Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mummies on Mars

We’re going to do something a little bit different this week. We’ll still take a look at an old comic book, but this time we’ll be judging it not just on its own merits, but also in comparison to the prose story on which it was based.

The  comic was published in 1977, but to get the full story, we have to jump back to 1941. This was when Edgar Rice Burroughs published “The City of Mummies,” a John Carter of Mars novella, in Amazing Stories magazine (March 1941). 

It was the first of four interconnecting novellas that would later make up the book Llana of Gathol. (Llana, by the way, is John Carter’s granddaughter.)

In the novella, John Carter is taking a break from his job as Warlord, flying alone over an unexplored region of Mars. Near an apparently deserted city, he saves a human from a half-dozen green Martians, but then discovers that the man he saved is a member of an insular society that wants to keep their existence a secret. So John Carter is sentenced to death.

Some fast talking by the guy Carter saved (Pan Dan Chee) gets them locked up in the lower pits of the city for the night. Carter and Pan fight some of the giant Martian rats known as ulsios, nearly get murdered by an immortal madman and encounter ancestors of Pan Dan Chee’s people who had been kept in suspended animation for a half-million years.

Then, in the most shameless coincidence Burroughs ever used (and he’s a writer who did not shy away from using coincidence), they discover that Carter’s granddaughter Llana is also in the pits, having ended up there after having escaped kidnappers. Pan Dan Chee  falls in love with Llana and the trio escape from the city.

Like almost all of Burroughs’ stories, this one is a fast-moving and entertaining adventure story, with a few bizarre twists and turns thrown in. There’s a lot more humor in it than in most of Burroughs’ adventure fiction. Some have suggested (I think accurately) that Burroughs was practicing a little self-parody in his later Mars stories. That’s fine, because he blended the humor smoothly with good storytelling.

By the way, the novella was renamed “The Ancient Dead” when it and its three sequels were collected into a single book.

In 1977, writer Marv Wolfman adapted this story for John Carter: Warlord of Mars Annual #1. But where “The Ancient Dead” was originally the beginning of a novel-length story arc, now it was going to be a single 34-page comic story.

So poor Llana disappears from the story. Instead, Pan Dan Chee falls in love with a reanimated queen from his city’s past.

Other changes are interesting to note. There’s a cool action bit in the original story when Carter chases down and finishes off the last green Martian in the fight where he saves Pan.  This is truncated in the comic, probably because of space issues. 

But there’s action added later on. In the original, a single ulsio attacks them when they enter the pits. Pan kills it while a then-unarmed Carter pretty much just watches. In the comic, there’re three of the hideous things attacking and Carter plays a much more active role in the fight.

Later, they meet the madman who has been trapping people in suspended animation for millennia. In the book, when Carter bests the old guy, he simply executes him. I assume the Comic Code Authority wouldn’t allow that, though. In the comic, Carter simply knocks the guy out.

In both cases, taking out the madman causes those who had been in suspended animation to wake up. Without having to worry about working Llana into the story, Wolfman adds some more action here. In the original, the ancients saw how much the planet had changed, then collapsed in heaps of dust as their age catches up to them. The “action” in this section of the story came from Llana;s account of her kidnapping and escape.

In the comic, with no Llana to tell stories, Wolfman has the ancients get really upset with the situation and attack John Carter. Pan Dan Chee is no help, as he’s busy wooing the queen he’s fallen for. So Carter has to fight alone while the landscape keeps inexplicably shifting back-and-forth from present day to what it was 500,000 years ago. 

Sal Buscema’s art makes it all look great and this version of the story is also entertaining. I do have a small complaint about the climax, as Wolfman never really properly explains the whole landscape-shifting thing. But what the hey. It’s Mars. Weird stuff happens there.

John Carter of Mars is a great character and Marvel’s late ‘70s comic book run was faithful to the spirit of the original stories and had some great artwork by artists such as Buscema, Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum. This Annual is a solid example of the series’ quality. John Carter was a functional immortal, so he’s still up there on the Red Planet wielding his sword against villains and monsters. If he’s had a chance to visit Earth in recent decades and read the Marvel comics, I think he’d approve.

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