Interview: Robert Place Napton Goes Back To Barsoom's Past With 'Warriors of Mars'

In February, writer Robert Place Napton is taking readers 1400 years into Barsoom's history with Warriors of Mars. The book resurrects less well-known pulp character, Gullivar Jones, a precursor to John Carter, created by Edwin Lester Jones. Napton and artist place the character squarely in John Carter's universe in this story which starts out in 1800's New York and leaps to the surface of Mars.

Here's the official synopsis:

When Lt. Guillivar Jones happens upon a mysterious old man with a beautiful carpet he soon finds himself transported through space and time to the planet Mars where he meets the beautiful Princess Hera and a ferocious tribe of Red Martians bent on capturing her!

We spoke to Napton about the book, ancient Barsoom, and giving Gullivar his due.

MTV Geek: How did you come on board for Warriors of Mars?

Robert Place Napton: When I heard Dynamite was bringing John Carter back to comics I let my passion for the book series be known and I was fortunate enough to get the call from Joe Rybandt to pitch a new series to follow up Warlords and Dejah Thoris and we zeroed in on a concept that turned out to be Fall of Barsoom, a series about Mars’ history 100,000 years before John Carter arrived. It focuses on the Orovar, the once dominant race of Barsoom that lost its hold as the planet’s climate changed. That’s been a real labor of love—we got to visualize things that were suggested by Burroughs but never really seen before. As the Fall of series was progressing I got contacted about Warriors and they told me their idea about bringing Gullivar of Mars and John Carter together and if I’d be interested and of course I jumped at the chance.

I knew of Gullivar because that book is cited as a possible inspiration for John Carter. In fact, In a quote in December 1977 talking about the first Star Wars, George Lucas said how he wanted to do Flash Gordon but couldn’t get the rights so he started tracing what inspired Raymond and discovered that it was Burroughs and John Carter and then found Gullivar of Mars which he felt was the first story in this genre. So Gullivar has historic significance but has never really gotten a chance to shine in comics, so I was very eager to get a crack at bringing his story to this medium and having him meet John Carter at the same time.

Geek: Obviously, you had a lot of exposure to Burroughs’ work before this project.

Napton: I was in a book store when I was 12 or 13 and looked up and saw one of those great Michael Whelan covers of the Del Rey edition of the books and that hooked me in. Carter was riding a malagor with a half naked Dejah riding behind him and he looked like he was having a pretty fun time to me [laughs]. I read the books but didn’t really grasp their significance until later—how they influenced Raymond on Flash Gordon, Lucas on Star Wars. I didn’t realize until I was older that Burroughs created Tarzan.

It’s interesting that Carter is his first creation but his second creation Tarzan, just exploded for Burroughs so it became the dominant thing in his life. I read a couple of Burroughs biographies and it’s no exaggeration to say that Tarzan was like the Star Wars of its time. There were multiple film versions, some being made at the same time by competing companies. Could you imagine a thing like that today? Radio shows, comics books. Burroughs built a ranch called “Tarzana” which is now a city in Los Angeles. Because of all of that John Carter got underserved and it wasn’t until the great artists like Frazetta started doing those classic illustrations in the 70s that Burroughs’ first son started getting the recognition he deserved and then started to appear in comics. Star Wars pushed things along too for Burroughs work in John Carter—people of my age found Carter because of the post-Star Wars explosion in SF. So I’ve been a fan of Burroughs and learned more about him from about age 13 on.

This is truly geeky admission, but I was in Tarzana recently on a business meeting and drove by the gates of what’s left of Burroughs’ Tarzana ranch just to get a look. It’s pretty cool to get near the place 100 years later—I didn’t knock on the door for fear of alarming the current owners [laughs].

Geek: What was the process like in composing your scripts for the book? I noticed a lot of detail, images, references, and notes for your artist.

Napton: I’ve developed a process I’m really comfortable with and the artists I work with seem to like. I’m not one of these guys who writes a novel-length comic script. I don’t dispute the value of doing that, it’s just not how I was brought up and I ultimately believe in brevity in communicating with an artist. A comic script is a blueprint, like a screenplay, for something that is going to be visual so I believe in giving the artist the framework they need to illustrate the page and the details that are relevant to the plot and setting but not to the point that it impedes all they bring to the table as the artist. I do break down the page by panels but I do that for timing so I know we are hitting the shots and reactions and nuances that are important for the story. Usually I do the dialogue after I have the comic page.

I’ve developed a habit of embedding a lot of photo reference in my scripts. A picture is worth a thousand words—so why write a thousand words, [laughs]? For this series there was a lot of historical reference for New York in the late 1800s so I grabbed a bunch of photos and included those. I like finding photos that convey mood and atmosphere and detail. For Barsoom itself there have been some great renditions. I mentioned Michael Whelan [and] he’s among my favorites, so there’s a rich history of imagery so I will reference that when I feel it’s appropriate to communicate how I see Barsoom.

