Thursday, May 31, 2007


Although Tarzan is by far Edgar Rice Burroughs’s most famous creation, John Carter of Mars was his first and, for my money, his most interesting. In the novel A Princess of Mars (originally titled Under the Moons of Mars), we are introduced to Virginia Civil War Captain John Carter who, while entering a lonely cave, is consumed by a mysterious vapor which renders him unconscious. When he awakes, he finds that he is on the planet Mars. Naked and completely vulnerable, he happens upon a nest of giant eggs. Turns out these are the incubating offspring of the Tharks. Soon, he is attacked by a group of 15-feet-tall, green creatures with four arms and tusks jutting from their protruding jaws. While unarmed, Carter is able to avoid injury by leaping great distances and exhibiting tremendous strength, thanks to the lighter gravity on Mars. The leader of the Thark group, Tars Tarkus, finds Carter a novelty and decides to take him back to his village. Here Carter meets the other Tharks and learns the language of Mars, or Barsoom as it is called in the native tongue.

Carter becomes a welcome honorary member of the Tharks until an airship crashes near the village and red-skinned humanoids are rousted from the craft by the Tharks. It turns out they are from Helium on a scientific expedition, but the Tharks don’t buy their story, having been at war with the Heliumites for years. The expedition is led by the raven-haired Princess Dejah Thoris and, being that she looks like the hot chicks back home, Carter instantly falls for her. When one of the Tharks tries to kill the Heliumites, Carter kills the Thark, suddenly putting him on the outs with his adopted people. Soon, Carter and Dejah Thoris are on the run. Eventually, Tars Tarkus defies his own people and befriends Carter. From this point, Carter bounces from one battle to another, one adventure to another, and wins the hand of Dejah Thoris. However, he dies on Mars and returns to Earth. After living a successful life on Earth, he dies a natural death, but returns to Mars as his younger self to continue his adventures. There’s a lot more, but that’s the basic gist.

My first exposure to John Carter was not from the original novels, but through comic books. In the late 70s, Marvel ran a comic series based on the hero. The artwork was handled by various artists over the years, but the books were all top quality. Since I was heavily into comic book collecting at the time, I also found the John Carter stories which appeared in DC Comics title, Weird Worlds. Incidentally, the back-up feature in Weird Worlds was my old friend David Innes from Pellucidar. Finally, I landed copies of Gold Key’s John Carter comic from the 60s. Although the artwork was simplistic, I loved the straight forward nature of the story telling. I later learned that these were reprints of Dell comics from the 50s and were closely based on the early Burroughs novels. That convinced me that I needed to read those books.

I have to be honest; I only read the first book and a few others. By the time I got around to the John Carter series, I was entering high school and my attention was slipping to other interests. Still, I was intrigued by the concept of such a civilization, so strange and yet so close to our own planet. The fact that Carter’s experiences happened in the 1800s set up a plausible time line, at least in my teenage mind. Burroughs made it clear that the inhabitants of Barsoom were hanging on by a thread on this desert planet, using an “atmosphere factory” to maintain a breathable climate. The Viking mission of 1976 led us to believe that Mars was essentially a barren rock. To me, this meant that the races of Barsoom, torn by arrogance and hostility, fought and argued while their fragile environment wasted away. Carter experienced the final years of their civilization, before they were choked by the feeble atmosphere and buried in the sands of Mars. Unlike the uncharted islands or underground worlds of Burroughs's other stories, the Mars premise seemed almost plausible. I wanted to believe that perhaps this world did once exist.

For the past few years, a movie project based on John Carter has been kicked around. Currently, it looks like the Warlord of Mars is in the hands of Disney and the Pixar people. God help us! All I can say is, I hope they don’t screw it up. Just like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells before him, Edgar Rice Burroughs invented a new type of story telling which formed a pillar in the genre wing known as science fiction. Without Burroughs, there is no Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, or even Star Wars. His blending of swashbuckling and planet hopping, swords and ray guns, Arabian-style kingdoms and weird aliens, created a style we have loved for decades. Disney must understand that they are dealing with the original article, and they must treat Captain Carter with a great deal of respect.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I recently read that Gordon Scott, the actor who portrayed Tarzan through the second half of the 50s, died in my hometown of Baltimore while being treated for a heart ailment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Forget about Johnny Weismuller; Mr. Scott was the best Tarzan for my money. He was handsome, well-built, and he played Tarzan as an educated person, like in the books. None of this “You Jane, me Tarzan,” garbage. The Tarzan movies from that era were also slick productions, in full color with strong performances (catch Sean Connery as a baddie in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure). Yessir, Gordon Scott was the Tarzan for me, and the fact that he spent his remaining years so close to where I live seemed like an interesting coincidence.

