John Carter, Warlord of Mars

Longbox Graveyard #38

John Carter comes to the movies this week, completing an odyssey stretching back one hundred years, beginning with publication of A Princess of Mars in 1912.

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs — and vastly less successful than that author’s Tarzan of the Apes — the John Carter series has nonetheless fascinated geeks like me for a century, giving birth to the “sword and planet” genre, and having its bones mined by dozens of science fiction books and films to follow, most notably Return of the Jedi, where the whole first act owes more than a little to the airships and savage desert races of Burroughs’ Barsoom.

John Carter has remained in print these past hundred years, first as a serial, and later reprinted as a series of eleven novels. It was in the Science Fiction Book Club editions from the 1970s that I first encountered John Carter, and I still have those battered low rent hardbacks on my shelf today, mostly because of the classic Frank Frazetta covers …

… and some pretty special black & white interior art, too.

Those covers and (especially) those interior drawings set the look and feel of John Carter for me, the tale of an ex-Confederate adventurer from Virgina who is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he is caught up in a whirlwind of swords, radium pistols, flyers, princesses, wild beasts, and the savage Green Men roaming the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom. It’s not great fiction — unlike Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, I find little joy in Burroughs stiff, neo-Victorian approach to storytelling — but it is great world-building, right up there with the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert.

On the eve of the movie’s release, it’s fruitless to speculate on it’s success — the tale will be told at the box office this weekend. But it doesn’t look good. Tracking numbers are weak and the knives are out for the film and the studio that greenlit the $250 million dollar production. For my part, I expect to like the picture (and I did — sort of — see the end of this post for my brief movie review). I respect director Andrew Stanton — I thought Wall-E was brilliant — and the footage released onto the web by an increasingly nervous studio adequately satisfies my fanboy expectations.

The marketing has been tepid, with the studio distancing themselves from the term “Mars” for crazy reasons; likewise they have steered clear of the story’s post-Civil War period roots, probably spooked by the failure of last summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. John Carter seems doomed to be another Scott Pilgrim Versus The World — a genre film that audiences like, but for which the audience was too small to sustain a franchise, which is a real shame, because Burroughs’ Martian saga is broad and rich enough to sustain several feature films.

But I’ll take what I can get.

In 1977 the notion that I would some day get a John Carter movie — in a summer that will also bring me a Batman, Spider-Man, and Avengers movie — was more fantastic than John Carter slicing up a whole legion of the synthetic men of Mars. Three decades ago, the closest I could get to a John Carter movie was Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars comic series, and I bought every issue (and three annuals, too).

And boy oh boy did they stink!

I stayed with the book to the bitter end out of some misguided loyalty to the property but this run was terrible — terrible art, terrible storytelling, terrible design. Even the colors were terrible. And that the book was so poor despite the heartfelt efforts of some quite talented pros — like Marv Wolfman, Gil Kane, and Chris Claremont — points out how hard it is to get this story right (and simultaneously increases my respect for Frank Frazetta, even as it makes me that much more nervous for the movie).

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Marv Wolfman was one of the finest comic book writers of his day, and in the letter page editorial introducing the first issue, Wolfman says all the right things — how he’s loved the series since he was a boy, how he’s always wanted to do John Carter at Marvel, how Gil Kane was his perfect pick for penciller. He knew the books well enough to spot a multi-year gap buried between paragraphs at the end of A Princess of Mars in which to set his series, and he launched the book with an ambitious, twelve-part epic called “The Air Pirates of Mars” that showcased all the many weird races, landscapes, and creatures of Burroughs’ Mars.

But sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Wolfman never really made Barsoom his own — the humorless, first-person narration Burroughs uses is tiresome in the original books, and when Wolfman brings that style to the comic page it is positively deadly, offering little insight to the stoic John Carter while encumbering each page with a wall of words.

