The latest issue of John Carter, Warlord of Mars opens on a battlefield in Manassas, Virginia; it opens on a field of blue and grey. It is a marvelous opening, one that we are not used to seeing in a science fiction superhero comicbook. Swords clash; rifles fire; horses charge; soldiers fall; flags of north and south fly in the smoky breeze.
There is violence and there is blood.
Captain Joshua Clark of Pennsylvania — soldier of the Union, defender of the nation, champion of emancipation — faces his foe, Captain John Carter of Virginia.
Carter, it seems, fights for no lofty ideals, fights neither for southern pride nor for the rights of the slaveholding aristocracy. “I would see no man in bondage. But if Virginia fights . . . so does John Carter.”
In most other cases, I would frown on this flippant excuse, reject this attempt at making a hero of a character who was on the wrong side of history, who fought so valiantly, so ferociously, for a cause that was so wrong. But in this case, I will accept it. I have a long history with John Carter, so such things can be excused.
They can be excused because, of course, it is this Virginia soldier who finds his way to Mars where he manages to do what had never before been done; he unites the tribes, connects the races, brings the nations together. John Carter, Warlord of Mars is friend to the red, the black, the yellow and the green. I know that his allegiance is to justice and, yes, to the sword.
But what if John Carter’s Earth life somehow followed him to Mars? What if the soldier in blue somehow followed the soldier in grey to his beloved Barsoom? What if the battles fought in the lush and green American South found their way to the red and barren Martian desert?
That is precisely the story that Ron Marz and Abhishek Malsuni have been telling in the latest iteration of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic character, the original superman. The familiar supporting characters are all in place: Tars Tarkas of the savage Tharks; Woola, Martian dog and loyal companion to our hero; and Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium and John Carter’s bride. And into this mix they have added this Union soldier, now the leader of an army of space faring warriors bent on conquering planet after planet and on brining vengeance upon the head of a certain Confederate captain who fights no more for Virginia but for Barsoom, for Mars.
Thus far, there is nothing especially bold or innovative in Marz’s and Malsuni’s version of the story. They stay pretty close to the original in many ways. Their story, “Invaders of Mars,” could have been written by ERB himself. There is violence and sentimentality. Our heroes seem pure and uncomplicated. The villains are malicious and evil. Bringing another Earth soldier to Mars, and making him a long-time enemy of Carter, is a new twist but one that fits well into the accepted canon of possibilities. Malsuni’s designs are true to the characters and to the planet that Burroughs created. Though, like Marz’s plot, the artwork manages the difficult task of remaining traditional and true while also being fresh and new. (Colorist Nanjan Jamberi deserves a fair amount of credit for the great look of this book: uniforms of blue and grey, skin of red and green. Wow!)
All in all, I really like what is going on here. I am a fan of Burroughs and of John Carter. I don’t need anyone to change things up to make them more appealing. And I can’t wait to see how all of this is resolved, how John Carter along with Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas, Woola, and their new companion, a great white ape, manage to save their world from the invading hordes of the Kahori and the madness and vengeance of Captain Joshua Clark, Union soldier and veteran of Manassas, and Sherman’s March, and Appomattox, and the Indian Wars.
Not that I’m worried. John Carter always wins. He can’t possibly lose — not with the armies of Thark and Helium at his back, not with a fleet of airships at his command, not with radium rifles in his armory, not with raw steel in his hand and Martian gravity in his step, not with Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas and Woola at his side.
After all, a warrior may change his metal, but not his heart.