Tarzan, of course, was Edgar Rice Burroughs most well known creation, but he was the least interesting to me as a child. Tarzan movies from all eras, from the 30s to the 60s, were a ubiquitous part of weekend television when I was a child, so I watched them regularly, but I don’t think I was ever able to finish a whole Tarzan book. Jungle stories just didn’t excite me that much. I was more of a science fiction guy, and I had no idea that Burroughs wrote primarily sci-fi until I went to see The Land that Time Forgot.

Released in 1974, The Land that Time Forgot was a modestly budgeted movie starring aging t.v. star Doug McClure and produced by the British company Amicus Productions, known primarily for modestly budgeted horror films like The House That Dripped Blood. In a nutshell, McClure is an American traveling on an ocean liner in the Atlantic during WW I when it is torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Stranded in the water, McClure and his fellow castaways launch an improbable attack on the U-Boat and take it over. They then end up lost and find an uncharted island hidden from the world by a perpetual fog. Once ashore, the international crew discover a volatile world of volcanoes, dinosaurs, and cavemen. Since this was 1974, the dinosaurs are rubber, the caveman makeup is laughable, and the volcano special effects are crude. But for a 10-year-old in the 70s, this was really exciting stuff.

Amicius quickly followed up with a movie based on another Burroughs book, At The Earth’s Core. Also starring Doug McClure as David Innes, this time he’s teamed with horror legend Peter Cushing as two intrepid explorers (they were all intrepid back then) who traveled to the center of the Earth in a turn-of-the-century machine which looked like a cross between a tank and a gi-normous drill. The Earth turns out to be a hollow ball with a tiny sun in the center. A whole civilization lives on the inner surface of the Earth, bathed in eternal daylight. Of course, we don’t have much time to ponder the science since the set-up is just an excuse to fight rubber dinosaurs, primitive humans, and a race of bird-like bad guys (i.e., men in rubber suits). After seeing this second movie, I was convinced there was more to this Burroughs guy than just stories about guys in loincloths.

Around this same time, I was becoming a rabid reader, and I begged my dad constantly to visit the Waldens Books at the local mall. My favorite section to browse was Science Fiction, and there I discovered shelf after shelf of Edgar Rice Burroughs books. I was stunned at the number and diversity of his work. My first purchases were the books I had seen adapted on the screen. To my surprise and pleasure, the books were much better than the movies. There’s a certain special exhilaration one feels when one discovers a writer with whom one can’t get enough of, and given Burroughs library, I knew there was plenty for me to feast on for quite awhile.

After reading TLTTF and At the Earth’s Core, I moved on to their sequels, The People that Time Forgot and Pellucidar. The former was also made into a movie starring Patrick Wayne (John’s son). It was on par with the earlier movies and featured a cameo by perennial Doug McClure, but the movies just couldn’t live up to the source material.

This was my pre-teen/early teen period, when I was also a big comic book collector. The cool thing about comic collecting back then was that comic people also tended to be mad science fiction buffs, so there was a cross-over of collecting comics and second-hand books. While I was buying old comics, including old comics based on Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, I also came across first editions of Burroughs books. Those musty hardcovers with the painted illustrations inside made the reading experience even more exciting, as if I were making a direct connection with the era when these stories were first written. I spent those sultry summers in the late 70s sitting on my back porch reading those books until the sun light faded from the evening sky. I would always burn a citronella candle next to me to keep away the mosquitoes. I don’t think it ever worked based on the number of bites I received, but the smell of the stuff brings me back to those days when I was alongside David Innes fighting wild creatures on Pellucidar.

For those who are avid Burroughs fans, it might surprise some that I started with these lesser known books. I actually took awhile to work my way to what is probably Burroughs’s second greatest creation next to Tarzan. That is, of course, John Carter of Mars. More on him next time…

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


As a child, I never liked Hawkman. I think it was because of the hawk mask and the ultra-realistic wings. I couldn’t tell whether he was man or bird or both. The whole costume was just a little too creepy for me. That probably explains why he was never a big mover of comic books: kids were just creeped out by him. As an adult, however, I was impressed with his elaborate garb.

Physically, Golden Age Hawkman and Silver Age Hawkman looked pretty much the same. Of course, as was the case with the reintroduction of these old characters in the 50s and 60s, their origins were quite different. While the Silver Age origin is pure science fiction, Hawkman’s Golden Age origin is rooted in ancient mythology. Carter Hall believes himself to be the reincarnation of Egyptian Prince Khufu. His girlfriend Shiera Sanders also thinks she has an Egyptian soul in her, and the two become Hawkman and Hawkgirl to defeat the reincarnation of ancient priest Hath-Set. Using something called “Ninth Metal,” they make anti-gravity costumes with cool hawk wings. The ensuing stories take on an unusual air of romance and ancient mysticism.