I think in film terms the comic artist and comic writer, especially when it’s not a creator property or someone’s personal vision, they really share the responsibilities of the “director” and the artist has the extra burden of being the actor, cinematographer, lighting guy, set designer. It’s a lot of work, so I help by giving them photo reference or pictures of actors that I think are a good model for a character we are creating.

Geek: And your artist here was Jack Jadson.

Napton: Jack is great. He’s bringing a really fresh voice artistically to this material. He’s showing us a Barsoom we haven’t seen before from the past—the story starts out before John Carter’s time and then moves forward in time to the era of John Carter and then we will even hint at the future of Barsoom, so we’ll be jumping around through various time periods and I think Jack’s creating some exciting visuals bringing those time periods to life. In addition to Gullivar, we have some new characters and some new antagonists that are from the Gullivar novel that we are weaving into the overall mythology of Barsoom.

Geek: Tell us a little about Gullivar Jones.

Napton: Gullivar is a bit more whimsical than Carter. He is a ladies’ man, wears his heart on his sleeve—he complains about his fate more than Carter, he’s a little bit of whiner—which provides a nice contrast.

Like Carter he served in the civil war, but he was not a Confederate soldier. A lot of people swear that he is a Confederate, I’m not sure where that started, but if you read the book, that’s not accurate in my reading. In the opening line of the book he says he’s a “lieutenant in the Republican service,” which to me is a Union reference. We know he’s a Navy officer. He refers to time spent in New York and Boston and in Chapter 18 he literally states he serves in the “United States Navy” not the Confederate States Navy (CSN), so I think the idea that he is a Confederate is apocryphal. The text doesn’t really support that.

When we first meet him he’s very bitter about the Navy—he’s bucking for a promotion to help get the girl of his dreams and they Navy denies him so he’s fuming about that when he meets someone who will change his life forever. This is all straight out of Edwin Arnold’s novel. Circumstances I won’t spoil bring him to Mars. To weave these stories together we decided to make Barsoom the Mars. The Mars in the Gullivar novel has a couple of elements that are almost identical to Barsoom, like a River of Death, so it was pretty easy to bring them onto the same Red planet. Gullivar will see things new to Barsoom and we are justifying that with not only time period but geography. Barsoom is a big world and Carter hasn’t seen every inch of it, so Gullivar will encounter things unknown to Carter so that will set up an interesting situation when they finally meet.

And they do meet. We are covering three time periods on Barsoom through Gullivar’s eyes: the past relative to John Carter, John Carter’s time, and then even hinting at the future, so that’s pretty exciting. So Gullivar is not only travelling through space but time and this impacts him on an emotional level in a way that is different from Carter’s journey from earth to Barsoom. There’s enough different between them that it gives me a lot to play with as far as character and personality go. It’s really fun playing those contrasts.

Geek: How did he become the focus and why was he a compelling subject for the book?

Napton: Well, as I mentioned earlier, historically Gullivar of Mars’ existence drives some people crazy because they want to know definitively if Burroughs read Gullivar and if it inspired the creation of John Carter. We don’t know. There’s no journal entry or smoking gun. We know that there are similarities but there are also similarities between John Carter and even earlier work called Journey to Mars, which was written before Gullivar. The mystery about their connection has fascinated people who are fans of SF literature since the Gullivar novel was reprinted in the 60s. Marvel even picked up on this and did a very short but fun comic book version of Gullivar in the 70s as part of their Creatures on the Loose series. They made him a Vietnam vet, so they retconned the story considerably but those are fun books to read if you can find them in your back issue sections.

I think Gullivar deserves his place at the table. As George Lucas stated, Edwin Arnold made a huge contribution to the genre, so it’s time he gets brought into the modern era, much like Dynamite has done with dozens of other great characters.

Geek: Gullivar hits historical Barsoom about 1400 years before John Carter. What’s the era like?

Napton: Well, having gone back into the past with Fall of Barsoom, I had tackled some of this already in telling the story of the fall of the Orovar, the once dominant race on Mars. In this story, the setting early on is dictated by the Gullivar novel—we wanted to set up Gullivar and tell his story within the context of Barsoom. Some elements of Gullivar’s plot had to be shifted to tighten the connection to Barsoom—if I say anything more it will ruin the surprise, so we’ll see how all this plays with those purists out there [laughs]. I’ll say in advance that Alan Moore did the same thing in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2, he put Gullivar and Carter on the same red planet and had them meet, so if it works for Alan Moore, it works for me [laughs].

Geek: What else are you working on now?

Well, I’m jumping onboard Dejah Thoris starting with Issue #11 so that’s exciting. Arvid’s [Nelson] done such a great job on the book, so I know I’ve got big shoes to fill but I’m up for the challenge. I’ve got new creator series called Cutter coming soon from Top Cow and some other projects in the works I can’t talk about yet, so I’m looking forward to 2012.

Geek: Care to tease anything from upcoming issues of the series?

Napton: There’s definitely a reveal in Warriors of Mars Issue #1 that is going to turn the heads of fans of John Carter and Gullivar. A connection nobody suspects…

Warriors of Mars will be available in February.

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