With a new tarzan movie about to swing into cin­e­mas, Luke Dormehl explores the his­tory of the Lord of the Apes

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

In­ves­ti­gat­ing the jun­gle man’s claims to be one of the first fan­tasy su­per­heroes.

Edgar Rice Bur­roughs was a fail­ure. Or that was how it must have felt – and, to out­siders, looked – when he sub­mit­ted his first piece of writ­ing to pulp mag­a­zine The All-Story in 1911. Bur­roughs was in his midthir­ties and des­per­ate. He had a wife and two chil­dren, with a third on the way. His other stabs at at­tempted ca­reers (cow­boy, shop­keeper, rail­road po­lice­man, gold pros­e­cu­tor) had fallen at the first hur­dle. The clos­est thing to writ­ing on his CV was a job work­ing as a whole­saler of pen­cil sharp­en­ers.

And yet Bur­roughs didn’t re­main a fail­ure. The fol­low­ing year, he was the pub­lished au­thor of sev­eral sto­ries, in­clud­ing one – Tarzan Of The Apes – which in­tro­duced the world to a char­ac­ter it would soon be very fa­mil­iar with. Tarzan Of The Apes tells the story of John Clayton, an English child born to mem­bers of the aris­toc­racy, who is raised by apes after his own par­ents are killed. With a com­bi­na­tion of an­i­mal agility and fierce hu­man in­tel­li­gence, the re­named “Tarzan” (ape-speak, ap­par­ently, for “white skin”) be­comes ruler and pro­tec­tor of the African jun­gle.

The char­ac­ter was an im­me­di­ate smash hit. By the time Edgar Rice Bur­roughs died as a wealthy 74-year-old in 1950, Tarzan had tran­scended pulp nov­els and made his way to ra­dio, comics (first il­lus­trated by Hal Fos­ter, cre­ator of Prince Valiant), Broad­way plays and a string of Hol­ly­wood movies. Next month, yet an­other is added to the pile in the form of The

Leg­end Of Tarzan, star­ring Alexander Skars­gård as the vine-swing­ing hero.

“Right from the start, Edgar Rice Bur­roughs un­der­stood that he wasn’t just sell­ing a sin­gle novel, but an en­tire world,” says Arvid Nel­son, the writer of Dy­na­mite’s Tarzan comic book series Lord Of The Jun­gle. “When you go to Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tion meet­ings, peo­ple to­day talk about fran­chises and mer­chan­dis­ing. Edgar Rice Bur­roughs was the first per­son to re­alise that. You could even buy Tarzan-branded ice cream!”

By think­ing big, Edgar Rice Bur­roughs cre­ated a tem­plate which has since been used by ev­ery­one from Walt Dis­ney to Mar­vel Comics.

“Bur­roughs came of age when mass me­dia was ex­plod­ing,” says John Tali­a­ferro, au­thor of the book Tarzan For­ever: The Life Of Edgar Rice Bur­roughs. “There were news­pa­pers, pulp nov­els, ra­dio, movies. Ev­ery­thing was mov­ing at an in­cred­i­bly fast pace. You could say that it was a case of be­ing in the right place at the right time, but he seized on what was hap­pen­ing. He was the first au­thor to in­cor­po­rate him­self and his fran­chise. He took con­trol of the fi­nan­cial side of his char­ac­ter, and turned it into a global busi­ness.”

The World’s First su­per­hero

Of course, no amount of mar­ket­ing tal­ent could have trans­formed Tarzan into a last­ing iconic char­ac­ter if he hadn’t res­onated with the pub­lic. Just as Bur­roughs did with cre­at­ing a fran­chise model for his cre­ation, so Tarzan es­tab­lished a for­mula which would ex­plode in pop­u­lar­ity over the com­ing decades.

“In my opin­ion, Tarzan is the world’s first su­per­hero,” says Nel­son. “Like Sher­lock Holmes he’s got su­per­hu­man in­tel­li­gence, but Bur­roughs added to that by giv­ing him vir­tu­ally su­per­hu­man strength as well. Tarzan is the tem­plate for ev­ery su­per­hero after him.”

