Edgar Rice Burroughs gave us heroes. He gave us worlds.
I read his tales when I was a child. I have read and re-read them countless times through the years. They are rushed and carelessly executed. The plots are driven by coincidence and twists of fate. In the days when pulp magazines filled every corner newsstand, their cheap paper pages were chock-full of stories cheaply told. Burroughs was paid by the word and it shows. His tales are trash, disposable, embarrassing. But I can’t quit them, won’t quit them.
He gave us heroes; he gave us worlds.
The tales of John Carter of Mars are his best. There’s no doubt about that. First appearing in 1912, Burroughs’ Carter was a veteran of the Confederate army and a prospector in the old west. After he was mysteriously transported to the red and dying planet Mars – to Barsoom – he became much more: a destroyer of dangerous superstitions, a liberator of the oppressed, a uniter of nations, a Warlord of Mars. He could leap into the air like Superman and swing a deadly blade. He united the races of Mars: the red and the green and the black and the white. He fought beside Tars Tarkas of the green and monstrous Tharks and beside Dejah Thoris, his bride, of the noble, yet savage, red race of Helium. John Carter and his adopted planet of Mars are Burroughs’ greatest creations.
Second to John Carter are Burroughs’ tales of Tarzan; indeed, they are a close second, in time as well as in greatness. Burroughs’ Tarzan is orphaned as in infant on the shores of Africa then raised by apes to become Lord of the Jungle. Tarzan rode on the back of mighty Tantor and battled ferocious beasts and men. He returned to civilization to assume the mantle of Lord Greystoke, but his home, like his heart, was ever in Africa. He found lost cities of gold. He freed the captives and brought justice to the jungle. He dined with kings and made warm and bloody meals from animals slain with no weapons other than his rope and his knife.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Tarzan is a better character than John Carter. But his jungle can never compare to the wonders of Barsoom, to the majesty of Mars. (If only he had been allowed to visit! John Carter and Tarzan together on Mars! I shudder to think what Burroughs could have made of such a tale.)
The Warlord of Mars
Third, behind John Carter and Tarzan, are Burroughs’ stories of Pellucidar, that prehistoric and wondrous land at the center of the Earth. Pellucidar first appeared in the story called At the Earth’s Core which unfolded weekly during the month of April, 1914, in the pages of the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. “A New Burroughs Romance”: the cover boldly declared. In the story, David Innes and eccentric inventor Abner Perry piloted the Iron Mole through the crust of the Earth to its hollow center and the mesmerizingly beautiful and incredibly dangerous land of Pellucidar. David fell in love with Dian the Beautiful and battled the evil Mahars and their Sogoth servants.
Innes, the hero of At the Earth’s Core, is no Tarzan and he is no John Carter. He is no jungle lord, no ape man. He is no super-powered swordsman, no eternal spirit of war. He is bland and generic, an all-American hero who puts up a noble fight against prehistoric dangers but who never rises above the world into which he is thrown.
Tarzan’s jungle never overshadows its lord and John Carter’s Barsoom never diminishes the hero from planet Earth. But Innes does not stand so tall. Pellucidar is a wondrous place in which Innes can never rise to the occasion. How could he, without the extraordinary origins that made John Carter and Tarzan so much more than ordinary humans? Indeed, Pellucidar never seemed as grand as when Tarzan himself entered its subterranean realm.
Of course, my estimation of these stories is no doubt influenced by my own history with them. John Carter of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes loomed large in my pre-adolescent world. This was due, at least in part, to the powerful ways in which these characters and their worlds were depicted in the images that brought Burroughs words to life.
For John Carter it was the work of Frank Frazetta that I remember. Like so many of my generation, I discovered John Carter through the beautiful reprint editions issued by the Science Fiction Book Club in the 1970s. Frazetta, the master of sword and sorcery – and in this case sword and planet – art, created stunning covers that showed Barsoom, Carter, Dejah Thoris, and all of the other heroes and villians of these bloody tales in all of their glory. Whether Frazetta’s vision was in line with Burroughs’ descriptions of these characters or not, this will always be how I envision Barsoom and its denizens. I must have trembled with excitement when I opened the cardboard box from the SFBC and gazed at Frazetta’s wrap-around cover for The Warlord of Mars. John Carter leaps into battle beside the red-caped Tars Tarkas. Their swords are at the ready against the great white apes that hold Dejah Thoris in their clutches. The twin moons of Mars cast the scene in an unearthly glow.
