This morning as I was trying to keep my foot on the accelerator of John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (and there is a confirmed release date for the book now — more on that later) I found myself wanting to flesh out a bit more on the John Carter-Superman connection, and so in my googling I came across this pretty interesting article by Mike Greare on the Sequart Research and Literacy Organization blogsite. He describes having come into the release of John Carter with only a general knowledge that John Carter was a seminal figure in science fiction and possibly the original super-hero. He’d never read the books. After watching the film (which he is a bit unfairly critical of, but never mind, that’s not the point) he started reading the book and became obsessed with them, and in the process started thinking about John Carter vs. Superman. It’s at this point that the article becomes quite interesting.
After stating the obvious — both have the benefit of coming from a planet with higher gravity and thus can leap tall buildings and have what appears to the locals to be superhuman strength, he then writes:
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.