One ex­am­ple of a per­son in­flu­enced by Tarzan? None other than Su­per­man co-cre­ator Jerry Siegel, who bor­rowed as­pects of the char­ac­ter for his own mega hit. “When I was 20, I hap­pened to be vis­it­ing my cousins in the LA area and de­cided to call Bur­roughs Inc to show them my art,” says Thomas Yeates, a Tarzan comic artist and writer, whose new book Tarzan: The Beck­on­ing is out this year. Be­fore he knew what had hap­pened, Yeates found him­self as a late ar­rival at a ban­quet din­ner in hon­our of Edgar Rice Bur­roughs, sit­ting next to Siegel. “Jerry said he and his part­ner artist Joe Shus­ter were in­spired by Tarzan to cre­ate Su­per­man,” Yeates says. “Many, many young cre­ative peo­ple of that era were en­thralled and in­flu­enced by the writ­ings of Bur­roughs and the Tarzan news­pa­per strip.”

At least in the books, Tarzan wasn’t just a hulk­ing brute, though. He also pos­sessed a su­per­hu­man in­tel­li­gence which may come as a sur­prise for any­one only fa­mil­iar with the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of the movies (a line which, in­ci­den­tally, is never ac­tu­ally said). In the books, Tarzan speaks 25 hu­man lan­guages, in ad­di­tion to be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate with the an­i­mals around him: a sort of body­build­ing Dr Dolittle.

It is this com­bi­na­tion of an­i­mal strength and hu­man in­tel­li­gence that makes him so fas­ci­nat­ing. “[The ap­peal of Tarzan is the] du­al­ity of feral an­i­mal and aris­to­cratic gentle­man that can in­stinc­tively switch places in the blink of an eye,” says Joe Jusko, a painter who has il­lus­trated the char­ac­ter in pho­to­re­al­is­tic style many times over the years.

Tarzan’s Weird­est en­coun­ters

It’s not just Tarzan’s sta­tus as a pro­to­type su­per­hero that makes him qual­ify for the SFX treat­ment, how­ever. Tarzan’s his­tory is full of more off­beat tales firmly rooted in the fan­tasy and sci-fi gen­res. One Bur­roughs story en­ti­tled Tarzan At The Earth’s Core fea­tures Tarzan… well, trav­el­ling to the Earth’s core (a place called Pel­lu­ci­dar), where he en­coun­ters cave men and women and bat­tles evil tele­pathic ptero­dactyls. In fact, Pel­lu­ci­dar was an early ex­am­ple of a fran­chise cross­over, since Bur­roughs had pre­vi­ously cre­ated the hol­low Earth con­cept for a series of nov­els in­volv­ing the char­ac­ter of min­ing heir David Innes.

It is of­ten these more side­ways takes on the char­ac­ter which have res­onated with cre­ators. Joe Jusko, for in­stance, says that de­spite his “ra­bid ob­ses­sion” with Tarzan these days, he was less than im­pressed by the old Hol­ly­wood films which first ex­posed him to the char­ac­ter. Then he picked up Bur­roughs’ nov­els and found them to be a rev­e­la­tion. “La and the Beast Men of Opar! Pel­lu­ci­dar! Di­nosaurs! Where were all these things in those old movies?” he says. “Of course, I re­alised that bud­getary and tech­no­log­i­cal re­straints had pre­vented any­thing like the books from be­ing pro­duced on film, but I was now a to­tally con­verted Edgar Rice Bur­roughs fa­natic. I quickly sought out ev­ery­thing I could find by him and was as­tounded by the breadth and depth of his imag­i­na­tion.”

Oth­ers have con­tin­ued this theme. In the Dark Horse comic The Once And Fu­ture Tarzan, artist and co-writer Thomas Yeates hurls Tarzan into a fu­tur­is­tic flooded Lon­don – in which the least of his prob­lems is the lack of jun­gle vines to swing from!

