by Waitsel Smith
Article is at end of images.
Tarzan Of The Apes first appeared in 1912 as a serial in the pulp-fiction rag All-Story.
Tarzan's illustrators are legion, including NC Wyeth (l) and J. Allen St. John (r).
In 1929, Tarzan became the first novel to be adapted to a comic strip.
Burne Hogarth illustrated Tarzan for the Sunday comics from 1937 to 1950.
Hogarth elevated comics to an art form, through his dynamic and yet elegant approach.
In 1972, Hogarth introduced the first graphic novel, Tarzan Of The Apes (r).
Dell featured current movie Tarzan Gordon Scott on their covers from 1955 to 1960.
Russ Manning illustrated Tarzan for comics and novels from 1967-1979.
First DC Comics issue in 1972 (l) - First Marvel Comics issue by John Buscama in 1977 (r).
Illustrations by Jeff Jones (l) and Frank Frazetta (r).
Frank Frazetta is considered by many to be the master of fantasy art.
Painting by Frank Frazetta (1972)
Comic strip by Dave Hoover
Walt Disney's Tarzan (1999) - Tarzan character supervised by animator Glen Keane
Tarzan required that Keane have a thorough understanding of artistic anatomy.
Best Action Character Ever, But Is He the Ideal Man?
When Edgar Rice Burroughs sat down to write Tarzan Of The Apes in 1911, he was 36 years old and at the end of a series of unsuccessful careers. (Sound familiar?) He was disgusted with what he called the "rot" of popular pulp fiction, such as All-Story and New Story Magazines were putting out. He was convinced that he could write stories that were "just as rotten" - and so he did. But Burroughs' rotten stories turned out to be wildly popular, so that from them arose the most influential fictional character in modern history, perhaps the most successful trademark franchise ever conceived, and a cultural phenomenon that is without rival - even Elvis, the Beatles and Star Wars pale in comparison. What makes the Tarzan character so attractive is that he is not only brawny, but brainy. You don't get that from the Hollywood versions of him; but in the books - and there are 24 of them by Burroughs - his intelligence rivals even that of Sherlock Holmes. Just to show you how thoroughly Tarzan has been misrepresented by Hollywood: Tarzan taught himself to read and write English from books he found in the jungle, long before he ever met a white person. None of this "Me Tarzan, you Jane" stuff for him. French was the first language he learned to speak, after his ape tongue, so that, when he does finally learn to speak English, he speaks it with a French accent!
Eventually, Tarzan and his friend Capitaine Phillippe D'Arnot, the man who taught him French, make their way to Paris, from which Tarzan takes a steamer to America in search of his beloved Jane, who, strangely and in a most fickle fashion, has promised herself to another, even though she admits she loves Tarzan and says she always will. (Oh, the mind and heart of woman in the hands of a romantic pulp fiction writer!) The lord of the jungle drives himself half-way across America looking for Jane. Can you imagine Tarzan in a suit and tie driving in a car across the American Midwest? Can you imagine Jane rejecting this Adonis for two lesser men - twice?! But, such was the imagination of E. R. Burroughs.
After Tarzan is jilted by Jane - is that a song? - the second time, the ape-man rejoins his friend in Paris, where he is educated and learns to converse with the best of society. He only reverts to his brutish nature when he is being threatened or trying to save someone - which, luckily for us, is quite often - because he is up to his well-proportioned neck in intrigue. Eventually, he does return to the jungle; but, when he does, it is to a vast ranch, not a treehouse - because he is the last Lord Greystoke, and, as such, heir to his English grandfather's fortune.
Tarzan does, eventually, end up with Jane. (I'm not spoiling anything for anyone, am I?) And he does have a son, which he names "Jack" - not "Boy." But he does not have a chimp named "Cheeta." These were some of the inane frills added by Hollywood, as they downgraded this fascinating character to a mere shadow of himself. By the way, you have to read The Return Of Tarzan, Burroughs' second Tarzan book, to find out what happens from the first one. Burroughs was a genius at marketing from the very beginning.
Tarzan is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his dichotomy. He is both man and ape - or, so he thinks, until fingerprint evidence proves otherwise. He is both rational and brutish, civilized and savage, kind and ruthless, righteous and sinful. Those two natures struggle within him as he seeks to discover who he is and why he's here. In that regard, he takes the same journey we all do; and that, I believe, is what makes him so universally appealing. That, and his free-spirited, back-to-nature, boyish attitude. Plus his physicality: he is a man's man and a woman's dream. And his heart: he always tries to do what's right - but he struggles with that. Before he gets civilized, he reverts to murder (hanging, no less) in order to get food and weapons; but, afterwards, he realizes he doesn't have to kill people to get what he needs. He learns to be a man - a civilized, moral man. And he grows in character like any other civilized, moral man.
