I’m not sure if it would have been possible for an American kid of my generation to grow up not knowing who Tarzan was. Even if you never once heard the name “Edgar Rice Burroughs”, you’d inevitably learn to recognize that author’s most famous hero by sight, as his loincloth-clad form swung by on a vine — or by sound, per his distinctive, (literally) trademarked yell.
Your humble blogger was no exception in this regard. Still, I may have been in a minority among my peers in at least one Tarzan-related area: I never saw a single Tarzan movie in my formative years, despite their showing up regularly on television. How come? I’m not 100% sure, but I figure it was probably because of my dad.
Not that Dad didn’t like Tarzan — far from it. He just happened to like the real Tarzan — the one that Burroughs wrote about, who was the sophisticated British Lord Greystoke as well as the savage and lethal lord of the jungle; who was as fluent in French as he was in the King’s English (even if his first language was Great Ape). None of that “me Tarzan, you Jane” stuff had anything to do with the real Ape-Man, as far as my father was concerned. And while Dad wasn’t quite old enough to have been part of the first generation of Tarzan readers — he was born in 1915, while Tarzan had first come into the world in 1912 — he’d been acquainted with the character for long enough that I figured the man knew what he was talking about.
So I never saw a Tarzan movie (though I believe I did catch at least a few episodes of the Ron Ely TV series that ran on NBC on Friday nights 1966-1968; if I recall correctly, Dad was OK with how Tarzan talked in that version, but was irked by the absence of Jane, as well as the inclusion of a young sidekick named Jai who wasn’t in Burroughs’ stories). And I also consistently ignored the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes comic books from Western Publishing (aka Gold Key), although I’m sure I saw them regularly on the stands. Assuming that my fourteen-year-old self even happened to catch a glimpse of the final Gold Key issue, #206, when it showed up in my favorite spinner rack in December, 1971, I doubt it made any more impression on me than did that month’s issue of Career Girl Romances. (Which frankly seems a bit of a shame to my sixty-four-year-old self, who thinks that Tarzan #206’s painted cover by George Wilson is actually pretty cool.)
But the next issue of Tarzan proved to be a different story. Because it wasn’t just the 207th issue of Tarzan; it was the first DC Comics issue. And DC went all out to make sure that their regular readers of the time, such as your humble blogger, understood that this was a really big deal., using such means as the house ad below:
In this ad, the clearest indication of a break with the new Tarzan‘s immediate predecessors was the cover of issue #207 itself. The simple fact that it was drawn, rather than painted, was perhaps the most obvious difference. But then there was also the “new” logo (actually an adaptation of the logo of the “Tarzan” newspaper comic strip, as originally designed in 1931) which replaced Gold Key’s rather staid block lettering. Also, compared to Tarzan #206, issue #207’s cover bore a minimal amount of text — though one of the few pieces of non-essential copy it did include, the seal proclaiming this to be the “1st DC Issue”, cleverly appealed to more serious comics fans and collectors (who were known to place a special value on “number ones”), without dispensing with the conventional wisdom within the newsstand distribution business, which was that higher periodical issue numbers were preferable to lower ones.
But the ad’s own copy was attention-grabbing as well, in that it emphasized the name of the main creator involved with the project — giving “kubert” pride of place even before “tarzan“. While Joe Kubert may noy have been the very first artist-writer whose perceived star power DC used to promote a comic-book series — the company had been using Jack Kirby’s name in ads ever since his leaving its main rival, Marvel, in 1970 — it was still a highly unusual sales tactic for American comics in 1972. And my younger self was duly impressed, despite the fact that I knew Kubert almost entirely by reputation at this point in my comics-reading career. That was because I hadn’t started reading comic books until 1965, and almost all of the veteran professional’s work in the past seven years — whether as artist, writer, or editor — had been for DC’s line of war comics. And since I didn’t read war comics, it followed that outside of a few covers (such as the two shown at left and right), Kubert’s output was almost entirely unrepresented in my collection — unless of course you want to count his artwork that ran in DC’s house ads for those war comics I never bought.
Still, I did know his reputation. And that — along with the undeniable raw power of that cover image — was enough to convince me to lay down a quarter for the privilege of finding out whether DC’s take on Tarzan might just be one that even my dad would recognize as the Real Deal.
Several reasons have been advanced for why Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. opted in 1971 to withdraw the comic-book license for Tarzan (and Burroughs’ other characters) from Western, who’d been involved with the properties since 1947; but the main impetus seems to have been the relatively small publisher’s disinterest in stepping up its production of new material. Gold Key was putting out just eight issues of Tarzan a year, along with six of Korak (featuring the adventures of Tarzan’s son), and no comics at all starring any of Burroughs’ other creations, such as John Carter of Mars. That wasn’t nearly enough to meet the apparently insatiable demand for more Burroughs material from the foreign market, some of whose publishers were producing their own strips in a “Gold Key” style (which seems to have essentially meant imitating the work of artist Russ Manning). For a brief while, ERB, Inc. pursued the idea of becoming its own publisher, but soon ran into obstacles involving distribution; ultimately, then, they once again resorted to licensing their properties out to another company, this time to DC Comics.
