Thursday, August 30, 2012

Back to the Well...With John Carter.

Here's another modified post from one I wrote many many moons ago (March 2004) when John Carter was first seriously getting kicked around Hollywood as a movie. Now, in 2012, the movie was finally made a reality...So we'll pick up my thought from then and wed then to the one has to know:

The forefront of Venusian studies in 1935.

Barsoom Lost.

In the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, is definitely the A-List. Carson of Venus is probably C-List. And rightly so, as the title (of the blog this was originally posted to, The B-List Super Hero Roll Call) suggests: John Carter, Warlord of Mars, is my B-List superstar. To be honest, I don't know thing one about Carson Napier of Venus other than that his schtick sounds a lot like my man John Carter. But for those of you living wildly outside of pop culture for the past century, Tarzan was an English Lord who was raised by apes in the jungle. For those of you outside of the hipster geekdom of classic sci-fi or comics, John Carter was the Warlord of Mars.

I'm kidding.

John Carter, a post Civil War Virginian gentlemen and adventurer, travelled out west to strike a fortune in gold. Instead, he found hostile Indians, a mysterious cave, and himself...buck naked on the Martian soil. He rescues a Princess, who turns out to be his true love, from the four-armed clutches of the Green Men of Mars and the party begins. Eventually he teams up with his Green Man buddy, Tars Tarkas, who I must point out has four arms, and they go tear-@$$ing all over the planet fighting the good fight.

I've read A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, The Warlord of Mars, Thuvia Maid of Mars, and The Chessmen of Mars. And that's only half of them. (I do own a complete run of the comics and the annuals. It should be noted that Issue #18 featured the first work of Frank Miller for Marvel; however, if you only know Frank from Sin City and beyond, don't go out of your way to pick this book up.) And yes everything from the titles to nearly everything in the book is 'of Mars'...except John Carter who is of Earth....but becomes Warlord of Mars.

Note the lack of the moniker Classics Illustrated...but plenty of whoop-ass.

Again, the question: Are they GREAT Books? The answer: No, they are by no means great literature. They are however, once again, fun reads for what they are. They're compelling page turners and they tell fun heroic stories. Are these books timeless like Lord of the Rings? While certainly moreso than a lot of the current sci-fi/fantasy crap that's far too closely paired to technology or ideas that are outdated by the time the book hits shelves, Burroughs outclasses them by merely being a progenitof of the genre and the touching kitsch value over any real literary value. Wells and Verne probably have the title locked up for making the jump from genre fare to literature in this category for the earliest phases, Burroughs has become part of the pop culture paradigm ad infinitum with Tarzan alone.

But you know what's best about reading a John Carter book? The Imagination.

It's the charm of most early sci-fi: the total exclusion of most standard scientific knowledge and logic of the world outside the Earth. It doesn't defy it, it just innocently ignores it. It's escapism. Somewhere to go and live someone else's reality, as long as you don't try to make it conform to the laws and logic of the world you see in front of you. We know there are no people on Mars (though this book implies that this was a very ancient civilization that John Carter travelled back in both time and space to), no animals (except maybe....MAYBE...bacteria) and no vegetation (at least not in the trees, bushes, and grass sense so far).  John Carter has all of them: men, animals, plants, and many kooky variations thereof. And that's just for starters.

A perfect encapsulation of the adventure and excitement to be had on Mars.

That isn't to say that there aren't writers who create pure escapism toay. Take the genre I harp on harshest, Fantasy. Weird worlds, strange characters and stranger beasts certainly allow the imagination to run wild, but without firm foundation in some kind of reality and a good fleshing out, it gets real hollow, real fast. And it takes a good author to develop thos things without it become a boring hammering out of exposition like the technical specs of some jet in a Tom Clancy book. What bothers me most when trying to read these things is the simple stupid things like the characters' names. Xyanathorqor is not a name, and you line up a 1000 page story with eighty characters with unpronouncable names with more consonants than vowels and it gets to be unreadable.  Why is it that all the early fantasy authors wrote short stories and novellas that piped in twice the quality storytelling than these mammoth dead weights do (and with better cover art usually)?

