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The backstory on John Carter

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Posted: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 6:00 pm

  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 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, with Taylor Kitsch in the title role, 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.

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