“A Princess Of Mars,” And Other Classic Comics From The Red Planet.

Visions Of A Red Planet That Has Seen A Thousand Fictional Civilizations Rise And Fall.

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“If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature” – Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

Like Mark Watney, the unfortunate astronaut stranded on Mars in this month’s sure-fire box-office hit, it is impossible for me to depart the Red Planet – at least, not yet. 

Having explored other movies to be set on our nearest celestial neighbour, this would be a good opportunity to explore a rich assortment of Martian visions that have adorned comic pages over the past few decades. 

It’s amazing how a red planet always teems with green aliens… 

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“That’s how The League Volume II begins, with the Martian landscape and Edwin Lester Arnold’s Gullivar Jones and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, and though it’s not completely wordless, the word balloons are mostly in a Martian dialect that’s not translated on the page for us. Kevin O’Neill draws the heck out of it…” – tor.com 

The artist: Kevin O’Neill (best known for his stunning work on 2000AD’s Nemesis The Warlock), collaborated with writing legend: Alan Moore on an ambitious project in 1999 entitled: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, focussing on a band of famous characters from Victorian literature. 

Unbeknownst to me, a second volume of League adventures was published in 2002. It used H. G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds as the basis for a unique slant on the familiar Martian invasion of Earth theme. The opening few pages in which the dialogue is in Martian has just piqued my curiosity even further.

So be it: yet another tome to look out for this Christmas, methinks. 

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“There was one slight, desperate chance, [to] take… for Dejah Thoris; no man has lived who would not risk a thousand deaths for such as she” – John Carter.   

Resistance is futile.

Here is arguably the most popular fictional character associated with the Red Planet, or Barsoom as she calls it. Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, becomes the wife of  John Carter, a Virginian cavalry officer “mystically transported” to Mars.

From her introduction in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel: “A Princess Of Mars” in 1912 to her most recent appearance in Dynamite Comics, she has hardly worn anything more than a tiara, breast ornaments and some strategically-placed jewellery. Traditionally, the typical damsel who lies at the feet of the Earthman, the late ’70s Marvel Comics run portrayed her in a more feisty and fearsome light, showing her deft capabilities with both swords and blasters.

Thou shalt not underestimate a lass who has thwarted the Comics Code Authority as well as disposable alien adversaries for so long… 

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“Nonsense! I like Chocos, certainly. What is not to like?” – Martian Manhunter.

And then there is Martian Manhunter, a stalwart of DC Comics’ The Justice League. J’onn J’onzz hailed from what he called: “Ma’aleca’andra.” Created by writer Joseph Samachson and artist Joe Certa, this heavily-built and bald-headed green-skinned hero – the last surviving member of his race – made his debut in Detective Comics #225 “The Manhunter from Mars” in November 1955. 

My main introduction to this mighty emerald fella was in my all-time fave DC series – a  positively mind-blowing four-parter series from 1988 entitled: The Weird (this will receive its own forthcoming Post!) where the titular alien – newly arrived on Earth – proceeds to shove Martian Manhunter out of one comic panel and into the next. Not a wise move!

These days, he appears to have had a radical makeover; his humanoid physicality ditched for a suitably more imposing “Martian” look. Although now he runs the risk of being mistaken for Tars Tarkas: John Carter’s main Thark comrade.

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“Watchmen wasn’t about a bunch of slightly dark superheroes in a slightly dark version of our modern world. It was about the storytelling techniques, and… the range of what it was possible to do in comics” – Alan Moore. 

How can anyone discuss comic art in relation to Mars and not mention Watchmen? Written by the legendary Alan Moore, with art by the iconic Dave Gibbons, this superhero classic graces TIME magazine’s 100 Greatest Novels Of All Tine and rightly so. 

Dr. Manhattan, the Superman of the Alternate Earth of 1985, exiles himself on Mars after the (ultimately false) accusation that the “accident” in 1959 – vapourised inside the intrinsic field test chamber of his lab – is the direct cause of the cancer diagnosed in his closest work colleagues. He brings companion, Laurie Juspeczyk – the second Silk Spectre – to Mars to help him decide whether to continue intervening in Earthly matters. 