Though I had grown up watching Johnny Weissmuller grunt his way through Tarzan movies, it was the comic book art of Joe Kubert that brought that character most clearly to life, particularly his adaptation of the second Tarzan novel, The Return of Tarzan, for DC Comics in 1973. I came to this comic book version of the character before I read any of Burroughs’ original work and Kubert’s version will always be the true version of the character for me. In a way, I suppose, Kubert’s work was everything that Frazetta’s work wasn’t. His loose lines conveyed a primitiveness perfectly suited for the ape man’s adventures. While Frazetta’s figures are muscular, fleshy and perfectly poised, Kubert’s lines capture the lean movement and energy of the jungle man. Whether prowling the streets of Paris, riding on horseback across the dessert, exploring an ancient and lost city of gold, or navigating the thick jungle of his African home, Kubert’s Tarzan always looks like a wild and menacing thing, like an animal in the form of man.
For Pellucidar, and David Innes, there was no such powerful art, nothing to capture the strength of David Innes or, just as importantly, the wonders of the underground world. (I didn’t come across Frazetta’s own take on this book until much later. His cover for the Ace paperback edition is both beautiful and horrible, a frightening image of a winged Mahar rising from the water seeking its latest human meal.) Instead, this Burroughs tale came to me in the form a SFBC tie-in with the 1976 British film adaptation. The book’s cover featured art from the movie and several black-and-white stills from the film illustrated the interior. I was not impressed. While the Iron Mole looked pretty cool, everything else looked silly: painted backgrounds, actors in rubber suits playing the part of the dinosaurs and monsters, and pig-nosed Sogoths. I enjoyed Burroughs’ tale as a kid and whenever I have re-read it through the years, but have never had visual imagery for Innes and Pellucidar that could match the imagery that fills my mind’s eye when I think of John Carter and Tarzan or Barsoom and the lost city of Opar.
That may have just changed.
Dark Horse, in conjunction with Sequential Pulp Comics, has just issued a marvelous graphic novel adaptation of At the Earth’s Core. Pellucidar, and David Innes, are suddenly alive in ways that they have never been before.
Writer Bobby Nash is no stranger to the ins and outs of pulp fiction and its conventions, and his familiarity with the genre clearly shows. The story moves along even more briskly than Burroughs’ original. He frees the tale of Burrough’s sometime heavy handed prose and solves some of the problems with plotting that manage to break the reader’s concentration. The story, at just under a hundred pages, is just the right length. It is just long enough to give the story a thorough treatment and just short enough to ensure that things never come to a standstill.
It is the art of Jamie Chase that really brings the Burroughs story to life, however. Though, I confess, at first I was more than a little put off by Chase’s treatment of the tale. There are few hints of Frazetta’s exaggerated realism here. And while Chase’s figures are lithe and in motion, like Kubert’s Tarzan, they are not so perfectly drawn. As a matter of fact, Chase’s work looks hurried. His characters appear a bit unfinished; his backgrounds are imprecise. My first impression was one of uncertainty. This was not like any Pellucidar, any Burroughs, that I had seen before.
But I read it all the way through in one setting. Then, almost immediately went back and read it again. Then I dug around on my shelf until I found my copy of Burrough’s novel, the book club edition from so long ago. Suddenly, the novel was alive in a way that it had never been before. That easily, Chase’s David Innes had become THE David Innes, the one I see in my mind’s eye. That simply, Chase’s Pellucidar had become THE Pellucidar.
The Iron Mole protrudes from the golden dessert sand. Abner Perry winks like some ancient John Carradine. The heroes, the color of earth, plunge into the planet’s crust. The Sagoths, with whips and shields, lumber from their jungle home. Dian the Beautiful stands fearless and strong. David Innes sails on a green and sunlit sea and hoists a spear to save a stranger that will become a friend. Then, most horribly, he weeps at the Mahar’s watery evil, gapes in unbelief when they gather ’round a living body with knives and saws. The Mahar’s have never seemed so evil before. And, as a consequence, David Innes has never seemed so heroic.
Through it all, everything is in motion. Nothing ever stops. And the hurried look of Chase’s art is what propels you along for the ride, propels you along through shadows and light, with both precise line and whirling blur. It is a fevered dream. A restless night’s sleep. An adventure without pause.
It is clear that, despite first appearances, there is nothing rushed or carless here.
When I imagine John Carter it is Frazetta’s hero that I see; when I imagine Tarzan, it is Kubert’s jungle lord. And now, David Innes – all frantic and afraid, all brave and strong – David Innes, he belongs to Jamie Chase.