Friday, March 30, 2012

John Carter of Mars

I got an email a couple of days ago from Joe Manfredini, a boyhood friend.  He asked me if I had seen the new John Carter movie Disney just put out.  I wasn't surprised.  I'd been getting emails like this for the last couple weeks from various old friends.  People I knew back then knew that I was the number one fan of John Carter of Mars.  I remember one of them even calling me John Guzlowski of Mars.

When I was a kid, in fact, I was crazy about science fiction and fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs and all of his characters, Tarzan of the Apes, David Innes of Pelucidar, Carson of Venus, and John Carter of Mars.

But especially John Carter.

John Carter (never simply John or Carter) was my absolute favorite.  I started reading about his adventures when I was about 12 and I continued reading them for the next 8 years.  I would put them down only to read other Burroughs novels (plus occasional school books) and then I would always happily return to the Mars books again and again.

What did I like about them?

As crazy as this sounds, I read them as if they were immigrant stories.  At least that's what I think now.  I was an immigrant, and I came to the US when I was a kid, encountering a strange and completely alien world.  John Carter was also an immigrant, but he was an immigrant on Mars.  While I took a troop ship from post-war Germany to the US, John Carter was mysteriously, mystically transported from a cave in the US southwest to Mars.

But we both ended up in some place weird.

Admittedly, immigrant Chicago in the early 50s wasn't Mars or, as John Carters creator Edgar Rice Burroughs calls it, Barsoom.  (Read about what immigrant Chicago was like for me by clicking here and here.

Mars was definitely weirder.

There were Green Martians: 15 feet tall, four-armed, with eyes at the sides of their heads.  They rode 8-legged Thoats, lived in primitive, nomadic tribes and were pretty much incapable of honor or love.   They were also incapable of  thinking beyond the grunt level and gave birth by laying eggs.  In fact, everybody on Mars gave birth that way.

There were also Black, White, and Red Martians.  These weren't as strange as the Green ones, but strange enough.

And John Carter was stuck among them -- with no way of getting back to Earth!

The only way Mars was at all palatable for John Carter was because of Dejah Thoris.  She was the beautiful Princess of Mars (not Green) who motivated much of his life on Mars.  A typical plot went like this: He meets her, she gets kidnapped, he saves her, she gets captured again, he saves her, she gets kidnapped again, he saves her, she gets captured again, he saves her, she gets kidnapped, he saves her, she gets captured again, he saves her, she gets kidnapped again, he saves her, she gets captured again, he saves her.  

You get the picture.

It's an immigrant's fantasy, finding that princess who belongs in the new world and hoping that she'll be your passport into the society you're isolated from.  You see this narrative play out in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Theodore Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March, and a lot of other novels.  John Carter is just another 19th-century bohunk landed in a strange country and dreaming of what he can't have.

And this dream spoke to me like nothing else I was reading at the time.  Like I said, I read these books repeatedly for almost eight years.

Go figure.

But when I recently opened the first of these novels, The Princess of Mars -- in a Kindle version -- I couldn't get past page 25.  The language, the predictability, the histrionics--it was all deadly.  I couldn't take another step into John Carter's world.

But that's not the way I felt when I was 14 and 15 and 16 reading these books like they were some bible that would open up a newer and better final world to me.

So why did I finally stop reading them?

What finally shook me lose -- as strange as this sounds -- was discovering Jack Kerouac and his Beat novels.

But that's another story.


If you want to read what drove me when I was a teen-ager, here's a free ebook version of The Princess of Mars.

My friend Joe Manfredini, a fellow one-time Burroughs fan, recently did a graphic review of the new Disney film John Carter.  You can read it by clicking here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Happy 93rd Birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the last of the great beat writers.  Jack Kerouac is gone, Allen Ginsberg is gone, and William S. Burroughs is gone.  But Ferlinghetti is still here and his voice is clearer than ever.  Here's one of his best poems, the first one in his Coney Island of the Mind.

In Goya’s Greatest Scenes We Seem to See ...
In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
                                           the people of the world   
       exactly at the moment when
             they first attained the title of
                                                             ‘suffering humanity’   
          They writhe upon the page
                                        in a veritable rage
                                                                of adversity   
          Heaped up
                     groaning with babies and bayonets
                                                       under cement skies   
            in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
                  bent statues bats wings and beaks
                               slippery gibbets
                  cadavers and carnivorous cocks
            and all the final hollering monsters
                  of the
                           ‘imagination of disaster’
            they are so bloody real
                                        it is as if they really still existed

    And they do

                  Only the landscape is changed

They still are ranged along the roads   
          plagued by legionnaires
                     false windmills and demented roosters
They are the same people
                                     only further from home
      on freeways fifty lanes wide
                              on a concrete continent
                                        spaced with bland billboards   
                        illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness

                        The scene shows fewer tumbrils
                                                but more strung-out citizens
                                                                     in painted cars
                               and they have strange license plates   
                           and engines
                                           that devour America


To read more about Ferlinghetti and visit some of his poems, check out his page at the Poetry Foundation.