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