Edgar Rice Burroughs’ evergreen characters of Tarzan and John Carter have been the subject of films, novels and comics for years. Now, Marvel brings a new adaptation of a classic John Carter tale under the ready hands of “Our Love is Real” writer Sam Humphries and artist Ramon Perez, who is coming onto the project hot off his acclaimed “Jim Henson’s A Tale of Sand” adaptation.
“John Carter: Gods of Mars,” adapted from the Burroughs novel of the same name, focuses on John Carter’s return to Mars following the events of his original adventure as he discovers the mythology of the red planet, coming face-to-face with its deities.
Humphries spoke with CBR News about the upcoming adaptation, his research into the story of John Carter, the collaborative process with Perez, the future of his self-publishing endeavors and his excitement in adapting Burroughs’ work.
CBR News: For those who may not be familiar with Burroughs’ novel, what’s the basic premise behind “John Carter: Gods of Mars?”
Sam Humphries:We’re adapting the sequel to the first book Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about John Carter. In the first book, [Carter] found himself transported to Mars and had to navigate a society with overlapping kingdoms and races and find a way to get back home. At the end of the book, he falls in love and marries Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars, and just as things are settling down for him on the planet, he ends up back on Earth. This book takes place ten years later. He feels like he’s been trapped on Earth, away from his true love, and now he’s got a chance to go back to Mars, but he’s dropped into the worst place he could be: the Martian Valley of Death. This book is not just about his fight to get back to Dejah Thoris, it’s about the process of uncovering the secrets behind the Gods of Mars, the mythology of Mars and how it impacts the citizens of Mars, including his friends. It has kingdoms and races and all that good stuff.
How much research did you have to do on the Carter stories to prep for this?
I did quite a bit. I read the first two original novels, and then I did a ton of research online. Not just on a Wikipedia level — there’s a great deal of very dedicated Edgar Rice Burroughs fans out there. These books are 100 years old, so it’s given people a lot of time to dive into them, take apart what Edgar Rice Burroughs was trying to do and see what the themes were underneath, what the meanings were — especially 100 years ago in America. There was so much going on that Edgar Rice Burroughs tried to tackle in a sci-fi context. That’s really the ideal to preserve, no matter how you’re adapting it. All the work fans have been doing on the Internet has been a huge help in understanding the core of the book.
I don’t know how much you can spoil, but could you speak a bit to the actual Gods of Mars that will be appearing in the book?
That’s a great question, but it’s difficult to answer without giving too much away. I think what I can say is that of all the different races on Mars — or Barsoom, as they call it — as different as they are, they all have one unifying mythology or one unifying story they tell about their lives: when the time has come for them to pass on and the time has come for life to end, they all must journey down a river to a place called the Valley of Death. Nobody has ever returned from the Valley of Death and nobody knows what’s inside. That is where you go on Mars when it’s time for you to die. It’s sort of like when elephants wander off to elephant graveyards when it’s time for them to move along, and they die off to the side, peacefully. It’s a very shadowy place on Mars, and even though it looms large in everyone’s imagination on the planet, nobody really knows what goes on inside. No one knows how the gods operate in the Valley of Death, no one knows what happens to you when you get there.
So, this is John Carter trapped into traveling through this Valley of Death. It’s not time for him to die, or at least he certainly doesn’t believe so. He hasn’t traveled there on a pilgrimage; he’s trapped into going there and he’s dedicated himself to going through and getting out. Not because he wants to return with the secrets of the Valley of Death, but that’s something he definitely uncovers along the way.
You said you read the first two novels to prepare for this job, but had you already read Burroughs’ original “John Carter” stories before coming on for “Gods of Mars?”
No, I hadn’t. It’s funny — I was, of course, absolutely aware of Edgar Rice Burroughs because of his stature in the realm of genre literature. I don’t think you’re a true nerd unless you have some visibility of who he is or what his creations are, especially because of how famous they are. I didn’t truly understand the impact that he has had on all these genre stories over the decades that we know and love, because the stories, you read them now, and even though they’re 100 years old, you can see how they were the precursors to adventure stories and sci-fi stories and fantasy stories that are so popular these days. Everything, from “Star Wars” to “Lord of the Rings,” even “Game of Thrones” — it’s sort of a foundational text for all these stories and mythologies that we build today and all the things that we love.
You’re working with Ramon Perez, who just finished up “A Tale of Sand” for Archaia. Could you take us through your collaborative process?
It’s been great collaborating with Ramon. He’s such a fantastic artist, as everyone can see now through “A Tale of Sand,” which is such a fantastic book and such a monster. It was a little intimidating, at first, that he was going to be on the book, because he’s just got such a way about his art. It’s so gorgeous and it’s something that you, as a writer, don’t want to get in the way of. We’ve obviously been in contact, and he’s been very collaborative and very open and so awesome to work with. He’s got great ideas and great designs. He has such an insight into Barsoom, into Mars, as a fantasy world that I think people are really going to love. As a collaborator, he’s so enthusiastic and so open to whatever is the best idea and the greatest idea. We really share a desire to make this one of the greatest adaptations of this novel. We really want to knock it out of the park — I think people are going to be really psyched when the book comes out.
