As a literary character, John Carter’s first appearance was not in comics but rather in a pulp magazine in 1912. His first comic book appearance was in The Funnies #30 in 1939.
Regardless of which iteration of the character is being described there are some constants for the character. First of all is that he is man that often regrets his past and for whom the chance at a second life on Mars offers a chance at redemption. This redemption is generally found in his Martian wife Dejah Thoris. As a public domain character, John Carter has gone through many different versions and interpretations as does the depiction of Barsoom. In some the characters are portrayed in a more chivalric manner, in other more savage with a classical look. This can also be seen to follow along some trends in comics as for instance his portrayal in the 1970s when barbarian style worlds were more popular in fiction also reflected this look.
Major Story Arcs
A Princess of Mars
John Carter's history before his advent on Barsoom is mostly a mystery, even to himself. As far as he knows he has always been a man of about thirty and remembers no childhood. He has always been a warrior with a strong sense of duty, which may account for the honors bestowed upon him by three republics and the decorations and friendships of an old and powerful emperor and several lesser kings, in whose service his sword has been red many a time. When the American Civil War ended, he found himself with only a captain's commission in an army that no longer existed and several hundred thousand dollars (Confederate). In an attempt to regain his fortune, he traveled to Arizona to search of gold with the aid another Confederate officer James K. Powell.
Advent upon Mars
While in the Arizona desert, John Carter's companion James K. Powell was abducted and killed by the native Apache peoples. In an effort to save the man John Carter found himself chased into a cave where he was inexplicably paralyzed (possibly by the fumes in the cave), fearing for his life he desperately tried to escape being completely unable to move his body. He broke free, and he inexplicably split from his body, as he left the cave, he stared into the heavens seeing the red star that is Mars and feeling its calling he was mysteriously transported from Earth to Mars.
Amongst the Tharks
Soon after arriving upon Mars John Carter discovered his increased strength and agility. Finding nobody within sight he found his way to a small structure which he discovered was an incubator, this incubator held the hatching green Martian eggs. Soon he was captured by the Tharks, who were greatly impressed with his abilities. Amongst the Tharks, he learned the language of the planet, and developed telepathic abilities while gaining their trust. Carter also taught Tharks to respect their animals (animal cruelty was rampant before) and made a friend with the pet Woola. During his time with the Tharks a fleet of fliers was attacked, the Tharks managed to make a prisoner of one of the fleets human passengers. The princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris. It was also during this time that Carter earned the name Dotar Sojat, a combination of the surnames of two Tharkian warrior chieftains he killed in honorable combat.
Escaping the Tharks
After a time with the Tharks, John Carter found himself needing to escape with the princess Dejah Thoris, the two joined with the Thark Sola escaped the city of Thark and found themselves lost. Soon, John carter was apprehended by the horde of warhoon, but not before giving them a fight.
Warhoons and Atmosphere Factory
John Carter was captured by the Warhoons and forced to fight in the savage horde's Great Games. During his time with them, he met the red man Kantos Kan and the two were forced to fight each other. The two men stalled until it was dark, and pretending to kill John Carter, Kantos Kan earned his freedom and Carter escaped.
Fall of Tal Hajus
After escaping from the Atmosphere factory, John Carter met his old friend, Tars Tarkas whilst in the Martian wastes. John Carter and Tars Tarkas ventured back to Thark where they planned to overthrow the evil Tal Hajus. John Carter found himself face to face with the evil Tal Hajus, but decided not to kill him, and let Tars Tarkas kill him instead because he wanted to avenge his beloved Gozava, who Tal Hajus had mercilessly killed. Tars Tarkas and Tal Hajus fought in a duel to the death, and Tars Tarkas killed Tal Hajus and avenged Gozava. After this, Tars Tarkas became the new jeddak of Thark.
John Carter's lover, Dejah Thoris, was forced into marrying Prince Sab Than whom she did not really love. Sab Than was the prince of Zodanga, which had always been enemies with the people of Helium the homeland of Dejah Thoris.
