Dejah Thoris #3
Amy Chu (writer) Pasquale Qualano (illustration) Valentine Pinto (colors)
April 4, 2018
The setting for the emerging Dejah Thoris comic book series is our solar system; the backdrop is a dusty alien city on a red planet we call Mars. This stage is taken from a series of novels written in the early 20th century by Edgar Rice Burroughs, called The Barsoom Series. The original tale, A Princess of Mars, followed the adventures of a Terran man who ends up on Mars, or “Barsoom” in the language of the Martians. And who should this Terran man’s love interest be but a brilliant, strong woman named Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars?
Burroughs wrote Dejah in a unique way; empowered, noble, pure in her intentions for her people, her family, and her planet, yet still capable of being whisked away by any number of bad guys so that her love interest can rescue her. This was a simple, pulpy plot that repeated itself ten times between 1912 and 1941 in Burroughs’ short, fun Barsoom novels.
This is exactly the type of tale you will find in Dejah Thoris #3, something pulpy and obvious that we have seen before. Writer Amy Chu does homage to Burroughs with the simple story: Dejah Thoris is visiting Thurd, the city of the Green Martians who have preyed on her people for centuries. Her mission is one of planetary unity, based on a simple need for water. The nature of Dejah’s motivation as granddaughter of the great Jeddak (or emperor) of Mars and generally considerate person is such that she would go to a city of her enemies in order to parlay for resources. That at least is a call back to her character. But unfortunately a familiar plot is where the similarities between this Dejah Thoris story and an original Barsoom novel end.
Art-wise, from the action scenes to alien character designs, Dejah Thoris #3 does a poor job of representing Burroughs and his world. If you are going to base a comic on a story that’s over a hundred years old, including characters, landscapes, races, cities, and names, at least do it the decency of thoughtful adaptation. This new Dejah Thoris series is more of an “inspired by” comic than a story that truly draws from the original books.
The story in Dejah Thoris #3 involves the Princess essentially getting into a live chess match with a Green Martian leader. The art in this comic is cheesy, straightforward, and bland. Dejah’s majestic beauty is not conveyed in the least; her handmaiden, whose hair looks a lot like Motoko Kusanagi’s (Ghost in the Shell), has a very similar face to Dejah’s. There is not uniqueness in the Princess of Mars’ expressions, though Burroughs was very clear in the original stories about her striking gaze, presence, and eyes. Yet she looks as her handmaiden does in this comic: like a pretty woman wearing heels and dressed in armor. Or maybe it isn’t armor. It’s honestly hard to tell what she’s wearing at all based on confusing shadows and coloring. Her dialogue is not meaningful, democratic or political; it is muddled. At one point in the story she says, “You can kill me, but I am not going home anyway.” Even in context that sentence makes no grammatical sense. Who edited this comic?
The faces, costumes, and conversations were not the only parts of Dejah Thoris #3 that lacked consistency. This leads to the examination of panel sequences, which also lacked a natural flow of physical action. It was very hard to follow along with each series of events as they occurred, to the point where I had to go back and reread panels one at a time to even understand what happened. Did she just knock him down? Or did she grab his arm? Where did she get a weapon? My mind went wild trying to speculate as to the physics in this comic book.
Which brings us to anatomy. Did anyone read the description of the Green Martians from Burroughs’ books when they decided what these beastly enemies should look like? It seems as if they had truly skimmed the original text and then drew aliens that look like ugly quadruple-armed gym rats with shaved heads and tusks. The Green Martians have six limbs, and in the original Burroughs text the middle pair of those limbs worked as either hands or feet as needed. They were not particularly one or the other, but something in the middle that acted as both. Not so in the comic. These Green Martians have two sets of shoulders, two pairs of arms, and two sets of detailed abs. While Burroughs’ original alien anatomy is likely hard to draw, had the development team paid attention to the novel series, they would not have had to publish a comic book with a hundred ripped aliens who have washboard abs.
Dejah Thoris #3 distracted me from the story with its confusing visual sequences, strange costumes, and misleading alien bodies. I had frankly expected a lot more from a comic book whose titular character was one of the women I admired as a girl when I read A Princess of Mars. In the original books Dejah Thoris is a brilliant, stubborn, gorgeous, and noble woman who outshines everyone around her. She is a beacon of perfection and desire, especially when portrayed by famous artist Frank Frazetta in his far more representative Barsoom paintings. In this comic she feels flat; though her motivations make sense, nothing else about her sings the name Dejah Thoris. I would honestly love to see a Dejah Thoris comic that really takes after the original Barsoom series. I think it could be exquisite if done right. But as we wait for that comic to emerge somewhere, we can enjoy the original novel, A Princess of Mars, instead.