So, where else in this galaxy can a “posthuman god” go to contemplate his commitment to saving the human race?

…Or a superheroine to receive the revelation of who her real father is? 

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“A world grows up around me. Am I shaping it, or do its predetermined contours guide my hand? …Who makes the world?” – Dr. Manhattan.

Here are a few more examples of Martian comic art. The range of quality and quantity of comics connected to the fourth planet is staggering.

The mere handful selected for this Post alone demonstrates what an overwhelming inspiration the endless mysteries of Mars have been to generations of comic book creators.

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“Growing up, I think I went to Mars more often than Manhattan… a land of strange and savage beasts (Thoats! Tharks! Sandmice!), whispering winds, towering mountains… and crumbling porcelain cities where mystery and adventure lurked around every corner” – George RR Martin. 

Finally, rather than end this Post with a shameful gallery celebrating the form of Dejah Thoris, here, instead, are excerpts from a rather splendid classic strip from the September 1958 issue (no. 3) of Race For The Moon.  

This particular story was drawn – and most likely written – by another great comics legend: Jack Kirby. Interestingly, this “Face On Mars” predates the notorious oft-published photograph of the Face of Cydonia by 18 years. 

It’s best to let the sheer awesomeness of the following pages speak for themselves…

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“Get your ass to Mars!” 

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Cheers!

Fifty Years On Arrakis: The Source Of The Spice

The spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe, a desolate dry planet. 

The planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune.

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“Deep in the human unconsciousness is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic” – Frank Herbert. 

“These waves [of sand] can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave,” Frank Herbert – then a freelance writer concentrating on ecological matters – stated in one article pitch during 1959. He was referring to the sand dunes of Florence, Oregon, and the relentless way they shifted eastwards, “pushed by strong winds off the Pacific.” 

His interest in this topic led to research into deserts and desert cultures, eventually inspiring him to draft two short novels, serialised in Analog Science Fact & Fiction. He later reworked the material into a single volume, which has led some critics – even this year: the fiftieth anniversary of its initial publication – hailing it as the finest science fiction novel of all time.

In the far future – the actual year consists of five digits – Arrakis is the only known planet to produce the most precious substance in the universe: the spice melange. 

The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness.

It also induces an “enhanced space-time perception”; aliens known as the Guild Navigators use the orange spice gas to fold space, thus travelling to any point in the universe without moving. 

It is highly addictive, capable – after ingestion – of turning the eyes of any user a deep blue. Spice mining comes with the major hazard of attracting colossal sandworms about several hundred metres in length. This most prized commodity is integral in maintaining the transport, supply and communication networks of Shaddam IV’s Empire. 

Paul Atreides: son of Duke Leto of the House of (the somewhat-Homeric) Atreides turns out to be their messianic leader: Muad’Dib, as foretold in ancient prophecies. Endeavouring to irrigate the deserts and regenerate the planet’s life-system, he sets out with his band of Fremen warriors – an indigenous nomadic race – to halt all spice production on Arrakis. 

Essentially, Herbert was promoting environmental awareness long before it ensnared mainstream sensitivities.

DUNE VI by HR Giger
DUNE VI by HR Giger
Character designs for Jodorowsky's Dune, created by French artist: Moebius.
Character designs for Jodorowsky’s Dune, created by French artist: Moebius.

“The way in which ecological relationships are made to stand for supernatural ones makes Dune one of the archetypal examples of fashionable ecological mysticism, and this may help to explain its great popularity” – Brian Stableford. 

There are strong hints of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars fantasies and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga, as well as touches of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman space operas in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Having studied Jung, Herbert met, in 1960, Alan Watts, a prominent advocate of Zen philosophy. “Long conversations” ensued. The basic sci-fi premise, distant in both time and space, gradually appropriated deeper, temporal, psychological and spiritual dimensions.

