Saturday on Barsoom

I'm a bit out-of-step again this week. I guess while most comics folks were talking about J'onn J'onnz, I was distracted by a different Martian entirely.

I've already done a couple of columns about Tarzan, but I'm also a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs' other works -- particularly his Mars stories.

John Carter, the Civil War veteran and adventurer who is mysteriously transported to the barbaric civilization of Mars, isn't as compelling a creation as Tarzan; in point of fact, in many cases Carter acts like an arrogant jerk throughout the course of the novels. But Burroughs was on to something here anyway... in this instance, it's not the character but the milieu that sells the series. The star of the books is Mars itself, or "Barsoom" as Burroughs calls it.

Carter only stars in about four or five of the Mars novels... the others chronicle the adventures of the various members of Carter's family, or even of other characters entirely. The important thing is the exotic setting of Mars. Burroughs has a fine old time inventing an entire civilization and populating it with whatever weird creatures and peoples he can dream up. He went on to do much the same thing in his Venus and Pellucidar series, but I don't think he ever did it as well as he did on Barsoom. I still think Tarzan of the Apes and its followup, The Return of Tarzan, are probably Edgar Rice Burroughs' best novels; but Mars is to my mind the best series, he had the highest sustained quality there.

Not too long ago, I was able to track down a couple of books I'd been wanting a while; the 1970's Book Club editions of the Mars novels, illustrated by Frank Frazetta.

These books are fun to have just as artifacts. Now, normally, collectors sneer at Book Club editions, and with some cause; but these were specially-commissioned editions for Doubleday's Science Fiction Book Club imprint, they never appeared anywhere else ("Not available in stores!") and Frazetta did several interior illos for each book, as well.

The first in the series, A Princess of Mars, appeared by itself -- the remainder of the series were done as doubles, two novels in each volume.

Each with a gorgeous Frazetta cover and several pen-and-ink interiors.

The first five books are by Frazetta, that is; the sixth and final one, the joker in the deck, was not. It was illustrated by Richard Corben, but otherwise the format is the same.

I'm not sure why the change was made; I have to assume it was something to do with availability. Frazetta was booked pretty solid through 1972-1975 or so, which was when these were issued.

Finding these was a real treat. I am something of a bibliophile and a rare-book guy, at least to the limit that a part-time schoolteacher's income allows. (I think a lot of comics fans are -- in all my years around funnybooks, I hardly ever have met anyone that is not at least partly a collector as well as a reader and fan. There's a kind of fun to be had in the hunt, and in the simple pleasure of finally owning something that was hard to track down.)

Anyway, these editions are always on my short-list of Things To Look Out For when my wife and I are nosing around garage sales and flea markets and the like. This last week I managed to nab two more, which gives me four of the six. (Sure, I could just eBay them or order them online --if I wanted to pay gouger's prices, that is-- but what fun is that?)

Rereading them, I was reminded how much I really love Edgar Rice Burroughs books in general and the Mars ones in particular, and what a damned shame it is that no one seems to be able to make a real go of the comics version.


My initial acquaintance with Burroughs was largely fueled by comics, as I've said before. I first encountered the literary Tarzan in his Gold Key incarnation, and later I became a fan of the novels when I saw the re-issued Ballantine editions with the breathtaking Neal Adams covers.

Those books are becoming sought-after collector's items as well, these days. In fact, one of the interesting things I've learned writing this column the last couple of years is that among collectors, almost all the paperback illustrators have a following. For example, he's not my favorite, but the Ballantine paperback editions of the Mars books that have the covers by Bob Abbett are highly sought-after.

Seriously. These go for prices you wouldn't believe on eBay and elsewhere. (I think it's because Abbett went on to become one of the great Western illustrators, the Burroughs connection is incidental.)

As it happens, though, my visualization of Burroughs' Mars was shaped not by Bob Abbett or even Frank Frazetta -- it was this guy. Simply because these were the editions that were on the shelf next to the Neal Adams Tarzan.

Even though these illustrations aren't nearly as dynamic as Adams or Frazetta's, I really like them. I suppose a lot of it is just that these were my first exposure to the books. Still, somehow, these paintings feel more accurate, more faithful to the text, than other illustrators' versions do to me. These look like they really are happening on the Mars that Edgar Rice Burroughs described; it's their very lack of exaggeration that endears them so to me.

I wondered for years who this painter was... I never seemed to see his work anywhere else, and he wasn't one of the usual spinner-rack suspects like Fred Pfeiffer or George Wilson or Robert McGinnis or any of those guys. I finally discovered it was an Italian artist named Gino d'Achille; these 1973 editions of the Mars books were his big Stateside break, as it turned out. He went on to do a number of SF covers for DAW books, as well as some highly regarded covers for the Flashman series.