In an attempt to rescue Dejah Thoris, John Carter and Tars Tarkas led an attack against Zodanga with an army of Tharkian warriors. John Carter arrived just in time to prevent the wedding, then he had a duel with Sab Than, whom he did not kill due to Martian customs. Instead, Tars Tarkas killed Sab Than.
Following the victory at Zodanga, John Carter took his lover Dejah Thoris back to her homeland of Helium, where there was a celebration for the defeat of Tal Hajus and Sab Than. At this celebration, Tardos Mors, the grandfather of Dejah Thoris, decided to make an alliance with the Tharkians because of the bravery of Tars Tarkas. Also, during this celebration, John Carter and Dejah Thoris got married and John Carter became a prince of Helium in the house of Tardos Mors.
Disaster on Mars
The operators of the atmosphere factory died, and their machines were shut down. This caused there to be changes in the Martian atmosphere, it beginning to thin and the inhabitants of Barsoom beginning to die.
John Carter managed to open the doors to the atmosphere factory with the knowledge he had gained on his previous visit to the installation, but John Carter lost his life in exchange. John Carter had died on Mars, but he woke up alive and back on Earth in the Arizona cave where he had been before he was transported to Mars. John Carter, disappointed to be back on Earth, longed to be back on Mars with his lover Dejah Thoris. John Carter became wealthy for serving in the Civil War and bought a house back in his homeland of Virginia, which overlooked the Hudson River. He spent ten years living back on Earth in Virginia, and at night he would gaze at the planet Mars and imagine Dejah Thoris and a young boy waiting for him there.
When he finally managed to return to Mars, he gave this house to his nephew Edgar and instructed for his own body to be buried in a special tomb that was well ventilated and could only be opened from the inside.
Powers and Abilities
- Enhanced Strength: John Carter, while within the lower gravity of Barsoom, is endowed with considerable superhuman strength, superior to that of Red Martians, White Martians, Black Martians, and even slightly surpassing the strength of Green Martians (to the point that John once killed one with a single all-out punch), and Plant Men, while on par with White Apes.
- Enhanced Agility: John Carter, while on Barsoom, is superhumanly agile, being able to jump a distance of 150 feet horizontally, and about 30-40 ft vertically.
- Telepathy: John Carter acquired the psychic abilities of the natives of Barsoom, and could therefore occasionally read their minds.
- Telepathic Immunity: John Carter's mind could not be read by any Martian, much to his advantage. This may be due to his nature as an Earthman, that his alien nature leaves his mind unable to be read by native Barsoomians.
- Interstellar Astral Travel: John Carter's most impressive ability, however, is demonstrated when he crosses space without the need of a vessel, using only sheer force of will break himself free of his body, leaving it on Earth, while he transports his soul to Baroom, where it acquires another body. On his return to Earth, he recounts to his nephew, Edgar, how he has mastered this ability and can travel thusly to any world, though he is only ever seen traveling between Earth and Barsoom.
- Combat Skill: John Carter has fought in many wars (including the American Civil War, prior to visiting Barsoom), and is thus an extremely skilled and experienced combatant, even without the powers he gains on Barsoom. Hence, even when he was pitted against opponents of comparable strength in White Apes and Plant Men, John Carter would emerge victorious in these battles. With his experience as a cavalryman, he is skilled in mounted and dismounted combat with both blade and firearm.
- Horsemanship/Huntsman: As a cavalryman, John Carter is a master in the saddle, particularly after hounds. This translates well to a Barsoomian lifestyle in his handling of calots (hounds) and thoats (mounts), to the point of revolutionizing how other Martians handle their animals with personal connection and care over subjugation and use of force.
- Aviation Skill: While living surreptitiously in Zodanga in the company of Kantos Kan, both men enlisted in the Zodangan military under assumed identities. During this time, John Carter learned to operate Barsoomian airships with a high degree of skill.