Like his colleague the Flash, Hawkman did his regular duty in Flash Comics as well as functioning as a member of the Justice Society of America. Somewhere along the way, for reasons I’ve never been able to uncover, Hawkman’s giant hawk mask was replaced with a simple yellow cowl which made him look like a Mexican wrestler. Although he was less scary looking with the cowl, he lost a great deal of his mystique. The issue was moot, since all the old super heroes got the boot in the early 50s. When Hawkman was resurrected during the Silver Age, his big hawk mask was brought back.

My custom Hawkman took a re-eeaa-lly long time to put together. Rauty’s Toy Store offered the basic Hawkman costume, which consisted of the tights, belt, and criss-cross chest thingee. The big issue was the hawk mask and the wings. I bought the costume years earlier, but it took a long time to figure out how to make the wings. Finally, I read in the Yahoo! Captain Action forum that a fellow customizer used the wings from an X-Men Angel figure. Although the Angel figure was several inches smaller than my 12-inch figures, the wings were oversized and, therefore, worked perfectly for my Hawkman. After snagging an Angel figure on eBay, I chopped off the wings and the back attachment from the Angel figure and re-attached the whole assembly on a standard G.I. Joe figure with screws and model glue. It’s not very pretty from the back, but the effect is great from the front.

The next big issue was the mask. Dale Van Slyke once sold a rubber Hawkman mask on eBay, but I didn’t think it was quite what I was looking for. I swallowed hard and attempted to create a mask with Sculpey. To my surprise, my clay modeling skills weren’t too bad and the mask did look something like a hawk head. Unfortunately, the Sculpey was too thick and the mask looked way oversized on poor Joe’s head. The second attempt looked better, although I had to give the wings on the sides of the helmet a swept-back look so that the mask would not be so unwieldy. Now that I’ve become more proficient with Sculpey, I may take another shot at the mask with wings that stand up on top more. The boots were standard red boots sold by Classic Plastick, but I used yellow electrical tape to fashion the talon-like stripes.

Anyway, here is the final product. Probably one of my most difficult custom jobs, but highly satisfying.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


When I first laid eyes on the Golden Age version of the Flash, I could understand why DC Comics made such a radical upgrade for the Silver Age incarnation. Instead of the unitard, which was standard apparel for Silver Age heroes, Golden Age Flash wore light-blue chinos and a red, long-sleeved t-shirt with a yellow lightning bolt racing out of his trousers. Footwear consisted of red, ankle-high booties with little yellow wings on the sides. But the worst fashion choice was the helmet. Capes may be cumbersome for a super hero, but hats and helmets are downright silly (sorry Magneto, but it had to be said). In an attempt to suggest the mythological god Mercury, Golden Age Flash wore a silver head covering which resembled a World War I doughboy helmet, adorned with yellow wings similar to those on his feet. The whole effect was to suggest an utterly fabulous utility worker rather than a courageous crimefighter.

This older version of Flash had an origin about as silly as his outfit. College chemistry major Jay Garrick has one of those chemical accidents so common in comic books. He inhales the fumes of his concoction and develops the ability to run at super fast speeds. Instead of entering the Olympics, Jay decides that his powers are best served fighting crime, so he throws together the aforementioned costume and sets out to be a super hero.

The Flash followed the career path of many similar Golden Age heroes, making his debut in late 1939 in Flash Comics (not named after the character, but perhaps the character was named after the book title). He joined the Justice Society of America, then left the group once he got his own comic (called All-Flash to distinguish it from the regular Flash title). After World War II, his popularity, like those of his costumed colleagues, faded and the comic titles he appeared in were systematically dropped. Once he lost his own title, he returned to the Justice Society, but that group would also fade from existence in the early 50s with the cancellation of All-Star Comics. In 1956, a new version of The Flash was introduced, with a better costume, better origin, and better artwork. This is when many comic fans say the Silver Age began, and I won’t argue that assessment.

It took me a long time to figure out how to create a custom action figure based on Golden Age Flash. I couldn’t find a long-sleeved t-shirt in 1/6th scale, so I took one of my many white turtlenecks and dyed it red. The light-blue pants and belt were courtesy of a Civil War uniform. For the helmet, I started with a World War I helmet which I painted silver. By carefully cutting out sections of wing from a rubber eagle I bought at a crafts store, I had the wings for the sides, which I simply painted yellow and glued to the helmet.

The odd booties took some thinking. I ended up using the boots from an Aladdin action figure, which I painted red. For the wings, I cut yellow pieces of foam rubber into wing shapes. Not my best work, but fairly effective. For the figure itself, I needed one with a headsculpt that would suggest the way Jay Garrick was drawn in the comic since he didn’t wear a mask to disguise his face. I settled on a figure that came in ERTL’s Outdoor Fisherman set.

Keep ‘em flying, Flash!