One of the disadvantages of discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs in the 1950s
was that so few of his books were readily available. My first inkling of
his Martian novels came from perusing the tantalizing list of his other
works that I found in the rear of one of the old (red cloth) Grossett &
Dunlap editions that I borrowed from my Uncle Paul—probably The Land
that Time Forgot. I remember thinking how silly the titles sounded.
A Princess of Mars? The Chessmen of Mars? How incredibly
I had to wait several long years to find out that those really “corny”
titles concealed some of the “coolest” stories of imaginative high adventure
ever written. The close encounter of the third kind that finally brought
about this revelation took the form of a battered Grossett & Dunlap
edition of Chessmen. I was probably thirteen by then—about 1961,
shortly before the Burroughs boom of the '60s began. I discovered the volume
in an out-of-the-way corner of the upstairs used books room of Siler’s,
a long-established book store several blocks off Canal Street in New Orleans.
When I went to check out, the clerk gently tried to talk me out of buying
the book. As I later learned, he, too, was a Burroughs fan. He hadn’t seen
the title when it arrived and would gladly have purchased it himself. He
didn’t press too hard, though, and I was not to be dissuaded anyway; finding
a Burroughs title in those days was comparable to striking gold.
The St. John illustrations intrigued me, and I started reading as soon
as I could, on the streetcar ride home. The foreword, as I recall, presented
an immediate puzzlement. Who was this John Carter person and what on earth
was the narrator talking about? Still, I persevered and soon found myself
on Barsoom, surrounded by mind-boggling people, places, and things—rykors
and kaldanes, living jetan pieces, mummified Martians, and a gorgeous princess.
I loved Chessmen, and so I eagerly ordered Dover’s Three Martian
Novels when, perhaps a year later, I found it advertised by a mail-order
firm specializing in new science fiction books. Soon I was dashing across
dead seas with Carthoris and Thuvia, racing through the thin air of dying
Mars with Vad Varo, and having my mind expanded by such fabulous concepts
as phantom bowmen, brain transplants, and animal-human brain hybrids. In
many ways this Dover volume was a perfect introduction to Barsoom, with
smooth, fresh paper, crisp type, and a generous helping of the original
J. Allen St. John illustrations—so moody and evocative.
Next, I acquired from Gerry de la Ree’s
mail order company a gorgeous,
like-new copy of Llana of Gathol . . . and finally found out who
this John Carter person was. What a marvelous time I had reading that book!
The Living Dead, invisible men, frozen armies, and the granddaughter of
a planet’s most beautiful woman!
Shortly thereafter Canaveral Press issued A Fighting Man of Mars
with Mahlon Blaine’s totally inappropriate illustrations, then made amends
by publishing The Gods of Mars with Larry Ivy’s fine renditions.
Both books were wonderful “reads,” but it certainly was disconcerting to
enter the initial Martian trilogy by way of its middle volume.
And then, finally, Ballantine Books began issuing the entire series in
sequence in paperback, so that I finally learned how John Carter first
got to Mars (so that the whole astral projection thing belatedly started
to make sense) and found out what happened to Dejah Thoris in that revolving
room. Some months later I was able to finish off the series when they brought
out the first paperback editions of Swords of Mars and Synthetic
Men of Mars (which I consider a perfectly adequate entry in the series,
despite the criticism of it others have occasionally offered). I was glad
to read “Skeleton Men of Jupiter” when it was reprinted in Amazing Stories,
but even then realized that it was minor and tended to lessen the impact
of what is undoubtedly ERB’s most consistently successful series. I tend
to discount it and think of the Mars series as consisting of only ten volumes.
(“John Carter and the Giant of Mars,” actually written by Burroughs' son, John Coleman Burroughs, as a juvenile for Whitman, should never have been made available
in a mass-market edition.)
Perhaps my opinion is colored by the distorted sequence in which I first
read the stories, but I still consider the middle volumes to be Barsoom
at its most wonderful. I would probably rank the series like this:
One point that is seldom addressed with regard to the Martian books, is
that they probably constitute the very first science fiction series. I
don’t know of any other that predates it. One of ERB’s great insights was
that he was writing about a planet rather than a single man. Continuing
the series through the eyes of Carter’s son may not have been especially
original, but turning over whole volumes to Gahan and Tara, Ulysses Paxton,
and Tan Hadron certainly was ground-breaking. And the sheer audacity of
featuring Carter’s granddaughter as the romantic lead in Llana was
not only without precedent then, but remains unmatched today, as far as
I know. DC Comics (or was it Marvel?) carefully eschewed inflicting such
cross-generational shock on their young readers when they adapted the book.
As far as I can tell, the Martian stories represent the earliest extensive
attempt at world-building in science fiction or fantasy, and as such have
been amazingly influential. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ contribution to the development
of these genres—if only in this area—has never been adequately recognized.
The series boasts inventiveness of a very high order. While Burroughs’
prose style may be a bit too formal in the first half of the series (occasionally
even archaic in the first few books), his narrative skill is unmatched
throughout. I guess it’s about time to reread the series again, from the
Burne Hogarth’s death was surprising, if not startling, given his age.
Shortly before Christmas last year I sent him copies of my reviews of the
NBM Tarzan in Color series, including the one concerning his work
(ERB-APA #47). I received back from him a fascinating
letter, scrawled in his bold, inimitable hand on every available blank
surface of a holiday greeting card. Here is some of what he had to say.
Please keep in mind that his remarks were dashed off and not polished for
I am absolutely dumbfounded when you report the actual number of weeks
some of the episodes spanned out: 32 weeks in one; 91 weeks in another!
That's almost two years of Sundays! This is something I never calculated,
and simply took for granted that story episodes ran three to four months
as a typical norm. . . . it must be recalled that the illustrated strip
and Sunday page were very new developments in comics history. Prior
to these, all we saw were mostly children's color features appearing on
a weekly [basis as] humorous, complete episode[s] — like Little Nemo, Buster
Brown, Hans and Fritz, etc. A long drawn out story was new and no
one was really counting the pages —especially since a story line was something
that never occurred before. . . .
Ah, if only there could be another time!
[A]s far as Foster was concerned, he was the first artist to introduce
the human figure in momentary action—a visual phenomenon that never occurred
in art historical creation by anyone before him! This was a seminal
moment that absolutely revolutionized the cartoonist's field—and had its
impact decisively in every artistic visual field. I have put this
in the summary form of the “continuum of time-space”—that is, the adventure
comic form, “is the seminal elucidation of the ever-ongoing present tense
in time—the visual metaphor of Einstein's time-space continuum!”
There's a lot more I would say—but will leave this for another time!