John Carter and The Master of Adventure

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.