So, too, do Gil Kane’s pencils fail to impress. I’m massively indifferent to Kane, but even his most ardent supporters will find little to like here, in page after page that seem a tangle of red bodies and snarling faces. A John Carter artist must be a designer as much as a storyteller, and Kane was either incapable or totally disinterested in developing the look of John Carter’s world — his panels are almost entirely bereft of memorable architecture, costume design, or technology. There’s practically nothing about these pages that tells us we’re on Barsoom aside from a few extra limbs on the fauna.

all the parts are here, but I’m not feeling it

I re-read the series for this review and was appalled at how bland, dull, and lifeless were Burroughs’ creatures and characters when transferred to the comics page. In being so faithful to Burroughs, the series did Edgar a disservice, who even in 1977 was in need of an updating, but instead of cutting to the heart of Burroughs’ Barsoom — and giving us stories of romance, friendship, and loyalty — we get a kind of joyless Burroughs pastiche that fails by leagues to compare with the images that the novels conjured in my imagination.

Wolfman departs after a dozen issues, and Chris Claremont does a bit better job as scripter. In Claremont’s first issue, John Carter is poisoned, and presumably killed, so Claremont dismisses the first-person narrative form, and the series is better for it … for all of half an issue, then Carter is back telling us nothing and the book is all grinding gears again. Like Wolfman’s tale, Claremont’s “Master Assassin of Mars” story arc is too long, and not helped at all by a second-rate effort from artist Rudy Nebres as the book runs out the string.

I scoured the series for pages worth scanning, but couldn’t find much, aside from the splash page of a Dave Cockrum single-issue story, when Deja Thoris finally looks at least a little bit “incomparable” …

… and a dynamic page from a young Frank Miller, just finding his way as an artist at Marvel.

You also can find a few more decent pages over at the always-cosmic Mars Will Send No More … it’s too bad Alex Nino didn’t score a full-time gig on this book!

But really, this series is better left forgotten. For lifeless scripting, uninspired pencils, anachronistic storytelling, and utterly failing to deliver on the promise of Burroughs’ rich Barsoomian mythos, Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars earns the first failing grade on the idiosyncratic Longbox Graveyard report card. I’ve loaded my copies aboard a barge, set it aflame, and floated it down the River Iss … and am crossing the fingers on all four hands of my Tars Tarkas action figure that the great John Carter fares better in his feature film debut!

UPDATE: I’ve seen the movie now (in IMAX 3D no less) and while John Carter gets more things right than wrong, the things it does wrong pretty much kill it. I am stunned that Andrew Stanton (director of Wall-E) would get the heart and sentimentality of this story wrong, and it is deadly. Instead of focusing on the warm emotional relationships between John Carter, Tars Tarkas, Sola, Woola, and Dejah Thoris, we get a complicated story where a Thern conspiracy and a well-intentioned but boring Edgar Rice Burroughs framing sequence crowds out screen time that would have been better devoted to core character development. The movie looks good, the Green Men are great, and I was fine with most of the casting (I thought the smart and resourceful Deja Thoris was an especially welcome revision). But the movie races along at a breakneck pace, too strident, too shrill, too eager to please, and ultimately a confused muddle of names and places and pointless details that just distance us from the heart of the story. The film looked like it needed another month in the editing bay (and maybe there will be a better cut on home video some day), but the damage is done. This film was doomed out of the gate by Disney’s catastrophic marketing campaign and with the movie underdelivering in it’s opening weekend (pending only some massive international box office), poor John Carter is going to be one-and-done. I’m disappointed and not a little depressed that this franchise has been smothered in the crib. It could have been great … but now it goes on the shelf with other promising misfires like Firefly, Rocketeer, and Scott Pilgrim. Pixar got the story wrong! Who’d a thunk it? So sad.

  • Title: John Carter, Warlord of Mars
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1977-1979
  • Issues EXILED From The Longbox Graveyard: #1-28, June 1977-October 1979
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: F
  • Read The Reprints: Amazon

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #39 Barsoomian Beat-Down!


About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published every now and then at!

Posted on March 7, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. Good review. Kitsch could have definitely been a little bit more charismatic but the flick still works due to amazing special effects and some really fun and exciting action. Sad thing is that this flick was made for $250 million and won’t make any of it back. Not a must-see by any means but still a good one to check out for the fun of it. Check out my review when you get the chance.


