Dejah Thoris: Addressing The Princess of Mars
Dejah Thoris #1
Frank J. Barbiere (writer) , Francesco Manna (art), NEN (cover)
A review copy of this publication was provided by the publisher.
I never expected to be excited about an issue of Dynamite’s Dejah Thoris, but the princess of Barsoom has slowly been growing on me over the years. I knew of her vaguely through the limited contact I had with my brother’s pulp fiction books and comics, but she was a distant character when compared to the likes of Conan and Red Sonja. Yet, along with Sonja and Vampirella, she has been leading Dynamite’s collection of powerful pulp women for quite some time.
Powerful, partially dressed pulp women.
Let’s face it, her comic incarnation has not been drawn with female readers in mind and I get questioning grimaces when I recommend her book to other woman and some men. It’s hard to convince people to take a seriously a woman drawn to walk around in a crotch curtain and boob tassels. Believe it or not, this is actually more than she wore when John Carter first laid eyes on her in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars:
“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.”
The key here is in the context. Dejah is just as naked as everyone else on the planet. That her nudity stands out is only because the story is told through the eyes of John Carter, a man from earth where nudity is taboo. Truth be, I am perfectly comfortable with a nude Dejah Thoris who is perfectly comfortable in her own skin and I was so pleased with writer Leah Moore’s take on the character in Swords of Sorrow: Dejah Thoris and Irene Adler. In the series (which is also drawn by Francesco Manna), Dejah winds up in London where some jerk makes a lewd comment. Moore focuses not on the comment, but on Dejah’s unapologetic reaction.
“She is almost nude, like a Brazilian carnival dancer in the east end of Victorian London, but she doesn’t feel ashamed to be that way,” says Moore, “it’s not in her to be ashamed about it. She’s a princess, that’s her royal dress, end of story. There is something so wonderful in her taking ownership of her appearance and not feeling stranded or alone.”
The human body is a beautiful thing. I am particularly fond of the naked female form and appreciate great side boob. I would not be opposed to a functionally nude princess of Mars, but for one thing: these are comics books where a female character, even when not completely naked, is far too often the subject of the Male Gaze. There is little comprehension of how to invoke sexiness without also being sexist and gross.
One thing the comics have occasionally done right is show us that Dejah Thoris has always been more than arm candy. Though she was not entirely the warrior princess in her original story, Dejah is unerring in her courage and her devotion to the people of Helium. She is also incredibly intelligent. But the comics, and the subsequent 2012 film, John Carter from Disney, rarely depict her being far from her sword.
“I am Dejah Thoris, regent of the Royal Helium Academy of Science. Princess of Mars and if you want to live John Carter get behind me!”
So says Lynn Collins, who took on the role of the princess in the film John Carter of Mars. Though she and director Andrew Stanton reviewed the original Burroughs series in their research, they both agreed that they wanted Dejah to be stronger. But not too strong, notes Collins in an interview:
“It was Andrew [Stanton] who was like, make her a stronger woman, and then we made her too strong and we had to go back and open up some of the vulnerabilities and accessibility. It’s tricky! Being a strong, intelligent woman, it’s tricky because sometimes people don’t like that and you have to temper it to different ways. Hopefully there’s so many of these role models coming in of women of strength that we don’t have to deal with this crap forever.”
While Dynamite’s Dejah is allowed to be stronger than Disney’s Dejah, she has still has to deal with the pornified poses. It makes characters like Dejah Thoris, Red Sonja, and Vampirella a hard sell for readers beyond a certain demographic. Fortunately, Dynamite has been working hard to change that image. Much has changed since Gail Simone ventured into Dynamite’s pulp land to give Red Sonja a feminist make over, then launch the Swords of Sorrow campaign (covered here by WWAC) to bring the many captivating ladies of Dynamite to the forefront in ways they have too long been denied. As in: empowered, instead of objectified. While I wasn’t overly impressed with the Swords of Sorrow story line, I loved the route Dynamite had chosen to take and hoped that they intended to stay the course. The announcement last year of new costume designs for Dynamite’s trinity promised me just that.
Now, following the relaunch of Red Sonja, Dejah Thoris #1 takes on the task of introducing the princess to people who may have shunned her previously. This is not a reboot, as writer Frank Barbiere has stressed in several Dynamite interviews. It is more a reshuffling of Dejah’s priorities as a conspiracy sees her father, the Jed, go missing, and stirs up some long buried memories. The first issue leaps through this process, turning Dejah from princess, to queen, to prisoner, to fugitive in a matter of hours and just a few pages. This plot point establishes itself quickly so that we can, presumably, get on with Dejah’s adventure of self-discovery within the next issue. I didn’t much care for the ease with which all of Helium turns on their beloved princess (or at least, so we’re told by those in power and far beneath it) though she has risked her life for them countless times. Nor did I care for the convenience of Dejah’s suddenly dislodged memories. As a first issue, it serves its purpose of setting the stage and getting the princess on her way so I will let the leaping plot points slide for now and simply enjoy Manna’s art work. I’ve enjoyed his depiction of Dejah Thoris since Swords of Sorrow, but the issue of sameface—particularly when all the female characters are brunettes—might once again become a problem. I can forgive him though, as he seems to have a healthy respect for the princess and finds no need to pose her gratuitously.
Barbiere promises a journey of self discovery for the princess, whom we will see in a way she has never appeared to readers before. Freed from her titles and finding herself truly among the people, what will she become? Says Barbiere:
“This series is really about her getting back in touch with her identity, not just the roles she’s given. It all ties together nicely and relates to themes about destiny, lineage, and identity.”
John Carter, Dejah’s husband, plays a supporting role in the story. He’s often either been absent in her other comics, which take place before his arrival on Barsoom, or he is busy being the Warlord of Mars who occasionally has to rescue his beloved from whatever men are vying for the throne of Helium at the time.
Though it does not appear in the first issue save for on the gorgeous series of covers, Dejah will soon be sporting her new look. Designer Nicola Scott describes the process of creating the new armour thus:
“Dejah Thoris was about playing with themes and the Barsoom aesthetic. Plaited leathers, swooping, organic shaped armour, and gossamer fabrics seemed the right place to start. It was just a matter of playing around with shapes and proportions until it came together.”
Her transition from bejewelled princess to armoured warrior promises to be a logical one, as she finds refuge with the People’s Army of Barsoom in the six-issue arc.