John Carter is great-granddaddy of space opera

Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service


If you’re wondering who John Carter is, and why there’s a big, splashy movie about him premiering March 9, let me add two words that will make it all clear:


Of. Mars.


Does “John Carter of Mars” sound more familiar? It should, because he’s a character that’s been around for exactly a century. His first story began in 1912 in the pulp magazine The All-Story, and was called “Under the Moons of Mars.” It was re-titled A Princess of Mars when it was released as a novel in 1917, with 10 more novels following.


Still not ringing a bell? Then maybe the author’s name might help: Edgar Rice Burroughs. That’s right, the creator of Tarzan of the Apes.


Got it now? I’d hope so, because John Carter of Mars is relatively famous, which is why it’s a mystery why Disney decided to drop the “of Mars” for this film’s title, given that the ERB series is the great-grandfather of movies like Avatar and Star Wars. I can understand why Disney would avoid naming it “A Princess of Mars,” since a poorly received movie of similar name – one based verrrrry loosely on the ERB work – sank without a trace in 2009 (starring, believe it or not, Traci Lords).


But John Carter of Mars is a big fave in the sci-fi crowd, of which I am a happy member. The first book I ordered from the Science Fiction Book Club in 1968 was A Princess of Mars, and Dejah Thoris – the titular princess – aroused strange longings in my pre-adolescent self. I desperately wanted to be John Carter, a Civil War officer mysteriously transported to Barsoom – that’s what the natives call it – where he can hop around like a grasshopper and is much stronger than he should be, due to the lower gravity and thinner atmosphere. So even Superman owes a debt to John Carter, since his powers were the same in his 1938 debut, and his creators used the same explanation.


Speaking of Barsoom’s atmosphere, the first novel establishes that it’s slowly dissipating, suggesting that Carter might have moved through time as well as space – and that the planet is doomed to be as lifeless as it appeared to the scientists of the mid-1800s. But as a Confederate, John Carter is used to lost causes, and he won’t let that happen! Not with the gorgeous Dejah Thoris of the city-state Helium at his side! And his buddy Tars Tarkas, the mighty, green, four-armed Thark warlord! (Many creatures on Barsoom have extra limbs. The humans don’t have anything extra, except Dejah Thoris, who has an extra dose of va-va-voom.)



In addition to trailblazing the whole interplanetary warrior thing (say “thank you,” Flash Gordon and Luke Skywalker), the John Carter books also moved in more-or-less real time, and eventually the novels were about the children of Carter and Thoris. One was named Carthoris, anticipating the celebrity portmanteaus of today.


While not as successful as his “big brother” Tarzan, John Carter has had his share of media exposure. He appeared in Big Little Books in the 1930s and ‘40s, and in a syndicated comic strip that ran from 1941 to 1943. He appeared in three Dell comics in the 1950s, as a backup in DC’s ERB books in 1972-73 and a four-issue miniseries at Dark Horse in 1996. The most successful series so far is John Carter of Mars by Marvel Comics, which ran 28 issues and three annuals from 1977 to 1979, and enjoyed the efforts of top creators like Marv Wolfman, Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum.


Currently the John Carter concepts are appearing in a variety of titles by Dynamite Entertainment, which brings us to another reason why you may have heard of John Carter lately. The character is in the public domain, but the Burroughs family’s company, ERB Inc., is suing Dynamite anyway for trademark infringement and unfair competition.


As to the movie, it features faces familiar to fans of genre fiction, like Willem “Green Goblin” Dafoe, James “Solomon Kane” Purefoy, Mark Haden “Sandman” Church and Mark “Sinestro” Strong. And if the trailers to John Carter bring to mind Avatar or Star Wars, just remember that Edgar Rice Burroughs is a well from which both James Cameron and George Lucas have drunk deep.


As did my younger self, who to this day still dreams of red skies, green warriors and beautiful princesses.


Of. Mars.


Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at



1. John Carter (TAYLOR KITSCH) By Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

2. Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) By Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.
3. White Apes, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, center) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.
4. The city of Helium, also referred to as "The Jewel of Barsoom (Mars)," is the home of Princess Dejah Thoris. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Views: 1207

Comment by Captain Comics on March 8, 2012 at 8:36pm

I think you're the only one who noticed. I've been meaning to check and see if it made it past my SHNS editor!