At some point this Winter, one challenge on my list is to watch Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013): a critically acclaimed documentary about the greatest SF cinema masterpiece never made. It would have made for a formidable production: both HR Giger and Moebius provided concept art; Orson Welles and Salvador Dali were persuaded to take prominent roles; and Pink Floyd would provide the soundtrack. 

Instead, we have David Lynch’s opus, (in)famous primarily for dividing critics and fans. Having completed a version several hours in length, the producer Dino De Laurentis wanted it cut down to just two. Lynch baulked at the idea and protested to have his name removed from the final print. Some regard this huge box office disaster as the Worst Film of 1984. 

No matter what the detractors of Lynch’s film might say about it, its visual effects – particularly its assortment of matte paintings – creature and costume design, some ornate sets, plus Lynch’s own distinctive surreal touches, make it, for me, a quite engaging spectacle.

It is ironic to think that not only did Jodorowsky’s Dune fail to get off the ground, but the original Dune novel almost never materialised at all neither! Firstly, 400 pages in Hardback, and then a whopping great flopping paperback tome of 900 pages, this is when publishing houses preferred brevity above all.  Nevertheless, it won the Hugo Award in 1966, and the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. 

Not surprisingly, Herbert had to deal with twenty rejections before his hefty manuscript was eventually accepted in 1965 by Chilton, a Philadelphia-based trade and hobby magazines publisher – home of the unsurpassable Dry Goods Economist(!)

A HD still from the 1984 film, featuring one of Albert Whitlock's finest matte paintings.
A HD still from the 1984 film, featuring one of Albert Whitlock’s finest matte paintings.

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“Paul Atreides is a young white man who fulfils a persistent colonial fantasy, that of becoming a God-king to a tribal people. Herbert’s portrayal of the ‘Fremen’ owes much to TE Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger’s enthusiastic portrayals of the Bedouin of Arabia’s Empty Quarter” – Hari Kunzru. 

In my horde of dust-gathering SF novels, there is Children of Dune, the third volume in the series, which just happened to be (back then) a rather laborious slog. It had failed to inspire me to read the original, but now – in this half-century anniversary year, and now blessed with a more sensible stock of patience and maturity – it would be appropriate to finally catch up with it, and assess for myself whether the “greatest SF novel ever” tag is warranted.

Herbert’s incorporation of Bedouin traits into the Fremen culture – even the use of such terms as razzia, bourka robes and jihad – holds more potency now in 2015 than it ever did in 1965. 

On a personal level, there is something irresistible about desert planets in sci-fi. Perhaps Tatooine in Star Wars – blatantly inspired by Arrakis – got there first. Look at Uncle Owen’s moisture farm: ripped straight from Herbert’s ecological leanings. The desolate terrains vividly – and colourfully – designed by such iconic artists as Eddie Jones and Peter Andrew Jones remain particular favourites. Yet no matter how individualistic those visions were, there is something about these desert scenes that will always link back psychologically to Frank Herbert’s Dune. 

In the original novel, the First Planetologist of Dune, named Kynes (incidentally the main protagonist of the very first draft) pondered this:

“Beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase… The question is not how many can possibly survive within [the planetary ecosystem], but what kind of existence is possible for those who survive?”  

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The Gung-Ho Iguana And Other “Strange Friends”

Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada. 

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“Terrific. I’m about to get killed a million miles from nowhere with a gung-ho iguana who tells me to relax” – Alex Rogan.

Aeons ago, when my very first science fiction stories were written, aliens played vitally important roles – some were integral supporting characters; a select few even played the lead. For me, what extraterrestrials said or did usually held vastly greater significance than anything humans got up to.

In that far-flung past, before the www. and even DVDs (and Blu-ray – whatever that is), thrill-seeking goonies like me had to get their SF fix from renting VHS tapes. Some of my all-time favourite movies were originally viewed via this invaluable medium; all the walking, talking, hilarious, fearsome and painful aliens one could wish for whirred and clicked their weird and wonderful way through my weary, long-suffering VCR. These otherworldly characters had more immediate impact than anything uttered by any tedious Terran. 

