Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Number 1800: John Carter and the Black Pirates of Omean

John Carter, having returned to Mars after disappearing back to Earth for a time, is plunged into the death struggles of the religious...those who take their last pilgrimage down the River Iss and fall into the clutches of the Therns and Black Pirates. It is an adaptation of The Gods of Mars, which was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ take on religion. There is an article examining ERB’s views of organized religion online, in ERBzine #1434.

In The Gods of Mars, ERB’s second John Carter of Mars novel, originally published in All-Story Magazine in 1913, ERB described the Black Pirates as “ebony-skinned,” which is reflected in this illustration for the 1918 book jacket by Frank Schoonover.

In 1952, when the novel was originally adapted for Dell Four Color series, the wise decision was made not to show them as black people. The pirate stuff is kind of ludicrous, though, because I see a skull and crossbones. On Mars, yet.

If you have not read my posting of the first in this Gold Key series, you can go to Pappy's #1732, then come back here.

The three issue series, as mentioned, first published in 1952 as Dell Four Color #375, 437, and 488, are reprinted out of sequence. Gold Key John Carter of Mars #3, which is what you are reading today, is actually #2, and vice versa. I am showing them in the order in which they should be seen, not in the order they were reprinted in 1965.

Drawn by Jesse Marsh.


J_D_La_Rue_67 said...

In a way, I believe it may be misleading to think of an ethnic identity for certain literary creatures labelled as "Black". I recall a famous Robert Howard story where a flying "black man" threatens a barbarian and his woman (it was a James Allison story). The author makes it clear that this glossy black demon does NOT resemble an African man, thus adding an element which makes the creature even weirder and more "alien". Howard knew that the connection "Black man=African" is instinctual and almost automatic, so he made a point of avoiding it. Now I don't remember if Burroughs' description of the Black Pirates was that accurate ...

I love all the old comic versions of John Carter, from Murphy Anderson to Gil Kane, but I'm beginning to think this is one of the most original and well conceived.
Aside from the crappy pirate guy (certainly a faux pas), I'm particularly impressed by the creatures: the Plant men are lovely and even the Tharks have an unusual, very effective look. And Carter does not look like Tarzan. The comic has a general sci fi allure that is a pleasant diversion from the barbaric/heroic standard.

Pappy said...

J D, I checked my copy of The Gods of Mars for the quote about the Black Pirates being "ebony-skinned."

Mostly, as we have found out from all of those comic book heroes with "Black" in their name, Black Terror, Black Angel among them, that in the past "black" didn't mean what it meant after African-Americans in the sixties chose to call themselves black rather than Negroes. The term Afro-Americans was also used, which became after a few decades, African-Americans. Black and African-American in current usage seem interchangeable. Further, I realized after posting the story that "Black Pirates" might bring random readers expecting a story about pirates who are of African descent.

I assume white people are allowed to call themselves "black" in old comic books because the word had a different meaning, a synonym perhaps meaning mysterious. In other cases it means evil, as in black magic. It is that kind of word that takes on shades of meaning depending on its context.

What it meant in Burroughs' book is descriptive of the pirates themselves, which in context sounds racist: "The golden-haired, white-skinned therns battling with desperate courage in hand-to-hand conflict with their ebony-skinned foemen." — The Gods of Mars, page 50 of the 1971 edition, illustrated by Frank Frazetta, who avoided altogether drawing the Black Pirates.

Unknown said...

I actually liked the novel's description of the Black Pirates as black-skinned; Burroughs referred to them a number of times as beautiful or comely. It was part of ERB's all-colors-included fantasy world, which included white, not Caucasian, people. To have left black-skinned people out would have been racist, to my mind. Making the pirates look like French musketeers in the comic was kind of silly. And, speaking of changes, why the big departure from the novel toward the end? No Carthoris? No cliffhanger ending? Why? I liked that stuff.

J_D_La_Rue_67 said...

Thanks for the clarifications, interesting as usual.
I've checked my "Gods of Mars" (translated of course) and I see that soon after the lines you quote there's an actual physical description of the Pirates.
Apparently there's no "racial" difference between them and the Therns or Red Men (and even from Carter). They are just black. A glossy, ebony black.
Oddly enough, Carter says that this color made them "even more magnificent" and that their bodies were "divine" (!), but their nature was evil. Even more oddly, he states that this remark may sound strange "from a southerner like him".
Now, given the fact that I didn't read this stuff since the 80's and that I have to re-translate a translation... I'm probably wrong, but I don't have a feeling that ERB. wanted to sound "racist", although those lines may sound so.
After all, the blond Therns are not that great themselves.
So I stand for a symbolic use of black, a hint (as you say) to something evil-natured and mysterious. :-)

Pappy said...

J D, Ryan...all right, guys, you got me. I read the chapter of the book up until the quote I used, then shut it and put it back on the shelf. I did it because of ERB's Victorian-era writing. I read the books years ago and didn't think anything of the style, but nowadays I haven't the patience.

The fact that ERB could give Black people (even on Mars) any credit at all was way beyond mainstream white thinking of the era: White good, every other color on earth are savages and bad. So, thanks for pointing it out.

And Ryan, why a truncated version? A tight format of 32 pages for one. I am wondering if Dell was testing the title, as they sometimes did with the Four Color line, to see if it could be spun off into its own series. That it ran three issues and no more is probably an indicator that is was not a good enough seller to warrant a regular title with its own numbering system.