Tuesday, January 24, 2012

John Carter Warlord of Mars

When I was in high school, amongst my favorite escapist fares, were the John Carter of Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. There are eleven of them and I devoured them over and over again. They transported me to an alien world of high adventure that stretched my imagination and eased my teen angst. Edgar Rice Burroughs is, of course, mostly famous for his Tarzan novels but it was Barsoom (what his Martians call Mars) that I found myself journeying to over and over again.

In the first of the novels, A Princess of Mars, we meet John Carter, a gentleman of Virginia. He was a Confederate soldier in The Civil War and after the war, he finds himself prospecting for gold and fighting Indians in the American southwest. However, he has a secret; he doesn’t remember how old he is. It gets mentioned from time to time throughout the books that he could conceivably be hundreds or thousands of years old, but, as those of us who are middle aged have a hard time remembering our childhood, so John Carter doesn’t remember much other than being a gentleman of Virginia. As a result of a battle with Apache Indians he finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars/Barsoom where he begins a new life of adventure as the greatest swordsman on two worlds.

In just the first novel he manages to find and fall in love with a princess (although he is sort of a nerd when it comes to women, as are all of the heroes in the Mars books, this was probably some of the appeal for me back in my own nerd days), become the king of a tribe of bloodthirsty, green skinned, four armed barbarians and marry into the ruling family of the most powerful empire on the planet. By the end of the third book, The Warlord of Mars, he has gained the title “Warlord of Barsoom” which, to the Barsoomians means something like, emperor of the world, except that, no one on Mars takes a title like that at face value. Sure, you might have the title but, unless you can kick the crap out of anyone who gets in your way, no one is going to take you seriously. Of course, John Carter can walk the walk. Also by the end of the third book he manages to bring the religion of the Barsoomian people crashing down around their ears. It turns out it was something of a scam, but no false gods can stand before our hero.

The world of Barsoom is filled with all sorts of wonders that no longer make sense given the advancement of science and our knowledge of the red planet since the book’s publication but which, none the less, fire the imagination. For example, the Barsoomians have guns that fire bullets filled with radium which explode in direct sunlight. Night time gun battles become dangerous all over again when the sun rises. For some reason the Baroomians are aware of parts of the color spectrum that are invisible here on Earth, which means that there are two colors on Barsoom that we don’t have here on Earth. As a kid part of the fun was trying to imagine that sort of unimaginable and indescribable thing. A practical upshot was that one of those unknown “rays” could be used to create a sort of anti gravity effect which the Barsoomians used to build something akin to our old fashioned sailing vessels, which, could sail through the air. Best of all, Barsoomians have a life span that is such that they only start to show signs of getting old after about a millennia. (Could some never revealed connection to Barsoom be the reason that John Carter is impossibly old and why he feels so drawn to this alien world?)

Add in lots of long dead cities that follow the shorelines of evaporated oceans, atmosphere factories, plains filled with bright red grass, four armed, gigantic, carnivorous white apes, all sorts of monstrous flora and fauna and warring empires and you’ve got quite the perfect tapestry on which to build intrigue and adventure.

Of course I’ve been waiting for a John Carter movie for more than three quarters of my life and the good news is; it will be released 3/9/12. (There has actually been at least one other John Carter movie which I haven't seen but I've run across clips on the web and it looks like it probably escaped to video rather than being released to theaters.) The bad news is; I’m not really looking forward to it. Now, I’m not one who is generally afraid to see my favorite books turned into movies. I know going in that the movies will be different. That’s just the nature of the beast. But this time, I’m a bit fearful. The movie is a Disney flick and I have very often been disappointed with Disney’s take on things. Quite often the best fairytales get way too sanitized. Most recently I was really disappointed by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I’ve always loved pirate movies and I figure, fill a screen with pirates, undead pirates at that, swinging swords around and firing pistols and there’s going to be some mayhem and yet, in those flicks, no one really dies, not a drop of blood… I don’t know it just didn’t make the grade. I know there isn’t really any blood or serious mayhem in the old black and white pirate movies that I love either but there was some sort of spirit missing in the Disney stuff. In any event, besides the fact that this should be a sword fighting movie and Disney has already disappointed me with its recent sword fighting trilogy, there are several more things that I’m a bit worried about. The first is that, in the video clips from the film to date, I’ve been very unhappy with the animation of the sky ships and the green men. Though, I do have to admit that the most recent trailer (I’ll post it here somewhere if it’s allowed) was really good and got my juices flowing. Secondly, Barsoomians are nudists. Don’t ask me why, it’s just their culture. The only clothing that they typically wear is jewelry and the occasional leather straps to hold their swords and guns. I know a mainstream movie isn’t going to be populated with nudists, especially not a Disney flick so, this is a relatively minor complaint. Like I said, I know going in it’s not going to be exactly like the books.

The other thing that I’m not really looking forward to will probably seem really petty but, it’s important to me, the red/copper skinned Barsoomians, at some point in their history, altered themselves. Now, the books were written before the science of genetics was underway so Edgar Rice Burroughs didn’t have the word “genetics” to work with but, I’m going to have to say that they altered themselves genetically. They re-made their women so that, instead of giving live birth, they lay eggs. The eggs incubate for about fourteen years and while they are doing so, they have an education machine attached to them so that children are hatched adolescent, already knowing almost everything they are going to need to know. As a result of this, women no longer breast feed their young. Over a very long period of time, natural selection has had an interesting result, namely, almost all female humanoid Martians are small busted. For many years I have been angry at the fact that the covers of the books have prominently featured big breasted scantily clad babes. I have no moral qualms with that, it’s just that, Barsoom is an alien world, its differences from ours are interesting and should give us something to think about as our imaginations are fired. This movie gives us the opportunity for that. Even though the movie can’t portray Barsoomians as nudists, there will certainly be a lot of scantily clad people in it. Wouldn’t it be cool if Hollywood differed from its standard method of operation and filled the film with small busted women rather than the standard silicone sisters? Will it happen? Not bloody likely. Although… I am looking forward to Lynn Collins playing Deja Thoris, my favorite alien princess. I’ve had a crush on Ms. Collins since X-Men Origins: Wolverine. So, I guess they have found a way to get me off of my soapbox and into the theater. Still, it would be nice to see Hollywood brake stereotype.

One of the really nice things to come out of the fact that there will be a John Carter major motion picture is that Dynamite Entertainment has been publishing two comic books based on John and Deja and Marvel (aka Disney) has been publishing a third. I really like the Dynamite books (although the artist seems to be trying to make every female character even bustier than the typical Hollywood starlet) but, they are so expensive that I’ve had to drop them for financial reasons. I haven’t read the Marvel book but paging through it has left me disappointed. I haven’t liked the art in general (too airy) and the green Martians in particular bother me as much as their animation in the movie clips does, which, I guess shouldn’t be surprising what with the same company producing both. Still, I am glad that my childhood hero is out there entertaining new generations and having new adventures. If you like a good pulp, heroic, read… find the original books. Some of them are free through project Gutenberg (The first in the series A Princess of Mars). I think that they should particularly appeal to comic book fans as Burroughs started out writing his stories in installments for magazines and moving between the chapters of the novels is very like moving from one comic book to another. I tried to capture a little of that quality in my story “The Brown Tarantula” which shows up elsewhere in this Blog. In any event, since you can get them for free, why not give them a shot?

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