Edgar Rice Burroughs Family Aghast at Comics, But Movie Thunders Forward

The original cover art by Frank E. Schoonover for "A Princess of Mars"
The original cover art by Frank E. Schoonover for “A Princess of Mars”. Schoonover provided lush illustrations on color plates for the original published version of the book, and was famous for his work.

MANHATTAN (CN) – In the world of copyrights and trademarks, what you’re allowed to do depends often on where you happen to be standing at the moment.  Edgar Rice Burroughs created iconic literary figures in Tarzan, John Carter and Conan the Barbarian, then formed a corporation in 1923 to manage the properties. While many of the original works have now lapsed into the public domain here in the United States, it’s a different matter abroad where copyright terms are significantly longer.  Additionally, the copyright on the text of the books itself is separate from the trademarks on the characters, and trademarks and copyrights have to be applied for and maintained in various countries around the world.  There is no single uniform copyright or trademark law. What has the Burroughs family up in arms and in the courtroom this time is the claim that  three comic-book publishers violate its copyrights and trademarks on “Tarzan” and “John Carter of Mars,” sometimes in books with pornographic covers.  They’ve sued Dynamic Forces Entertainment, Dynamite Entertainment and Savage Tales Entertainment, in Federal Court.

Burroughs Inc. claims the defendants violated its rights in a series of comic books “bearing identical and confusingly similar marks – namely, ‘Lord of the Jungle,’ ‘Warlord of Mars,’ ‘Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris,’ and ‘Warlord of Mars: Fall of Barsoom.'”  The works are still protected by copyright in certain foreign jurisdictions, so they aren’t allowed to sell the comics in those places.  Ironically, selling them in the U.S. is less of a problem – except for the fact that some of the covers depict Deja Thoris topless, and some of the interior illustrations are described by Burroughs, Inc. as “pornographic”.  They want the publication stopped, and the materials destroyed. It’s kind of puzzling when you think about it, though, because except for a couple of strategically placed bangles, the first time John Carter sees Deja Thoris in the original book from 1917, she’s stark naked.

In the meantime, the John Carter movie is building some pretty nice buzz in the modern world ruled by science fiction, fantasy and comic book fans, but the film may be in trouble anyway.  The suits responsible for marketing the film don’t understand it themselves.  According to their polls, the demographics are saying that women of all ages unilaterally hate it, and that about half the people polled didn’t even know there was a movie.  To me this sounds more like PR fail than movie fail – for example, the PR people at Disney in charge of the film took “of Mars” out of the title because they thought that it sounded too “science fiction-y” and that this would turn people off from wanting to go see it. Take away the fact that it’s set on Mars, and your trailers are full of giant slavering beasts, impossible airships and six limbed aliens as characters suddenly stops making sense.  Heads are already starting to roll over at Disney over the mishandling of the PR for the film, and it’s likely  to be a fan favorite but a commercial failure.

The other problem is that the publicity people have been saying that “the geek community is not responding”.  I would counter with this question: “How in hell would they know?” They have obviously failed to connect with the geek community in any meaningful way, because if they had, they would have understood why the series of books was so popular and why the Mars connection was so relevant to the storyline’s universe – and they would have understood how to talk to fans about how profound and monumental a presence in popular culture a film like this could be.

No wonder the trailers have been confusing the public, who are trying to make sense of it and failing – but if you know anything about the original material, you’re bouncing up and down in your chair and have John Carter on your must-see list for the summer.  For everyone’s sake, I hope the film succeeds despite, rather than because of, the people who were responsible for getting the word out.  Have a look at the trailer and tell me what you think.

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