    • Thanks for reading and posting.

      My pal and sometimes Longbox Graveyard contributor Chris Ulm hated Kitsch, but I thought he was all right … maybe because compared to the John Carter of the books, Kitch was a tower of charisma. I agree he was not spectacular, but he would have been serviceable (in a Sam Worthington kind of way) with better direction and material.

      I figure the casting was a push, overall — neither great nor bad. I lay the corpse of this one at the feet of the director and the screenwriter (with an able assist from the Disney marketing department).


  2. All these comic book movies that people love, I hate them. All the ones people rag on, I like. Since everyone is talking about how doomed and awful this movie is, that seems like my cue to go check it out.

    My favorite comic book movies were Blade 3 and Constantine. But the best comic book movies were movies that truly captured the spirit of comic books, not this garbage they are pumping out with licensed characters. For example: Robocop 1 & 2; Matrix Trology; Terminator 1 & 2; The Abyss; The Thing. These are movies that are just as fun to watch as comics are to read. The best way to make a comic book movie is to not try to copy a comic book.


    • I’m right with you on Terminator and Robocop as great (non-comics) comic book movies, Mars, they do capture the spirit of comics. Add Mad Max to that list, too.

      For the most part my comic book movie tastes are right down main street — I’ve liked the most popular ones, and been no worse than indifferent to many. The only comic book films where I came away wanting hours of my life back were Catwoman and Watchmen. And 300, I suppose. Oh, and Sin City … but a lot of this is down to serious Zack Snyder hate. For the most part, I’m OK with even the rump end of the comic book movie oeuvre — I have Daredevil, and Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four, and the Ang Lee Hulk in my DVD collection (not that I watch them that often).

      There’s a lot to like in John Carter … the sets, the production design, really the look of the thing is pretty good. It’s the script and the character development that fell short. It is especially painful for being a near-miss, and for being such a radioactive near-miss that the property will never get a second chance. Arrgh! All right, I’m off to write my review for Wednesday’s blog. I have to get this out of my system!

      Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting, Mars!


      • Happy to report that John Carter is an awesome movie. Definitely does not deserve the doom and criticism the entire internet seems to be heaping upon it. 4 Martian Thumbs Up.


        • Glad you liked the picture, Mars, but … I think you are my reverse weather-vane when it comes to comic book movies!

          Check back here Wednesday when I will offer a dissenting view!


          • I like that – reverse weather vane. My buddy started up a comic book Meet-up in the DC area with another cat. He said when they met, the two of them disagreed on everything about comics, but agreed on everything about being a comics fan. We’re not quite that bad since we overlap on Terminator and Robocop!


            • It’s the geekfights that make this nonsense worthwhile!

              And I am sure we have more in common than not — our overlap on dinosaurs must be tremendous. We should do a joint column about the all-time film and comics T-Rex beatdown! Who is king of the hill? The T-Rex from the original King Kong? Jurassic Park? How about Gwangi? Or Satanus from Judge Dredd? Devil Dinosaur?? And do we admit Godzilla to the competition with a sponsor’s exemption???


              • I am totally up for this. Godzilla fan that I am, there’s no way he can be on the roster because Godzilla annihilates everything, everyone, everywhere, always. And any story where he didn’t is a lie.

                After recently reading Devil Dinosaur 1-9 for the first time (plus his appearance in the 1970s Godzilla), he’s a strong contender. He’s super smart and has this kick boxing thing happening.

                What are the odds you have Godzilla slated for the LBG? Expected rating: D+ to C- with an astute assessment of what the awesome moments actually were.


                • Let’s make the T-Rex beatdown happen. I’ll email you. It should be at your site, because your site is Dinosaur Heaven.

                  And it just so happens that I had my Godzilla books down the other day, giving them the eye for eBay … but if it is a review you want, then it is a review you will get, soon as I can schedule it …


  3. Pilgrim was misfire for you?


    • No, I quite liked Scott Pilgrim. It was a misfire with audiences, though, which is why it goes on the “disappointment” list. As one of the biggest box office flops of the year it both cauterized the property for future sequels and likely cooled Hollywood on taking chances with indie comics on the big screen.


