Friday, March 16, 2012

Get Carter: Part II

So I'm still banging on to everyone I encounter about how much I enjoyed John Carter, and yes, I do plan on seeing it again, and yes I still think you should go and see it for the first time.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I enjoyed the movie enough that I want to explore Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom universe further, which obviously means jumping into the original novels. The problem is that there's so many different versions of the books that I really don't know where to start. I was tempted by Disney's new omnibus editions, but as I said before they've inexplicably cut Burroughs' forewords from each story, which apparently are quite important, so that rules them out; I mean, it would be like going to Pizza Express and not ordering dough balls for a starter - i.e. WRONG and BAD.

Lovely looking book; missing some text, apparently.

Ultimately I settled for this edition:

Yes, the cover uses one of those woeful posters I ranted about in my last post.
The interesting thing about this book is that it's a novelisation - yes, it's a novel based on a movie that is itself based on a book (WTF?!) - but it also includes Burroughs' original version of A Princess of Mars too. So that's too versions of the same (-ish) story for a fiver. Seems like a bargain, I think you'll agree, and it'll no doubt be fascinating to compare the two versions to see what changes the filmmakers made.

Before settling on this version I looked at a few other copies too. Basically, because the John Carter series is out of copyright various publishers have released their own version, and while I know they say you should never judge a book by its cover I'll let you into a little secret: I DO. ALWAYS. I hate - and I mean *HATE* - shitty looking book covers.

Like these.

Actually, this one is sort of OK in a pulpy kind of way. Not 100% my cup of tea, but I could live with it if push came to shove.
This, in contrast, is just HIDEOUS.

I actually had this one in my hand in Waterstones in Chiswick the other day but couldn't bring myself to buy it based purely on the horrible cover. I am such a snob.
Anyway, I got to thinking, as I very occasionally do, and that led to a realisation that I should, just for shits and giggles, put my money where my mouth is (not that this is actually costing me anything) and have a bash at designing my own covers for the John Carter series. The thought stuck with me for a few days, until today when I had a little bit of time to kill and caved into the notion.

The idea behind this is pretty much twofold:

1. Because I think someone somewhere should've seized the idea of running out some really beautiful versions of these books to cater to people like me who discovered the Barsoom series as a result of the movie (I refuse to believe I'm the only one).

2. That you can do something clean, contemporary and eye-catching that would really stand out on a bookstore shelf and actually sell a few copies.

Now, let's not get carried away here - remember, what follows were literally done in about an hour and a half and are by no means perfect, but I think they give a general idea of what I mean. I'm imagining a nice compact hardcover edition; big hardbacks get on my nerves, but I've always liked chunky little ones - they seem a bit different, somewhat unusual, and collectable, which is important when you're dealing with a series of 11 books. Also, don't get it into your mind that I was throwing my little-used artistic talents into play here - I certainly wasn't going to whip out some oil paints and throw together a John Carter portrait. No, instead the ideas I had were based solely on typography rather than an image, because I think you can do some lovely striking things with words alone.

My first idea was basically a massive rip-off of a hardcover edition I've got of the Dave Eggers novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, which I was drawn to several years ago because the story actually starts on the front cover:

Look at that - the story starts on the front! CRAZY! But really quite cool.

I've always liked the grey and black colours on that cover, so my first thought for my John Carter was something like that with the name of the book literally plastered across the cover in, if you'll excuse my French, massive fuck-off letters.

Like this:

Leng edition, version 01
Now, this isn't perfect but it gives you an idea of what I was getting at. What isn't perfect about this is that I wanted the type to fill out every part of the grey, but as Mick Jagger once sang, you can't always get what you want, and in this instance I was foiled by the lack of depth in the font, which ultimately gives rise to an inch or so of grey area between the title and ERB's name. Still, better than some of the other covers above, eh?

(ooo, bitch)

Here's another go:

Leng edition, version 02
I'm not totally sold on the massive 'OF' here, but all the space seems to be filled OK. 

And then I thought I'd try something a bit different:

Leng edition, version 03
I'm not usually a fan of replacing letters with spherical objects, but I decided to make an exception here. That said, I do think it kind of needs a bit of the missing 'O' fading in around the curvature of the planet - a bit like how the 'D' appears in the Dreamworks logo:

I also liked the idea of the sun rising over Mars just to give a little added something.

Leng edition, version 04
That's a really crappy, cheap-looking lens flare going on there, but it let me convey the general idea of what I was thinking without actually bothering to put too much effort in.

And it's around about there that I got bored of the whole idea and decided to put my crayons away. But do you get what I was aiming for? That you can do something that's not a hideously awful drawing to put on the front of these classic tales? What I've done is by no means perfect, but it could be - certainly if there was some financial incentive there (HINT, HINT, publishers). If I was going to go back to it I'd certainly try to find a way of tightening up the gaps between the lines just so there was less empty space, and the end result would, I'm pretty sure, be rather nice.

It certainly seems to work for Cormac McCarthy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Get Carter

I haven't gone off on a mad rant in what seems like forever so I'm going to seize the opportunity and get the old blood boiling right here, right now.

And the subject of my vitriol? The new blockbuster movie John Carter. And, yes, I'm using the word blockbuster in the loosest possible sense because the interwebs are currently filled with reports that JC is bombing, and bombing hard.

But I'm not going to rant about the movie itself because, y'know what? I really enjoyed it. Yes, there were a few moments here and there where I thought it dragged a bit, but on the whole it ticked most of my boxes (oo-er) and kept me entertained for well over two hours.

No, what I'm going to rant about is the way this film has been presented to us, the dumb public. First, a little history lesson.

