John Carter Files Interview and Art Gallery: Jeff Doten, Barsoomian

Jeff  Doten is one of the true stalwarts of the Edgar Rice Burroughs universe.  He studied anatomy and animation at the Alberta College of Art and Design and zoology and palaeontology at Mount Royal University.  He worked as a staff illustrator for the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology before going freelance. He has worked for book publishers, theatre groups and games companies. He was the lead artist for a prop company that allowed him to do everything from client sketches to digital work to carving and painting. Recently he has just released his own project, “Strange Worlds”, a full colour anthology of sword and planet stories.  Jeff is also the curator and mastermind behind, one of the longest standing and most respected Burroughs fan sites.
John Carter Files had an opportunity to interview Jeff, and explore some of his art with him:
How did you first become aware of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Barsoom?
– true confession time. I had a copy of one of the DC Tarzan digests, which also covered some of ERB’s Pellucidar and maybe some of his Venus stuff. ( and I really loved that little book) But I really got into ERB through the 1976 movie At the Earth’s Core. I liked it so much I had to go read the book which was the first time that I really locked into who Edgar Rice Burroughs was . I fired through the Pellicidar books and kept wanted more. I kept looking at the Mars books but a couple things ( oddly ) held me back. There was no write up on the  back of the book and somehow I got the idea that Burrough’s  Mars books were his ‘adult’ books. It may have been Gino D’ Achilles painterly covers seemed more adult to me. But I bucked up and bought myself A Princess of Mars. Once I was reading I realized I had encountered some of these characters in comic books before. I completely hooked.
Who are your all-time favourite Burroughs illustrators?  What is about your favourite that makes him your favourite?

Frazetta, Roy Krenkel, Alan St. John, Neil MacDonald ( Guide to Barsoom ) Michael Kaluta, William Stout and Frank Schoonover because his old black and whites feel somehow like they were done by someone who was there.

Do you have an all-time favorite Barsoomian illustration? Frazetta’s “John Carter and the White Apes”.
How would you describe your approach to doing Burroughs and Barsoom illustrations? What do you look for? Try to avoid? I try for accuracy from the text while still having some originality which is a challenge. I think I’m trying to excavate the ‘truth’ and get it ‘right’. I try and avoid just lifting out of what I’ve seen, although I have mentioned Schoonover. I subconsciously think he’s seen it for real, so you will see echoes of his work in my designs. I’ve changed over time from being interested in what the characters look like to the whole environment. I’ve also gone through many green martian designs. I’ve never liked the torso stacked on torso version, I have a background in zoology and palaeaontology so I’ve worked to make them alien and yet relatable at the same time.
You worked on the Pirates of Venus project — what was that like?  Is it dead or is there a chance it’s still happening? 

As far as I know the company never renewed their option on the property. I had a lot of fun while it lasted. I did some artwork that was part of of their promotional and fundraising package. The production had changed the ships from water vessels to airships, which made things much cheaper and really didn’t change the story much. Initially they were interested my doing only airships for them, because it had all started with artwork they saw from my Fire Gods of Venus project.

My second stage was a broad based swipe at designing ‘everything’. I worked on costumes, creatures environments, ships, architecture. That was followed by my starting on some key scenes and that was also where it ended. As you can imagine I was very excited about the project and was very keen to really dig into Amtor but that didn’t happen.

Is there a fundamental difference in the way you would approach depicting Amtor as opposed to Barsoom? Carson as opposed to John Carter? Duare as opposed to Dejah Thoris? Tough question – there’s an inherent grittiness to Barsoom that Amtor doesn’t have, and the style of the prose is so different as well. Burroughs was at such different times of his life when he wrote these. With the Venus movie, my knowing it was to be mostly green screened I felt free to really throw myself down ‘pastel alley’ and go nuts with turquoises, pinks and purples in the jungles. And the architecture was very space-nouveau polished wood and such.  Barsoom reads as more dire, and of course it is a dying world. Beyond the obvious desert versus a jungle world, Amtor is still a Burrough’s world and certain things remain the same. There are lots of swords and jewlery and lithe fit people. He’s a little more specific about clothing and details, but he only lists a few animals and in the first book only one is very alien. The Amtorian jungle begs to be filled with exotic animal life and foliage. I’d love to go deeper into that, designing alien animals, trees and such.
Who are the current (as opposed to all-time) favourite artists who are out there depicting Barsoom whom you would recommend that we keep an eye on ?
David Krentz who has worked on every film version since it was in Conran’s hands at Paramount ( three versions ) does beautiful work. You’ve probably seen the sculpt he did of Woola for Favreau’s version and his version is what we see now in Stanton’s. He’s also done a lot of costume and key scene work as well. As I haven’t seen the ‘Art of’ book yet for the movie I don’t know how much he did for Stanton’s vision. Phil Saunders  has also been multiple versions of the film and I really like what he’s been coming up with.
I also enjoyed Filipe Andrade’s pencils for the recent Marvel adaptation of A Princess of Mars. There were some interesting designs, layouts and a nice energy to the whole thing.What is your reaction to what you’re seen of the concept art and production design of John Carter?
They really nailed so much. The green martians have always been a challenge to illustrate but I was sure that the design team would work their way through to something that looked right. As soon as I saw their tusks moved to their jaws I was impressed. I really like their thoats, they’re not horses, they’re alien animals. You can take the view that when John Carter writes down his adventures on Barsoom that he relates the creatures as closely as he can to Earth animals for the readers. On film its possible to move a step away from that restriction. I wasn’t sure about the fliers at first, but I knew that they would have to deal Jabba’s ships in Return of the Jedi. I’m glad they came up with something visually unique yet still hitting the mark for ERB’s world. At first I wasn’t sure about the real world locations, but I have to admit that I never imagined a pink sky when reading the books.  The more of the movie that I see, the more that feel I that I will accept Stanton’s Barsoom as a real place. In hindsight I’d have to say going with a naturalistic aesthetic to the costumes, environments and creatures, rather than  high fantasy will help will help the films longevity in the future.
Other than ERB — who are your favourite authors to illustrate?

I tend towards falling in love with the whole world. I’ve done a fair bit set on Anne McCaffery’s Pern. I’d love to do something with Samuel Delany’s hippie space opera NOVA or Babel 17. Others writers that could draw me visually are Alfred Bester or CJ Cherryh. In terms of book illustration I’ve spent a lot of time the last few years illustrating my own novel, The Fire Gods of Venus and more recently working on my sword and planet Strange Worlds Anthology.

One thought on “John Carter Files Interview and Art Gallery: Jeff Doten, Barsoomian

  • I’ve known Jeff for a few years now but I didn’t know all those great details about his experience with the Venus film! How cool! I would hope that if that gets going again, whether with the same group or another, that they’d seek him out to work with them again! Love his style, his work is marvelous! So inspiring!! 😀

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