According to Bill Schelly’s Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert (Fantagraphics Books, 2008), the business relationship between DC and ERB, Inc. began with a chance meeting in Europe between Carmine Infantino, then DC’s publisher, and ERB, Inc. vice-president Robert Hodes — which is just the kind of historic detail to make you wonder how things might have turned out if such a meeting hadn’t occurred. Would the Burroughs license have gone to Marvel some five years earlier than it ultimately did? Or would it have ended up somewhere less likely, such as Archie?* We’ll never know, of course — and that’s probably for the best, considering how perfectly suited for each other Joe Kubert and Tarzan turned out to be.
Infantino doesn’t appear to have ever considered anyone but his longtime friend and colleague — who, like himself, had made the transition from being “only” a freelance artist into a management role relatively recently — for the job of shepherding the Tarzan property at DC Comics. As Kubert himself related in his introduction to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan: The Joe Kubert Years (Dark Horse Books, 2005):
One bright, sunny day, Carmine called me into his office. “Joe,” he said with a broad smile, “how would you like to do Tarzan?” Carmine and I had known each other since we started in this business. If anyone knew of my love for Burroughs’ Tarzan, he did.
I jumped at it.
Here was an opportunity for me to connect again with the joys of my childhood. To infuse myself into the world of Tarzan, the Ape-Man, and to write and draw the character that had been an inspiration to me.
Kubert had read and enjoyed Burroughs’ fiction in his youth, although his actual introduction to the character of Tarzan had been through Hal Foster’s work on the newspaper comic strip; the latter ultimately became one of his primary inspirations for becoming a professional cartoonist, as well as a major artistic influence. He immediately and enthusiastically threw himself into preparation for this dream project:
First, I re-read all the Tarzan novels. This was step one in re-acquainting myself with the origin. Then, I studied Foster’s work, some of which I had never seen before… My intent in doing Tarzan was to inject the excitement and immediacy that I felt when I read Tarzan for the very first time…
Kubert decided to begin his chronicling of the jungle lord’s adventures with an adaptation of Burroughs’ first Tarzan novel. This was hardly the first time this work had been adapted into comics; Foster’s newspaper strip version (scripted by R.W. Palmer) had first appeared in 1928, and Gold Key had delivered a comic-book take in 1965. But Gold Key had granted writer Gaylord DuBois and artist Russ Manning only a single issue (Tarzan #155) to tell the full story of Burroughs’ novel, and at 24 pages, significant abridgement was inevitable. DC’s version, by contrast, would have plenty of room to breathe, as editor-writer-artist Kubert chose to devote the first four issues of his run to the tale of Tarzan’s origins.
For my fourteen-year-old self — who’d never read a single Tarzan comic book or newspaper strip in his life prior to February, 1972, let alone a comics recounting of the hero’s origin story — it was an especially fortuitous choice.
Kubert’s adaptation of Burroughs’ novel actually begins with a scene not found in Burroughs’ novel:
As an artist, Kubert is relatively spare in the linework he utilizes to delineate the lush vegetation and abundant animal life of this “unexplored African jungle”; nevertheless, his economical approach is remarkably effective in conveying the beauty, immensity, and, ultimately, the dangerous wildness of the setting.
Burroughs’ narrative in his 1912 novel begins before Tarzan is born; Kubert’s addition of an original framing sequence allows him to showcase the Ape-Man in action “here and now”. And since this is the only time we’ll see the adult Tarzan in the first DC issue of the series that bears his name, that’s probably a wise choice.
Here, midway through the story’s fifth page, Kubert’s graphic adaptation of Burroughs’ prose tale at last properly begins…
The mutineers quickly overwhelm the ship’s outnumbered officers; but when one of the sailors moves towards the Claytons with similarly murderous intent, their leader unceremoniously shoots him dead. “These two are my friends!” Black Michael declares.
But Lord and Lady Greystoke soon learn that their benefactor’s “friendship” extends only so far…
Kubert’s study of Hal Foster’s take on Tarzan of the Apes extended beyond mere inspiration, to the actual incorporation of some of his predecessor’s compositions into his own drawings — what some might call “swipes”. For example, the last panel of page 9, shown above, is clearly derived from the Foster illustration shown at left.