  4. I enjoyed the movie more than most did, and was disappointed by the lack of success. It looks like your next blog is movie-centric, so I will save specific comments for than one, and focus on the comics here.

    I don’t believe I ever read a John Carter comic, but I do have a story. I listen to a ton of comic book podcasts, one of which (from the Two True Freaks! feed) focuses on the Marvel Star Wars comics, and there was one (maybe issue54?) that the hosts in retrospect believe was a John Carter inventory story that was repurposed into a Star Wars story, with some aspects of the art literally drawn over to fit the Star Wars universe (and sometimes not)

    Wondering if you knew anything about this legend?


    • I don’t know anything about that specific instance, but it would make sense, given that so much of Star Wars was mined from John Carter to begin with. One of the challenges of the movie was making desert planets, sword fights, princesses, and flying battleships seem fresh. It doesn’t matter that Burroughs wrote about this stuff a hundred years ago — film fans will of course be forgiven for thinking that Carter borrowed from Star Wars, rather than the other way around — but it was just one more degree of difficulty heaped on top of this already-difficult-to-adopt property as it came to the screen.

      That kind of re-purposing would also be characteristic of Marvel, though the re-draw is a little extreme. Marvel mined the bones of Robert E. Howard for more Conan material, with Roy Thomas adopting seemingly every non-Conan REH tale for a Conan comic, so I doubt they’d think twice about spinning a John Carter tale for Star Wars, particularly if it was a now-useless backup/inventory story left orphan by the series’ cancellation.


  5. I’m looking at the Marvel Star Wars reprint onimbus volume 3 from Dark Horse, and issues 53 and 54 are almost positively repurposed John Carter art/story/designs with a Princess Leia framing story. She also falls into a love triangle with “Aron, warlord of the Calian Confederacy” and “Alisande.” Even an unnamed Woola lounges around their private quarters. Both issues are written by Claremont, who was not a regular writer for the series. The art jumps back and forth between Infantino and Simonson (and their respective inkers), which makes one think there is definately some creative repurposing going on. Issue 54 has a cool, loose Walt Simonson cover, though. Since Lucas borrowed so heavily from Burroughs, and since Marvel’s original Star Wars material was already frequently goofy as hell, it almost works. Enough for some filler issues at least.

    The disappointing film adaptation still hurts a year later. I just don’t know if Burroughs’ Mars stories can work anymore since they’ve been so thoroughly strip mined over the past 100 years. Visually, Mars looks like Nevada, and Stanton seems incapable of filling the large sets–his actors look tiny and lost. Plus, when a film starts with an incoherent info dump (I’ve read five of the novels, and I still didn’t understand what was being said) you know there is a huge problem.

    I have nine of the original Marvel comics in my collection, and I compare it with other misfire adaptations like 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kirby has no idea what the source material means) and War of the Worlds (but I still dig those Killraven stories!).

    Kane is much better with his own sword and planet epic, Blackmark, in my opinion.


    • Thanks for reading and commenting, and the very comprehensive citation of what were almost certainly repurposed John Carter stories. Seems they were likely inventory/fill-in tales orphaned by the cancellation of the Carter book. There is a rough sort of irony that Carter so easily substitutes for Star Wars, given Lucas’ use of the source material (as you note).

      I’m also still depressed about that film. I have periodic Twitter conversations about it with fans who either think the movie will someday magically break even and ensure a sequel, or that the movie is a unjustly-maligned film classic (and both positions are delusional). The sad thing is that there is great potential here but unlike Spider-Man or Star Wars this film won’t quickly secure a reboot, as the stench of failure is too great, and the fan base isn’t large enough to wipe away the remaining misgivings. John Carter had its shot, and failed, and there are really no silver linings.

      I will look for those Blackmark comics. I’m not a Kane fan but I am trying to develop a taste for him.

      (I’ve also written about Killraven here at Longbox Graveyard — here’s the link in case you didn’t see that article)


  6. Blackmark is Kane max. His felt pen inking style can be off putting, but his Conan run got under my skin at a fundamental age, so my love of his work is more nostalgic than anything else. Blackmark was one of Kane’s picture novels, a pseudo-comic with typeset text. I have a nice Fantagraphics edition that collects the whole work. Used copies are going for around $10 on Amazon.


