These days, for most people, John Carter is synonymous with one of the biggest box office flops of all time when Disney’s 2012 film adaptation was met with a critical drubbing and lost the studio so much money they fired the head of the studio. Dynamite’s John Carter – The End #1 seeks to redeem the legendary character’s reputation with a grim and stripped-down opening chapter that intrigues and engages by not trying to take on too much other than establishing a tone and the central characters.
John Carter was created over one hundred years ago by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, making his debut in a serialized novel published in a pulp magazine. After the success of Tarzan, John Carter found greater success with readers and Burroughs wrote a total of 11 books set in the Martian setting he created, though not always starring Carter himself. He has appeared in comics form more than a few times over they decades, beginning with a short-lived newspaper comic strip in the 1940s, a somewhat notable Marvel comics adoption in the late 1970s, and a 2010 Dark Horse mini that saw Carter team-up with Tarzan. Later that year, Dynamite got a hold of the property, and launched their own ongoing series written by “Rex Mundi” creator Arvid Nelson.
John Carter – The End #1 takes a somewhat different approach to the Carter mythos. Written by Brian Wood (DMZ) and Alex Cox (of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) with art by Hayden Sherman (The Few), the story opens with an aged Carter, living in solitude with wife Dejah Thoris, being summoned back to a Barsoom (or Mars as we call it) consumed with genocidal war. The news comes with a revelation that threatens to rip Carter and Dejah apart.
I hadn’t read Dynamite’s earlier Carter series, so I can only assume that this series picks up on some threads left behind by the series. However, as a new reader, it was remarkably easy to jump on board and enjoy the issue. A lot of that has to do with Wood and Cox’s decision to utilize a visual-heavy, dialogue-sparse style that keeps the exposition to a minimum in favor of action, atmosphere and character. It’s a quiet issue, but one that features a an effective sense of foreboding to communicate what the stakes are, and how personal they are for the protagonists.
And that’s a smart move, as one of the major stumbling blocks to any modern “John Carter” adaptation is the fact that so many science-fiction and fantasy classics that came after it basically lifted much of what made the stories initially so compelling. “John Carter” pretty much invented space opera, and everything that came after, from “Buck Rogers” to “Star Wars” to “Firefly” to “Saga” lifted a lot of elements from Burroughs’ tales. The influence of Carter is so widespread, in fact, that one of the reasons I think the movie failed was because audiences felt like they weren’t seeing anything new. In truth, what they were seeing was the one that started it all.
So Wood, Cox and Sherman are wise to immediately ground the story in the personal and not rely on wooing us with a world that in fact no longer seems as mind-blowing as it must have a century ago. The only issue I have with their approach is that, if this is the first time you’re reading a Carter story, it’s a bit hard to get a handle on Carter himself. You get the drama and conflict going on between him an Dejah, but the issue doesn’t make him as easy to figure out as it does her. This might be weakness if the story keeps him so undefined, but I have a feeling that this is just a choice for the opening issue, and that he’ll become more than a heroic archetype as the series progresses.
The art by Hayden is solid, eschewing the full-blooded overtly pulpy style that other artists might be tempted to employ for John Carter. He’s supposed to be tired, aged and beats-down, and Hayde’s scratchier style effectively suggests the more old-fashioned space-barbarian hero while emphasizing that it’s clearly been a long time time since Carter felt boldly heroic. There are a couple moments in the action scenes where I thought things got a little too sketchy and ill-defined, and moving forward I think he’ll benefit from a greater attention to clarity, but I can’t fault his design or his use of atmosphere and emotion.
John Carter – The End #1 may be a quiet and moody opening issue, but its grounded tone and focus on the personal serves to breathe more nuanced life into the adventures of the classic pulp hero. 7.5/10
John Carter – The End #1 will be released Feb. 8, 2017.