Let me say briefly that Tarzan has probably been illustrated more than any other character in history, except Jesus Christ, and that each time he appears, the Burroughs estate receives homage. Burroughs was extremely wise to trademark his character; so that, even though the copyright has run out on many of his books, his heirs continue to receive royalties on the trademark - and will continue to do so as long as they choose to renew it. Like Edison, he was way ahead of his contemporaries in understanding the value of a trademark, and made his fortune because of it.
Burne Hogarth, the famous illustrator and art instructor, not only made a career out of drawing Tarzan in comic strips, but was instrumental in building an entire cult industry around the character. His very famous drawing books - Dynamic Anatomy (1958) and Dynamic Figure Drawing (1970), among others - celebrate the ideal man: that 6', muscular superman that he created in his Tarzan comics. This ideal human has been the standard for every super hero that has followed, from DC Comic's Superman and Batman to Marvel's Spiderman and Captain America. One might say that Tarzan is the father of the entire race of super heroes, and that he, more than any other, is responsible for the growth of the comic book industry. Today, pulp fiction and comic books have merged into a new art form - the graphic novel. This new form owes its existence to Burroughs and his Tarzan; because it was Hogarth's Tarzan Of The Apes (1972) that became the first graphic novel.
It didn't take Hollywood long to catch on to the public's interest in Tarzan. The first movie Tarzan was Elmo Lincoln in 1918, followed by many others, the most famous of which is Johnny Weissmuller (1932-1948). I don't particularly care for Weissmuller's version of the lord of the jungle, because he reduces Tarzan to the "Me Tarzan, you Jane" variety. My favorite is Gordon Scott (1955-1960), who is both brawny and brainy - the way Tarzan is supposed to be. Scott did six Tarzan movies; then left for Italy to star in sword-and-sandal, muscleman films - another cult genre for which Tarzan is probably responsible. In 1984, Christopher Lambert starred in Greystoke, The Legend Of Tarzan, which was an attempt to get back to the look and feel of Burrough's books; but it goes off on an irrational tangent in the second half, which brings the film down.
The most recent Tarzan is the Disney animated version (1999), which, in my opinion, is probably the best because, in it, Tarzan imitates the animals and does superhuman feats the way he does in Burroughs' books, but which would be almost impossible for a live actor to do. It does trade many of the aspects of Burroughs' story for cuteness. In the books, the jungle is brutal, as is Tarzan - which would be hard to show on screen and still be a family film. Glen Keane, supervising animator for the Tarzan character, allowed his Christian faith to inform his choices for the character - and rightly so - so that you almost feel you are watching a Christ-like Tarzan, or at least the first man, Adam. It is uncanny.
I wish a live actor could indeed master the look and feel of Tarzan, who is one of the great characters in all of literature and film, right up there with King Arthur, Hamlet, Scrooge and Sherlock Holmes. He has something to say to people of all generations and cultures. In the books, Burroughs used the character to comment on the state of civilization, for which Tarzan (and Burroughs) had very little respect. He thought civilized man was soft. (I'm afraid he would think he was down-right effeminate today.) He thought civilized man was more ruthless and cruel than the beasts of the jungle. (Beasts, after all, kill only for food; man kills for sport - or even worse.) And civilized man is not honorable, for the most part. But Tarzan is honorable. In fact, in many ways, Tarzan is a modern-day knight: he is chivalrous, in that he always strives to do what's right; he is gallant, in that he fights for the honor of ladies; and he is charitable, in that he always defends the weak and helpless. That is a theme that runs through all the great characters of both literature and history, among whom Tarzan would undoubtedly rank near the top.
To read Tarzan Of The Apes, The Return Of Tarzan or any of Edgar Rice Burroughs other books that are in the public domain, go to any of the following web sites: Literature.org or Project Gutenberg or CMU-Robert Stockton-Classic Fiction
Waitsel Smith, July 10, 2008
COMMENTS FROM READERS LIKE YOU:
[Send me yours and I'll include them on this page. Let me know what you think.]
"You are such an intelligent man, Waitsel! I enjoy reading what you write." - Sandy, Atlanta
"Excellent piece. I particularly liked the observation that Hogarth's TARZAN was the first graphic novel. Again, well done. Thanks." - Charlie, www.erbgraphics.com
Thanks for all your great comments!
Text © 2008 Waitsel Smith. All Artwork © Artists Indicated, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.
Tarzan Registered Trademark of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.