John Carter and The Master of Adventure

Cover by the great Frank Frazetta

After weathering mixed reviews and relatively tepid domestic earnings ($72 million) earlier this year, the science fiction adventure epic John Carter was written off as a box office calamity of Waterworld-sized proportions.

John Carter’s box office “failure” has been blamed mostly on ineffective marketing, notably a movie trailer which neglected to establish a connection with Burroughs or make viewers aware of the film’s historic background and seminal influence – a problem that might have been avoided if Disney had run with this inspired fan trailer instead.

But the movie’s unabashed heroic romanticism began resonating with review-proof fans worldwide (where it has earned $200+ million) and reviving the flick’s financial pulse. Now JC is set to release on DVD this week, and will likely do brisk business. Perhaps it will also introduce more fans to John Carter’s creator, one of the most prolific, imaginative novelists of the 20th century – or any century, for that matter: Edgar Rice Burroughs.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Burroughs’ first novel, A Princess of Mars, the book upon which John Carter is largely based. Burroughs, or ERB, is more familiar to many as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes, one of the most recognizable and enduring figures in pop culture history. Born in 1875 in the wake of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, ERB has been called by many the father of American science fiction. His 60+ novels, ripping tales of high adventure set everywhere from the earth’s core to the African veldt to the jungles of Venus, served as inspiration for countless writers and scientists from Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury to Carl Sagan and Jane Goodall.

ERB’s work – novels like The Land that Time Forgot, The Moon Maid, Pirates of Venus, At the Earth’s Core, Beyond Thirty, and The Warlord of Mars – gave life to the pulp fiction genre; my boyhood friend and fellow fan Stephan Allsup points out, for example, that without Tarzan and John Carter, there probably would have been no Conan the Barbarian or Doc Savage. Tarzan was also the pioneer of the comic book superhero; his comic strip was introduced in 1929, tying with Buck Rogers as the first “serious” adventure strip (prior to that, comics were largely limited to funnies like the Katzenjammer Kids). It served as inspiration for The Phantom and later, Superman and Batman.

Tarzan of the Apes by Frank Frazetta

I discovered Tarzan of the Apes at 12. Prior to that, my only exposure to the legend of Tarzan was through Hollywood’s appallingly distorting lens (the Johnny Weismuller films, probably the best-known, are particularly misleading and embarrassing; Burroughs’ creation was no “Me Tarzan, you Jane” halfwit). Uncorrupted by the deceit and venality of “civilized” man, Tarzan is the very embodiment of the Noble Savage – literally noble: a polished, educated scion of English royalty, he sheds “the thin veneer of civilization” and returns to the African trees of his youth in pursuit of adventure in two dozen action-packed novels.

I already enjoyed reading, but diving into that book was like a religious epiphany; when I realized that there were many more in the Tarzan series, not to mention dozens of other action-packed ERB books featuring pulp heroes like cavalry-captain-turned-Martian-swordsman John Carter (featured in eleven books of his own), I became like a crack addict. Indeed, I credit Burroughs as the inspiration for my passion for reading and even my desire to become a writer. In high school and then pursuing English and Humanities majors in college, I broadened my reading horizons of course, but I never again was thrilled and transported by fiction in quite the same way.

Yes, the language is a bit archaic now. No, ERB makes no claims to literary genius, though his prose is unusually sophisticated by pulp standards. But his novels are relentless page-turners overflowing with heroes who are men’s men of honor, the proud, beautiful women who love them, and villains undiluted by moral complexity (read: moral equivalence) – all populating the dangerous, exotic landscapes of Burroughs’ trailblazing imagination.

In our cynical age it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the old-fashioned ideals, romanticism and sense of high adventure that permeate ERB’s work and which defined my own childhood. Thankfully, we can still return to those thrilling days of yesteryear through the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. As Ray Bradbury put it in his homage to the master of adventure,

We may have liked Verne and Wells and Kipling, but we loved, we adored, we went quite mad with Mr. Burroughs. We grew up into our intellectuality, of course, but our blood always remembered.