[18 July 2014]
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan is a fixture in the pop consciousness despite the fact that, these days, no one cares much about him. The character has appeared in virtually every form of media imaginable, from pulp novels and comics to big budget movies and smartphone apps because he’s endlessly adaptable, a character whose name represents more than just the king of the jungle.
Tarzan is another word for hero, for wilding, for a monosyllabic macho man protecting his woman. The jungle howl from the movies is known even if you have no idea who Johnny Weismuller or Buster Crabbe were. That howl is in all our throats.
The character first appeared in The All Story magazine in 1912, followed by the novel Tarzan of the Apes in 1914. In all, Tarzan appeared in 26 novels by Burroughs and another two non-Burroughs efforts officially authorized by his estate. Burroughs wrote mountains of fiction in his lifetime, including the popular Barsoom series, which provided the inspiration for the 2012 film John Carter and countless other iterations. Many of Burroughs creations laid the groundwork for a huge chunk of the popular entertainment of the 20th century.
Tarzan: In the City of Gold begins Titan’s collection of famed artist Burne Hogarth’s run on the strip. Hogarth, whose name sounds as if it came right out of a comic strip, followed Hal Foster on the series. Foster, of course, went on to further fame with his own Prince Valiant, a beautiful medieval epic that is like the Bayeux Tapestry of comic strips.
The story in this book was begun by Foster on 17 May 1936. Hogarth continued the in-progress story (these were weekly installments) on 9 May 1937. We’re treated to “the story so far…” in text rather than filling half the book with Foster and the other with Hogarth. This works as far as purity is concerned, but it ultimately doesn’t matter if we’re up to speed or dropped right onto the veldt with Tarzan. These stories are virtually interchangeable, with only superficial changes from arc to arc. Tarzan stumbles upon some sort of strife in the jungle, becomes allied with one side over the other, makes an enemy, becomes the object of some woman’s affection, is captured, emerges victorious, and heads off for another adventure.
These stories represent the tedium that’s found in a lot of vintage comics. There’s not only repetition of themes, but of whole sequences. Leopards appear out of nowhere, spotted deus ex machinas which look lovely but never provide thrills. There’s a lens through which a contemporary reader must view these kinds of stories, a way of looking at the story in its original context, which dulls the corners of cliché plots and stock characters, but that permissiveness can only go so far. There’s a point where a reader of any age would have to note that, while these stories may be nice to look at, there’s not a lot going on upstairs.
Maybe it’s the cramped panels of Hogarth’s grid, but Tarzan’s world never opens up. In the popular Flash Gordon strip, the art expanded from a typical grid to large, breathtaking panels filled with action, graceful figures, and the wilds of the planet Mongo. Here, Hogarth keeps Tarzan restrained in a consistent ten-12 panel grid. The stories never quite pop, and big moments carry, opportunities for action or surprise, carry as little weight as quieter establishing scenes.
Is it wrong to want more from such a light entertainment? The Flash Gordon stories are all virtually identical, and some early Buck Rogers stuff is unreadable in its monotony, but there’s such a limited palette in these jungle adventures. No futuristic weapons, strange, alien beasts, danger-specific landscapes like a sea of fire or desert of ice. Just the specter of colonialism and dated views on race. Maybe it’s simply a matter of taste, but these stories are too earth-bound. Not that Tarzan should be headed for the stars or traveling to other dimensions, but he feels stuck.
Burne Hogarth went on to write several well-regarded art instruction books on anatomy. All of them have the word “Dynamic” in them. There’s a good reason for this. You see it in later strips, but here it’s all compacted and condensed.
Of course there are racist depictions of Africans throughout the strip. That should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever lived in the world as it exists in this plane of reality. Hogarth draws little distinction between the African tribesmen and the talking apes who raised Tarzan. Our hero fights alongside both groups, but to both he is a superior, a wise and all-knowing leader. Even proud female warriors like the Amazons (who live in Africa, for some reason) are reduced to squabbling little girls when Tarzan’s prowess is on display. It’s a rare moment of humor, but at what cost? “I’ll marry him!” “He’s mine!”
It’s easy to dismiss this old form of adventure storytelling. Besides the outlandish plots and obvious racial issues arising in nearly every strip, the idea of a white man in a loin cloth ruling the African jungle is corny as hell. Still, given the archetypal stature of a character like Tarzan, at least for a while, it’s hard not to get caught up with the break-neck speed and cliffhanger on every page.