Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Adventure classics -- The Martian nobody knew

A Princess of Mars
by Edgar Rice Burroughs


In July 1911, John Taliaferro writes in Tarzan Forever, his biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the ex-cowboy, ex-soldier and sometime salesman began a story aimed at the pulp magazines he read avidly. Scribbling on the back of letterheads made by his brother Coleman‘s stationery firm, Burroughs racked up 43,000 words by mid-August of that year and enough courage to query a magazine editor.

“The story contains sufficient action, love, mystery and ‘horror’ to render it entertaining to a large majority of readers,” wrote Burroughs, whose only previous writing credits were brief stories for his brothers’ children.

The story’s hero -- “a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip” -- had a handsome face, black hair and steel gray eyes, and a character “filled with fire and initiative.” The publisher loved the idea and bought the story, starting Burroughs on his ride to popular culture superstardom.

Sounds familiar, right? But the character’s name was not Tarzan, but John Carter. And the story? Not Tarzan of the Apes -- that would come in October 1912 -- but A Princess of Mars, originally serialized in All-Story magazine as Under the Moons of Mars. Burroughs would reuse the same protagonist formula and physical description for Tarzan’s story, as he would reuse another invention of his -- the adventure with a love story.

“Before Princess,” biographer Taliaferro writes, “the dominant trend in science fiction. . . was male adventure, no women allowed. . . Burroughs proved that if fantasy was escape, then romantic fantasy, or ‘scientific romance,’ as the subgenre would soon be called, was the ultimate escape.”

Burroughs may have added the love story between Carter and Martian princess Dejah Thoris to attract the women readers who flocked to the pulps in surprising numbers.  
Whatever his reason, it worked. The hardcover version, now with the title A Princess of Mars, came out in 1917. Sequels followed.

So when Disney’s John Carter movie hit theaters this spring, why didn’t viewers embrace it as they had innumerable Tarzan movies? Poor marketing, a lot of sources said. Google “John Carter movie” and you’ll find plenty of blame to spread around.

One blogger for a publication I respect thought releasing the movie without any reference to Mars was welcome evidence that Disney didn’t pander to the masses. Unfortunately, the “masses” -- the billions of people who aren’t science fiction nerds -- simply wondered who on Earth John Carter was.

Burroughs turned Tarzan into a multi-media money-maker with book series, movies and comics, but he couldn’t do the same with his stories of Mars. Or as his characters termed the planet, Barsoom. The pre-computer technology of the early twentieth century was inadequate to bring to visual life the green-skinned, six-limbed barbarian Tharks, sworn enemies of Dejah Thoris’s more human-like “red Martians.” Given their tremendous size, even presenting Tharks in the same cartoon cel must have been daunting.

(Tharks had first captured, then befriended Carter after he arrived on their planet through no transport except, apparently, wishful thinking. Taliaferro explains that occult phenomena such as astral projection and Ouija boards were familiar enough to Burroughs’ audience to make the transfer of nineteenth-century Civil War veteran Carter to another planet at least mildly plausible.)

In a late attempt to improve the financial future of Barsoom, Burroughs’ son Jack started to draw a Martian comic strip. Unfortunately, it first appeared on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Even Tharks couldn’t wrest the attention of American readers from the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on that fateful day.

(Next Wednesday -- at least the late Ray Bradbury credited Burroughs for his own interest in Mars, in the somberly beautiful stories of The Martian Chronicles. And for more about Burroughs’ mythic writing, see “An ape and a gentleman,” on this blog, from March 11, 2011.)

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