The Dream Vaults of Opar

Hal Foster's 
Tarzan in Color

    To someone like me, who grew up in the late 1950s and early '60s, Tarzan in Color (the new series of reprints of the Tarzan Sunday comics drawn by Hal Foster and Burne Hogarth) is a revelation. Reprinted complete, in original color, and “at as large a size as your library can accommodate” (as NBM, the publisher, observes with amusing accuracy in its advertisement), these pages present a fascinatingly different version of ERB’s legendary hero and one noticeably truer to the character as envisioned by Edgar Rice Burroughs than any of the numerous Tarzan adaptions that peopled my childhood.
     Growing up in that time period, it was natural for me to believe that the Tarzan most people knew was not the marvelous, complex, introspective character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but the anemic, superficial imitation given us by Hollywood--“Me Tarzan, you Jane,” Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny Sheffield. These volumes point out just how wrong my perception was. From 1931 to about 1950, newspaper readers around the world were treated to an incarnation of the ape-man which, if not the intellectual equal of Burroughs’ original, was certainly much closer to the “real” Tarzan than I had realized--a Tarzan who cavorted regularly with apes, danced the Dum-Dum, had an estate in England and a son named Korak, and deported himself with intelligence, dignity, and grace. It was Burroughs’ Tarzan, too, that listeners found on radio; so it is fair to say that until Burroughs’ death, it was only the movies that promoted the heretical vision of Tarzan as simple-minded jungle strongman.
     One of the first things noticed on opening Volume 1 is the quaint depiction of Tarzan, who is drawn as a large, handsome man with long, pageboy haircut, wearing a leopard skin loincloth with shoulder strap. This “style” of portraying Tarzan seems to have been quite common in the late '20s and early '30s. It can be found on the covers of Blue Book during that period and on the dust jackets of Tarzan and the Lost Empire and Tarzan the Invincible, as well as in the Frank Merrill serials Tarzan the Tiger and Tarzan the Mighty. A little reflection and research indicate that this garb and sartorial fashion originated with Elmo Lincoln or Gene Polar and was carried on in the movies throughout the silent era. When Foster drew the first daily strip, which adapted Tarzan of the Apes, he portrayed Tarzan in the movie fashion, with shoulder-strapped loincloth and long hair, and Rex Maxon continued that convention in both the daily and Sunday versions. However much we may resent Hollywood’s simplistic “Me Tarzan, you Jane” representation of ERB’s hero, we have Weissmuller’s portrayal in Tarzan the Ape Man to thank for making passe that quaint and somewhat effeminate portrayal and returning us to St. John’s more virile image of Tarzan.

    Although this series of albums as published and planned by NBM contains a few minor disappointments--the omission of the less impressive work of Maxon and Rubimore, for instance--there are still ample rewards for those of us who until now were unable to experience the vigor, charm, imagination, and breathless sweep of these classics of popular culture. More annoying, though, was the poor proof reading that noticeably flawed Bill Blackbeard’s otherwise fine introduction (Maxon’s name is misspelled no fewer than three times); but the publisher seems to have recognized this error, and no similar oversight was noticeable in the subsequent volumes (2 and 3). My greatest quibble, actually, is over the publisher’s unfortunate decision to reproduce Foster’s wonderful introductory page as a black and white frontispiece. (This full page was designed to be published by newspapers picking up the feature belatedly.)
     While I wish NBM would have reprinted the entire, unbroken strip, including all of the Maxon pages, I must admit that the sample color Maxon included in Vol. 1 certainly is poor. I pulled out my House of Greystoke copies of the Return and Beasts daily story-strips and found that the criticism of Maxon is quite warranted, at least in those adaptions. His work is very sketchy and unattractive. However, by the time he did Tarzan the Fearless, he had improved dramatically. I don’t have all of the strips to refer to, but those I do have suggest that the loss of the Sunday strip, the appearance of enormous talents such as Foster and Hogarth, and quite possibly a “stern talking to” may have inspired him do the best work of which he was capable. My impression is that his work in the later '30s and the '40s is not only acceptable, but has a certain charm of its own.

    I need not say very much about Foster’s drawings. From his very first panel, the talent that earned him his reputation as one of the three greatest artists ever to grace the Sunday comics page is evident. (The others are Burne Hogarth and Alex Raymond.) Although his earliest pages are primitive and underdeveloped in comparison to later efforts, even these display a mastery of form that few artists can equal. Foster’s art continued to evolve over the initial four years of his tenure, and one of the joys of this series is to be able to watch him work out many of the techniques that have since become standard in the graphic adventure narrative. Over a period of a few months he moved from a static presentation that even occasionally allowed action scenes to take place between panels (in narration) to a breathtaking, frame-by-frame depiction that makes the action come alive on the page. The sequence in which Tarzan must save the unconscious Korak from being killed in a fall from a cliff (June 26-July 24, 1932) is an excellent example of this technique. The happenings of perhaps five minutes are spread across five weeks, to stunning effect.
     Still, despite Foster’s fine talent, these pages are not without flaw. Occasionally his sketchiness reappears, or he allows a less than convincing picture to be published. (The lion in the sixth panel of the strip of May 1, 1932 is probably Foster at his worst.) He also is not consistent in the way he draws Tarzan’s face. It’s frustrating to have the character look markedly different from panel to panel. (The bottom, leftmost panel of April 17, 1932 features a truly ugly rendition of Tarzan.) Foster also has the annoying habit of having Tarzan smile inappropriately, making me wonder how familiar he was with the literary ape-man.
     The author of the story continuity in the first year of the Foster period clearly had a fascination with mysterious women, giving us Fulvia the Beautiful and the masked lion tamer Lenida. These subjects must have been particularly suitable to Foster’s talent and temperament, for he rendered all these exotic females strikingly. The writer also seems to have had some understanding of Tarzan’s character. The sequence of six single-page stories that followed the conclusion of the story Foster inherited from Maxon are particularly noteworthy examples of the Burroughsesque feel that could be achieved at times; they included such gems as “Tarzan’s First Christmas” and “Tarzan and the Fox Hunt” and served to establish for a new audience the character and history of the ape-man. Another such imaginative and striking sequence--possibly the best in Vol. 1--occurs in a flashback, when we see a tuxedoed Tarzan at a London circus, snarling as he rushes to save Lenida, the lady lion tamer, from the beast that has attacked her. He battles the lion, kills it, beats upon his chest, races out into the night, his formal attire in tatters, and winds up squatting on the limb of a tree in the park. It’s a marvelous bit of storytelling.
     Finally, toward the end of Vol. 1, the influence of the talkies is felt for the first time as Tarzan sets out to find Eric von Harben at the Elephant’s Graveyard. Wounded, Tarzan uses the shoulder strap of his loincloth as a sling for his wounded arm. So ends Vol. 1. When Vol. 2 opens, Tarzan’s arm is healed and the shoulder strap abandoned forever, thanks (for once) to Hollywood’s influence.

--December 14, 1993
Tarzan in Color
Softcover edition contains complete contents of Vols. 1 & 2 of the hardcover edition.
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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.