Of course, this sort of thing was altogether invisible to my Tarzan-newbie self in 1972, but more savvy fans picked up on it — and some, at least, were less than happy about the practice. One such was Randy Nesseler, whose complaint would appear in the letters column of Tarzan #212 (Sep., 1972): “You’re okay with art, Joe, and that’s why it’s sad to see you flagrantly attempting to duplicate Hal Foster’s characters. Why not use your own concepts?” To which the creator-editor would succinctly reply: “…Foster’s character delineations were closer to their true essence than anything I could imagine.” Since he felt he couldn’t improve on what his artistic idol had already produced — and since DC’s license from ERB, Inc. evidently included the rights to reprint and otherwise reuse previously published Tarzan comics material however they wished — Kubert had no compunctions about integrating Foster’s vision with his own.
As noted by Bill Schelly in The Art of Joe Kubert (Fantagraphics Books, 2011), one thing that helps elevate Kubert’s “integrations” beyond mere swipes is his utilization of the full range of design and layout options afforded by the comic book page to achieve dramatic effects not available to Foster, who worked within a rigidly defined framework of five uniformly-sized rectangular panels to produce his pictorial version of the novel. In regards to the example we’ve shared above, Schelly writes:
In the sequence depicting the stranded Greystokes forlornly watching the ship that has brought them to the coast of Africa sail away, Kubert surrounds them with a great deal more space, emphasizing that they are alone and dwarfed by the untamed environment.
We’ll take a look at another Kubert-Foster “integration”, later in this issue.
Within two months, John Clayton has built a sturdy cabin. But that alone won’t be sufficient to keep him and Alice safe, as they both learn one day when John, working outside, is surprised by a large ape who suddenly emerges from the surrounding jungle…
Over the next twelve months, John manages to keep his family safe, though he occasionally has to use his rifle to frighten away small bands of great apes…
Kala’s infant child is killed by the great fall; but Kerchak, once his rage has subsided, thinks of a way to make things right. He leads his tribe — including Kala, still clutching her dead child — towards “the strange white-ape’s lair…”
Kubert tells us of Lord Greystoke’s death, rather than shows us; a storytelling choice made in deference to the Comics Code Authority, perhaps.
As time passes, Tarzan learns how to make a rope by tying long grasses together — a skill that will come in quite handy in the years to come, though at this point he mainly uses it to torment his elders by dropping nooses over their heads…
Tarzan ignores the three skeletons he finds in the cabin, such sights being not unfamiliar to him; instead, his curiosity draws him towards the books on his parents’ shelves…
The final panel of page 24 is another example of Kubert’s using a Hal Foster composition as the basis for his own drawing. Unlike the previous instance, this one doesn’t significantly modify the scale of the original by framing the picture’s elements within a greater amount of open space; nevertheless, by setting the image in a panel that’s larger than any of the others on the page, Kubert is able to emphasize the scene’s inherent drama in a way that Foster, restricted by his daily five-panel format, could not. In addition, Kubert’s figures have an energy and sense of movement that Foster’s don’t quite match.
But to return to our story… Finally, the gorilla succumbs to his many wounds and falls to the earth, dead. The wounded Tarzan almost immediately follows his foe into unconsciousness, his own survival uncertain. But Kala has heard the screams of battle, and realizing that her son is not with her, she races off in the direction of the sounds, the rest of the great ape tribe following close behind her — until, at last, they reach the clearing where stands the Claytons’ cabin…
Thus ends the first chapter of Joe Kubert’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. My fourteen-year-old self would definitely be back for more, “on or about Mar. 30th”, 1972; I’d been thoroughly hooked by Burroughs’ propulsive narrative, as well as impressed by the rugged elegance of Kubert’s art.
Tarzan #207 came out in the waning months of DC’s 25-cent 48-page format; so, even though we already have a 26-page story behind us, there’s considerably more content to come.
First up is the first installment of what would become the title’s letter column, “The Dum-Dum”:
Since it was obviously too early to have received any letters from readers, this first “Dum Dum” presented a biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Not knowing a thing about the man other than his authorship of Tarzan, my younger self found this pretty interesting. I was especially surprised to learn that his first book hadn’t been about the Ape Man at all, but rather about Mars; to the best of my recollection, I had little to no awareness of Burroughs’ John Carter stories at this point. (I was on the very verge of learning quite a bit more about them, of course, but I didn’t know that yet.)
Also worth noting, this piece was bylined “Marvin Wolfman”; its appearance signaled the recent return of the 25-year-old Wolfman to the comics industry in a full-time capacity, following a brief stint as a junior high school teacher. Marv Wolfman would serve as an assistant to both Joe Kubert and another DC editor, Joe Orlando, for several months before downsizing would send him looking for a new position elsewhere (but that’s another story).
