Four-Color Faves: Wendy Browne on the Legend that Is Dejah Thoris

Dejah Thoris: The Gardens of Mars #0A, cover by Jay Anacleto (Dynamite Entertainment, September 2018)

Warrior. Princess. Scientist. Dejah Thoris has worn many hats — as has WWAC’s fearless publisher, Wendy Browne! Dejah and Wendy are two peas in a pod so it’s no surprise that Dejah is Wendy’s four-color fave. Dejah’s origins precede her appearances in the world of comics — she was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the creator of Tarzan) way back in 1917. And she’s still going strong. Why is that? Why are comic readers still so enamoured of Dejah Thoris? Wendy shares her love for the character and why Dejah is more than the sum of her costumes.

Who is Dejah Thoris? What makes her stand out from the plethora of comic characters?

Gold pasties. Dejah is easily recognizable by her rich reddish-brown skin and the tiny Bedazzled boobwear and crotch curtains that she’s often depicted wearing (or not wearing) on the covers of Dynamite Entertainment’s comics.

Censored Wraparound Adam Hughes cover of Dejah Thoris #1, C 2019 Dynamite Comics
The very sparkly censored wraparound Adam Hughes cover of Dejah Thoris #1, (Dynamite Entertainment, 2019)

She is, when we originally meet her, the princess of Helium, which is one of the many kingdoms on Barsoom, aka Mars. War is constant on Barsoom, particularly because of its climate. The harsh desert realm used to be flush with water, but now the people must fight for every last drop and leaders use this to their advantage to search for more, or to take it from those who have it.

When it’s not all about war, then political alliances are on the table, and what makes a better pawn than a princess to be offered up in marriage?

Dejah originated in prose before making the leap to comics. How well do you think she’s translated into the comics field?

On the surface, her translation to comics from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 A Princess of Mars is visually accurate, if far more sexualized in the comics. The book’s main character, John Carter, describes her thus:

“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… 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.”

John Carter defends a cowering Dejah Thoris
A Princess of Mars (Barsoom #1) by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)

She is the quintessential pulp damsel in distress and beautiful love interest in the books as the cover shows, but Rice Burroughs at least gives her some weight as a scientific mind, and her loyalty to her people is her consistent motivation. The comics have since allowed her to evolve into a self-rescuing warrior princess, so, even though the cheesecake and sexualization persists, the character has developed well beyond political pawn into a queen in her own right.

Dejah is a strong warrior-like character–what kind of message do you think she sends readers, particularly female readers?

The covers of her books typically send the wrong message for many readers. I’m hardpressed to convince others that there is anything to the character beyond T&A. This is to be expected from Dynamite, a company that thrives on pulp and cheesecake stories about sexy warrior women. As a fan of Dejah, Red Sonja, and Vampirella, I understand that many readers will shun books that feature these characters, especially when they come with J. Scott Campbell’s creatively lackluster covers, but over time, I’ve succeeded in looking beyond the covers to discover some really interesting characters.

Dejah Thoris: The Gardens of Mars Volume 1 (Dynamite Entertainment, September 2018)
J. Scott Campbell’s cover to Dejah Thoris: The Gardens of Mars Volume 1 (Dynamite Entertainment, September 2018)

It also helps that Dynamite has since made the effort to include more women on the creative teams for their pulp titles, kickstarted by the Swords of Sorrow event that was coordinated by Gail Simone.

Do you feel that the medium of comics has made her popular? Why do you think that is?

Her attire certainly appeals to a certain subset of collectors, and Dynamite’s variant covers deliver, which has certainly brought her to the attention of many.

I have grown fond of her attire and its shifting designs, including Nicola Scott’s attempt to dress her in more suitable armour for her warrior womaning.

Dejah Thoris costume redesign by Nicola Scott, 2015
Dejah Thoris costume redesign by Nicola Scott, 2015.

I also appreciated Leah Moore’s take on the character during the Swords of Sorrow series where Dejah is thrown into Victorian London with Irene Adler and dresses down all the people who would comment on her attire but not lift a finger to help her when she’s attacked:

“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, 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.”

Dejah Thoris in London - Swords of Sorrow Dejah Thoris and Irene Adler vol 2 by Leah Moore & Francesco Manna. Dynamite, July 2015
Dejah Thoris in London. Swords of Sorrow: Dejah Thoris and Irene Adler #2 (Dynamite Entertainment, July 2015)

Without the visual appeal and prominence of her character on those covers, she likely would have remained relegated to damsel in distress and love interest, or just disappeared into obscurity. Instead, we’ve got her front and centre in the 2012 John Carter movie — which did not get nearly enough love as it should, from both fans and Disney itself with such a poor marketing campaign. In the film, she’s portrayed by Lynn Collins who researched the character and, along with director Andrew Stanton, made some decisions on how they wanted to portray her:

“It was Andrew 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 in different ways. Hopefully, there are so many of these role models coming in of women of strength that we don’t have to deal with this crap forever.”

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris holding a sword at the ready- John Carter Movie (2012)
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. John Carter (Walt Disney Pictures, 2012)

Dejah is among a crop of female characters who always ends up on ‘Sexiest Comic Characters’ lists. What else makes Dejah memorable, besides her physical attributes?

I’m always thrilled when writers dig into Dejah’s scientific background. In combination with her devotion to her people, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Often she appears as a young, inexperienced woman empowered by her education and hopes and dreams for a better future. She has to contend with people who don’t take her seriously because she is just a young woman but in her latest iteration. Passion fuels her and she often leaps where it might be better to tread carefully.

Dejah Thoris explains her plan
Dejah Thoris explains her plan. Dejah Thoris & Vampirella #1 (Dynamite Entertainment, September 2018)

In her latest iteration, she’s a grandmother tempered by age and wisdom. She’s still a stunning specimen of her species and a fearsome warrior, but she has also learned to better manage the political side of her role, even when she’s no longer sitting on the throne herself.

Do you think Dejah transcends the “Strong Female Character” trope?

I think when Lynn Collins talks about making the character “too strong” and having to scale her back to ensure everyone is comfortable with her, then we still have a problem, but that was 2012. I’d like to think that she’s evolved significantly since then, particularly with the shift in gaze and focus thanks to the involvement of more women on her creative team. Her strength has been fleshed out well beyond sexy warrior woman to be defined almost equally by her skills as a diplomat, scholar, and leader.

The covers of her books continue to beg to differ, but I will give credit to the ones that make the effort to depict Dejah as more than eye candy, including the recent series featuring stunning work by Lucio Parrillo.

Close up of a determined Dejah Thoris holding a weapon
Lucio Parrillo’s cover of Dejah Thoris #1 (Dynamite Entertainment, December 2019)

At the very least, she has definitely long since transcended her damsel in distress role. Hell, it’s her name that graces the covers now, while that John Carter guy has fallen to the wayside.

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Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir