Friday, May 14, 2010

Frazetta's Barsoom

While Frazetta is best known for his Conan paintings, he also illustrated Edgar Rice Burrough's Martian Tales.
Burroughs created the hero John Carter, a Southern gentleman who seeks refuge in a cave while being chased by bandidos in the Southwest. Falling asleep in the cave, Carter awoke to find himself mystically transported to Mars. (If you think this is a flimsy plot device, Burroughs began writing the story because he put down a pulp magazine is disgust, and decided to write a better story. Makes you wonder about how bad his inspiration was, doesn't it?)

Despite -- or maybe because of -- the flimsy plot devices, Burroughs' Martian Tales enjoyed a healthy following. Still do in many respects. They are a direct ancestor of Flash Gordon and Star Wars. Carter discovered Mars was teeming with life and civilizations, from the four-armed, green skinned Thrak warriors to the four armed white apes, to the beautiful (and scantily clad) red martians who were human in all respects except that they laid eggs. The Martians called their world Barsoom, and welcomed Carter into an existence of high adventure.

The outline may sound fantastic, but it provided Frazetta with another entire exotic, imagined world to play in with his brushes and pens. He gave life to the weird setting.

Frazetta claimed that he preferred illustrating Conan's Hyborian Age over Barsoom. The Conan fans were forgiving when his paintings and illustrations matched the tone of the story rather than depicted an actual event. Burrough's fans were detail oriented, and vocal about perceived deviations in the illustration from the plot.
Although there are obvious Frazetta stylistic similarities between the depictions of Barsoom and the Hyborian Age, I think there is a perceptible romanticism in the Barsoom work that isn't present in the Conan work. The Martian heroes are coming to the aid of damsels in distress, something you never see in the Conan work. There is even less blood in the Martian paintings. Even the accouterments about the figures are lighter and more delicate.


Mike Smith said...

I loved Frazetta's Barsoom work, but I could have done without your snide comments about Burroughs. His Barsoom stories were never meant to be great literature, they are simply good fun stories.

The story about how John Carter found himself on Mars was a bit more involved that you implied, but that wasn't the point of the story. Burroughs wanted to tell the tale of Carter's adventures on Mars. What would be the point of spending a lot of time coming up with a more "believable" method for him to get there?

Anyway, thanks for posting these incredible Frazetta paintings and drawings. In my mind, his view of Barsoom is the only real one there is. Boris and the other fantasy artists who came after Frazetta are pale imitators of the original and greatest fantasy artist of all time.

jrf said...

Was I snide?

Then I guess I'm still on tone. Sweet!

I enjoyed the Martian Tales, and I re-read A Princess of Mars a couple years back and still found it enjoyable. However, like many pulp stories written in the early 20th Century, they are products of their era and certain aspects don't age well at all. I adore Howard, Lovecraft and Burroughs, but their stories are laced with (an often malevolent) racism that makes me cringe whenever I encounter it. It's hard for many people to shrug that off like I do with, "Well, that was the time and place they lived in."

John Carter's appearance on Barsoom is no more ridiculous than Dorothy's arrival in Oz. And your point is well taken that his arrival is not the point of the story. My point was to comment on the fact that aspects of the story haven't aged well, and showcase Frazetta's spectacular interpretation of Burrough's imagination.

I'm sure you're aware of the John Carter of Mars movie in production. Let me asure you that I am eagerly awaiting it. I won't be disappointed if they gloss over the method by which Carter gets to Barsoom. And I'm hoping they can revive a seminal story in American science fiction to the prominence it deserves.

Was that less snide? I hope so. But snide and snippy is kinda my thing.

Taranaich said...

Hey now, Howard fans are just as detail-oriented as the Burroughs fans. Many have commented on him making the snake in "The Usurper" the wrong colour, or giving Conan a shield he didn't have in "Frost Giants." Yet as with his Barsoom pictures, somehow many fans still consider him a great illustrator of Conan.

I myself am doing a series over at The Cimmerian analyzing Frazetta's Conan illustrations, and addressing this strange conundrum: how can Frazetta make some serious divergences from the source material, yet still be considered the greatest Conan illustrator by a great many diehard Conan fans?

jrf said...

There are always nit-pickers in any crowd. I'm sure it is true that people pointed at the Conan illustrations and found "errors" that deviated from the story. I'm just reporting what Frank Frazetta claimed -- at least as reported in the book "Icon."

It's possible there is something in the cultural DNA of Conan that is makes divergence more forgiving. He's survived translation into various media unscathed. Perhaps the fans are more accustomed to the idea that Conan is going to be slightly different in every format. they pick and choose based on the merits of the specific depiction. That's why the TV series tanked, or why the first movie is considered so good, but "Conan the Destroyer" is considered awful.