- Linguist Skills: John Carter was able to extremely quickly learn the language of Barsoom from Sola, in only a few short weeks, and soon spoke it with enough fluency to convincingly disguise himself as a Red Martian.
- Indomitable Will: Whether through pure strength of character, stubbornness, or both, John Carter possesses an indomitable will that manifests itself as a kind of grim optimism. He displays this in combat, in pursuit of his quarry (The Warlord of Mars), or while trying to survive in hostile territory (The Gods of Mars), where he shows a kind of dark humor about his situation and will laugh in the face of overwhelming odds - even death - to win through in the end.
- Barsoomian Naivete: Upon his advent on a new planet, John Carter was entirely unprepared for the alien nature of the place. He is largely ignorant of Barsoomian customs (at first) and must learn the hard way how to interact with this new world. Even after ten (Earth) years on Barsoom, there are things about the planet that take him by surprise, even though native Barsoomians seem to take any surprise as a matter of course, one of the hallmarks of the many races on the dying planet.
- Alien Appearance: Being from Earth, John Carter has an alien appearance on Barsoom. He mostly resembles a Red Martian, yet his skin is as fair as a White Martian (only with dark hair), and he can even grow a beard and mustache like a Yellow Martian (though he normally remains clean-shaven). He even maintains his close-cropped military haircut, which is not traditional on Barsoom. On multiple occasions, Carter has had to use disguise to avoid issues stemming from his alien appearance, from dyeing his skin red to wearing the harness and wig of a Thern. He even relied upon the assistance Kantos Kan to avoid a physical examination in Zodanga (A Princess of Mars), which would have immediately revealed his alien nature. Only a few times has Carter been able to use pure anonymity to his advantage, as he is entirely unique in appearance on Barsoom.
- Ignorance of Women: Despite being married to - in the estimation of many - the most beautiful woman on Barsoom, Dejah Thoris, Carter himself admits that he is largely ignorant of the ways of women, having never been any good with them even on Earth. When multiple women began showing him affection - i.e., Thuvia and Phaidor - he was entirely uncertain about how to deal with the situation, eventually leading to the broken-heartedness of one and the suicide of another.
- Impatience/Impertinence: John Carter is a man of action, prone to decisiveness and immediacy of results. He is not reckless, per se, but is quick to make up his mind about a course of action and will leap into battle at the slightest provocation. Even when imprisoned in The Gods of Mars for almost a full Earth year (half a Martian year), he continually operates on a plan to escape from the place to save his wife. At times, his actions lead him to further consequences that he must then overcome.
John Carter was a successful cavalryman in the civil war. When he returned home, he discovered that his wife and daughter had died in a house fire. After burying them, Carter left for Arizona in search of gold in the hills. However, he was arrested by Colonel James K. Powell in an attempt to sway Carter in assisting with the local Apache. Carter escaped his jail with Powell and company chasing close behind. Unfortunately, Carter ran into a group of Apache warriors, and a firefight broke out between the Army men and the Apache, wounding Powell as he and Carter ran away. Forced into a last stand, Carter and Powell took refuge in the mouth of a cave, which the Apache dared not come close to. Investigating the cave, Carter found the gold he was looking for, and accidentally met his first Thern, whom he killed in self-defense. The Thern started mumbling unknown words with his dying breath, holding a medallion in his hand. Carter took it away from him, and unknowingly finished the action, teleporting him to Barsoom.
From here, his story continues similarly to that of A Princess of Mars with aspects of The Gods of Mars rolled in (i.e., the Therns), though with tremendous artistic license regarding the latter and their role in the story.
John Carter is portrayed by Taylor Kitsch in this movie adaption who is the second actor to play John Carter on screen. This John Carter is portrayed as a hardened, cynical man who has lost everything, and his hero's journey on Barsoom revolves around finding something new to fight for and live for, with slight comedic relief relating to his adaptation to his new, alien world. One major change to the original story is the explanation of Carter's transmission to-and-from Mars through means of a mysterious, alien technology.