I should just get the disclaimer out of the way up front. There's just no way I can cover the whole sub-genre of Tarzan knockoffs and jungle-adventure comics in a single column. This is really something that deserves a book. Several books.
But I did find out all sorts of fun things, researching this, and I figure I can at least share a few of those with you.
To start with, let's talk a little bit about where the feral-human idea began. This is a notion that you can trace back to Romulus and Remus, if you want to get all purist college-lit professorial about it. There are lots of fine books on the subject and even several websites.
But here we are mostly concerned with popular culture, and so you can move that start date up quite a bit if we choose to begin with Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli, Tarzan's most obvious predecessor in popular fiction.
The odd thing is, Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book not only came before Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, but it is generally better-written, more highly regarded by scholars and historians, and it only beat the ape-man to print by a couple of decades. But in terms of fame, it was Tarzan that scored big. All the loincloth-clad folks you'll see in this column are generally known as Tarzan rip-offs, not Mowgli ones. It could be that Kipling is seen as a bit too lit'ry for readers just wanting some hardcore jungle action, or it could be that Kipling's Mowgli is usually marketed to kids -- despite, again, Kipling's books being far more adult in theme than anything Edgar Rice Burroughs ever did.
Of course, there's the cartoon juggernaut that Disney created in the 60's that pretty well sealed the deal for the book being dismissed as kid stuff.
Once a book gets gobbled up by Disney, that's usually all anyone ever sees of it again. (Who remembers that Pinocchio originally was a novel by Carlo Collodi? Show of hands? Okay, I rest my case.) And Disney did Mowgli TWICE. He was a brand-name for the Mouse Corporation for decades.
Nevertheless, the authentic Kipling Mowgli's appeared a couple of other places in comics and cartoons. Chuck Jones did a magnificent adaptation for television in the 1970's that's recently been made available on DVD.
(I really wish someone would package this with Jones' other two equally brilliant Kipling adaptations, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and The White Seal; seems like a natural boxed set to me, but I guess it's too easy.) Don't let the charming character design work fool you; it's a dark, violent piece of work and very faithful to Kipling's original.
Craig Russell also did a couple of Mowgli stories in his classic anthology Night Music. This is a wonderful overlooked treasure that somebody, somewhere, needs to reprint all of in trade (not just the opera stuff -- ALL of it) if they haven't already. I have a horrible feeling that it's snarled up in the same McFarlane/Eclipse rights muddle as Miracleman, but maybe not.
And of course, Mowgli's a recurring character in Fables, but I think that's getting rather far afield. I just wanted to note that yes, I counted Mowgli in the feral-adventure-hero roundup... but sometimes being first isn't enough. After all, Somerset Maugham's Ashenden was the first modern British super-spy, but it's Ian Fleming's James Bond that everyone knows. And so on.
Which is to say that for all intents and purposes, really, the guy that started the rock rolling down the hill for the massive success of jungle-adventure pulps and comics was Tarzan. He remains the template.
You really have to do the research to get an idea of the STAGGERING number of noble savages that swarmed the pulp magazine racks and later, the comics racks, in the wake of Tarzan. And they were there for decades. The GCD lists some 69 books with "jungle" in the title alone. Bomba the Jungle Boy. Nyoka, Queen of the Jungle. Jann of the Jungle, not to be confused with Jan of the Jungle. Jungle Jim. Jungle Jo. Jungle Lil. Lorna the Jungle Queen. Jungle Action, Jungle Adventures, Jungle Drums, and there have been five different books from five different publishers called simply Jungle Comics between 1940 and 1998.
Seriously, I hardly scratched the surface over the last few days. Bottom line, from roughly 1925 or so to the early 80's, a month did not go by without some feral jungle-savage hero -- maybe Tarzan, maybe Ka-Zar or Sheena, but somebody -- made available to consumers either in a pulp magazine or in comics. Clearly, this is an archetype that popular fiction keeps gravitating to, the same as it does the urban masked crimefighter, or the teen hero on a journey of discovery. There's no way we'll get to them all (and, to be honest, not that many of them are worthy of attention) but it's worth looking at some of them.
The most obvious Tarzan knockoff is the official one. Korak, Son of Tarzan. Burroughs never did much with him in the books; Korak gets to star in one novel and he has a cameo in one or two of the others. And in the one novel he gets to headline, the Korak story is about Korak running off to the jungle and becoming Tarzan junior, and except for the part where Tarzan and Jane are looking for him, the book is mostly a replay of the adventure and romance riffs that were in the preceding three books. Only starring Korak instead of Tarzan. He meets a girl, they come together, they are torn apart, they get back together, there are evil jungle invader types, Korak has to find the girl and save her, and so on. Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of those writers who had a million ideas but only one plot. By the end of the book he has married Korak off to Meriem, and that was that. It's a fun book, but it's Tarzan Lite.
Korak in the comics was rather more interesting. He had a pretty fair run from Gold Key and a short-lived run after that at DC, maybe fifty-plus issues in all. The novel and the romance with Meriem are acknowledged, but for almost all of his run in comics Korak is basically looking for the missing Meriem and having to solve other people's problems along the way. As a story-generating device, well, it's okay, but the fun part is that Korak is the member of the Tarzan family that the really WEIRD shit happens to.
