from a collection of Uncanny X-Men. Even the letters pages from the original issues might have been nice to include, or a truncated history of Burroughs’ novels, with an appendix of useful terms (and characters). There are some nice annoted sketches by Dave Cockrum, and an interview with Wolfman shrunk to the point where it’s hard to read, but is it wrong to expect more?

A world of hurt...

John Carter: Warlord of Mars isn’t an essential collection. However, if you like you science-fantasy with a decidedly pulpy flavour, and you don’t mind a healthy portion of cheese with your escapism, it’s not a bad little set of stories. Hell, I can’t help but think that Marvel’s marketing department might have been able to give Disney a bit of advice on selling the concept to audiences. “The first and greatest hero of them all!” the cover to one issue declares, which is a selling point the movie seems afraid to embrace.

2 Responses

  1. i love this book!

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