So, these are the strange “companions” who not only thrilled and entertained me, but compelled me to create my own marvelous menagerie of cosmic characters.

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“Science fiction aliens are both metaphors and real possibilities… Aliens may represent hopeful, compensatory images of the strange friends we have been unable to find” – Gary Westfahl.

One of the most important videos ever rented had to be The Last Starfighter (1984), the magical tale of young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) recruited to fight in a galactic war because he showed all the right skills necessary… by playing a video game in “some flea-speck trailer park in the middle of tumbleweeds and tarantulas.” 

It was supposed to herald a new age in special effects, but its computerized graphics look hopelessly outdated by today’s relentlessly sophisticated standards. Nonetheless, it holds more timeless charm and traditional storytelling methods than most of the CGI-drenched pap we have to contend with nowadays.

This was due, to a certain extent, to the amazing, dependable Grig (Dan O’Herlihy) Alex’s charismatic pilot who helped explain and drive the plot as well as providing a few comic moments. Unlike most reptilians, here was a swell dude who didn’t deserve to get suspended in any xenon mist – one of the best (benevolent) aliens in SF movies:

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“…Virginia fights for us! He will fight the Torquas in the south. The Warhoons in the north! And he will be called Dotar Sojat! “My right arms”!” – Tars Tarkas.  

In my earliest days of printed sci-fi (over)consumption, there was no way to resist the bizarre imagery and sheer escapism conjured by Edgar Rice Burroughs, when he chronicled the adventures of John Carter: a Civil War veteran from Virginia, mysteriously transported to the planet of Barsoom (Mars).

In the very first novel: A Princess of Mars (first published in 1917), he would meet what became – quite literally – my favourite Martian: Tars Tarkas, Jeddak (chief) of the Tharks – those doughty, green-skinned, 7-foot tall, 6-limbed warriors of the red planet.

Incidentally, as far as subsequent research has shown, it would appear that Tars Tarkas – imbued with an ironic sense of humour and painful memories of a past romance – could well be the very first individual, talking, thinking extraterrestrial being in (science) fiction!

For ages, a major movie production of John Carter of Mars had been mooted for some time, but it took ages until a sufficient level of sfx to successfully render the Tharks could be attained. Typically, the movie went to all that trouble of getting the movements and mannerisms of the Tharks just right, but failed to animate the human characters…

Who did this fanboy envisage providing the voice for Tars Tarkas?

Why, Willem Defoe, of course! And guess what? The makers shared the same vision – great! 

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“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him” – Project Leader.  

The most obvious candidate for best friend from beyond the stars has to be everybody’s favourite mentor: Yoda, but so many blogs have been written about him already.

Instead, on a personal note, honorary mention must go to the spindly-limbed Alien Ambassador from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Although he appeared for the briefest of moments – with his endearing smile and accompanied by John Williams’ cute incidental music – that pint-sized traveller captivated many hearts (of my generation at least). It’s a shame he never spoke – we were all left to speculate what he would/could have said. Even The Special Edition – released three years laterfailed to add any precious further insights.

When Spielberg’s E.T. came out in 1982 – (then) becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time – this lil piggy stayed at home – i.e. didn’t want to sit through such an overlong treacly spectacle which featured a “much more ugly muppet.” It was decided then: return my attention to the more malevolent, antagonistic bug-eyed beasties so rampant and commonplace in mainstream sci-fi!

Yet all the time, my mind kept drifting back to that Ambassadorwhat a cool friend he would have made; at that time, we would have shared the same height… as well as plenty of outlandish stories and all sorts of other cool stuff; explored distant worlds together; and exchanged candy no doubt!

Brad would have gone where no infant-sci-fi-eater had gone before. But alas…

He would never learn that alien’s name. 

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“Take up a cause, fall in love, write a book!” – John Carter.

Cheers!