A lot of this is due to his adventures being scripted at DC by Robert Kanigher, who never, ever, threw away a story idea because it was too freaky. But a lot of the Gold Key Koraks are just as nutty.
Korak always LOOKED good, he was blessed with a number of comics greats drawing his book. Russ Manning and Nestor Redondo, particularly, turned in some really lush, gorgeous pages. But the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attitude hurt the book.... it's hard enough to believe in Tarzan stumbling across ten or twelve different lost cities as it is, let alone his kid meeting aliens and sorcerers and dinosaurs and God knows what-all else.
Korak wasn't actually the most successful of the Tarzan swipes, though. In the pulp era that honor went to another fella whose name started with K -- Ki-Gor the Killer, the star of Jungle Stories Magazine (not to be confused with the various COMICS with that title.)
Ki-Gor ran for quite a while as a pulp-magazine headliner and he is of some interest to Burroughs collectors simply because of his success. There were 59 Ki-Gor novels in all, more than double the number of Burroughs' Tarzan novels. His writers kept him busy rescuing his gal pal Helene (a "society aviatrix" whose plane had conveniently crashed in Ki-Gor's neck of the woods) from all manner of horrible drooling menaces like the Wandarobo beast-men or the strange and mysterious V'Lorians. Ki-Gor was the Avis of pulp jungle lords, he tried harder. Ki-Gor stories had more violence, sex and implied perversion than Burroughs ever thought of, yet if you read the High Adventure reprints from Adventure House you'll find them somehow charmingly innocent despite all the sneering half-naked voodoo priestesses. I think they are great fun, though your mileage may vary.
Ki-Gor added an R for his comics debut in the 90's, but it was just a little blip in the black-and-white boom and nobody noticed. It was the pulps Ki-Gor was really Lord of, at least the jungle ones.
In comics, I think you have to say the next-most-successful after Tarzan wasn't a jungle king at all. It was a jungle queen.
Specifically, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.
Sheena actually has had a fair amount of success in several different media. She had her own pulp, one of the very few to be inspired by a comic character rather than the other way around.
She's had two different TV series... In the 50's, there was Irish McCalla's --
And Gena Lee Nolin's in the 90's --
And there was a movie in between and IT inspired a comic.
Most of these are, admittedly, pretty awful. Particularly the modern revivals.
The thing is, Sheena's mostly been an opportunity for artists to draw a hot chick in rags. The story's an afterthought.
Mentioning her here, well, it's a bit like including Baywatch in a serious discussion of naval adventure stories. Despite her pedigree -- Sheena was one of the earliest female headliners in comics, she even beat out Wonder Woman for the honor of first female comic book hero to get her own book, and was originally a product of the Eisner/Iger studio -- despite all that, the bottom line is, Sheena's just not terribly interesting. She's always been more of a pinup girl, and I think that's why her sales success is a red herring. It's not her feral qualities or the jungle setting that sells Sheena's books, unless you count when those things lend themselves to having her undress.
Sheena has her own set of imitators in comics too. (Remember, in mainstream comics, the rule is "if it works, find a way to do it again.") DC took a swing at the jungle-girl thing in the 70's with Rima the Jungle Girl. Rima is worth noting simply for her incredibly convoluted history. She comes from a novel written in 1904, by a naturalist named Hudson. The book was called Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest and was swooningly Victorian, not in a good way. In the novel, the teenage Rima the Bird Girl, as she was then called, was rather passive and treated as more of a magical wood sprite than as the true feral child we've been talking about here. DC aged her to adulthood, bleached her hair, and turned her over to the Kubert editorial machine, hoping to cash in on the Tarzan success he was having for them at the time.
Rima had gorgeous art, again from Nestor Redondo, and the Kubert covers were a treat-- but Robert Kanigher's eco-crusader stories fell flat and Rima folded after seven issues. Her role since then has been to cameo all over the DCU, whether it's in a Crisis book or the Super Friends cartoon. She and B'Wana Beast are, I think, the only jungle adventurers that DC owns outright, which is why they keep showing up, I guess. Fun footnote: a young Audrey Hepburn played Rima in the 1959 movie of Green Mansions, which makes Rima the answer to "Which one of the Super Friends was played by Audrey Hepburn?"
See if you can't win a couple of bar bets at your next convention with THAT one.
More interesting in terms of character and story is Marvel's shameless swipe of Sheena, Shanna the She-Devil.
Shanna actually got her start in her own short-lived title in the seventies, during that time when Marvel was ready to greenlight damn near anything. The book ran five issues and then Shanna was relegated to the occasional back-up story in whatever black-and-white book needed a fill-in-- Savage Tales, Rampaging Hulk. Most of these were written by Steve Gerber and they are pretty good stories, though there's nothing particularly innovative about them. Recently Marvel's tried to kick-start a 're-imagined' version from Frank Cho that has mostly been famous for its last-minute censoring of some naughty shots. Which brings us full-circle to the pin-up girl thing again.
