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The creator of Tarzan never went to Africa, but he did visit Mars.

The recent failure of the $250 million Disney science fiction movie "John Carter" is all the talk in Hollywood. It's also bad news for Utah.

Filmed in the Beehive State, its producers had planned sequels that would also have taken advantage of Utah's otherworldy landscapes and fed millions into the local economy.

"John Carter" is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 science fiction classic, "A Princess of Mars." Utah's red-rock deserts provide a credible stand-in for the Red Planet.

Burroughs, better known for his series of Tarzan novels, wrote more than a dozen books about imagined civilizations on Mars and Venus, which are the templates for virtually every great science fiction writer or movie maker since. Everyone and everything science fiction-y, from Ray Bradbury to "Star Wars," can trace its genealogy back to Burroughs' imagined worlds.

Burroughs never made it to Africa, where his vividly imagined Tarzan was raised by apes. But, by way of Utah, he'd glimpsed Mars.

In 1904, Burroughs, 29, was a railroad policeman in Salt Lake City. He was not yet even halfway through a decade of poverty and short-term jobs, including mining, advertising, sales (first light bulbs, then candy) and accounting. (Burroughs knew nothing of accounting, but he got the job because the employer advertising for an "expert accountant" knew even less.)

His job odyssey took him from Chicago to Oregon and Idaho and Utah, all in an attempt to provide for his wife and two children.

It's clear from "A Princess of Mars" that Burroughs was familiar with Utah's stark southwestern desert. Squint really hard and you can imagine his alien vistas, peopled by six-limbed, green-skinned Martian warriors somewhere south of Nephi.

Burroughs got his big break in 1911 after it dawned on him that he could do better than the trashy escapist fiction he read.

"I made up my mind that if people were paid for writing such rot as I read I could write stories just as rotten," he said.

But in 1904, he was still just a railroad cop in Salt Lake. Butch and Sundance had robbed their last train just a few years before and railroad police were left to chase hobos out of rail yards.

Despite taking odd jobs to supplement his meager pay, Burroughs complained that while his family was in Salt Lake City, they were "poverty stricken." His biggest Salt Lake windfall was when he and his wife auctioned off their household furniture to raise money for a move back to Chicago.

"People paid real money for the junk," he said.

About the same time, a Swedish immigrant named Joe Hill was also scouring the West in search of any work available. He would become famous for his International Workers of the World protest songs; he would become a martyr when he was executed in 1915 in Utah for a murder he probably didn't commit. 

Hill's clever songs highlighted the plight of workers at the hands of uncaring exploiters, chief among them Burroughs' employers: the railroad magnates.

Like thousands of other rootless men, Hill hopped trains throughout the West to get to job interviews. It's entirely possible that Joe Hill and Edgar Rice Burroughs crossed paths.

My Salt Lake Tribunecubicle in The Gateway Mall is about 100 feet above the old railroad yards. I can look out my window and still see rails and trains.

If I squint really hard I can almost see two men, both in their 20s, engaged in a chase. Neither really has his heart in it. One would rather be off rescuing Martian princesses, and the other is already composing in his head a humorous song about the absurdity of one poor man chasing another poor man across a rail yard for the sake of really rich men.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at bagley@sltrib.com.

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