Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review of Marvel John Carter comic books

The publicity machine for the forthcoming John Carter movie is rumbling into life now, and up at the forefront are Marvel Comics, with two very different takes on the property.

First up is John Carter: A Princess of Mars, and this really is something special. Beneath a striking cover by Skottie Young we are plunged without preamble straight into the world of Barsoom, where a captive John Carter is facing a brutal interrogation by the imposing Green Martian warriors, the Tharks. Able to understand everything he hears, but strangely unable to make the Tharks understand him, Carter is bloodied, disorientated and a veritable fish out of water, but with an undeniable inner strength that sustains him bravely in the face of such adversity. Writer Roger Langridge really gets Carter, and while he plays fast and loose with the dialogue, he does the material no disservice, offering up a remarkably assured first issue that is just the right blend of reverential and irreverent. “Get your filthy paws off me, you damn dirty lizards!” proclaims Carter, channelling Charlton Heston for all he is worth in loin cloth and rippling biceps. (Wow, how cool would a John Carter movie starring Charlton Heston have been?)

It would have been interesting to see what Skottie Young would have made of the story had he been offered the interior pages as well, but then we’d have been denied the stunning interior art by Filipe Andrade. Andrade fills his pages with panel after panel of breathtaking dynamic action, and with vibrant colours by Sunny Gho, this is a Mars that looks and feels the part, all burnt orange skies, parched dusty deserts and sun baked citadels. The plot moves briskly, with the necessary exposition skilfully woven in and some marvellous set pieces, not least Carter’s run in with the White Apes of Mars and his first glimpse of Dejah Thoris which crowns the issue; somewhat more clothed than you might expect given the source material (hey, it is a Disney film) but every bit the haughty (if not quite so naughty) Martian Princess.

Adapting a well known property always runs the risk of telling the obvious in slavishly boring fashion, or so losing sight of the heart and soul of the story that you may as well call it something else, but this comic crosses that tightrope while juggling balls and riding a unicycle, it’s that assured and cocksure of itself.

I’m not really clear if Princess of Mars is intended as an actual adaptation of the movie in any sense (it certainly doesn’t fit with the movie trailer so I’m thinking not) but John Carter: World of Mars is clearly labelled as an official prequel to the movie, so no room for doubt there. This is a very different beast to Princess of Mars, with art that is much more realistic in tone and with characters recognisably based on their movie personas. We begin straight away on Mars, where we find John Carter and Dejah Thoris deep in conversation. Dejah believes John still has much to learn about the past of Mars and offers to tell the tale, but Dejah is not the only “person” with a tale to tell, for Carter also counts among his Martian friends the Thark warlord Tar Tarkas, and he too has something to teach of the past of Mars. Weaving these two strands together, writer Peter David and artist Luke Ross take us into the dark heart of the thousand year old war between the city states of Helium and Zodanga.

This then is a departure from the original novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, though if this first issue is any indication, quite an interesting one. Much of the action is set in Zodanga, where we meet its ruler and his impetuous and obnoxious son Sab Than, who is chafing at the indignity of playing second fiddle to his father. Exiled for his lack of anger management, Sab Than sees an opportunity to make his mark by carrying out a daring one man raid on Helium, with the Princess Dejah Thoris firmly in his sights.

I’m not quite as taken by this vision of Barsoom. Esad Ribic’s cover is, like that for Princess of Mars by Skottie Young, a significant departure from the art within, and again you have to wonder how this book would have looked had he worked on the interiors as well. Luckily, the interior art by Ross is superb, with some of the big splash pages sumptuous in their detail, especially his depiction of the indigenous Martian lifeforms, which are nothing short of remarkable. I’m less keen on those scenes set in the gloomy fortress of Zodanga, which look a little too much for my tastes like something out of the Stargate television series, which for me is a bad thing as that show always wound me up the wrong way. I could never figure out why people with a high technology would want to spend all their time in drafty looking stone citadels. I know, it’s meant to be a dying and ancient world, and that’s how the original novels portrayed it, but it’s all a bit too much Erich von Daniken for my taste, and I must say, a little bit plodding. But I’ll certainly give the 2nd issue a go. I think that now David has set up the basic story, future instalments may pour on the coal and we’ll have more Barsoom for our buck.