Of all the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars novels comic book adaptations I have to say that Marvel's John Carter, Warlord of Mars is the best. I say that because the series lasted long enough and was written in such a way as to suggest the adventures were a new adventure about the heroes of Mars. But the most critical detail is the use of first-person narration from the perspective of John Carter himself, just like the first three novels. It gave the novels an immediacy and perspective and it does the same for the comics.
Clearly the writer Marv Wolfman was a fan of the character and had already written adventures for him at DC though that proved in the end a frustrating situation. Here one gets the sense he's been given a chance to do it all over again and better. He's helped enormously by the artist Gil Kane who handles the first major storyline of the series and gives it all the wild energy and movement one associates with the ERB original. Rarely does John Carter stop in the stories and he does precious little of it in this series.
Artistically the series is an easy slow descent from exquisite to good enough. The debut issue is penciled by Gil Kane and inked by Dave Cockrum, probably the best team to do work together on the character in comics. Kane's raw dynamics are ideal for the never-still John Carter as he battles warriors from all sorts of Martian societies.
The first story reads like a lost John Carter novel and is set in the years between Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars, during the ten years that Carter was still on the red planet but before he returned ten years after that. So much of the planet which is revealed in Gods of Mars and later novels is unknown and must be dealt with gingerly, though aspects of Martian society are revealed.
Under some powerful Gil Kane covers Rudy Nebres joins the art team bringing his lush textures to the saga. Nebres can at times be a bit stifling of Kane's powerful pencils, but I suspect he's working from layouts at times and must finish the art in his style, which ain't bad at all.
"The Air Pirates of Mars" is the over-arching title to the first saga and in the early stages Carter is forced to work for a villain working for a mysterious group called the Council of Five. To save his beloved Dejah Thoris Carter takes part in some raids of Martian towns.
But eventually Carter is able to change up the scenario and in a ferocious battle kills his enemy though that doesn't end the threat to Helium nor does it end the threat of the Council of Five.
Rudy Nebres has a large part to play in the early issues of the series, embellishing Kane's inks and giving the whole book a cohesive look.
The only weakness in these early issues that I can see is that the covers by Kane and Nebres begin to look a bit alike. They depict different scenes of course but they all seem to be battle scenes shown from approximately the same distance. No one cover is weak but the run of them begin to lose effect.
The weirdness of Tars Tarkus is key to the success of any Mars series, I think. Otherwise, there's little to distinguish them. The extra arms on the Tharks and the White Apes and other creatures is an important detail and should always be emphasized.
The blurbs on the covers emphasize the action and with a master like Gil Kane that's an easy thing to guarantee to the reader. Kane's pages are among the most wildly kinetic in the history of the genre.
Eventually in the finale of the story in the tenth issue he confronts the Great One, the giant leader of the Council of Five, a giant creature new to the planet Mars who wishes to destroy almost all life on Mars in order to save the planet from the stress on its resources. The Council of Five is made up of representatives from the five races of Mars -- the Red, White, Yellow and Black men along with the Tharks. So Wolfman does introduce details which haven't become canon to Carter at this time in the saga but he does it with some care.
There's a break in the series with a one-off story which largely retells the events of Princess of Mars from the point of Carter's capture by the Tharks and his first meeting with Dejah Thoris. The very first parts of the story had been told in the debut issue, so most of the novel is adapted in this way. Dave Cockrum pencils this story and it's a stunner.
We are then treated to a trilogy with artwork by Carmine Infantino, a sturdy and logical selection. The change in art is given some cohesion since Nebres remains as embellisher. Infantino's style at this time was much more opern and broad than his early DC work and is well suited to the wild story he is assigned about John Carter and Tars Tarkus batting and madman named Zhuvan D'Ark and zombies and skeletons in a lost City of Skulls. The threat the undead pose to Helium ultimately is of course defeated but it's a ferocious fight.
We then get another one-shot story with art by Walt Simonson in which a Martian scientist tries to snuff out Carter by subjecting him to a machine but only succeeds in having our hero relive (possibly) previous lives he'd led on Earth when he confronted the likes of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. This is Marv Wolfman's last issue of the run.
