On Sept. 1, 1875, in Chicago, Illinois – one-hundred and forty-one years ago today –author Edgar Rice Burroughs was born. This is a big deal. In fact if you consider space travel to be mankind’s greatest achievement, then Burroughs’ birth is quite possibly the biggest thing to have ever happened.
Last week we recognized Jack Kirby’s 99th birthday and celebrated his influence on popular culture, and while the “King of Comics’ certainly deserves the attention and accolades it is doubtful that any of us would have ever known his name were it not for the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantasy stories.
So how is it possible that one man – a guy that was, by his own self-effacing admission, an amiable loser until he was in his mid-thirties and who, even after becoming a hugely successful author, was often criticized for his cumbersome writing skills – would come to have so much influence over our culture and scientific endeavors? Let’s connect the dots.
In July 1911, at 35 years old, Burroughs was, of all things, a pencil-sharpener sales manager; and with time to kill while his staff was out peddling office products he decided to pick up a pencil, and on a piece of scrap paper he began to write.
At that precise moment, when the would-be author put pencil to paper and let his unbridled imagination flow through his fingers, the planets shook, the stars brightened, and a paradigm shift occurred unlike any other in the history of popular culture.
Burroughs first Barsoom (or John Carter of Mars) story, “Under the Moons of Mars” (originally titled by the author as “Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess”), was published in the pulp magazine, The All-Story, in its February 1912 edition.
At that time the American readers of the working class could only afford the cheap pulp magazines for entertainment, and they loved Burroughs’ incredible stories so much that the All-Story publisher eagerly prodded the author to produce more.
His next published story was “Tarzan of the Apes” and Burroughs had finally found his true calling as a writer. Tarzan became one of the most popular and beloved fictional characters ever created – still thrilling audiences today in the Ape Man’s most recent film, The Legend of Tarzan.
Burroughs continued to write pulp serial stories that then went on to become 10 Mars novels, over 20 Tarzan novels, a half-dozen Pellucidar novels and dozens of other books and stories (including a couple of Westerns that are set right here in Nerdvana’s home state of Arizona.)
Burroughs set the standard for excitement and adventure in the pulp stories; and in the book “Danger Is My Business” the illustrated history of pulp magazines, author Lee Server says, “The February, 1912, issue of All-Story marked the professional debut of a writer [Burroughs] whose importance to the history of pulp magazines is comparable to D. W. Griffith’s place in the history of film.” [D.W. Griffith is the American film director, writer and producer who pioneered modern filmmaking techniques, widely recognized as the “Inventor of Hollywood.”]
We’ve all seen Back to the Future, right? We’ll, I’m not sure how things would have turned out if Marty McFly had never existed, but I’d like you to imagine what the world might have been like if Edgar Rice Burroughs had never written his pulp fantasy stories.
Spider-Man, Batman, Deadpool, Captain America, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Ant-Man… I think everyone would agree that none of these characters (or any other costumed hero) would have existed without the first costumed comic-book hero – Superman. And Superman creator Jerry Siegel acknowledged that Superman – an alien who gains super powers due to his host planet’s weaker gravity – was inspired by Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars.
Superman was also influenced by the pulp hero, Doc Savage, who was, also, most likely inspired by the pulp stories that Burroughs was instrumental in making popular.
Batman was also inspired by the Tarzan stories, with both heroes being orphans with extraordinary abilities, but neither with superhuman powers. Batman was also influenced directly by the radio & pulp hero, The Shadow, who was also very likely inspired by the popularity of Burroughs’ pulp stories.
Stan Lee, the co-creator of the Marvel Universe (along with the aforementioned Jack Kirby – who was also heavily influenced by pulp magazines), often cites Burroughs as one of his influences, and in his recent graphic novel biography, Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir, he is even depicted as a kid reading Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.
With John Carter of Mars, Burroughs created the space opera (or planetary romance) that inspired countless imitators, including Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Avatar, and even the recent Jupiter Ascending.
Writer/Director James Cameron said, “With Avatar, I thought, forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars.” [See newyorker.com.]
Regarding Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, author Mark Clark of the book Star Trek FAQ said, “Young Gene escaped…by reading pulp magazines (he was especially fond of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars…).”
Star Wars creator, George Lucas, said, “Originally, I wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, with all the trimmings, but I couldn’t obtain all the rights. So I began researching and found where (Flash Gordon creator) Alex Raymond got his idea… the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially his John Carter series of books.”
Setting the record straight, before there were Jedis there were Jeddaks, before there were Banthas there were Banths, before there was a Wookiee there was a Woola, and before there was Princess Leia there was Dejah Thoris, the incomparable Princess of Mars.
In the film The Right Stuff astronaut Gus Grissom famously says, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” But I would change that statement to say, ‘No Burroughs, no Buck Rogers… and furthermore, no Buck Rogers, no Flash Gordon (or ‘Flash’ the scarlet speedster, for that matter); and no Flash Gordon, no Star Wars.’ You see how it all traces back to the imaginative brain of Burroughs.
Multiple science professionals were lured to the study of space and science through Burroughs’ stories. In renowned science-fiction author Ray Bradbury’s forward for Author C. Clarke’s biography he describes a meeting at Cal Tech (that included Bradbury, Clarke, Cosmos’ Carl Sagan and the Cal Tech team of mechanics and engineers) as they were preparing for the Viking mission to Mars. Bradbury said, “We discovered, first off, that all of us had been led through space towards Mars by one author, Edgar Rice Burroughs.”
Bradbury is also quoted as saying, “By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special… I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs” [See Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews by Ray Bradbury and Sam Weller.]
Now imagine everything I’ve mentioned here – never existing. If the artists, authors and filmmakers who created every single one of those pop culture mainstays, and the professionals who worked on developing the scientific and engineering marvels that allow space-travel had never read an Edgar Rice Burroughs story it’s possible that none of these things would have ever happened.
So the next time you see something in popular cultural or modern science – especially anything that involves heroics or adventure – consider where it came from and trace the lines of its origin back in time. The odds are you will eventually arrive in Chicago, on September 1st, 1875, the birthday of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
BETTER KNOW BURROUGHS:
The official Edgar Rice Burroughs website, EDGARRICEBURROUGHS.COM, is a great place to begin your journey of ERB discovery; or get hip to the latest books, comics and movies (and swag) that ERB, Inc. has to offer.
ERBzine.COM is the ultimate resource for everything Edgar Rice Burroughs. Visit at your own risk as you may happily be there for days, mesmerized while pouring over the life and works of the great-grandfather of pop culture.
Burroughs historian Michael Sellers’ websites THEJOHNCARTERFILES.COM and THETARZANFILES.COM are an amazing source for facts, news stories and thought-provoking commentary on the still unfolding legend of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Scott Tracy Griffin is the author of two beautiful, must-have books on the history of Tarzan. Find out more by reading: Interview: Tarzan on Film author Scott Tracy Griffin talks apes, actors and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Learn about Burroughs’ connections to Nerdvana’s home state of Arizona: John Carter’s legacy: From an Arizona cave to pulp adventure to pop culture today.