With the recent release of the Disney film John Carter (which may or may not still be in theaters by the time you read this piece, judging by the film’s reviews) it seems pertinent to take a second and ruminate for a bit on the literary roots of contemporary superhero comics. In particular, it’s fascinating to me how much the character has informed the creation of Superman. In the same way that Zorro is the spiritual predecessor to Batman, John Carter, Prince of Helium, can be considered the grandfather of the Last Son of Krypton.
If you’re like me, you probably weren’t too aware of John Carter before a few weeks ago. You might have heard the name once or twice, and you might remember references to it during the prologue of the second volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or in Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” but the world of Barsoom was more or less a blank slate in your minds eye. I always knew that the character spear-headed the Space Operas that I loved so much, but I never took it upon myself to seek out the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and explore the rich Martian mythos. I knew just enough to make me want to seek out the film on opening weekend in IMAX 3-D for a totally immersive planetary romance the likes of which I’d never experienced.
Well, the movie sucked. It didn’t totally suck; it wasn’t as glaringly awful as The Phantom Menace, which I had just re-watched in 3D a few weekends prior (yes, you are allowed to laugh at me). The look of the ships and the aliens were all pretty good, and the action pretty much did it for me, but the acting was awful and anytime the plot slowed down for a painful “info dump” dialogue scene you could see how crappy the sets and costumes were. I also noticed a very Disney-ish goofiness about parts of the film that didn’t work for me at all and ruined the tone, which I was hoping would place somewhere closer to the Frank Frazetta end of things. It was almost like a lighter version of “Cowboys and Aliens.”
So that was a bet of a letdown. However, the movie did perform perfectly insofar as being an advertisement for Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, which I went and bought immediately, and which I have been completely obsessed with ever since. I would feel some kind of shame for never having been introduced to these amazing stories earlier in my life, but I’m too busy hacking and slashing at the green martians of Warhoon.
At any rate, the other thing that the movie served to do for me was to call my attention to a glaring similarity between John Carter and Superman. Until that point I was unaware that such a parallel could be made. I knew that Carter’s adventures on Barsoom accounted for the Flash Gordons and Jake Sullys and Luke Skywalkers of the world, but didn’t know he also played a part in the formation of the Man of Steel. And yet, when Carter took his first steps on the surface of Mars his earthly muscles sent him shooting through the air. In short, he was able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. In fact, it was this ability to leap far higher and further than the people of Mars that won him the admiration of his would be captors.
But that wasn’t the only similarity. Just as his leg muscles were powerful enough to turn mere steps into great leaps, Carter’s human physique also afforded him the Martian equivalent of super strength and agility. Here’s this man, who looks more or less like the humans of Barsoom but with noticeable differences, who has arrived on this new, dying planet from out of nowhere, only to ascend to being its greatest hero. Sound familiar?
It doesn’t take a lot to see where Superman is almost the exact inverse of this idea. He was sent from his world, a dying one, to Earth as a baby, where our world’s lighter gravity allowed him to leap tall buildings and smash through tanks, and eventually he became our greatest hero. Rather than wearing a loin cloth and sandals, Superman wears tights and a cape, but it’s basically the same premise but flipped so that we’re the bewildered natives in the equation. Like I said, it doesn’t take a lot to put this stuff together, but it’s important that we appreciate it. There is, however, some deeper subtext between the two heroes.
John Carter is of Mars. During his time on Earth, he would gaze longingly up to the red planet, which ancient peoples named after the God of War. Carter was a former Confederate soldier, a veteran of the American Civil War, and said that for him, “the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment.” When he is transported to Mars, he finds a plethora of cultures that are built on war and killing, and he fits right in.
He is a master swordsman and quite adept with a gun as well, and he and his allies leave a mountain of bodies in their wake by the end of the first novel alone. He is the masculine God of War and Battle and Strength. He’s the guy that sword fights naked in the forest for hours on end and when it looks like he’s not going to make it out alive, he says something like, “well, they’ll at least be telling my story for a long time.” It’s exciting, swashbuckling adventure at its finest, and when you read it, you feel like you could be that guy, too.
Superman also represents a celestial body, but the one that he embodies isn’t the warrior spirit of Mars, but the nurturing, fatherly spirit of the sun. When Superman’s origin was later revised to take into account the yellow rays of Earth’s Sun (Sol) as opposed to the weaker, red rays of Kyrpton’s Sun (Rao, which was worshipped at one time by the Kryptonians), his most important character trait was finally locked in. Superman, unlike John Carter of Mars, is not a warrior. He doesn’t kill, he doesn’t use weapons and he wasn’t a soldier in his former life.
In his former life he was the son of a scientist, and was then raised by a couple of kindly farmers, people who based their livelihoods upon the sun’s light. While he was rocketed to a planet full of savage, warring humans, his way was not to beat them at their own game, but to teach them to rise above it. He brought with him the light of the sun to illuminate and enlighten the human race, to teach it to shine on with compassion and wisdom even in its darkest moments, even when faced with its darkest enemies. Superman protects everybody, he touches everybody and while he may occasionally lay down his life for us, he never stays dead for too long. He’s the sun, our solar savior, so to speak.
Soldier and savior, war and wisdom, combat and compassion. It’s infinitely interesting for me to ponder the archetypal nature of these characters, and how the germinal idea of Superman might have been planted with John Carter. It not only speaks to the idea that such super-heroic characters are the start of a new mythology that is taking shape around contemporary pop culture, but it also raises the idea that perhaps we as a people are moving from one of these iterations to the next. Perhaps we too are moving our of the realm of Mars and into the realm of the Sun.
Or perhaps we just like reading about handsome guys with huge muscles kicking the crap out of aliens and hooking up with lots of hot women. That’s fine too.