Con­tin­u­ing in the tra­di­tion of Tarzan crossovers, other cre­ators have sim­i­larly paired

the char­ac­ter up with ev­ery­one from Edgar Rice Bur­roughs’ own John Carter of Mars to Franken­stein’s Mon­ster, Sher­lock Holmes, Su­per­man, Batman and Preda­tor. “Tarzan Ver­sus Preda­tor: At The Earth’s Core

re­ally hap­pened be­cause Dark Horse ob­tained the comics rights to both the Tarzan and the Preda­tor prop­er­ties si­mul­ta­ne­ously,” writer Wal­ter Simonson tells SFX. “I don’t know whose idea it was to com­bine them, but I got a call out of the blue ask­ing me if I’d like to write it. I’d writ­ten a Tarzan story a few years ear­lier, and had read a lot of the Tarzan nov­els when I was young, so I was de­lighted to give it a shot.”

The Vines are a’changin’

Ul­ti­mately, as with any char­ac­ter that has en­dured in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion, Tarzan’s real strength has been his abil­ity to change over time. “Tarzan has al­ways adapted to mir­ror the times,” says Tali­a­ferro. “If you look at the an­i­mated Dis­ney film from 1999, for ex­am­ple, he’s vir­tu­ally skate­board­ing down some of the trees in a nod to the pop­u­lar­ity of ex­treme sports at the time.”

Not all of the tran­si­tions have been quite so straight­for­ward. “The big­gest prob­lem that I had with Tarzan is that the char­ac­ter as orig­i­nally con­ceived is ex­plic­itly a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of colo­nial­ism and racist at­ti­tudes,” says Nel­son. “The theme of the orig­i­nal book is that a white Euro­pean left alone in the jun­gle would, by dint of their nat­u­ral su­pe­ri­or­ity, rise up to be­come mas­ter of ev­ery­thing around him.”

When Nel­son was given the job of retelling the Edgar Rice Bur­roughs Tarzan story with his fan­tas­tic Lord Of The Jun­gle series, he at­tempted some­thing very chal­leng­ing: to go back to the orig­i­nal sto­ries, while strip­ping the char­ac­ter of some of its less palat­able el­e­ments. “I tried to look at the char­ac­ter from a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion: that a per­son raised by apes in the jun­gle wouldn’t have their mind poi­soned by racist at­ti­tudes,” he con­tin­ues. “It makes him an in­no­cent, as well as be­ing more noble and heroic. It also adds a tragic el­e­ment be­cause he’s some­one who doesn’t truly fit in any­where.”

With so many ver­sions of Tarzan – rang­ing from 1918’s silent film Tarzan And The Apes to this year’s The Leg­end Of Tarzan – and ap­pear­ances in books, comics, TV shows, films and even videogames, it’s clear that Tarzan to­day is far big­ger than any one cre­ator. But isn’t that part of the fun? “The rea­son that you’re able to change char­ac­ters like Tarzan is be­cause the au­di­ence are so fa­mil­iar with the orig­i­nal story and they’ll ac­cept deriva­tions of it as a re­sult,” Nel­son con­tin­ues. “It’s like play­ing vari­a­tions on the same jazz riff.”

Here’s to Tarzan’s next suc­cess­ful cen­tury!

The Leg­end Of Tarzan opens on 8 July. For more Joe Jusko art see http://www.joe­jusko.com.

Alexander Skars­gård be­comes the lat­est Tarzan ac­tor this year.

Tarzan in the Earth’s core (where else?), as il­lus­trated by Joe Jusko.

The ape man show­ing off again in this Joe Jusko work.

Thomas Yeates paints

The Once And Fu­ture Tarzan.

Tarzan’s Desert Mys­tery: She Jane, him… tired? 2016’s The Leg­end Of Tarzan.

gi­ant spi­der in­va­sion!

Dis­ney’s 1999 sports dude take on the char­ac­ter.

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