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Tarzan in Ancient Egypt


    Volume 1 of [the hardcover edition of] Tarzan in Color contains eleven short Sunday comic strip stories which, though light on plot, are nonetheless filled with action and strikingly imaginative scenes:
1.) Hal Foster’s conclusion of Maxon’s Burt-and-Pennock story (itself a spin-off of the Bob-and-Mary sequences that occupied nearly all of Maxon’s term on the Sunday strip). Under Foster this evolved into a sequence that might be described as d’Arnot and the Foreign Legion.
2.) Six wonderful one-page short-shorts by which Tarzan was reintroduced to the Sunday audience. 3.) Hulvia the Beautiful.
4.) Lenida the Lion Tamer.
5.) Korak’s prank.
6.) Erich von Harben and the Elephant’s Graveyard.
I discussed this first volume in detail in a previous installment.
    Volume 2 continues the story of von Harben, taking us through a series of caves that, like a time portal, lead first to a prehistoric swamp filled with dinosaurs and then to a jungle that borders an ancient Egyptian city. Here begins Foster’s nearly legendary Egyptian sequence. Starting on November 13, 1932, it ran for more than a year and a half—85 weeks to be exact. Although not the longest sequence in the history of the Tarzan Sunday page (“The Golden City” ran 91 weeks, and there may be others that are longer still), it nevertheless constitutes a noteworthy, ambitious experiment in Sunday page continuity, and I had long looked forward to having the opportunity to read it in its entirety.
     Given my high expectation, I suppose I was doomed to disappointment. As usual, Foster’s drawings are generally superb, and he does indeed manage to capture a wonderful sense of grandeur and pageantry in his presentation of ancient Egyptian civilization, despite the generally drab color reproduction found in these pages (and Foster’s or the colorist’s obsession with the color red, which is used in all sorts of inappropriate places, even representing a pitch black night).
     The real disappointment, however, is the story itself, which is far too episodic, with numerous unconvincing subplots that often seem contrived for no other purpose than to postpone any resolution of the plot. The story gives every indication of having been composed on the fly, almost from week to week. For instance, Prince Tutamken is introduced as a sort of monkey man who swings through the trees like the simian he associates with and whose language he speaks; yet little is made of this story element, which seems to have no real purpose in the story other than whatever momentary interest is generated by its oddity. Similarly we never learn why this character (and, later, other Egyptians) are shown at times with yellow skin. Such a lack of internal consistency and logic is the worst failing of the Egyptian sequence.
     Prince Tutamken is depicted as erratic, acting as both friend and enemy of Tarzan, and his sister Princess Nikotris is similarly unstable. In the hands of a better writer, this mental instability might constitute an interesting additional layer of story; here, however, the characters come across as unbelievable. The script writer is so unconvincing that I can’t help feeling he is merely employing this device as a way to introduce complications to his plot without providing adequate motivation.
     The story's poor continuity is reflected in the art as well. Wounds that look serious one Sunday can’t be found the following week. (See as an example Tarzan’s wounded shoulder following his battle with the great ape Rako on January 1, 1933, or his battle with a panther a few weeks earlier.)
     Probably the writers of comic strips were not paid very well in the '30s, but I still find it surprising that people employed in that capacity could not do a more professional job, at the very least composing a master outline before the story got underway so that they could keep track of what was going on. To give credit where credit is due, though, whoever wrote the Egyptian sequence did come up with some nice action sequences and imaginative twists and turns, as when Tarzan camouflages himself in the skin of a crocodile or turns himself into a mummy.
     It isn’t a coincidence that the character Erich von Harben was borrowed from ERB’s novel Tarzan and the Lost Empire for this new adventure; in some ways the Egyptian sequence is a rewrite of that book. In both Tarzan receives a message telling him that von Harben needs to be rescued; he discovers the living remains of a long dead civilization — Roman in the book, Egyptian in the comic strip. There he finds a tribe of apes that he first fights, then later leads against his enemies. In both versions von Harben falls in love. The 1929 novel ends with von Harben remaining in Castrum Mare with Favonia, his lady love. In the comic strip his heart is captured by the peasant girl Amnis, and he stays with her.
     The Egyptian sequence falls neatly into two parts. The first follows Tarzan and von Harben as they enter the world of the Pharaohs and become embroiled in the lives of Prince Tutamken and his sister Princess Nikotris, and ends when von Harben is at last safe with Amnis (September 10, 1933). The second part follows Tarzan, Princess Nikotris, and the young boy Hotep in adventures among the mountaineer Ibeks, the brigands of el Ka-nur, and then back in the Egyptian city, where Hotep is to be sacrificed to the god Moloch. It concludes with strip number 172 (June 22, 1934, in Volume 3), when Tarzan returns to the cave that brought him to the land of the Egyptians and scales the mountain that separates it from the outside world.
     In preparation for writing this review, I unpacked my copies of the NBM series (which I first read some months ago) and flipped back through the Egyptian sequence to refresh my memory. I was pleased to find that viewed this way, with Foster’s magnificent drawings center stage and the weak, rambling plot reduced to minor importance, the story’s reputation as a classic of its kind is far more understandable, and probably deserved. Boy, those pictures are neat!
     It makes one wonder to what heights Foster’s Tarzan might have ascended had a really decent writer worked on the strip with him. And that reminds me that Russ Manning, who was certainly the best writer to ever grace the Tarzan strip, took Tarzan back to that lost Egyptian city. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that NBM will decide to continue their series with Manning’s Sunday work. I’m eager to see what Russ did when Tarzan revisited that locale nearly 35 years after Foster’s original.
 

    The November 13, 1994 issue of the New Orleans Times-Picayune (p. A-39, “People” section) included this delightful tidbit:

Ape over Tarzan

     Jane Goodall says she once harbored jealous feelings for another woman—Tarzan’s female companion with the same name. 
     At the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire on Friday night, the famed researcher said she didn’t think much of the ape man’s choice. 
    “I thought she was a real wimp and that I would have made a better mate for Tarzan,” Goodall said.
     It seems that I failed to realize the full extent of Miss Goodall’s youthful interest in the ape-man when I wrote about her several mailings back! (I keep planning to suggest to George McWhorter that he solicit an article or letter from her for publication in the Burroughs Bulletin, but never seem to get around to it.)
     Miss Goodall’s unfavorable impression of Tarzan’s Jane echoes comments made here in ERB-APA by several of our distaff members. I think it should be noted, though, that such opinions always seem to represent youthful judgements rather than mature reevaluations. Over the last year or so my wife read the first six Tarzan books to our sons, and she found Jane to be brave and admirable in nearly every way, especially when one considers how young she was in the early stories and the social conventions of her day. Viewed as a real woman of her time (or even of today), she conducts herself admirably. Jane Porter Clayton rose to every challenge and certainly was no wimp!
—December 13, 1994

[Note: Jane's bravery turned out to be controversial, requiring a more detailed defense in a later installment.]
 
Tarzan in Color
Each softcover edition contains the contents of two hardcover volumes.
Softcover Vol. 1: 1931-1933
Softcover Vol. 2: 1933-1935
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Copyright 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.