...but I'm getting sidetracked. The point is, much as the Adams covers helped to sell me on Tarzan, so did Gino d'Achille's careful renderings help to sell me on Barsoom. I soon went through all the books, with my favorites being A Fighting Man of Mars and The Chessmen of Mars (neither of which star John Carter, as it happens.)

Part of the charm of Burroughs' Barsoomian work is that it was a lot easier for me, at fourteen, to get up to speed; certainly compared to the mountain of Tarzan stuff to choose from. For some reason Barsoom never got the kind of traction in other media that Tarzan did. There were brief stabs at a comics version by John Coleman Burroughs.

First in The Funnies in the 1940's, and also in newspaper syndication.

Dark Horse reprinted a number of these strips as backups in its four-issue miniseries Tarzan: The Lost Adventure, published in the 1990's.

As far as I know they haven't been collected anywhere else. (At least in print -- there are a number of them archived online at ERB-Zine, which is where I stole this from.)

There was also a brief adaptation of the first three Burroughs books in Dell's Four-Color, later reprinted by Gold Key as simply John Carter of Mars.

The art was by Jesse Marsh, with the scripting from Dell workhorse Gaylord DuBois. The only really noteworthy change DuBois made in his adaptation was changing Carter from a Civil War veteran to a more contemporary Korean War veteran, but otherwise this was a fairly straightforward adaptation.

After Dell/Gold Key lost the rights to do Burroughs comics, the property went to DC. When DC was doing their version of Tarzan, they capitalized on it by launching other Burroughs tie-ins. John Carter appeared in Weird Worlds, from Marv Wolfman and Murphy Anderson.

Sadly, Weird Worlds only went ten issues, and Carter only made it into about seven of them.

Some of this stuff was later reprinted in DC's Tarzan Family, but that was all. Except for Tarzan, none of DC's Burroughs-inspired adventure books ever really took off.

And that was it. As far as American comic books were concerned, Marvel had pretty much a clean slate in front of them when they premiered their mid-70's version of John Carter and Barsoom.

I had read all the novels by the time this came out and I was thrilled to see it -- more so, even, than I was to see the Thomas-Buscema Tarzan that rolled out at the same time, though I quite liked that one too.

The hell of it was, in those long-ago days before comics shops, it was touch and go just finding the goddamn thing on the racks. Marv Wolfman (yes, again!) and Gil Kane had embarked on a long multi-part epic, "The Air Pirates of Mars," and though I loved everything I saw, I could never seem to stay on top of it. I gather this was a problem for a lot of other fans, as well, and I imagine it hurt sales on the book... though it ran 28 issues and three Annuals.

I'm told that it wasn't a sales issue that killed the book, though. There were also difficulties with the Burroughs estate. Roy Thomas has gone on record several times about what an enormous pain the Burroughs licensing liaison person was while Thomas was doing Tarzan, and Mark Evanier has also alluded to clashes with the Burroughs estate during the different times he worked on Tarzan properties. And Wolfman was doing original stories for John Carter, not adaptations, which I imagine would compound the problem.

Nevertheless, Wolfman and Kane, as well as later talents like Chris Claremont and Alan Weiss, all did a really nice job on the Marvel John Carter. It's a pity it didn't last, and it's a crime that it's never been collected in all the years since. Surely an Essential is at least possible. After all, if Marvel could cut a deal with Toho to reprint Godzilla it's not unreasonable that somehow something could be brokered among the various parties for a Warlord of Mars collection.

As far as I know, except for one little crossover mini-series from Dark Horse featuring Tarzan on Mars, that's all there is of comics about Barsoom.

....well, technically, you have to count the Czech newspaper-strip version as well.

...and the British strips from the fifties.

But that's really all there is.

I have never understood why, especially given the success of Conan in comics over the years. You'd think it'd be an easy sell.

On the other hand, given the recent renaissance of Conan over at Dark Horse, maybe someone will try again soon. Given the recent news about a Princess of Mars film in the works from Pixar, I'd think some kind of a comic book would almost be a certainty. Maybe then someone will finally at least collect the Wolfman/Kane Marvel stories.

I can dream, anyway. Maybe if the Powers That Be (I'm not even sure who has the rights at this point -- Marvel or Dark Horse) see that there's a demand.... after all, the Champions trade collections sold, for crying out loud. I know Burroughs and Barsoom has a bigger fanbase than THAT. At least, I'd hope so.

See you next week.

nightwing batman court of owls
Nightwing Just Joined [SPOILER] and Could Become Batman's Greatest Foe

More in Comics