Where Shanna is more interesting than Sheena is in her relationship with Marvel's actual Tarzan steal, Ka-Zar. (Bet you thought I'd never get to him.)
Ka-Zar actually began his career in 1936 in the pulps, but he was no Ki-Gor and his book folded after a couple of issues.
Undaunted, Martin Goodman drafted him in 1939 to help carry the original Marvel Comics title and Ka-Zar ran as a backup feature there for quite a while. Back then he was originally just yet another British noble heir stranded in the jungle and raised by animals, and there was absolutely nothing to distinguish David Rand from the legion of other loinclothed white savages on the stands.
It was when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revived him in X-Men #10 that he got interesting. Now he was Lord Kevin Plunder, and he had been stranded in a secret jungle hidden somewhere under the Antarctic ice. This makes Ka-Zar the only steal from TWO different sources by the same author -- not just Burroughs' Tarzan stories but also his Pellucidar setting from the At The Earth's Core series. You can only admire the chutzpah.
Ka-Zar kept showing up any time any Marvel hero needed a Tarzan figure to guest-star, and the hidden Savage Land made a great storytelling hook. It's a bit like complimenting a shoplifter on being a snappy dresser, but Marvel's re-imagining of Ka-Zar as not just Tarzan, but Tarzan at the Earth's Core, really worked rather well. Zabu the saber-toothed tiger and his vaguely telepathic link to Ka-zar was a nice touch too.
Every so often Marvel would try to give Ka-Zar a solo series -- he had several tryouts in the 70's both in the color books and the black-and-white Savage Tales. But nothing really stuck until the 80's relaunch from Bruce Jones and Brent Anderson, Ka-Zar the Savage, which is how I like to think of him.
That was the book that put him together with Shanna and it was a match made in jungle heaven. It ran 34 issues and they were great, great fun. Jones made the couple an actual pair of grown-ups, and watching the two of them trying to hammer out a real relationship amidst all the various Savage Land perils was a set-up tailor-made for Marvel melodrama... AND it distinguished not only this particular run of Ka-Zar from the others but it also set it apart from all the other jungle books out there. The art from Brent Anderson was terrific too. This is one to hunt for on eBay.
There was another revival in the late 90's, Mark Waid and Adam Kubert did some nice work there, but it didn't really take.
Since then Ka-zar's been relegated to the occasional guest-star gig again, but as far as I know he and Shanna are still together.
Which brings me, more or less, to the end of the jungle-adventure survey. Those are the high spots. But in doing all this reading and Googling and library research, it really struck me as odd that a genre that once was so huge is now pretty much dead and gone except for Disney's straight-to-video Tarzan cartoons. Where's our feral-human savage hero gone?
Well, a large part of it is probably simply that you can't sell readers the idea of a trackless unexplored jungle any more. There's plenty of wilderness left in the world, but Africa the Dark Continent is pretty much a relic. Nowadays Africa is AIDS and famine and Hotel Rwanda in the public mind. Elsewhere, South American jungles are being paved over by fast-food companies or used as the stronghold of various drug cartels. You can't get the reader to buy a modern jungle setting, which is why you have to use a dodge like Ka-Zar's Savage Land, or else make it a period piece like every Tarzan book since 1969 has been.
But that doesn't seem like an insurmountable obstacle to me. The template Burroughs set up is still perfectly good: the beast-man forced to choose between nature and civilization, knowing that whichever way he goes, he loses half of himself. There's plenty of juice left in that idea. How to do it for modern readers?
And then it dawned on me. Tarzan's alive and well in modern comics. He just looks like this now.
There's no need to do Tarzan when you've got Wolverine dominating the comics scene. He's got everything in the Burroughs template except the noble ancestry, but I think that can be safely dismissed. Plus he's got the X-label. And he can move freely through the modern world as easily as the wilderness. The trouble is they've layered so much samurai crap and mutant continuity over him it's hard to see the feral-human template underneath.
But the core of the character, the choice between civilized or savage, that's pure Tarzan. And that's the decision that drives all the best Wolverine stories, it's the take on the character that seems to resonate the most. The thing people seem to like about Wolverine is that he could revert to the animal at any time, the civilized veneer is just a suit he puts on so he can deal with other people. Tell me, Burroughs fans, does that remind you of anyone?
Nowhere was this more obvious than the Hugh Jackman portrayal on display in theatres. Forced by the necessities of adaptation to peel away decades of continuity crap, in the movies you see Logan revealed as the traditional feral hero, made to choose which way he's going to live his life.
Seeing it play out on screen, it was the first time I ever really liked Wolverine, and it finally dawned on me what I was responding to. It was the Tarzan vibe, the knowledge that when you choose to grow up you have to give up something dear to you no matter which way you go. I'm just speculating now, but I wonder if that barely-civilized-savage idea isn't the quality that made Wolverine a star, when Byrne and Claremont decided to play up that angle all those years ago. You have to squint a little, but I think there's a jungle lord there under the spandex if you look for him.
The moral of the story, I suppose, is this. Archetypes are always with us. They just change clothes. But they never really go away.
See you next week.