Dejah Thoris, the long time secondary damsel-in-distress character to John Carter, is back in the limelight and now centre stage of her own series from Dynamite Entertainment. With Amy Chu behind the writing wheel, will we be able to see the Queen of Mars in an empowering, well-written role? Or will this series succumb to the long-time, old fashioned legacy of the Edgar Rice Burroughs texts it originates from?
Written by Amy Chu
Illustrated by Pasquale Qualano
Colored by Valentina Pinto
Lettered by Thomas Napolitano
Dejah Thoris, obsessed with finding the legendary Gardens of Mars, recruits her own expedition team of scientists. But once outside the palace walls, things don’t go as planned, and the Princess learns the hard way just how dangerous Barsoom really is.
Let’s focus on the positives for now. Amy Chu’s take on Dejah is for the most part a fairly likeable character. Chu gives her a Wonder Woman-esque outlook, seeking to find the peaceful option to ending the war in the city of Barsoom by looking to the legends of old that talk about mass production of water. From what we can see by her interactions with characters like Dekana Lor, Sajad Surma, and her very own crew of explorers, she’s well-liked by people of the same mindset and inspires hope for them to pursue that peaceful journey. Additionally, Chu’s Dejah Thoris isn’t a pushover in combat. I believe the book is well paced in this regard, in that most of the book we see Dejah negotiating and debating, leaving it right to the last four pages to show that she’s capable of wielding a sword to take down a ‘Banth’ and further save her male comrade. Chu works well at giving her independence through this by having not just no one aid her in this task, but by even having her saving another of her less capable comrades.
Unfortunately, there’s another side to Chu’s Dejah, and that’s the fact that she seems to strut around for most of the issue getting things handed to her because she’s royalty. Although I love that most of this is due to her disagreeing and trying to do better than the patriarchal rulers of Barsoom, she doesn’t seem to have a level of humility to her when she asks for something that she feels is right. I do think it’s a nice touch that Dekana Lor, Head Mistress of the Academy, helps her out in spite of what the Barsoom ruler think. But in the case of her exploring ‘students’, there’s not a lot of pushback or unique opinions or even development period within their minds. They all seem to quite placidly go along with what they are told, and even seem to finish each other’s sentences. It makes the conversations between them uninteresting and with no appeal other than to inform and instruct the reader as to what they are doing at said point in time.
I was put off initially by the straightforward nature of J. Scott Campbell’s cover, but I’m glad to see that for the most part, Pasquale Qualano’s art is a little less pose-y and somewhat more restrained. Of course, since this property is based off Burrough’s original texts which have the residents of Barsoom as being scantily clad, there’s not a lot of breathing room for modernisation here, but Qualano keeps the characters looking reasonably natural with this in consideration. What I can appreciate, to some extent, is how the camera is used to give Qualano’s figures a sense of sequential movement. Sure, Qualano’s figures may all look like Hollywood Movie Star Models ™ but they don’t have a mannequin stiffness to them, and all move quite smoothly around the pages. The fight scene at the end benefits to this liquid-like pencil and inking, with Dejah gliding all over the Banth beasts in all her lithe glory.
It’s worth pointing out how Qualano uses the already rich world of this text to really flesh out and bring his environments to life. Barsoom here looks like a well-rendered fantasy world, with architecture that draws upon real life Indian and Egyptian influences, like the design of the Royal Academy, and ships in the Royal Fleet that look delightfully alien. And for the most part, everything retains a stripped back, simple elegance. The Throne Room is mostly depicted as just a throne with a short staircase and window behind it, but the throne is a bold, golden pillar, and the open window behind it highlights its grandeur. It also makes the desert segments much more desolating, giving an air of risk to Dejah and her companions as they travel through stark, hilled dunes underneath two devastating suns.Continued below
Unfortunately, I’d be doing an injustice if I didn’t mention how Qualano likes to draw attention to his… beautiful specimens. I guess this comes down to the audience this comic is aimed at, and really, this just seems to be the norm within the Dynamite Entertainment house style. But every character seems to be each the peak of human beauty and attraction. As I said before, the proportions and anatomy are thankfully not 90’s Image Comics levels of absurdity. But it’s more the way that Qualano frames them. Qualano’s female walk with a sultry gait, and I think within the context, this is fine, and even empowering that they can walk this way without the other residents calling them out for this. But, for example, in the scene where Dejah approaches the Royal Academy, Qualano angles the camera underneath our protagonist’s behind, and even appears to use a kind of fish-bowl lens technique that kind of exaggerates her lower body. The worst of it for me, however, is the scene where Dejah is caught by her Father putting together the expedition, Qualano has the camera primed to give the reader as much of a look at the underneath of Dejah’s breasts as possible while having her hands in the air in an unnatural position of exclamation. It’s just old fashioned, sexualised comic art that does nothing to push what Amy Chu is trying to convey in her script.
Thankfully, colorist Valentina Pinto does a solid job at conveying the surreal nature of the setting of Helium, Barsoom and Mars. In every scene, the use of two suns and moons cuts through to create an otherworldly tone. The opening flashback scene has ethereal purple skies and lavender tones throughout the architecture. This is contrasted, however, by the burning golden tone of the rest of the issue, conveying a very grand and regal theme that coincides with the searing heat of the desert surrounding the city. The throneroom scene look exceptional in this regard – we get the lovely gold and red tones of the throne room highlighted by the pulsing glow of the desert suns outside the window. It’s a way to show both sides of the comic’s world and how they affect and highlight each other.
Suffice to say, “Dejah Thoris” #1 is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, we get a solid setup and introduction to the newly proactive Princess of Mars and her ideals as she embarks on a journey of peace. However, there’s still some outdated ideals in the character development and some supporting cast feel totally flat. Qualano’s art is slick and fluid looking, but also suffers quite heavily from these outdated themes, though Pinto does a great job at giving otherworldly life to the environment around them.
Final Score: 6.0 – “Dejah Thoris” #1 proves that the Dynamite line still has a ways to go to feel truly modern, but underneath all the overblown art and flat supporting cast, there’s a hint of good character work and story potential.