Ah, John Carter…you never learn. You’re not one of the popular kids.
I saw the Disney picture last week, and brain-explodingly LOVED it. There’s some changes to the story I don’t agree with, and a few that I do, but overall, the heart, spirit and look of the movie was everything I hoped for. Bang on. Bullseye. Round of applause. For the twelve year old boy who first discovered Tharks and Dejah Thoris in an old issue of DC’s Weird Worlds, this movie made me clap my hands and grin until I ached.
My kids didn’t love it though, and not winning over that precious kid audience is keeping this film from making the kind of money that the producers need. Which means we’ll never get a sequel, a sticker book, happy meal toys or any of that stuff that comes along with blockbuster films.
Fig. I : What won't be happening at local Walmarts.
But that was a given. It’s John Carter. He never rises far above secret cult fandom. He’s the George Harrison of Science Fiction – The Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency, the Humbug Magazine, the Beethoven’s 6th Symphony of pop culture, and that’s kind of where I like him.
John Carter is the perennial poor relation to his superstar big brother, Tarzan. Both were created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but Mr. Loin-cloth got dozens of novels, more than a hundred movies, two hundred TV episodes, four hundred comic books, animated shows, lunch boxes, toys, games, you name it, there’s a Tarzan version of it. The Ape Man was one of the most popular characters of the 20th Century.
Mostly because of things like this.
Whereas John Carter isn’t even IN half of the ten novels Burroughs wrote about Mars. And when Carter got adapted into other media, it was a tepid affair. Instead of Tarzan’s four hundred issues, John Carter totaled about four dozen comics in the last century.
As for film and TV adaptations, previous to this recent Disney epic, the Barsoomian movie catalogue numbered one: a basement-budget sci-fi direct to DVD adaptation of Princess of Mars, made in 2009, and starring former porn queen TRACI LORDS as Dejah Thoris and Antonio Sabato Jr. as the Captain.
This is real. It exists. I've seen it.
It’s surprisingly less vile than you think it would be, but still hardly much of a film. The budget is so low, the Tharks only have two arms. Seriously.
Fig. II: A Four-Armed Thark prepares an evening meal.
To further scare away the mainstream from this franchise, the “science” in this sci-fi is just goofy: John can hop over mountains on a planet that’s actually HEAVIER than Earth. The airships fly by means of the 8th Ray, or basically, magic. Evolution on Mars got cheap-date-drunk before choosing how many limbs each creature got, and interplanetary teleportation is explained away by settling back in a spooky Indian cave.
Personally, one of the reasons I like Barsoom is the civilized way in which all parties agree that physics doesn’t really matter there, just like Oz, Wonderland, and Narnia, but apparently that sort of thing causes modern audiences to flee.
The final barrier to mainstream popularity is, ironically, the popularity these stories used to enjoy. Burroughs’ Mars novels were such a huge influence on the Science Fiction creators of the years following 1912 that John Carter can’t seem “new” or “fresh”.
Fig. III: I think it's Barsoom.
Frank Herbert’s Dune was utterly lifted from Barsoom, as was Star Trek’s Vulcan, James Cameron’s Avatar, and George Lucas’ Tatooine. We’ve seen John Carter reproduced as Superman, Adam Strange, Buck Rogers, Captain Kirk, the Raiders of Gor, Richard Corben’s Den, Green Lantern and Luke Skywalker.
Dejah Thoris inspired Elaan of Troyus, Orion Slave Girls, and Leia’s Metal Bikini. Homages to Tars Tarkas show up in the Klingons, the Predators, J’onn J’onz, and the Sand People of Star Wars. Tharks are the reason we think all Martians are green.
Fig IV: A two-armed Thark - handicapped, but willing to fight on.
For younger viewers, it’s hard to appreciate the century old template that these modern tropes are drawn from, because it feels like we’ve seen it all before.
When in reality, we’ve only seen it all SINCE.
So, John Carter is a permanent sub-niche fandom, and those of us who have been to Barsoom expect it that way. It’s a little more cool to be out of the mainstream, man. We burrow a little deeper into our inner geek. We can drop references like Dirk Gently and Humbug Magazine and know the hepcats in the room dig the bit.
Figure V: Dirk Gently.
It would be nice if Disney didn’t lose quite so many hundreds of millions on this picture. It’s so much better than the critics are telling you. Andrew Stanton created a lovely tribute to a piece of science fiction history, and he did it with such love and joy and FUN that I giggled like a schoolboy for most of the movie.
If you haven’t seen it, go this weekend. Your Jeddak, COMMANDS it.
Ty the Guy OUT!
Here now, your COMIC BOOK JOHN CARTER BONUSES!
The officially ERB FAMILY approved Marvel adaptation of the second novel in the Barsoom series came out just two days ago! It’s drawn by my buddy Ramon Perez, and is as beautiful as the Red Planet itself. The script is burning through the original book a little faster than I expected, but I suppose it’s a fairly frantic pace all around with GODS OF MARS. The layout, the colouring and the feel of the book is delicious.
John, getting his Barsoom-legs back after a few years away. I TOLD you the art was pretty.
ALSO ON THE COMIC RACKS NOWADAYS!!
Dynamite Comics has two different ongoing Barsoom series: Dejah Thoris and Warlord of Mars. The Dynamite WARLORD is currently adapting the very same novel that Marvel is adapting, (GODS OF MARS), and is a few chapters ahead, which means Carter fans new to the stories, but buying both titles are getting complete spoilers for the Marvel book.
The scripts for both titles are readable, and the art is good in the Thoris series, (not so much in the Warlord book). Unfortunately, there’s a lurking creepy quality to the stripper pasties they put on all the women in this incarnation of the franchise.
Either embrace the nudity of the original novels, or give Ms. Thoris something less skeevie to wear, thank you. The brass nipple clamps are the worst of both worlds.
It’s been a fun couple of weeks revisiting the Mars of my childhood. I’ve even taken to re-reading my Marv Wolfman/Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson Barsoomian comics from the 70s, with much nostalgic vigour when I get a spare moment, and I’ve put the audio-books of the original ERB novels on in the background while I’ve been drawing lately. Best part: Listening to the invariably male readers doing an imitation of Dejah Thoris when she’s saying romantic things.
I’m off to swim in the river Iss. Wish me luck.