IN CASE you missed it, February 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of that most famous swordsman of two worlds, Captain John Carter of Virginia.
In the February, 1912 issue of “The All-Story” magazine, volume 22, number 2, on page 193 (the pages being numbered in sequence by quarterly volume), appeared an introduction (an “editor’s note”) to a story that would have a far-reaching effect on fantasy adventure for the next 100 years:
“Relative to Captain Carter’s strange story a few words, concerning this remarkable personality, are not out of place.
At the time of his demise, John Carter was a man of uncertain age and vast experience, honorable and abounding with true fellowship. He stood a good two inches over six feet, was broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear-cut, his eyes steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character. He was a Southerner of the highest type. He had enlisted at the outbreak of the War, fought through the four years, and had been honorably discharged. Then for more than a decade he was gone from the sight of his fellows. When he returned he had changed, there was a kind of wistful longing and hopeless misery in his eyes, and he would sit for hours at night, staring up into the starlit heavens.
His death occurred upon a winter’s night. He was discovered by the watchman of his little place on the Hudson, full length in the snow, his arms outstretched above his head toward the edge of the bluff. Death had come to him upon the spot where curious villagers had so often, on other nights, seen him standing rigid — his arms raised in supplication to the skies.”
“Under the Moons of Mars,” subtitled, on the contents page, as “the romance of a soul astray,” was serialized in the next five issues, through July, 1912 and led directly to the All-Story publication of “Tarzan of the Apes” in October of the same year. It would not be seen in book form as “A Princess of Mars,” until October 1917, five years later. Though it was published under a pseudonym since Burroughs didn’t want to be thought a complete nut-case, after the enthusiastic reception the story garnered he was only too eager to publish “Tarzan” under his own name.
The “Mars series” of 10 novels and one novella has inspired artists and writers from Otis Adelbert Kline and Robert E. Howard through Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury and S. M. Stirling. It gave birth to Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Avatar to name but a few. There had been other “visits to Mars” stories written previous, but none of them combined romance with adventure in such vivid and non-stop action. Criticized by some readers, those who seem to have a hard time with early 20th century writing, as “Victorian” or “old-fashioned,” the John Carter “Princess” trilogy still holds up and the three books bowl right along into an intense climax in the final pages of “The Warlord of Mars.”
Various attempts to film some kind of Burroughsian Mars adventure have been made since as far back as Bob Clampett and John Coleman Burroughs’ pitch of an animated feature in 1936. From the 1970s through but the upcoming release of Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter” in March, 2012 marks the first time this 100-year old story will be seen living and breathing on the screen. Burroughs and Barsoom fans await the movie with both excitement and trepidation.
Early reports from those who have seen advanced screenings are encouraging and suggest that, though he might not have read the magazine version, Stanton and his collaborators, Mark Andrews and genre fiction enthusiast Michael Chabon, have managed to invest the film with, not only action and spectacle, but a bit of the “romance of a soul astray” in a way that modern audiences can relate to.
There will be elements of the film for us old-timers to complain about, of course. I still can’t seem to let go my disappointment of Stanton’s choosing to make the thoats, war-horses of both green and red men, look more like water buffalo instead of the dragon-like steeds that Burroughs describes. And if John Carter can find time in the movie to shave his prospector’s beard, why can’t he cut his hair as well? In the books Carter always describes himself with “close-cropped” hair. With fifty years of Burroughs-related art, scholarship and discussion about every detail of the books, you’d think that Stanton and his designers would at least check the record before going off on a tangent.
Be that as it may, the bones of the story will still come through, I’m sure. Carter will teach the Tharks about friendship and help to open peace talks through the strength of his love for the incomparable Dejah Thoris. There will still be swordplay, battles, fliers of all sizes, evil villains and a love that spans two worlds.
Perhaps this spring and summer will evoke some of the excitement that the six parts of “Under the Moons of Mars” created for the adventure seeking souls who picked up “The All-Story” at a newsstand 100 years ago and were so captivated that they imitated it for years to come.