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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Superman wasn’t the first alien to gain superpowers by hopping planets. That honor goes to John Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pre-Tarzan pulp star. He premiered in All-Story magazine a hundred years ago last month. This Friday Carter takes his first superpowered leap to the big screen.

In 1939, Jerry Siegel offered a “Scientific Explanation for Superman’s Amazing Strength”: “The smaller size of our planet, with its slighter gravity pull, assists Superman’s tremendous muscles in the performance of miraculous feats of strength!”

But Burroughs beat him by more than a quarter century. John Carter’s powers are a product of “the lesser gravitation and lower air pressure on Mars.” A “very earthly and at the same time superhuman leap” carries Carter “fully thirty feet into the air” and lands him “a hundred feet” away.

Before 1912, the 20th century had never seen a hero fling himself through the air before. And since John Carter is beating Man of Steel to theaters by more than a year, he bounds over Superman in the 21st century too.

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (who’s always had a thing for Martian scifi) co-wrote the screenplay. It’s his first film credit since 2004’s Spider-Man 2, the former high mark for superhero excellence (pre-The Dark Knight, of course). Readers of Thrilling Tales (the retro-pulp issue of McSweeney’s that Chabon edited back in 2003) know the first chapter of his sadly unfilmed screenplay “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance.” Chabon told me he has no intentions of completing the novelization, so his John Carter revisions are the closest we’re going to get.

Given that Burroughs’ first Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, is one of the most hilariously racist novels I’ve ever read, I trust Chabon had his delete key in full working order before opening director Andrew Stanton’s script.

Carter, a former Confederate Captain, is a “southern gentleman of the highest type.” In fact, “slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.” Once he makes the magical leap to Mars (or “Barsoom,” the quasi-oriental-sounding name Burroughs gives the planet), he wars with a race of four-armed savages, each a “huge and terrific incarnation of hate, of vengeance and of death.” If the connection to the so-called savages of the western plains is too subtle, then please note that Captain Carter was battling a band of Apaches seconds before his apparent, planet-flinging death.

Barsoom also hosts a race of four-armed white gorillas, a funhouse reflection of those trod-worshipping slaves freed after the Captain’s Confederacy lost its War Between the States. There’s even a human-looking race of a once great but now tragically fallen civilization. Burroughs doesn’t describe any antebellum mansions in the ruins, but a 1912 reader would have recognized the vanquished South in Barsoom’s dusty riverbeds.

Carter, a well-bred Virginian, arrives ready to rule. Those ferocious-looking Martians are “infinitely less agile and less powerful, in proportion to their weight, than an Earth man.” Carter doubts “were one of them suddenly to be transported to Earth he could lift his own weight from the ground.” Mars, with its impossibly arrested climate and cultures, are his to conquer. John Carter is the ultimate colonizer. Mars was literally made for him.

I don’t know what the screenplay looked like before Chabon started his repairs, but Stanton is already planning two sequels. Burroughs wrote ten, but Disney wants to rake in $700 million first. That’s less than Spider-Man 2, but still a high bar for even an interplanetary superman to clear.

Will Disney’s John Carter also clear the racial politics of the Burroughs novel?

Well, let’s see. Martian women wear “flowing Middle Eastern garb,” and their cities are modeled on the ancient ruins of Petra in modern Jordan. Chabon likens those four-armed Tharks to 19th century “Afghani tribesmen,” and Stanton gave them the lean look of “desert-dwelling people,” specifically “the Masai warriors and the Aborigines.” Plus, for musical icing, that’s Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” playing over the trailer.

So what do India, Afghanistan, Jordan, Kenya, and Australia have in common? They were all British colonies. Disney’s Mars is the ultimate melting pot of non-Western “others.” Which is the scifi way of saying: “They all look the same to me.”

[Addendum: Lynn Collins, who plays the titular Princess, self-identifies as “Irish and Cherokee Indian.” She also cried the first time she read the script. Why? Because she “felt its parallel to Earth was so poignant.”]

Stanton and Chabon let Carter remain a Civil War vet, but the wars that will inevitably haunt their film are Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the trailer, if Carter does not defeat his enemy on Mars, that enemy will attack Earth next. It’s a one-sentence summary of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The war on Mars sounds a lot like the War on Terrorism.

In a creepy way, that’s appropriate. Burroughs’ character was a hit in part because Carter reflected U.S. foreign policy of 1912. England was done with imperialism, and America was its heir. Our internal frontier was closed. The government fought its last battle with Native tribes in 1898 and seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam the same year. To expand our naval capabilities, we instigated the 1903 secession of Panama from Columbia and the construction of the Panama Canal. When Burroughs’ Martian canals were premiering in All-Story, our own canal was just two years from completion. America was the newest global power. And John Carter was our very own superman.

A hundred years later and he still is. It’s not just the Martian weather that never changes. For good and bad, superheroes remain America’s favorite way of mythologizing itself.

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