As mentioned in the About page of this site, I’ve only recently been getting into comic books, and I make no pretense of being an expert on comic books. One of the major reasons I never got into comic books in the past was actually the impetus for starting this site to begin with: the presentation of female characters was disappointing and annoying at best, offensive and insulting at worst.
However, I think even non-experts deserve to critique a genre they like, especially if they’re doing so from a different perspective. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. Keep this in mind while you’re reading this (and all of Natalie’s) reviews.
John Carter: A Princess of Mars Issue 1 and 2
Marvel Comics, September and October, 2001
Originally published in 1917, A Princess of Mars is a scifi novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, famous for his Tarzan books. When I picked up issues one and two from the comic book shop a couple weeks ago, I didn’t know anything about the original novel.
I chose them because of the title and because they were prominently featured in the Good For Kids section of the comic book store. I thought that maybe, just maybe, since the title was about a princess that the protagonist of the story would also be a female character.
However, as I discovered with Orchid issue one, having a woman or girl on the cover or in the title is no guarantee that the protagonist will be a female. Who knew? Well, if you’re an avid and experienced comic book reader, you probably did.
The story follows John Carter, a Virginian turned Arizona prospector, who somehow wanders into (onto?) Mars and is held captive by the alien race inhabiting it. Carter is able to understand the language of these lizard-like creatures (Tharks) by telepathy, and eventually makes himself understood. They recognize him as a lower creature, a mammal, but they’re impressed by his gravity-defying leaps and jumps.
You know, like all lizards are.
Much like Orchid’s hero, John Carter is snarky yet tough. His guard is a loyal dog-like creature, who helps rescue him when he gets in a tussle with giant apes. The Tharks are duly impressed by Carter’s fighting moves, and allow him to freely roam their city, though he is still their prisoner.
When the Tharks shoot down an enemy helium ship, Carter runs over and sees a woman. A princess. Woo hoo. Someone just like him, and with boobs!
Issue two begins with Carter clumsily trying to get the princess’ attention, and he kills one of the Tharks in her defense. He’s given even more rank among the Thark people (savage warriors that they are) and he’s allowed to house the princess in his quarters.
The next morning the Tharks prepare to leave their city, since they survive by exploiting other Martian races. That night Carter’s closest Thark friend unchains the princess for Carter, and the next morning one of the Tharks challenges Carter to a duel.
Issue two ends with what appears to be John Carter getting stabbed in the back, literally.
The two female characters in this comic include the princess–of course–and a jealous female guard, who seems to hate Carter more than any of the other Tharks.
If you’ve read anything on colonialism, then you’ll immediately recognize the old “savage native” tropes at play in the story. Marvel’s version is more Avatar than Dances with Wolves (but what’s the difference, really?). John Carter is immediately an expert warrior on Mars: without even trying he’s able to best the natives on their own turf.
The Tharks, like all natives, are warriors: proud, but somehow weak. Our American hero will prevail in the end, and win the hand of the local-but-kind-of-like-him female of status.
Science Fiction really is a reflection of colonialist ideologies in so many ways, and a story written in 1917 certainly wouldn’t have challenged that. Think of every native stereotype you can, and it’s present in this story, from the way the Tharks dress–male and female–to John Carter’s interactions with them.
Like I said above, I wouldn’t expect a story written in 1917 to challenge these stereotypes, but it would be much more interesting to me to see a post-colonial version of this story. Would that even be possible? Would it find readership?
I think people really love to see the old familiar stories told over and over again, even if they don’t challenge us to think differently. We know to root for John Carter. We know that there will be some sympathetic savages and we know that John Carter is at risk of “going native.” The predictability keeps us reading.
But I would like for a story to challenge me. One of the reasons that Battlestar Galactica (the remake) became so popular is because it diverged from some of the more common stereotypes, without becoming unfamiliar. Our hero Starbuck was a woman. The cylons were good and bad, as were the humans. It made us think, instead of reaffirming all the old dichotomies.
Anyway, I don’t think I’ll keep reading A Princess of Mars. The story is boring and predictable. The art is interesting; the bodies are long and stringy, almost as though they too defy gravity. John Carter’s pointy little face isn’t too endearing, but I do think the art is the most redeeming quality of the comic.
I assume the princess will feature more prominently in future issues, but she is certainly a supporting role, the object to John Carter’s subject.
Do you know something about this story that should keep me reading? If so, let me know!