Monday, June 4, 2012

Visions of Barsoom

It's too bad John Carter of Mars is bombing so spectacularly. The folks I've spoken with who have seen it liked it, and wouldn't mind sequels at all. The fault seems to be with the execution of the ad campaign rather than that of the film itself, and that's particularly disappointing. While I haven't seen it myself, I intend to and expect to enjoy it -- but we'll see.

The hub-bub surrounding the film's release made me think about how I envisioned Burrough's Barsoom, and why. I discovered Burroughs in the early 1960s through the paperback reprints released by Ace and Ballantine Books. I read the two editions interchangeably, but they had distinctly different cover art approaches, and both of them made major impressions on how I saw the world. The covers on the two competing editions of A Fighting Man of Mars probably illustrate this best.

This is the Ballantine Books paperback cover of the novel. Once I saw this cover, I always  envisioned the flying ships of Barsoom exactly this way -- flat and beamy teardrop-shaped vessels sprouting guns and with boarding parties sheltering behind the gunwales. The small flyers, each with a single fixed forward-firing radium cannon, also seemed to match Burroughs description to a tee. The ships were so important to Barsoom that I find it interesting Ace never provided a detailed look at them, but it was probably just as well. This image from the Ballantine edition was so powerful, I probably wouldn't have bought into another.

Instead, Ace concentrated on the people, and the Ace cover of A Fighting Man of Mars was without a doubt exactly how I envisions Red Martians, but not simply the Martians themselves. This is also how I imagined the city of Helium: the ancient spires, the twin moons in the night sky, the rooftop palace gardens -- seemingly peaceful but so often the scene of intrigue and violence. The subtitle of the Ace edition said so much: Hidden Menace on the Red Planet.

Images have enormous lasting power. No graphic novel or film treatment to date has been able to supplant these two visions of Barsoom, at least for me. I don't know to what extent this is a product of the inherent power of these two visions of the world, or to what extent it was due to these interpretations being the first I saw. But I suspect that, had the images been weaker, they would not have left so powerful and indelible an impression.


  1. The only good thing about the movies poor performance in the theaters is it will be out on DVD all the faster.

    I'm with you on the power of book cover art
    to set a theme and provide a long lasting impression. I think of all the great Frank Frazetta art that has done it for me! I do
    think however, that it is also a generational
    phenomenon, all we had coming up was books
    and movie posters with the very rare TV show
    on fantasy/sci-fi settings to latch on to.
    With the net there are so many more visual options (a good thing mind you) so there may
    never again be the only iconic image.

    1. Don, that's an interesting question -- has the proliferation of strong imagery diluted its impact? I don't know, but I bet there has been some work done on coming up with an answer. My inclination is to believe that the quantity of brand imagery available serves more to raise the bar than to really dilute the effect of genuinely strong images. There has been a marked increase in the level of craft in art, but I don't know that there has been much of an increase in the artistry. Powerful images gain their power mostly from their uniqueness and originality rather than their quantity .At Least I think so.

  2. Frank, I highly recommend you go see the move in the theater. I can't vouch for the 3-D version, but 2-D worked fine for me.

    Around here, it is out of the main theater, but I was able to catch it for a second time at the second run theater ($2 a seat!).

    I have been a John Carter fan since I was young, which is one of the reasons Space:1889 has such an appeal for me.

    Although there were some things about the movie I disagreed with, I felt is was a reasonable telling of A Princess of Mars.

    The DVD is being released tomorrow (June 5th) and I will certainly purchase a copy.

    The version of the Barsoom tales that I have feature the Whelan covers.


    1. Elderac, I'll definitely pick up the DVD and I would like to catch it in the theater. I've just been a little busy lately. :^)

  3. I came to John Carter latter but cover art has had its influence on me as well. I bought my first copy of StarShip Troopers based on the cover at. It was the early 1980s release of the trooper in his armored suit. I knew I had to buy it at the Naval Exchange than and there and I was not let down.

    1. I understand why the film version changed the starship troopers from a small group of heavily armored triarii to a large mass of lightly armored velites, but I don't think it was the right call. Too much of the mystique of the story was centered around the characters being, in essence, one man armies, and I think that's what was captivating about those cover images.