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Friday, January 09, 2009

RED BEAUTY: THE TIMELESS ALLURE OF DEJAH THORIS

The legendary Frank Frazetta's iconic take on John Carter of Mars and Princess Dejah Thoris.

Having learned that the digital wizards at Pixar are developing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories for a projected trilogy of films, I’ve begun reading the initial book in the series, A PRINCESS OF MARS, for the first time in around thirty years and it holds up quite nicely.

The 1970's Marvel Comics illustration that serves as the cover image for the current paperback edition of A PRINCESS OF MARS. Art by Dave Cockrum and Rudy Nebres.

Originally seeing print as a six-part serial entitled “Under the Moons of Mars” in All-Story magazine in 1912, this fledgling effort from the man who would soon create Tarzan of the Apes introduces readers to former Confederate cavalryman and master swordsman John Carter and whisks them along with him to the planet Mars — known to its residents as “Barsoom” — where he immediately finds himself in the middle of violent adventures among bizarre aliens and multi-limbed critters of all shapes and sizes. Carter finds that the planet’s lesser gravity gives him a marked advantage by granting him a prodigious leaping ability and sort-of super-strength, and considering just how warlike the various cultures of Barsoom are he couldn’t have gotten any more lucky.

But if you ask me, and many other guys who read this stuff as adolescents, the real draw to the John Carter series was the matter-of-fact depiction of the Martian natives’ abhorrence of clothing save for a bit of jewelry here and there or an ornate sword or gun belt. Yep, everybody ran around Barsoom bare-assed nekkid, and no character in the series captivated the budding prurient interest of us young-uns like the first book’s title character, Princess Dejah Thoris. If ever there were a sci-fi/fantasy heroine whose description set the wheels of the imagination turning, it was Dejah Thoris, and from the moment she’s introduced the reader receives a loud-and-clear picture of her epic beauty, imparted to us by Carter, her future husband:

And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life. She did not see me at first, but just as she was disappearing through the portal of the building which was to be her prison she turned, and her eyes met mine. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

Sounds like serious fuel for “rubbing one out,” even by today’s standards, right? Well the princess has inspired generations of illustrators to depict her, but the one hitch in doing so is that she’s always nude, so her visual representations have mostly involved either as little clothing as the artists of a given era could get away with, or standard gear like something worn by a damsel in distress as found in a Hollywood swashbuckling movie. It’s only been fairly recently that artists could get away with drawing Dejah Thoris nude or as close to such as possible, and many of the best in the biz have lavished considerable effort into bringing her to visual life. But while straight-up nudity may have been a no-no, the character was spared not one iota of sexiness and exotic appeal, as is seen in this gallery of Dejah Thoris portraits. In fact I’d be willing to bet that, next to Tarzan, the princess is the most frequently depicted of Burroughs’ classic characters. No surprise really, since hot chicks have been fun to illustrate since day one, so here’s a taste of Martian delight. I can’t wait to see what Pixar comes up with for her! (Personally, since she is an alien, I always wanted to see her “large and lustrous” eyes rendered as at least three times the size of an Earth human’s, just to make her somehow different in appearance from the garden-variety hottie, but that’s probably just my take on things.)

I might as well get things started with the current king of the "one-handed" cartoonists, Adam Hughes.

This one's a pretty straightforward portrait that's damned near identical to how I always pictured the character, in terms of her assorted adornments and hairdo.

Another Adam Hughes piece, although decidedly more PG-13 than previous.

Bruce Timm, the uber-talented maestro behind much of the excellent Warner Brothers animated versions of the DC Comics superheroes, turns in this charming animated-style portrait.

Is it just me, but aren't cartoon nipples fun to draw? But I digress...

Here's another Timm piece and the rich colors are simply striking (although I have to question the tan lines since I doubt Dejah Thoris ever wore a bra a day in her life).

And one more Bruce Timm illustration for good measure, this time demonstrating that the princess isn't just some idle chick waiting to be rescued:

As Burroughs famously described the people of Barsoom, "no male or female Martian is ever voluntarily without a weapon of destruction," in this case that custom seems like quite a good idea indeed. But then again, what else would one expect from a planet steeped in thousands of years of extremely warlike culture? Anyway, I love Timm's take on the princess and I'd love to see him do a full story featuring the character!

Also displaying Dejah Thoris' ferocious side is this piece by Frank Cho, an illustrator whose flair for drawing hot chicks is renowned, as well as his blatant love for works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I get a great kick out of seeing any of Cho's ERB stuff, simply because it's quite clear that he's actually read and absorbed the stories rather than working from notes provided by an editor. Just look at these portraits and try to tell me that the guy isn't totally into it:



Don't ask me why, but even though I'm not really into the "smoothie" look (though there have been notable exceptions to that rule), I always pictured the Red Barsoomians to be as pubically bare as Formica, so seeing the princess with pubes struck me as a tad odd. I guess I've been too influenced by Richard Corben's way of thinking in regard to the "topiary" of fantasy adventure females (and males, come to think of it)...

And I'd like to close with this action-packed rendering by my man Mark (XENOZOIC TALES) Schultz. Sure the princess is far too clad for any true Burroughs fan's taste, but it's a kickass drawing that features John Carter and the awesome Thark war chief Tars Tarkas, so what's not to love?

Just a typical day on Barsoom.

So to Pixar I say this: dazzle me, guys. I'll be there on opening night with naught on but a sword belt! (Until the Brooklyn cops show up and cart my high-yella ass off to the local chokey...)

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