Comment by Captain Comics on March 8, 2012 at 8:54pm

They look Arabian. I'll bet that cover was inspired by Rudolph Valentino's The Shiek.

Comment by Philip Portelli on March 8, 2012 at 9:24pm

I'm bringing to work an old paperback of A Princess of Mars and Weird Worlds #1 to show them to the beautiful and cool pharmacist.

I don't know why I do things like that!

Comment by Figserello on March 8, 2012 at 10:31pm

I'm bringing to work an old paperback of A Princess of Mars and Weird Worlds #1 to show them to the beautiful and cool pharmacist.

I don't know why I do things like that!


To rephrase some romantic advice from Wayne's World, "If she hurls, then you know it was never meant to be..."

Comment by Philip Portelli on March 9, 2012 at 11:28pm

Actually she found them interesting. She's a Disney fan but didn't know Disney was putting out John Carter. I told her that Disney really wasn't too keen on it as they have no action figures or tie-ins. But she was surprised when I told her that

  1. John Carter had the same creator as Tarzan.
  2. That the lower gravity of Mars giving John his super-prowess was "borrowed" to explain Superman's powers on Earth.
  3. That the main Martian city was called Helium and another inert gas is....Krypton.
  4.  That John Carter is 100 years old.
  5.  And I have a lot of neat stuff!

When I showed the younger girls the books, their reaction to Frank Frazetta and Murphy Anderson's Dejah Thoris' "attire" was, "She's running around almost naked!" I thought, "They have no idea!"

Comment by Jason Marconnet (Pint sized mod) on March 12, 2012 at 9:54am

I saw the movie on Friday. I'm unfamiliar with the source material but I enjoyed the movie. It was much better than the ads made it look. Some of the jumping stuff looked silly at times but for the most part the film looked great. I liked the story and the acting was solid. I wish more people ventured out to see it, it came into second place at the box office this weekend.

Comment by Captain Comics on March 12, 2012 at 7:25pm

I've been re-Tweeting positive comments from comics pros on Twitter, like Ben Templesmith and Gail Simone. It really deserves to do better, not only because it's better than the critics say it is, but also so that Disney won't bail on fantasy movies altogether.

Comment by Philip Portelli on March 12, 2012 at 8:31pm

The reviews haven't been too bad but Disney and the general public have no interest in it. Disney can't merchandise it like its kid movies and the people have no idea who John Carter is, like Tintin and the upcoming Asterix film.

Comment by Captain Comics on March 15, 2012 at 5:35pm

Here's a Facebook page in support of "John Carter" (and a sequel).

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on March 17, 2012 at 5:29pm

I saw an interesting piece at New York Magazine -- "The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed by Its First Trailer" -- that attempts to explain why and how John Carter was set on the road to ruin.

It mostly makes the argument that director Andrew Stanton -- the wizard behind Pixar's WALL-E and Finding Nemo -- was in a little over his head in making this, his first live-action movie. It also posits that he was a little too close to the subject, being someone who grew up with the John Carter stories and relishing the opportunity to share that wonder with the whole world ... with no awareness at all that hardly anybody knows who the heck John Carter is, and don't know why they should care. I mean, it's not like "John Carter" is a universally known and recognized property that even science-fiction or genre fiction fans would know, like, say, Sherlock Holmes or Superman -- or Tarzan. I've read comics my entire life, and I barely know who John Carter is. I think a fair number of potential movie goers thought, "Why did they make a movie about one of the doctors from ER?"

So, John Carter, the movie, had to stand or fall on its marketing -- and the article makes the case that Stanton mucked that up, too, being so devoted to the work that he kept vetoing any suggestions from the marketing folk on how to market it. There are lots and lots of stories to be told about how studio executives meddle in the creative process of making movies and TV, but they almost always are presented at if the executives are wrong in every case. But sometimes, on some things, they are right, and sometimes, on some things, they do know what they are talking about. 


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