Chris Claremont comes aboard as the new writer and he is joined by new regular artist Ernie Colon, yet another excellent choice for the series. Alas Colon's tenure will not be a long one. We begin a new long storyline called "Master Assassins of Mars" and this one will have many twists and turns before it's over. It begins with John Carter's death scene but as you'd suspect he gets better. It should be noted that Marv Wolfman had been editing the series and now Roger Stern took the reins.
He and Dejah Thoris become aware of a threat to all Helium, but they then are stranded in the bottom of the great valley on Mars, miles deep and are effectively captive of his geography. They are also captive in Karanthor, a strange society of winged warriors who cotton to Carter since his skin is white like theirs but put Dejah into slavery since that's what they traditionally do to red Martians. This is a sprawling society inside vast caverns art the bottom of the world of Mars.
The series does take time to tell a different tale about Tars Tarkus facing a challenge from his own people, but as we'll see this story will eventually tie up with the larger saga. Tars does battle in one of the myriad Martian abandoned cities and he survives but just barely. This story was illustrated by Frank Miller who also does the cover.
Ernie Colon is an artist who is best with his own inks and there is some of that in this run, but he also gets some decent inks first from Nebres who leaves the interiors and Frank Springer who handles a few issues.
John Carter becomes a doughty warrior for the society at the bottom of the canyon, but all the time he is scheming for a way for he and his wife to escape.
After the pair are nearly killed by Banths in the arena he becomes more desperate to escape and they make their attempt.
It is a harrowing tale which follows the pair as they scale the sides of the canyon, a journey which takes many days to finish. It's a highlight of the series which had become just a tiny bit repetitive. This issue also marks another change in art teams.
The new duo who will handle most all the remaining issues of the series is Mike Vosburg and inker Ric Villamonte. Both are sturdy reliable talents but there's no doubt that some energy leaves the series. Vosburg is still an up-and-coming talent at this time and not the mature artist he will become.
It will come as little surprise to fans of Claremont that he gives Dejah Thoris a larger role in the series. This is not really in keeping with classic ERB in which she was capable but most often treated as a damsel in distress. Under Claremont's care she becomes a tad more ferocious.
The series gets itself back to Helium and the battle against the secret cabal of assassins gets hot as many traitors are revealed in the ranks of the Helium mighty.
It's a bit repetitive that the expressed motive of the villains is to change the course of Barsoomian society in such a way as to make the culture more sustainable in the dwindling environment. It rings a bit hollow this time, as power seems its own motivation.
The long battle ends at the place where Tars had battled his duel so long before and the villain finds a proper and suitable end to his shenanigans and once more Carter and Dejah are reunited. It would've been a great place to end the series if that were necessary but there's one more issue alas.
Writer Peter B. Gillis steps in for the last regular issue of series run and he is joined by Larry Hama on pencils. It's a one-off tale about yet another lost city filled with deadly illusions. It's fine and perhaps was made as a filler, but it's an odd way to wrap up the run.
The Dark Horse collection decides to gather the three John Carter Warlord of Mars annuals at the back and that works fine since none of them are in continuity of the other tales. In fact the first one featuring another Wolfman story with very nice Sal Buscema and Ernie Chan art is set after Carter's second journey to Barsoom long after the events of the series. It's a harrowing tale based on an ERB short story titled "The Ancient Dead". It's another lost city but this one is filled with ghosts of all makes and models, even living ones if that makes any sense.
The second annual was written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Erni Chan and offers up a wild and wooly John Carter adventure as he comes up against the Kaldanes who are amublatory heads that use other bodies called Rykors to ride around on. It mighty creepy and the idea was developed by ERB in Chessmen of Mars which was a post-Carter Mars novel.
The final annual was plotted by Wolfman and Alan Weiss and scripted by Claremont. Weiss and Tony DeZuniga do the art chores and it's a weak effort I must admit. Carter gets separated from his allies and falls into the clutches of a society of amazons who make sacrifice to a mysterious deity. Dejah does get some attention as she and Tars reverse the usual roles and rescue Carter this time.
The expansive Dark Horse collection I read this time is wonderful in all respects save perhaps that it's in black and white. That's a mixed blessing as that does allow the finished art to shine a bit absent the mask of color but of course is slightly less desirable than full color. Still, it was a bracing way to read these quite outstanding adaptations of as classic character.