“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!

Return To Mars: Why The Red Planet Fascinates Us So Much

No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own…

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“We can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space” – H G Wells.

Allegedly straight lines on the equator of Mars were first termed: “canali” (canals) by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who observed and illustrated them in 1877. Even Percival Lowell – the esteemed astronomer who discovered Pluto – weighed into the controversy, claiming that the canals could only be “the work of some sort of intelligent beings.” 

For any canal to be visible from the Earth, the notion of engineering involving extremely implausible Amazonion proportions only fuelled the Martian-believers hopes even more. Such a gargantuan feat of engineering could only be the work of a highly sophisticated race.

By the time the far-fetched canals of Mars theory could be scotched, it was far too late. An enthusiastic and optimistic Victorian society had accepted the prospect of galactic neighbours, albeit with some considerable trepidation. From this age of astronomic madness emerged one of the enduring classics of science fiction. The War of the Worlds was first published in Pearson’s magazine in the Spring of 1897.

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“I had a dream aboutman. He is not from our world. He came down from the sky and spoke to me. He said we are from the third planet… We come from Earth” – Ylla.  

“They live in a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars, by the edge of an empty sea. In the evenings, when the Fossil Sea’s warm and motionless, Mr. K sits in his room, listening to his book.” 

So says the narrator over the 1980 TV adaptation of The Martian Chronicles: my introduction to the impressive work of Ray Bradbury; also, it marked the first time that Mars made an impression on me.

It was memorable for being so downright creepy. The theme music was unforgettable. Reviewing it thirty years later, the poor special effects look more dire than ever. However, the screenplay by Richard Matheson is still quite affecting even now. Perhaps the most outstanding scene ever to take place on Mars can be seen here. It is a brief, yet magical, moment – one of my all-time faves.

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“There’s what they call the ‘Mars curse’ in the movie industry. I think the last time there was a significant commercial success that took place on Mars was Total Recall” – Andy Weir.   

Ever since, though, it has been difficult to find that many films relating to Mars that are actually worth sitting through. Oddly enough, the first two Mars-related movies that spring to mind are the eerie Invaders From Mars (1953) and the hilarious Mars Attacks! (1996) but these two classics deal with the Martians on Earth. 

One of the earliest film forays onto the red planet was the distinctly baffling Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which featured Adam (Batman) West. It is one of those obscure 60s oddballs that – let’s face ithasn’t been mentioned anywhere else in the blogosphere all this month. Here is the trailer in case you were wondering whether such a bizarro movie exists!

Total Recall (1990) was based on a 1966 short story: “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. This Paul Verhoeven-directed sci-fi action adventure pic starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a construction worker who learns that his life is merely an implanted memory, and must travel to Mars to learn the truth. The movie became intriguing once it revealed subterranean engineering works constructed by a long-since-vanished alien civilization.

2000 was a diabolical year for movies set on Mars. Both Mission To Mars and Red Planet proved to be critical and commercial flops. For the purposes of this Post, the former was selected for a viewing mainly because Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins seemed like a less sufferable option than Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore. 

It all started so well: we get acquainted with the mission’s personnel at a back garden barbecue while Zydaco music plays over the opening credits. Poor Don Cheadle: while investigating an abnormal feature in Cydonia, his crew are wiped out and he has to fend for himself on the red planet for a whole year before the aforementioned pair can come and rescue him. Hmm, he did well cultivating plants and a formidable beard; he could teach Matt Damon a thing or two. Rather than create a gripping adventure, the film sinks into a botched and far-fetched denouement. Surprisingly, the score was composed by the one and only Ennio Morricone, but for once, his sweeping strings do not fit, or lift, these insipid images.

Then, of course, 2011 brought the most disastrous animated movie ever: Mars Needs Moms. There is absolutely no reason to sully this finely cultivated blog by analyzing this crap, but you can’t help wondering who pitched this disturbing premise: mother abduction as family entertainment. And how did it get accepted?!  

In view of this appalling track record, by the time John Carter of Mars (my particular favourite Mars movie) was brought to the big screen in 2012, the “of Mars” segment of the title was dropped, most likely to avert the dire repurcussions of the Mars curse. Nobody knew who John Carter was – it bombed anyway. 

So, next week we will know if Ridley Scott has redeemed his career and successfully banished the curse of those movies to be set on Mars. 

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A “map” of Mars created by Eugene Antoniadi in 1894.

Cheers!