Here is ADVENTURE
by Dan Nadel
Friday, July 30, 2010
Dark Horse has recently published two fine and nicely obscure reprint volumes. The first I’ve been neglecting for a while, but not for lack of love. It’s the complete John Carter of Mars by Jesse Marsh. Yep, 114 pages of Mars action by the Dell master himself. The three 1952-3 comic books reprinted within are among my favorite Marsh works, since the material so readily lent itself to Marsh’s obsessions with modernist forms and contemporary art.
Briefly, in the comic book John Carter is a soldier who stumbles into a mysterious cave, is dazed, and is transported to Mars. Adventures ensue. The appeal here is not the story. Paul S. Newman’s scripts are far too wordy to be enjoyable, but you can basically ignore the words and follow Marsh’s narrative on your own.
Here’s Carter descending into the subterranean province of Omean. The colors are blazing abstractions that I have to think were guided by Marsh. No one else in comics in the early ’50s was thinking this way about abstraction.
Marsh uses any interior scene as an excuse to render modern forms. Carter’s encounter with Tars Tarkus is set in an ever changing room (a la Herriman) that consists entirely of paintings, sculptures and furniture that looks like something out of a dream catalog of modernism.
And exterior spaces are given the same extravagant treatment.
Marsh is such a strange figure in comics. He had clear interests and his comics flag in energy when he has to deal with too much exposition or simple transitional scene. But when he’s escaping into pure forms he really sings. If you’re going to buy a single Marsh/Burroughs volume, this is the one to get. It showcases the artist at his best and the repro, while not my preferred method, is sharp. It’s a handsome volume.
The second book is Thun’da, King of the Congo, which includes thirty pages of prime 1952 Frank Frazetta art and nearly two hundred pages from the Bob Powell studio. It makes for kind of a great book. One break away comic book entrenched with a bunch of… well, above average hackery, really. I perversely like it, and since the Frazetta Thun’da has been reprinted before, why not include the rest. Thun’da is a classic Tarzan-type thing. Pilot Roger Drum is stranded in a netherworld when his plane goes down during WWII. He has amnesia and so naturally remakes himself into an epic Jungle Warrior. C’mon, you would, too, if you could! There is racism a’plenty, and etc. It’s pretty C-level stuff.
But in that first Frazetta issue you can see why he strikes such a chord with his audience: He believes. You look at each panel of his comic and he’s packing in all the visual information he can — all the lines and marks that he feels must go in. It makes for a stop-start reading experience, as you have to absorb all that linear energy, then place it in a sequence, and then move to the next panel. But panels with this much coiled energy make it worthwhile.
And of course he was great at depicting action in the Howard Pyle school — just before the moment of impact. As with this half-splash page.
Looking at the original art for this stuff, it seems clear Frazetta was doing the job, but also drawing for himself. Look at the lush line work and minutia he packs into this page.
As opposed to the present reprint (not that the original comic book could pick up these tones and fine values either):
Anyhow, he was no slouch. I’m not crazy about the illustration work, but these comic books have a youthful energy that manages to combine the crazed intensity of Jack Kirby with the delicacy of Alex Raymond. It’s a heady mix.
When Bob Powell swept in he brought his own vibe to the mix. I can’t figure out who was assisting Powell at this point (if anyone) and would love to know (anyone out there?), because it’s solid work. Powell was great at drawing truly ugly mugs and I always like a cinematic musical montage panel like the one below.
The stories by Gardner Fox remain fine, and we follow Thund’a until 1955. Powell loved the elasticity of the human form, which comes through in all the swinging and fighting and frolicking. He had a way with those set-ups. A solid craftsman, that Powell — sometimes a lot more. The differences between Powell and Marsh are instructive: The former a jobbing comic book guy practically since the beginning of the form, maybe not that sophisticated, but with a “feel.” Marsh, with a background in animation, sophisticated, but probably more interested in drawing the backgrounds of a scene than the action itself. One so much more in tune with the culture of his time, the other maybe more in tune with the pulp tastes of his readership.
Anyhow, two fine volumes to seek out. And I’ll throw in an extra recommendation for Jet Scott, by Jerry Robinson and Sheldon Stark, also from Dark Horse. It has Robinson’s best 1950s work (and really his last compelling artwork before moving into rather drab political cartoons), which has a sharp, Toth-like feel and is a perhaps slightly toned-down evolution of his groundbreaking 1940s collaborations with Mort Meskin (Black Hood compilation anyone?). Slick, well constructed storytelling. Again, it looks like a studio job, but I can’t find any trace of who was in on it. I can almost detect Gil Kane in there. Hmmm?
Next week: No reprints!