You may or may not already know that John Carter is based on a 100 year old book called John Carter of Mars: A Princess of Mars that was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the very same chap who also gave us our favourite king of the swingers, Tarzan. To be honest, I wasn't actually aware of the John Carter books (there are … lord knows how many in the series – 11? Something like that anyway) despite the fact that I'm a bit of a nerd and they've apparently influenced hordes of science fiction movies over the years. That bit in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones where Anakin, Obi-Wan, and wotserface are made to fight huge CGI beasts in an arena? Pure John Carter, it turns out.

That being the case, my first exposure to the series has come about as a result of this new movie. Which comes as something of a mild shock because Disney have done a piss-poor job in actually marketing the film. Case in point? I didn't actually know the release date until a couple of weeks back. And this is supposed to be a massive tentpole movie experience.

Probably the first sign that Disney didn't really know what they were dealing with came when they changed the title from John Carter of Mars: A Princess of Mars to John Carter of Mars. To be honest, I actually prefer the shorter title - it's less cumbersome, and pretty much says all you need to know. And if they end up making further John Carter films (admittedly something that's looking somewhat unlikely now) there's no reason why we can't just tack the 'A Princess' bit back on in the same way George Lucas retitled Star Wars as Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope.

What I didn't agree with was Disney's justification for the truncating of the title. Basically, they said something along the lines of 'boys won't go see a movie with the word princess in the title.'


And then a short time later they lopped the 'of Mars' bit off the title too. The reason this time? Girls won't go see a movie with the word 'Mars' in the title. Of course.

What The House of Mouse seems to forget is that audiences aren't really that dense, and at some point the boys are going to discover there's a princess in the movie, and the girls are going to find out that most of the film is set on Mars. That being the case, as far as I'm concerned you might as well be upfront about it from the word GO.

Failing that, why not call it John Carter of Barsoom (Barsoom being what the inhabitants of Mars call their home planet in the books and movie)? It's nebulous enough and has an air of mystery about it.

Anyway, what we ended up with is a movie which, if you were a fan of hit US medical drama ER, is just going to make you think of this:

John Carter of County General, not of Mars.
If this was a character that was firmly planted in the public's subconscious – like Batman, or Superman, or even Dick Tracy – I could understand this. But this film was always going to be about introducing this 100 year old character to the general public. Although obviously we would all have just called it John Carter out of sheer convenience anyway - BUT THAT'S NOT THE POINT.

Next up they released some hideous posters. I mean, really hideous and actually downright boring posters. Don't believe me? How about this:

A boring poster.

Why don't I like this? Well, it says NOTHING. Carter himself is almost in silhouette so we glean nothing about him, while the background is just … red. Erm, can I see some Martian-type people in there? Possibly, but they're red too. It's all red. RED. And that font they used is boring. About the most interesting thing here is the Martian JC symbol, but that's squirrelled away in the bottom righthand corner, probably because it's a bit to Marsy and girls wouldn't approve of that sort of thing.

Oh, but don't worry - they had another bash at it!

Another shitty poster.

Look this one is … oh. Well, the one thing you could say about the red poster is that at least red relates to Mars being the red planet. Where is Carter now - Arizona? My chief complaint here, though, is that they're just riding. This is a man who can leap great distances across the Martian landscape, who finds himself in epic battles against those who would seek to control Mars, and what's the most dramatic thing Disney could find to put on this poster? John and his pals out on what looks like a leisurely Sunday afternoon horse ride (if horses were large six-legged beasties). It's just an incredibly dull, poorly photoshopped image. Do you remember a time when movie posters were beautiful works of art that actually told a story? (Oh, and Disney? Han's about to kiss a princess in that poster. Just sayin')

But wait! They did some banner posters to hang in cinemas and surely they…

Riding? Again?
Oh I give up.

What's funny is that Disney's first teaser poster was actually pretty good. Look:
Tease me, tease me, tease me, tease me baby, till I lose contro-ol. Never let it be said that I won't quote the geniuses that are Chaka Demus and Pliers. 

So what do I like about this? Well, There's John Carter for one, looking all mysterious and Grrr. And it uses that enigmatic Martian typography that was later reduced to the size of a postage stamp, but which looks really quite cool here. It's an understated, almost iconic approach that I think works well. Or at the very least better than the infantile offerings that followed it. It's nothing if not eye-catching.

Looking beyond the posters, Disney subsequently completed their trifecta of cock-ups by releasing a couple of underwhelming trailers. Even I was bored by them, and I like pulpy big-budget sci-fi. I won't do a blow-by-blow account of how they messed up here because we'll be here forever, and to be fair the third and most recent trailer actually was a lot better, but it seems like it was too little, too late; by all accounts audiences really couldn't care less about the film.

Which is a shame, because as I said at the start of this post, I really quite enjoyed it. Certainly enough to consider seeing it again (though not in 3D; that aspect of it is pretty pointless), or to pick it up on DVD in a few months time. And certainly enough that I felt compelled to write a 2000 word rant about how it should've been marketed better. I'm also sufficiently intrigued by the character and the universe he inhabits to think that I'd quite like to read the book(s) on which the film is based. But, quelle surprise, that notion has been scuppered as well because it seems that no bookshops are actually bothering to stock them. You'd think as part of their promotional blitz (another term I use loosely) Disney would have tried to get Burrough's novels back into stores, particularly as they've gone to the trouble of publishing some lovely looking new omnibus editions. Oh, but wait; apparently they've ballsed those up as well by cutting vital forewords (according to the review here).

All in all then, I reckon you should give John Carter a go. It's not perfect, but it's a good movie, and without your support I doubt we'll get to see another instalment in what was supposed to be a long-running franchise. And I'd quite like to see another instalment. So go on - do it for me. And with those seven little words I've marketed that movie far more competently than Disney did.

Can I have $150 million please, Mickey?


Rant over. What a way to celebrate the sixth anniversary of my anarchic little corner of the interwebs?