I don’t remember how I got hooked on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, but it was long before the 2012 movie. The basic plot was interesting–a man “dies” on Earth and awakens on Mars, locally called Barsoom, in the distant past when the planet was still populated by various Martian races1 –but that wasn’t the draw for me. At the time, I wasn’t even the biggest ERB fan, having felt like Tarzan was a bit of a let-down. If I had to pin down why John Carter resonated with me, it’s because I’m a fan of stories that examine the gradual decay of once mighty civilizations, the slow fall back into barbarism. This sort of story beat is common to much of pulp fiction–from detectives in the big city to nameless horrors waiting to awaken and destroy everything–where the interplay between civilization and barbarism frequently occurs.
The John Carter stories are structured as written accounts from the point of view of the hero, a Virginian who fought on the losing side of the Civil War and now earns a living as a gold prospector in Arizona. ERB introduces each as though they were real tales that he merely found and read. In those written accounts, Carter explains he is very old, perhaps a hundred years or more, and as far as he can recall he has always appeared to be about 30 years old, but he believes himself to be ultimately mortal.
The first story, A Princess of Mars, which ERB originally published under the pseudonym Norman Bean, was initially printed as the serial “Under the Moons of Mars” by the pulp magazine All Story. In it, Carter relays his first visit to Barsoom. He meets and befriends several of the warlike giant four-armed Green Martians, from whom he wins a grudging respect based on his prowess at war, which is heightened because of the lesser gravity on Mars. He discovers a civil war between Red Martians, who are much more human in design, and fights to save the princess Dejah Thoris and unite the people under the rule of Helium, one of the Red Martians’ capital cities. Carter effectively wins the Civil War that he lost on Earth.
In later tales, it becomes clear that there are other races on Mars, including the Therns, who are white, technologically advanced, hairless slavers that have been pretending to be Barsoomian gods, but who were in turn controlled by the First Born, a race of black cultists who live at the poles and consider themselves to be the first, purest Martians. There are other races, including Yellow Martians, plant men, and semi-sentient great white apes, as well as multiple offshoot white cultures like the Lotharians, but they aren’t focused on as much.
Much consternation from modern analysis arises from the way Burroughs discussed race relations on Barsoom, and John Carter is very much the white knight who can tame the wild peoples and bring order to savage cultures. There’s even a bit of Confederacy sympathy in that Carter fought for Virginia in the Civil War. However, he is more like Malcolm Reynolds from the fantastic sci-fi show Firefly than he is a modern day alt-right supporter, in that he is fighting against perceived autocratic aggression rather than preserving outdated racial ideals. In fact, Carter despises slavery2. He’s also fairly open-minded, befriending people of all the different Barsoomian races, but for all that, he is more than bit colonial.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is best known now for creating Tarzan, a character that was popular enough in ERB’s lifetime to make him relatively famous and financially secure. There have been dozens of interpretations of Tarzan, from silent film serials to Disney cartoons, from comic books all the way up to last year’s critically panned The Legend of Tarzan starring Alexander Skarsgård. Like Tarzan, John Carter was popular in his first appearance in 1912 and has seen multiple interpretations over the years, though nowhere near as many as the man raised by apes, but his popularity dwindled until relatively recently. In the past few years Carter has undergone a resurgence in the form of two films3 4 and a soon-to-be-published roleplaying game from Modiphius Games (both the alpha and beta editions of which I’ve read and am looking forward to).
Disney’s adaptation, John Carter, was a commercial and critical failure, but that’s really more because of the piss-poor marketing and not the quality of the film itself. It definitely took liberties with the source material, but it captured the basic ideas of Burroughs’ stories. In any case, if that was your first impression and you weren’t impressed (or maybe you were, and want more!), then you definitely need to check out the actual works. Bonus: they’re almost all Public Domain in the United States. In fact, a lot of Burroughs’ popular fiction is housed on Project Gutenberg. And Project Gutenberg Australia even has a few more. If you’re a fan of pulp, and you haven’t touched on the original ERB works, you owe it to yourself to spend some time with this classic proto-pulp story.
1 Clearly inspired by the idea of canals on Mars, which was discussed by actual scientists of the late 1800s and popularized by American Percival Lowell.
2 Many alt-right types have bought into the idea that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, much as Carter believes (and was still taught in the Virginia education system when I was a kid there in the 1980s).
3 The Asylum, famous now for Sharknado and its sequels, made Princess of Mars in 2009 to draw in audiences of James Cameron’s Avatar. The stars were Antonio Sabato, Jr, and former porn-star Traci Lords. Like most Asylum films, it was shot on a very limited budget and wasn’t intended to be great.
4 Disney produced John Carter, which was directed by Pixar phenom Andrew Stanton. Its stars were Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, and Willem Dafoe. Despite a huge budget line, it was a commercial flop.