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 17, 2012 at 8:20pm

George Poague said: Charlton Heston's real name was John Carter. He would have been a good choice to play ERB's Carter, had a movie been made in the '50s or '60s.

"Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty tharks!"

Comment by Captain Comics on March 17, 2012 at 8:59pm

They occasionally referred to him as an animal, as well.

Comment by Captain Comics on March 17, 2012 at 10:42pm

My wife was surprised that he was a Confederate. But it seems to me that most adventure characters from that era were, like Jonah Hex. I'd be interested in any theories why that might be.

Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on March 17, 2012 at 11:15pm

I just saw it a few hours ago and in December I finished the first John Carter book, "A Princess of Mars." I think the screenwriters (a group that includes Michael Chabon!) did a good job sorting through things and re-arranging the plot to bring some action to it. The book itself seemed to lack a plot until the last quarter of it. The movie rebuilt the same plot, but inserted the key parts much earlier which helped it flow.

Woola was a nice surprise ... I loved what they did with him!

Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on March 17, 2012 at 11:16pm

Oh, and wow! I really liked it! I'd see the sequel(s) in a heartbeat!

Comment by Captain Comics on March 17, 2012 at 11:26pm

I blurted out Woola's name when he appeared on the screen, and was as surprised as my anyone that I remembered the name from more than 35 years ago. I suddenly realized that I had never forgotten words like Thark, Warhoon, Tars Tarkas, Kantos Kan, calot, and so forth. I guess I really loved that series.Or maybe it's simply that the things you learn first are the things you forget last.

I thought the movie did a fine job on the plot, too, as the original is pretty dated in its structure. Especially in how they updated how Carter got to Mars, a method both movie audiences and Carter would understand ("It's a telegraph!") and that wasn't as loopy as "pyschic projection."

Comment by Captain Comics on March 18, 2012 at 12:11am

As I tweeted yesterday, "Star Wars" evolved from "Flash Gordon," and "Flash Gordon" ripped off "A Princess of Mars." So, in a sense, John Carter is Luke Skywalker's grandfather.

Comment by Jason Marconnet (Pint sized mod) on March 18, 2012 at 1:07am

I've got a lot of stuff sitting around the house to read but I'd like to one day read ERB's Mars books. I really did like the movie. I've mentioned to my friends that I saw it and liked it. I just get weird looks from them.

Comment by Figserello on March 18, 2012 at 8:18pm

The ads I saw for John Carter did indeed make it look like the recent Clash of the Titans ie they screamed avoid this movie!  I'm glad that the movie seems to be better than that.  The involvement of the director of Wall-E and Michael Chabon was always going to make it worth a second look.


I'd like to see it myself now actually.


I wouldn't hold up much hope for a sequel though...

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on March 20, 2012 at 8:48am

Well, the numbers are in: "Disney Projects $200 Million John Carter Loss"

It's made $184 million, but production costs were $250 million, plus marketing -- which, according to Hollywood math, means it had to make north of $600 million to break even.

Here's an interesting commentary on i09, lamenting both John Carter's failure and The Lorax's success: "The Fact The Lorax Is a Hit and John Carter Is a Flop Makes Me Want to Stab Everybody"


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