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Conan the Barbarian vs. John Carter of Mars

February 23, 2012
English: Cover art by J. Allen St. John from T...

As cool as this is, Disney might find a way to ruin it. Image via Wikipedia

A guy was meeting his friend at the movie theater when he saw his buddy dressed in a green costume with four arms (two were paper mache) and a green mask with large pointy teeth in an under bite.  Other people going to the movie stood back to give his friend in the green costume some space. 

“What the heck are you supposed to be?” the guy asked his buddy. 

“I am Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of the Tharks!” his buddy proudly announced.  “I have waited all my life for a John Carter of Mars movie, and after all these years, my wishes have been fulfilled.” 

“You can’t dress up for John Carter,” the guy said.  “It isn’t cool.” 

“It was cool for Harry Potter.  It was cool for Star Wars,” his buddy pointed out. 

“No, it wasn’t cool,” the guy replied.  “I just put up with it because those movies actually meant something when they came out.  Nobody cares about John Carter.” 

The  buddy looked dejected, even with the Tars Tarkus mask on, and the guy felt sorry for his buddy.  “Look, next time, just warn me ahead of time so that I can get a costume too.” 

“Yes!” his buddy said proudly.  “You want to join me in my salute to Edgar Rice Burroughs!” 

The guy shook his head.  “No.  When people see me with you, I don’t want them to recognize me.” 



I’m not writing this to bash Hollywood for its lack of fresh ideas.  Anybody can do that.  It’s just curious that a new Conan the Barbarian and a new John Carter of Mars movie would come out within a year of each other, when there hasn’t been any clamoring for these movies, even from the types of people who usually clamor for these kinds of movies. 

Instead of mocking Hollywood (this time), it’s actually a worthwhile endeavor to compare/contrast Conan the Barbarian with John Carter of Mars just for the heck of it. 

They’re both series written in the early 20th century.  Both had cool Frank Frazetta covers when I was a kid (decades after these books and short stories were originally published).  Both were pulpy science fiction/ fantasy in an era of pulpy science fiction/fantasy.  Both authors, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, wrote a lot of stuff.

Egads, comparisons are kind of boring!  Contrasts are far more interesting. 

Conan the Barbarian (series) by Robert E. Howard 

English: The cover of Weird Tales issue May 19...

No, this isn’t a Frank Frazetta cover, but it’s still pretty awesome! Image via Wikipedia

There’s something about a Robert E. Howard Conan story that never gets old, the language so poetic and flowery that the reader almost forgets that Conan is hacking a tentacle off a monster sucking the guts out of some poor human victim.  Every few years I reread the short story “Rogues in the House” (most Robert E. Howard Conan stories were pretty short) and discover something new.  Just beware of Conan imitators, even the early ones who tried valiantly to complete Howard’s unfinished stories.  Conan written by anyone other than Robert E. Howard is just another barbarian who happens to be named Conan. 

And what is Conan without the Frank Frazetta covers, Conan protecting a near naked woman with body proportions that almost require surgery?   As a teenager, I gazed at the Frank Frazetta women, dreaming of the benefits of being a barbarian in the Hyborian Age, but then in my twenties (I was a slow learner) I realized that I’m the guy who would get killed by the monster or get killed by Conan or get killed by the other guys trying to kill Conan who would later get killed by Conan. 

Frank Frazetta covers are so awesome that downloading Conan on an e-reader without the Frank Frazetta covers is almost like subscribing to Playboy without the pictures on your electronic device, except for one very important difference: the writing in Conan stories is actually really good!!! 


John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs 

The problem with John Carter is that these novels are very formulaic, so much so that if you’ve read one, you’ve pretty much read them all.  There is a lot of being captured, then rescued, then captured, then escaping, then captured, and escaping before being rescued. 

Edgar Rice Burroughs is better known as the creator of Tarzan, but he wrote a bunch of pulpy science fiction/ fantasy in the early 1900s, including John Carter and the Pellucidar series.  


I am way more passionate about Conan the Barbarian than I am about John Carter of Mars.  There’s a reason why a bunch of authors (other than Robert E. Howard) have tried to write Conan the Barbarian books.  There’s a reason why there’s a second generation Conan movie that was released last year.  There’s a reason why the Conan stories keep being reinterpreted in comic book/ graphic novel form.  

No other authors have tried to retell John Carter stories (though there have been numerous comic book versions).  No offense to John Carter, but that ought to tell you something. 

Robert E. Howard’s Conan is awesome!  John Carter by Edgar Rice Burroughs is okay. 


If you absolutely must have a Conan fix and have reread all the Howard stuff, here’s my advice.  Skip the non-Howard Conan books and read the Kane series by Karl Edward Wagner.  It’s not Conan, but the tone and writing style are very similar.  Bloodstone is a great fantasy novel, and Night Winds is a great collection of short stories. 

And all this stuff beats most of the modern science fiction/ fantasy that’s popular right now… but that’s for another article.

From → Literary Combat

  1. White Avenger permalink

    On a planet peoples by master swordsmen and hellish beasts, John Carter prevailed over them all, not because of Mars’ lesser gravity, but because he was the best of the best. In “The Warlord of Mars,” he singlehandedly held off no less than 50 elite warriors at one time within an enclosed area, where there could be little or no advantage gained by his “earthly muscles.” He fought great white apes,, banths, apts, and plant men and emerged victorious every time.

    By contrast, Conan was a brute with cleaver who rarely fought more than one opponent at a single time, and those opponents were, also, brutes with cleavers. He never faced what by any stretch of the imagination might be called a master swordsman. When he fought beasts or monsters, he won mostly by brute strength, not skill at arms.

    Reverse their roles, put John Carter in Conan’s world and Conan on Barsoom, and Carter’s superior swordsmanship would beat any and all comers, while Conan would be banth bait before the second sunrise.

    • I’d never thought of actually reversing their situations like that, and your analysis might be right (though I think offhand you’re underestimating Conan’s abilities a bit). I just think the Conan stories (at least the Robert E. Howard stories) are better written and much more interesting than the John Carter stories. But not everybody agrees with me.

    • Scotty Henderson, REH & ERB fan & scholar permalink

      i KNOW THIS IS OLD THREAD, but WHITE AVENGER is full of shit and makes it clear he has not studied Conan to the degree necessary to understand the nuances of the character. Yeah, you look at the 3 crap movies and endless redraws of graphic material and at a glance you might tend to think that. Carter and Conan are more alike than you think.

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