In the original “Gods of Mars,” Carter’s son, Carthoris, plays a secondary role in the book towards the end. Is this something we can expect to see?
Carthoris is definitely in the book. It’s interesting because “Gods of Mars,” even though it’s a fast-paced book, even though it was written to be published serially in a pulp magazine and even though it’s not the longest novel, it’s too much to really absorb into a five-issue comic. When we make choices to adapt it into another medium or when we make choices to adapt it into a form shorter than Burroughs originally wrote it, we can make choices to highlight things that we feel are important to the themes of the story or the characters of the story. With Carthoris, his role is as John Carter’s son and that connection he provides for John, not only to his wife and true love Dejah Thoris and not only to Mars or Barsoom, but also to the beliefs and ideals that John Carter has to hold on to in order to surmount these challenges he’s up against on this alien world.
As you worked on the adaptation, what aspects of John Carter and the world of Barsoom stood out and most appealed to you as a writer?
The more I delved into “Gods of Mars” and the whole John Carter mythos, I realized how similar it was to “Sacrifice,” the book I’ve been self-publishing. They both feature a contemporary protagonist who is taken against their will into a completely foreign and alien civilization, armed pretty much only with their own cognizance, their own wits and their own intelligence. They have to figure out not only some way to survive but to figure out some role for themselves in these very, very different societies. “Sacrifice” is not a take-off, but I think it illustrates how deeply Edgar Rice Burroughs was able to tap into what is pretty much a primal human story — not just the fish out of water or the “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” but the quest we all have, the desire we all have to make something of ourselves when we’re faced with very strong challenges. I think what this book touches upon is the human desire to achieve great things in the face of great challenges.
Considering the other John Carter books out there — including the recent Marvel movie tie-in by Peter David and Dynamite’s “Warlord of Mars” — what’s going to set “Gods of Mars” apart from the pack?
Don’t forget about “A Princess of Mars,” the John Carter adaptation book Marvel did with Roger Langridge and Filipe Andrade. They did an adaptation of the first novel which is really fantastic. Everyone should pick up that book and check it out. It’s interesting — this book is in the public domain, and it’s really up to anyone who wants to pick it up and do adaptations to put their own stamp on it. It’s really fair game. It’s a challenge, having so many of those books out there, but I’m really looking forward to having our book stack up against everybody else’s.
One of the things that sets us apart is that we have full participation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate. His family and his legacy, even though they don’t own the work anymore, don’t control the work anymore on that level, they have been working with us and these adaptations. They’ve been looking over the work that we do and they make sure what we’re doing remains true to the spirit and the intent of Edgar Rice Burroughs. That’s really special and I think that’s really valuable.
The other reason readers should give our version of John Carter a chance is, Ramon Perez is a titanic creative talent. When you apply that to this foundational crazy text that is the original novel of “John Carter and the Gods of Mars,” I think you’re going to see a real creative explosion applied to this material in a way you’ve never seen before. We’re both super-excited, super-psyched and super-dedicated to making this one of the greatest John Carter adaptations ever.
I should also say our editor, Sana Amanat, is really on point with these Marvel adaptations. She’s a fantastic editor and she keeps us in line. She’s a huge part of why this book is going to kick so much ass.
What’s been your favorite aspect about adapting this book?
There are a lot of great things. Maybe that’s what it is. There’s so much packed into this story. There are so many great ideas and great concepts. Really endearing characters, really thrilling moments, traps, escapes, monsters, civilizations, not to mention gods and secrets and twists and turns. There’s so much going on in this book that we have an embarrassment of riches of things to pick from to put in our adaptation. There’s so much fun stuff that we can pick from that we’re never at a loss. Whenever we’re at a moment when things feel like they’re slowing down or getting too typical or too boring, all we have to do is turn to the original material and there’s plenty of things we can pull out and weave into the story we’re telling to make sure we keep the audience on their toes.
2011 was a great year for your creator owned work with “Our Love is Real” and the first issue of “Sacrifice” — what else do you have set up in 2012?
Dude, I’ve got five more issues of “Sacrifice” to self-publish and self-distribute. That isn’t enough for you? You bloodsuckers, you want more? [Laughs]
We’ve got five more issues of “Sacrifice,” we’ve got five issues of “John Carter: Gods of Mars” and, beyond that, I’ve been busy working on a lot of stuff; a lot of things coming to fruition in the near future in the first half of 2012. What these are, I unfortunately cannot reveal at this time.