Though often treated as a hokey anachronism of earlier literature, John Carter is a character that has helped to define modern science fiction. In terms of inspiration he was little different from many of the earlier science stories, in that his inspiration was that of Mars, a place which many thought was inhabited up until the early 20th century, thanks in part to Percival Lowell semi-scientific theories about the the supposed Martian canals. Many of the earlier science fiction stories dealt with Mars, and prominent among them were the War of the Worlds and the Martian Chronicles. The War of the Worlds played on a different kind of fear, one very evident as it was was only 16 years away from the start of the First World War at the time of its publishing. This inspiration from Mars provided a different plot inspiration as Martians were almost universally seen as uncaring invaders, interested in our world for its resources and not caring much about the inhabitants. The Martian Chronicles were something very different though. Although they were not the first kind of story of this type, it was one of the first of them, and it managed to do something which had never been done before, as it combined a medieval kind of inspiration (the fantasy genre didn’t really exist at the time) with science fiction, and thus helped to give birth to the space opera.
In the modern setting though, John Carter feels a bit dated. We now know that there is no life on Mars, or in the unlikely event that it does exist, that it would be microbes clinging to life in an inhospitable environment. Equally we know that the literary suppositions about John Carter have little bearing on what his Earth muscles would do in such a place. Although the weaker gravity would make him super strong in a sense, it would be more like the “super-strength” of a human on the moon as opposed to that of a true superhero, and instead of a graceful killing machine, he would look more like a stumbling giant.
Despite the shortfalls of the original setting and how they relate to the modern reader, the stories themselves have a rich enough setting that there is no reason that they should be so easily written off. After all there are many combination of fantasy and science fiction, with Star Wars acting as the most impressive example in modern popular culture, with light sabers taking the place of regular swords. There are even other relatively popular setting such as He-Man which use the same inspiration, so it is not as though John Carter should be treated as much of the anachronism as he gets to be seen as.
That being said though, the stories of John Carter, at least in modern comics have struggled to get a strong footing, where other similar properties have succeeded or even thrived. The characters have primarily been used by Dynamite in recent years, although as they are all in the public domain, the characters can be published by anyone, as Marvel/Disney did after the John Carter film in 2012. What defines the characters are the commonality of the scenarios, as they tend to fall into one of two basic story types. In the first the characters have to defend Helium from an invader, in the second they explore some previously unexplored and unmentioned corner of the planet and they come upon something often bizarre and often deadly.
The first kind of these stories is much more in line with the original works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, as most of his Martian Chronicles detailed the fight for power of the various cities on Mars. Every subsequent main story has focused on the same as it forms a part of the character’s origin story. A man haunted by the events of the Civil War on Earth, who comes to terms with war after winning one on Mars. However, as origin stories can tend to get somewhat repetitive it is hard to highlight one modern story focused around this concept, as most simply are versions of the original of Burroughs. Instead if one were to look for something a little different in terms of the usual from the “defending Helium” plots, it would be worth checking out the most recent attempt to make John Carter catch in popular culture, in the first story arc of the current John Carter Warlord of Mars. There are several different small changes to the story here, mostly in that John Carter and Dejah are already in control, and as one of John Carter’s old nemeses from Earth returns to exact revenge. It is maybe not excellent but it was a fresh take on what is cliche for the characters by this point.
The second kind of story is one which is not foreign to the original source material, but not one which is specifically related. The discovery of the bizarre and the deadly was always an issue for those in the Martian Chronicles, as john Carter meets the Tharks of Mars before anyone else, but the discovery has generally fed into the invasion theme, as allies are formed to make victory possible. The exploration of Mars just for the exploration is a relatively new concept, and one which is tied to what is a relatively heavy prevalence of John Carter stories in recent years, especially from the period when both Dejah and John had their own series, and in which material for the stories had to be expanded. Although these stories end up being a fluffier as the stakes are not as high, sometimes they are pretty engaging. Probably the best from this inspiration would be Dejah Thoris and the White Apes of Mars. Dejah’s series was set a few hundred years before the arrival of John Carter, and she got to stand on her own as a hero. In this miniseries, she is exploring the ruins of a city, only to discover that it is not fully abandoned, rather that it is being inhabited by the White Apes of Mars, a murderous group of bloodthirsty killers. It combines the claustrophobic setting of Die Hard with the death by death approach of Alien into a pretty fun series.
As a setting and concept, some might argue that Mars is no longer engaging, especially when the comic companies have such rich cosmic settings, and when other franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars have populated the cosmos with other stories. However, a little imagination goes a long way to keep the stories of the John Carter and Dejah Thoris alive, and makes them more less of an anachronism and more of typical space heroes.