Saturday In The Jungle

One of my favorite literary characters just had a birthday not too long ago. Tarzan of the Apes turned 100 years old in October.

I am a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs in general and Tarzan in particular, and I've done columns about the ape-man and his various imitators before-- here, here, and here, for those who came in late. But those were written a few years ago, and there's quite a few Tarzan-related items of interest that have appeared since then-- many of them this year, as part of the centennial celebration. Some are 'official,' sanctioned by the Burroughs estate and done in tandem with ERB Inc., and others are not.

One of my favorites is the new Lord of the Jungle monthly comic from Dynamite Entertainment. I have a hunch this one is not sanctioned, because Dynamite has been very careful not to use the word "Tarzan" in its promotional material, or even in the book's title. ("Tarzan," the name, is trademarked; but a number of Burroughs novels have fallen into public domain, including the early Tarzans. Which makes them fair game for new editions and adaptation.)

It's a shame Lord of the Jungle doesn't get the official seal of approval from ERB and the resultant publicity push, because I just read the first trade, collecting the first eight issues, and I thought it was terrific.

At first glance you'd think it's YET ANOTHER adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes, the original novel... and it mostly is. In fact I dismissed it as such when I first heard about it. My reasoning was that I already own comics by, variously, Burne Hogarth, Russ Manning, and Joe Kubert adapting that same tale, and how many more do I really need?

I'm glad I changed my mind, though, because this new Lord of the Jungle may be my favorite comics version to date. Arvid Nelson is writing it and he is doing a great job of making the old and familiar feel new and fresh. In particular, he's hitting parts of the novel that tend to be glossed over in most adaptations. He gets in the beginning that most of us already know, the mutineers dumping John and Alice Clayton on the African coast, and John doing his best to make a home for them. In quick succession, we get the birth of baby John, the fight with the apes that results in the deaths of John and Alice, and the baby claimed by Kala the she-ape to raise as her own. This is all sketched in quickly, just a few pages, but there's enough there that you don't feel like you're getting short weight.

And then Mr. Nelson skips over a lot of the boyhood of Tarzan, which is something I think is a very wise choice; every other comics adaptation lingers on this, and no matter how well you do it, it's still going to be old news to most readers. Instead he moves us quickly to the real story-- Tarzan's meeting with Jane Porter and her expedition, and their impossible romance. In doing so, Nelson also makes a couple of changes that I thought were really inspired.

For one thing, he deals with the frankly overt racism in Burroughs' original text by making Jane's maid Esmeralda a smart Haitian girl instead of a comedy relief character, and even better, he changes Burroughs' original cannibal tribe into the same kind of "beast men" that Tarzan would later fight in the city of Opar.

This neatly accommodates all the scenes of mayhem from the novel, while subverting the racist overtones by showing that these evil cannibals prey on black and white alike.

I also like how he included the subplot about Jane's arranged marriage to the vile Robert Canler.

Again, this is something most adaptations hardly spend any time on, but Nelson not only includes it, but doubles down by making Canler not just a cad but an actual mobbed-up criminal; even better, he follows up on this with a little two-part 'bridge' story that takes place between Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan, also included in this collection.

I don't mean to slight the art in all of this. I've never heard of Roberto Castro before but he turns in the hell of a job here, ably assisted by Alex Gumaraes on color. In this digital age I can't quite tell who did what but the overall look of the thing is incredibly lush and rich, without that weird plastic sheen that some digital colorists give to a book.

Because it's Dynamite, there are naturally all sorts of variant covers and whatnot, included as pinups in the paperback collection.

There's also a writer's commentary from Arvid Nelson on #1 and his deliberations on what to leave in and what to skip over when he was adapting the book. (And may I just say that I much prefer Dynamite's format of an eight-issue trade collection like this with extras; this feels like a real book and not just a comics annual on steroids. --Yes, Winter Soldier trades, I'm looking at you.)

All of this has convinced me that the latest comics version of the Jungle Lord is in good hands; as I write this, the adaptation of The Return of Tarzan by Nelson and Castro is in full swing and it looks every bit as good as the one I'm talking about here.

