I fell in love for the first time when I was about 11 years old. The object of my affection was not Stacy Price, the girl in my class that I had a crush on; to this day, I remember the purple dress with white trim she wore in sixth grade. No, my first love, didn’t wear a purple dress. Or any clothes at all. My first love was Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars.
I discovered the Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs at just the right time. Old enough to tear through the short novels at a breathless clip, but young enough to still be swept away by tales of savage alien worlds, stalwart swordsmen and yes, naked Martian princesses. Those books fired my imagination like few others. I’m a writer, and I’m the kind of writer I am in large part due to what I read in those years: Burroughs, Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Moorcock’s Eternal Champion tales. The other watershed moment of my childhood was the arrival of “Star Wars” in the summer of 1977. But even “Star Wars” can trace its DNA back to the Barsoom series.
Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”) is the director and co-writer of the Disney “John Carter” adaptation that arrives in theaters tomorrow. To say I’m anxious to see it would be a bit of an understatement. Stanton was born two weeks after I was. Michael Chabon, who wrote the “John Carter” screenplay with Stanton and Mark Andrews, is just a few years older.
We certainly weren’t the only ones to have Burroughs imprint upon us. There was something about those books, in that mid- to late-1970s era, that sparked the imagination of an entire generation, as articles in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle attest. An essay in the Los Angeles Times showed it wasn’t even limited to the United States.
Every generation has its touchstones, its particular discoveries. Things like G.I. Joe, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hold a special place for the generation behind me. But when those stories were part of the adolescent zeitgeist, I was in college. I was more concerned with keg parties and girls (not in that order). So Joes, Turtles and Transformers mean nothing to me.
Almost a decade earlier, my era of discovery was fueled by Ballantine’s John Carter and Tarzan editions, “Lord of the Rings” paperbacks and Frazetta art books. My shelves were also filled with the Ace editions of the Burroughs Venus and Pellucidar series, as well as the Conan series, many of them with iconic Frazetta covers.
I plucked the first Mars volume from a wire rack in the bookstore closest to my house, drawn to it by the Gino D’Achille cover art. I devoured the first book, and each successive book. I can remember panicking when I realized I’d forgotten my copy of “The Chessmen of Mars” in a booth at the Chinese restaurant we frequented. I begged my parents to turn the car around so we could go back and find it. They did, and we found my precious $1.25 paperback still on the booth seat.
I loved all the Burroughs stuff, but especially the Mars books. Maybe part of the initial attraction was my last name. But it was so much more than that. It was the sheer imagination of it all: giant four-armed, green-skinned warriors on their eight-legged steeds; the lion-like, multi-limbed banths with their gaping mouths of needle teeth; stalwart, steely-eyed swordsmen; and, of course, raven-haired, copper-skinned maidens. It was an immersive world, where love and honor conquered all.
I don’t recall having any of the Marvel “John Carter” comics. My comic consumption at that time was usually a generous helping of “Savage Sword of Conan,” with side orders of “Uncanny X-Men” and “Avengers.” Maybe the “John Carter” comics just weren’t stocked in the spinner racks I frequented (at that point, I had no notion that comic shops even existed). But the visuals of Barsoom were still a huge draw to me, chief among them the Frazetta interpretations. I had a poster of one of Frazetta’s Mars paintings tacked to the wall above the desk in my bedroom. At some point, I replaced the older Ballantine paperbacks with a new set featuring covers by Michael Whelan.
Tomorrow, I get to go to the theater and see all of it come to life. I’m nervously optimistic. I like what I’ve seen in the trailers. Friends who have already viewed the film have been almost universally positive, including quite a few who have never read the books. More than anything, though, I’m optimistic because of Stanton, whose recent TED talk summed up in 20 minutes virtually everything I believe about storytelling.
So don’t tell anybody, but Friday afternoon I’ll be pulling all three of my kids out of school early. We’re going to see “John Carter” as a family. Sure, we could go to an evening show, or catch it over the weekend. But I want my kids to remember the experience. I want them to remember it as something that was important enough to me that they could miss French class, or a spelling test.
Maybe it’ll be just an afternoon at the movies for them. That’s fine. Or maybe for at least one of them it somehow becomes a profound experience, like when I first saw “Star Wars” … or first read “A Princess of Mars.” The kind of experience that imprints for a lifetime. It’s happened before.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.