Robert Abbett and A Princess of Mars

Many SF enthusiasts may not have heard of Robert Abbett. He made his mark in mainstream illustration, but would do science fiction and fantasy art from time to time. He painted all the covers for a paperback series of Tarzan. But he first tackled Burroughs’ Martian stories.

This to me is one of the best A Princess of Mars covers ever done for the series. Painted in the mid-sixties, it captures that era of paperback style: from the handsome Napolean Solo look of John Carter, to the blue eye-shadowed, brunette Deja Thoris.

Look at the moment caught here. It’s an odd slice of painting. Who’s he battling and what’s Deja fearful of? We don’t know, but we can suspect it is large, green, has four arms, and goes by the name of Thark.

From the wonderful color scheme of warm flesh against cool greens to the slap-dash brushwork, this painting has carried my interest for 40+ years. I love the way Abbett’s brush strokes carve around Deja’s shoulder and hair; I love the angle on John’s back and shoulders. Even the foreshortened sword is right on.

I’m fascinated by the light on his face, the indications of gold elements, the range of purples and blues in Deja’s robe, and the mountains that mimic the same patterns in Carter’s skirt. And look at the size of that gun stock.

They are both tanned and athletic, giving hints to their dynamic character. The piece has the impression that it was tossed off in a quick painting session to meet a crazy deadline. Maybe it was. But Abbett imbued the entire picture with a sense of the urgency for both characters and paint, through a strong overlapping composition.

But here’s where it gets me. Have you ever seen a sexier knee on a paperback? Exquisite.

Here are the other covers in the series, all with the same quick, strokey brush. There are some really fine covers here. Enough to keep a twelve year old under a shade tree for weeks.

Greg Manchess is an illustrator working on his first novel. He’s been known to travel with John Carter himself.


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