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.


Unknown said...

John I remember the great quip by one of the guys who used to hang with us Bob M (long Polish last name), a tall guy (senior moment). NASA had sent back photos of the Martian surface - all rocks and deprssions and Bob said, "Instead of Carter, we get craters

John Guzlowski said...

That was probably Bob Milewski. Thanks for stopping by.

Reid Kemper said...

Too bad the film version is losing money. I like how you paralleled the story to your life, and I enjoyed reading this.