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 capncomics@aol.com.

 

Photos:

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 Richard Willis on June 19, 2012 at 10:24pm

 It sounds to me like the people being paid to run the show are falling down on the job. I've seen many times a genius being allowed to do whatever he/she wanted (Spider-Man Turn off the Dark?). Some can pull it off, some need someone to sit on them.

If the material for an early trailer wasn’t available it should have been made clear to the director that the movie’s release date would be delayed. If material was selected for an early trailer, the director should not have had veto power over the choice of that material. If some of it needed tweaking, then the tweaking should have had the highest priority.

For a change it sounds like the people trying to assemble the trailer were approaching it correctly. Often, trailers seem to be designed to make a movie seem like something it is not. This approach results in the wrong audience being attracted, disappointed, and providing no positive word of mouth.

I am far from an expert, but I could have told the director that no one outside of fandom has heard of John Carter. Leaving “of Mars” in the title might have attracted the curious, at least.

Another movie that I have a soft spot for is Watchmen. They managed to put together an exciting trailer. Of course, it was exciting to me, someone who already knew the material. The studio was also misled, I think, by the reaction at the San Diego Con, thinking that the general audience would be just as blown away. Apparently it was confusing to many non-fan movie-goers. Touting  that it was “the most honored graphic novel” meant nothing to most people, sounding like “eat your vegetables”. There was a person on the street at the time who was asked about the movie. He responded that he “cared about Batman and Spider-Man, but didn’t care about these Watchmen.” When the first X-Men movie was released no one seemed to express these sentiments, even though the general public didn’t know these characters either. Somehow the trailer made the story more accessible. As I said earlier, John Carter was marketed as poorly as can be imagined, not being well-known to the general public.

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