I may even break my rule about waiting for the trade and start getting the monthly, just because I am eager to see what's next. Either way, you should check it out. (It's also available digitally from Comixology, if that's how you roll.)

There are other recently-released Tarzan items that may be of interest to you all, as well.... for one thing, I'm very pleased that you can finally get non-bootleg DVDs of the Ron Ely Tarzan television series. The first season, anyway.

It's split into two sets, fifteen episodes in the first and sixteen in the second, and these are no-frills Warner Archive sets without any extras at all. But I'm glad to have them and to see that the show mostly holds up.

Another new offering that delighted me is Robin Maxwell's new novel: Jane, the Woman Who Loved Tarzan.

You may have heard about this one, it's one of the 'official' Burroughs estate things and has been getting a fair amount of play in the fan press; I gather that author Robin Maxwell even made the pilgrimage to San Diego to do an appearance at Comic-Con promoting it.

My copy arrived a month ago or so. I'm just getting round to it and so far I'm liking it quite a bit. The tagline is "The Tarzan story as told by Jane," but there's much more to it than that. Like Arvid Nelson in Lord of the Jungle, Ms. Maxwell isn't afraid to do a bit of retooling here and there to the legend to make it work better for a modern audience, and also to make it a more plausible fit with history. Here is an excerpt that gives you an idea of what I mean. Worth your time if you're a Tarzan fan, or even just an adventure fan.

And I admit to feeling a warm glow of nostalgia when I saw that Dark Horse has finally gotten up to Russ Manning in its hardcover Tarzan reprint series.

Those were my first encounter with the REAL Tarzan, the Burroughs character-- it wasn't until I found these comics that I gathered that there was a guy named Burroughs who wrote actual Tarzan books.

Today I have to confess that I prefer the more sophisticated treatment on display in Lord of the Jungle.... but these Manning adaptations are classics in their own right and deserve to be preserved in hardcover.

I'm glad to have it in the library for the younger folks that we occasionally have here, and to take to school for my students. These stories were a gateway drug to Burroughs for me when I was a sprout, and I see no reason why they wouldn't still be one for kids today.

Probably my favorite piece of the Tarzan centennial boom/revival/whatever, though, is the stunning new art book specifically devoted to it.

Scott Griffin's Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration is a magnificent compendium of Tarzan lore. Though the book is largely focused on Edgar Rice Burroughs and the books he authored, it also exhaustively documents the ape-man's appearances in films, television, children's books, and comics, in a really lovely coffee-table art book hardcover stuffed full of color paintings from Tarzan pulps and paperbacks and comics.

I know a lot about Tarzan-- well, compared to most people, anyway-- but in comparison to Griffin I'm a piker. He covers EVERYTHING.

Best of all (well, for me) there are pages and pages of Tarzan cover art and comics art reproduced in loving detail, often larger than it originally appeared. I adored seeing George Wilson's old Gold Key cover paintings reproduced at tabloid size, without cover copy. And the Neal Adams covers. And the Boris Vallejo covers. And Roy Krenkel's, and Frazetta's, and J. Allen St. John's.

It's pretty much the final word on everything Tarzan to date, from the early days of the pulps and silent film on up. And Griffin even got Ron Ely to write an introduction. It retails for $39.95 and I'd say it was well worth it-- but you don't have to pay that much, because right now you can get a copy for a little over twenty bucks on Amazon.

With the Tarzan centennial renaissance in full swing, though, I am left to wonder...

...where is my DVD set of Filmation's Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle?

Considering the time it was made, and the hellaciously stringent requirements in place for Saturday morning television back then, this was a cartoon series that still managed to evoke the Burroughs Tarzan.

It was a little uneven-- there were certainly a couple of episodes that were wince-worthy-- but overall it was one of the better efforts at adapting Tarzan to film. I could understand no one putting it out when Disney was saturating the market with their own animated version, but enough time has passed since that was current that I'd think there's room for both.

But that's just fanboy carping, really... it's not as though there isn't lots to enjoy right now.

And I certainly am enjoying it. Happy birthday, Lord Greystoke. Nice to see you around these parts again. I hope your latest comics and prose incarnations are as successful as the best of the previous ones have been.

Everyone else... well, I'll see you next week.

EXCLUSIVE: LaGuardia #3

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