Besides that, there's often an air of self-consciousness about them, whereas these early books like John Carter have such a goofy but lovable naiveté. To be fair to modern fantasy fans, it's that same  kiddy innocent quality in them that can also make them very hard to swallow as well. The endless idealism of early sci-fi/fantasy can be both inspiring and also as insipid as my own pet peeve I described above. (That's where I always say that Robert E. Howard is a great way to go in Fantasy-land. Again, he's of the super old school, but he's dark and fun fantasy that I don't feel like an idiot while reading one.) I think the trick is (which is something my mother taught me) is to learn how to watch certain movies and read certain books like a big overgrown kid. I think it's quite refreshing if you find that you can still find the innocence to read stuff like this with the right kind of eyes, and shut out all the reality for brief moments in time. You know...without drugs and alcohol.

Original cover art for War & Peace.

Which brings us to the time period in which John Carter now exists as a movie. Now, I feel the movie got a bad rep before it even hit the shelves. Several articles I've read place the blame squarely on the shoulders of director Andrew Stanton who was given an unprecedented control over the marketing of the movie, but I have a hard time believing that Disney, one of the most controlling studios of its image and properties, would give anyone carte blanche to do what they would with so expensive an endeavor. Regardless, no matter who did what, the first mistake I believe was leaving out any reference to "of Mars" in the title.  I did my own market research and found that most people I talked to were much more interested in a movie called John Carter: Warlord of Mars or simply Warlord of Mars than they were in seeing something called merely John Carter.  Furthermore, the strangely moody and oblique trailer did not communicate the wild adventure contained within that I knew it would be because I knew the John Carter books.

Now that, I do know was one of Stanton's faults: assuming anyone knew or cared who or what John Carter was.  As I joked above, nearly everyone knows Tarzan, but Carter is a far distant second in terms of pop culture consciousness, and nothing in the initial presentation of posters and trailers bridged that gap. Second of all, Carter's been well mined in sci-fi terms (everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar owes it at least a nod for inspiration), so it's gonna be tough to take something of a more simple time fantasy-wise and keep it from being tired to a modern audience....and it sort of managed that...except that by adding the super weapon (not in the original book) and a little too much tech, it made the guys in loincloths fighting with swords come off as more silly than it should have. (I think of it this way, if you can still get people roaring about guys in togas and tunics as in Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), or all of Snyder's 300 beefcake, you should be able to pull of John Carter's outfits.)

"I say, is that a raygun? Then I shall keep this sword in its scabbard."

But the biggest problem, and one I feel that most movies seem to miss (especially all these heavy handed gloom and doom comics movies), is the overall tone.  As I mentioned above, these aren't great literature, they're fantastic pulp.  Trying to make John Carter into A Tale of Two Cities simply isn't going to happen, no matter how much you love it. And it was very obvious that Stanton loved it, but the reverence worked to his disadvantage. (Since I mentioned Zach Snyder, Watchmen (2009) has so strict an adherence to the book for the bulk of the movie that it came off stiff, lifeless, and devoid of much of the humanity the book delivered in non-moving drawings.) In all, I would say that had he treated it like an 80's Spielberg adventure, a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Flash Gordon, and I think it would've been spot on.  And while the cast was fine and the CG very well done, it needed that Harrison Ford-type as the leading man, because that is Carter, the guy who doesn't know what he's doing in this situation but with that cocksure "what the hell" attitude that let's him get knocked down for  laughs and still be heroic. (This would be the point where normally someone would shop Han Solo's head onto Taylor Kitsch's body surrounded by Green Men, but I'm neither that good, nor that bored.)

As the project had been in development hell for a solid decade, and many writers and directors had come and gone, I had sort of hoped that it would never get least not until I got a stab at it.  But it did, and sadly it suffered a fate worse than it deserved.  And while, I would hope it would teach a lesson on understanding your source material and your audience...I'm not going to hold my breath.

There's no joking when it comes to the awesomeness that is Frazetta.

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