Best Shots Advance Reviews: DEJAH THORIS, STARBORN
Arvid Nelson on DEJAH THORIS Spinoff
Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris #1
Written by Arvid Nelson
Art by Carlos Rafael
Colors by Carlos Lopez
Lettered by Marshall Dillon
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Shanna VanVolt
Arvid Nelson needs to choose a side. Is he Edgar Rice Burroughs’s speaker for the dead, or is he Arvid Nelson, composer of his own worlds? Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris begins with a nod to its parent series, Warlord of Mars, with a faked letter from ERB. The letters and text from Warlord are genuine, but Dejah Thoris intends to prequel Burroughs’ texts with the back story of the Princess of Mars herself.
Dynamite is pulling out all the stops with this release, and it’s an audacious gamble. Its parent book is selling only about 15,000 copies and yet Dynamite feels confident enough to hire five big-name cover artists and spin off this book from a title that hasn’t exactly been burning up the sales charts. Each artist produces a stimulating depiction of nearly-naked Dejah Thoris. I mean, she is a compelling character to chase, but can they capture her without the strict governance of Burroughs’ texts?
Perhaps Nelson and crew succeed in capturing her by realizing that they cannot harness such a force. It is in these covers that I realize the great difference between Warlord and Dejah Thoris #1. For ERB’s writing, with its epic undertones produced from a voice long gone, Joe Jusko’s covers evoke the mysticism past, reminiscent of the fantasy worlds of Boris Vallejo (my personal favorite). However, Arthur Adams’ coquettish cover seems more apt to this application. Dejah Thoris is no longer a plot point; she is a Princess--and a darn good one, playing the best politics in this first issue. Burroughs wrote her naked, but Nelson’s writing clothes her with strength and prowess.
In fact, all the character depictions for a starter issue are strong. Nelson does not try to overload the plot, and allows relationships between characters to ferment. In doing so, he sheds the shield of Edgar Rice Burroughs. You can actually see the references fall off as the book goes along. Dejah Thoris starts with the cold-but-inspired imitated prose of ERB’s descriptions dotting the panel margins. Then everyone starts talking, and we leave a single point of view, casting off the narrative form of the originals. But it works. Mostly.
At times, Nelson skirts the story along farcical territory. Where ERB is dry and witty, Nelson, who has expressed his desire to stay true to the direction of Burroughs, gets a little goofy. One character, Dor Valian, stumbles onto the page almost as a cameo of a fanboy. Pudgy and clumsy, he has no place in a Burroughs epic. That does not mean he has no place in Dejah Thoris, however. Nelson has already moved away from the master, he just has to embrace his own instincts. While the exchanges between Dor Valian and the Princess of Mars are not what would come out of ERB’s 1912 point of view, they are engaging, so far, from a modern standpoint.
The aspect where Dejah Thoris suffers most from its lack of pulp backing is in the backgrounds themselves. Carlos Rafael draws strong characters. Their boldly defined outlines literally pop out of their surroundings. However, the lack of extraneous descriptive text that exists in Warlord makes the Martian world Nelson and Rafael are trying to create tentative in comparison. Whereas the parent series is pulling from a tome, emphasizing aspects of the entire universe that ERB wrote, Dejah Thoris seems to be having a hard time drawing on a blank canvas. The characters and words come out strong, but the world behind them is a little uncertain, at times confusing regarding the political system of Helium, Dejah's civil-warring nation.
The book ends up feeling a little hesitant, like Nelson is dipping his big toe into a universe without Burroughs. Personally, I hope he would just jump in and swim around and see what happens. With relatable characters, byzantine politics, and a surprise at the end, Dejah Thoris #1 does not make me want to dive into Burroughs, but it does make me want to see what Nelson does next.
Written by Chris Roberson
Art by Khary Randolph and Mitch Gerads
Lettering by Ed Dukeshire
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by David Pepose
I don't think it's any secret that Starborn is far and away the best of BOOM! Studios' Stan Lee lineup -- it's got an accessible storyline, bright colors, and an animated style that appeals to an all-ages lineup. But at the same time, even the eye candy can start to lose its taste after awhile -- because in its fourth issue, I'm starting to wonder when Starborn is going to ramp up.
Let me explain. If there's one major strength that Chris Roberson brings to this book, it's that he's got a sprawling mythology that's just as epic and accessible as any Pixar movie, with shapeshifting guards and dragon spacecraft and alien witches. That stuff is compelling -- but at the same time, we're four issues in, and it's starting to feel like a pattern. We see a new creature, Tara defends Benjamin, they run, and we see a new creature. That's not to say that world-building isn't fun -- and Roberson certainly has the smarts to back up his swagger -- but there comes a point where that's all window-dressing to the greater story.
And that's where Starborn seems to be lacking. There's a lot of fireworks visually -- and I have more to say about Khary Randolph and Mitch Gerads later -- but ultimately, we're four months in and we're still introducing key concepts of this world. Without some real growth to our protagonist, Ben Warner, we start to see the dangers of decompression. No matter how smart Roberson is, after awhile, it becomes a steep endeavor for anyone to plunk down their cash for essentially the new creature of the month.
Now, as far as Khary Randolph goes -- it does seem like this issue wasn't quite as smooth as some of the previous ones, his cartoony line getting a little bit more wild and jagged. That's not the biggest deal in the world -- but the real misstep that this book takes visually is that the composition doesn't quite click as much as it has in the past, which hampers the really strong power shots that stick with you. Still, when Randolph does deliver, it really jolts you -- seeing General Cur Talon standing in the smoking mouth of a dragon is a nearly psychotic mix of sci-fi and fantasy, and the Witches of Arbor really exaggerate Randolph's angular bodies to create something both alien and weirdly familiar. Mitch Gerads, meanwhile, brings some epic pop to his colors, bringing in blues and pinks and purples that really give a refreshing energy to this book. That man is the goods.
Reading Starborn, in a lot of ways, is a bittersweet experience for me. It's got a ton of talent working on it, and the high concept has a lot of potential. I'm hoping -- four issues in -- we've finally got the gist of this new world, or can at least focus on who Ben Warner is, what his goals are, and what these interstellar powers want with him. Ben says in this book, "I have no idea what I'm doing here," and unfortunately, that comment comes off a bit more metatextual than I think Roberson might like. High concept is great -- to compete in today's marketplace, purely character pieces have a tough time thriving -- but you need something to hook the reader in and get them rooting for your hero. Starborn might pack in the sci-fi eye candy, but after awhile, even the most indulgent of fans will want something with more substance.