  7. Parts of Blackmark were serialized in the first issues of Savage Sword of Conan, which is where I first saw it.


    • Ah HA! That closes the circle. I’m definitely recalling it from Savage Sword, then. I should get Savage Sword up for review here at Longbox Graveyard, there are some interesting distinctions from the main Conan line that might be blog worthy. So many books still to review!


  8. I actually came to John Carter via the DC edition in the early 70’s, first as a back-up in their Tarzan series, then when they shifted Carter and Pellucidar to the Weird Worlds series. Granted, I was only nine or ten during all of this, but it was a fun series…I think Wolfman was the first scripter and Murphy Anderson was the artist, but the creators were shifted about midway through the run and the quality suffered to me. I never got into the Marvel series….not a big Kane fan, but I did get to go back and revisit it a few years ago and was underwhelmed.

    The movie was okay. Like you, I think it could have been a lot better and it almost seemed like Disney was trying to crash the ship prior to take-off. I think it deserved better. It wasn’t the horrible mess that it was advertised to be at the time. I go into any sort of super-hero/adventure movie based on a written character with a jaded view anyway…..the producers and studio will find some way to screw things up.

    Nice post. I’m a newcomer to your site and have found some interesting reading.


    • Hey, Graham! Thanks for reading and posting. I hope you will stick around and become a regular. Feel free to comment on any posts that interest you.

      It’s been the better part of two years since I posted this review. Those comics are long since vanished via eBay, and I don’t miss them at all. My opinion of the film John Carter hasn’t changed, but the outrage has definitely faded. I never bought the DVD, and the film lived on my DVR, unwatched, for months until I purged it. I saw it twice in theaters and that was enough. Turn the page.

      I get the impression that Carter’s failure cast a toxic cloud over the entire Edgar Rice Burroughs library. At Comic-Con in 2013 the estate put on a panel presentation that amounted to — “We’re ERB Inc. We’re still alive.” All they had to show were some earnest webcomics and a dreadful trailer for a CG Tarzan film pitched at young adults. There’s a live-action Tarzan reboot in the works that may restore a bit of the ERB brand’s luster but right now I expect everyone is running from anything that has the vaguest hint of Carter. It has proven to be one of the most expensive box office bombs in film history … which is certainly NOT how I wanted my favorite Virginian to be remembered!

      Coming out of that panel I did find my interest in Tarzan rekindled — I re-read several of the novels, and will be posting about Joe Kubert’s Tarzan comics work here at LBG on January 1st, 2014. So, there’s that. But I think it will be a cold day on Barsoom before John Carter emerges from that corpse pile of a movie to cry, “I still live!” The whole property really took a dive from the bow of their flyer with this one!

      Thanks again for the thoughts, Graham!


  9. Thanks for responding. I’m looking forward to reading your take on Kubert’s Tarzan. I read nearly every issue of DC’s adaptation of Tarzan back in the day and it was one of my favorites.


  10. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie John Carter as well as Scott Pilgrim. The fact they didn’t do well at the box-office is too bad, but takes nothing away from my own appreciation or enjoyment. If a studio wants to spend 250 million dollars to make a movie only I like I’m okay with that (and yes I realize that is not how the industry works). Still they got made and they were fun and in my opinion well done for the most part.
    Interesting note my young nephew saw Scott Pilgrim on Netflix recently knowing nothing about the character and was blown away by what he saw.It may have a future as a cult film if it’s not already there.


    • The problem with spending 250M (aside from being daft) is that it ensured the franchise would die in the crib.

      It is all well and good that you enjoyed the picture … but the failure of this film, on such a gigantic level, ensures we will never get the Chessmen of Mars, or A Fighting Man of Mars, or Llana of Gathol. We also won’t get Carson of Venus, or anything from Pellucidar, or anything at all from Burroughs that isn’t Tarzan (and I love Tarzan!).

      They poisoned the well.


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