Following this text page came the only reprint material to appear in Tarzan #207:
Actually, this three-page feature may not be completely reprint, as the text has been expanded from the original script (generally attributed to George A. Carlin) that appeared in Foster’s December 27, 1931 newspaper strip (which can be viewed in its complete original form here); the panel order has been somewhat rearranged, as well. Did Kubert, or perhaps Wolfman, make the additions and alterations, or was there some intermediate publication (with attendant editing) between 1931 and 1972? Your guess is as good as mine. In any event, its inclusion in this issue provides a poignant complement to the tragic tale of Lord and Lady Greystoke.
The final feature in Tarzan #207 was all-new, at least as far as the comics side went; it was, of course, the first chapter in DC’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ very first novel, A Princess of Mars (1912):
This wasn’t John Carter’s first appearance in comics format, any more than Tarzan #207’s lead story was the sequential art debut of Burroughs’ better known hero. From 1941 to 1943 Carter had actually held down his very own newspaper strip, drawn by his creator’s son, John Coleman Burroughs. Later, a comic-book version had been produced by Western Publishing; written by Paul S. Newman and drawn by Jesse Marsh, it had been originally published by Dell Comics in 1952, then reprinted by Gold Key in 1964. Nevertheless, it had been a while, with no English-language comics take on Burroughs’ “Barsoom” stories having appeared since I’d started buying funnybooks in 1965.
The only credit given for the story (not including Burroughs’) is that for artist Murphy Anderson, who signed the first page. Most resources credit Marv Wolfman for the script, although the Grand Comics Database indicates that Kubert had a hand in it as well.
Known for his meticulous rendering style, Anderson had done very little pencilling for DC in the last several years, the company keeping him busy instead with inking assignments (primarily over Curt Swan’s pencils in Superman and Action ). He seems to have relished the opportunity provided by this assignment to remind fans what he could do, as exemplified by the gorgeous (but also somewhat gratuitous) vista of the American West presented in the panel above — a landscape that the story is about to abandon for good, just one page from now.
Burroughs’ novel had identified Carter as a Civil War veteran, who’d served as a captain in the Confederate army; while the script of this adaptation doesn’t address the topic, Carter’s all-gray wardrobe may have been intended to provide a subtle visual acknowledgement of this aspect of the character.
Spying a dome-like structure in the distance — a sure sign of intelligent life — Carter heads in its direction; in doing so, he discovers that he is considerably stronger in Mars’ lower gravity, able to cross thirty feet in a single leap.
Realizing that he has no real reason to fight these guys, Carter swiftly changes tactics, telling the Martians that he’s just arrived from another world. While they obviously can’t understand his tongue, they don’t immediately take further hostile action against him; is it possible that they can read his thoughts?
In just eight pages, this first episode of DC’s “John Carter of Mars” covers a lot of ground (I suppose you could say that it takes after its protagonist in that regard) — and it was certainly enough to pique the interest of my fourteen-year-old self, who, as I’ve indicated, hadn’t known the difference between Barsoom and a bassoon prior to picking up this comic book.
Coming to the end of the issue, I was also impressed by the overall generosity of the package; out of Tarzan #207’s 35 content pages, only three featured reprinted material, in contrast to the 10-13 pages of reprints typical to most DC books during this era. I don’t know if Joe Kubert had received extra funding in his editorial budget for the first few issues of Tarzan (#208 and #209 would have a similar proportional breakdown of new-to-old content as had #207), or if he just absorbed the additional cost (which, as the title’s primary writer and artist as well as its editor, he probably could have), but it’s worth noting, in any event.
There’s actually one page of content left in this comic following the conclusion of the first chapter of “John Carter” — a one-page preview of the next chapter, which, somewhat surprisingly (considering how early it is in the serial), will be illustrated by Gray Morrow, rather than Murphy Anderson:
I don’t recall that my fourteen-year-old self was at all dismayed by the prospect of Morrow stepping in for Anderson — but anyone who might have felt that way would surely have been mollified to learn that the latter artist, an avowed Burroughs fan, would return for Tarzan #209, and then continue on for the next three installments of the feature as well. Of course, by that time, John Carter would be moving on to a new home in DC’s brand-new third Edgar Rice Burroughs title, Weird Worlds… though any further discussion of that particular venture will necessarily have to wait until after we’ve had a look at DC’s second Burroughs title, Korak, Son of Tarzan. Our consideration of Korak #46 will in fact be coming up in just a few weeks; I hope you’ll join me then.
*The one American comic book company the license definitely would not have gone to in 1971-72 is Charlton Comics, as that Derby, CT-based outfit had previously published four completely unauthorized issues of Jungle Tales of Tarzan in the mid-’60s — allegedly due to their misguided belief that the material had fallen into public domain — before being legally ordered to cease and desist. Oops.