Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review: John Carter: The Jesse Marsh Years

A few months back I reviewed the first seven issues of Marvel's John Carter: Warlord of Mars series and at the time commented that while I liked the artwork, I was lukewarm on the writing (you can read those thoughts here: . Having just finished Dark Horse Comics' new John Carter of Mars: The Jesse Marsh Years collection I feel its the opposite this time.

A little history lesson first: John Carter had previously appeared in comic strips throughout the 1930s and 40s but never really seem to catch on in the funny pages the way Edgar Rice Burroughs' other creation-Tarzan-did. But in 1952 the Dell Comics company took a shot and published as part of the long running Four Color Comics series three issues devoted to John Carter. The books were written by long time comics writer Paul S. Newman (who according to the brief bio in the book has the Guinness World Record for most prolific comics writer ever) and the artwork was by Jesse Marsh, a former Disney animator who had been drawing Dell's Tarzan and Gene Autry books. The three comics were eventually reprinted in the 1960s by Gold Key Comics under the title John Carter of Mars (probably cashing in on the paperback releases of the novels) and since has not been republished until now.

As for the stories, I'll give the books credit-their pretty faithful. The first issue-titled "The Prisoner of the Tharks"-adapts A Princess of Mars while the second issue, "The Black Pirates of Omean" adapts The Gods of Mars and the third "Tyrant of the North" Warlord of Mars. There are some real notable exceptions-John is now a Korean War veteran, some major characters do not appear (most notably Carthoris), and for some reason the major battles that end the novels are not present here-maybe it was too much work to draw several Tharks storming Zodanga or the final raid on Omean but it does leave a lot of leaping around into fliers for our heroes. Not to say the writing is always great-it is definitely of the time and has some real eye rolling dialogue (the best one? Thuvia saying "please release me, O mighty white man." Yep that's real.)

With the artwork though is the major sticking point for many. As you can tell by the cover posted above from issue 3, John runs around looking like such comic strip characters of the time like Prince Valiant or even Flash Gordon. Marsh's women also are given wacky and distracting hair styles-poor Dejah has two things sticking out of the back of her head-even though Kantos Kan gets my vote for worst hair. The Tharks also look silly in clothes and their frog like faces (and in some panels they seem to shift in size, either towering over the humans or appearing the same size.) That might seem critical and maybe its the fact that having grown up with the more realistic (or more accurately scantly clad) portrayals of Frank Frazetta, Michael Whelan or the Marvel series, some of this sticks out badly. I guess you have to put in the time frame it was drawn in when most comics did have a more cartoony look than the realism introduced a decade later by Jack Kirby and others.

In the end the book is probably going to split John Carter fans. Some will probably enjoy it and some will probably not like it for differing reasons. The presentation by Dark Horse is pretty good though-a nice hardcover binding, original covers and inside art showing the different creatures of Barsoom-and a nice introduction by Love and Rockets co-creator Marco Hernandez at least gives it an A for effort for B material.


Mike Smith said...

I'd have to agree with you here. I've never really understood why Jesse Marsh is so beloved by so many comic historians and fans. His figures have always looked so incredibly stiff and, to me anyway, look more like manikins than real people.

Although I have to say that the colorist of these old books went a little crazy. I've never seen so many different primary colors splashed on the page in such a seemingly random way. This is especially noticeable in the second and third issues.

I already have these original Dell and Gold Key comics in my collection, but it's nice to see them reprinted in such a beautiful hard cover package. I haven't yet had a chance to thoroughly read my new copy of this book, but I have looked through it from cover to cover and I have to give Dark Horse props for doing a great job putting this whole thing together. They did an especially great job reprinting that old artwork.

I must have missed your review of the old Marvel series. I'm going to have to search through your archives for it. It's been years since I've read those, but my memory of them is that I really enjoyed them at the time.

I'm hoping that the new movie will prompt Marvel, or whoever owns the rights to those old comics, to release them in bound collections of some kind. I really hate pulling out my old fragile comics for reading.

Do you remember the old DC Friends of Tarzan and Weird Worlds comics from the early 1970s? There were some interesting versions of John Carter in some of those old books as well. I haven't read them in years though. I can't remember who wrote or drew them. I may have to pull them out of my stacks and reread them one of these days.

I have a feeling many of these old comics will be rediscovered as the movie release gets closer.

MCR said...

I added a link to my review of the Marvel series above. I haven't heard anything yet about Marvel or DC republishing the older JC comics-I'm guessing that ERB Inc probably owns the reprint rigths so possibly since Dark Horse published the Marsh book and some Tarzan books its possible they'll be back in time for the movie. It would be nice to have them collected.