The Dream Vaults of Opar

Foster Concluded/

In Defense of Jane

    Volume 3 of NBM’s wonderful Tarzan in Color series concludes Foster’s Egyptian sequence and begins a series of adventures revolving around the Princess Mihrama. Diving from a high mountain cliff into a hidden cove (June 24, 1934, strip #172), Tarzan immediately becomes embroiled in the rescue of this lovely Arab girl from slavers. Brief episodes of storm and shipwreck bring them to the stronghold of an enemy of Mihrama’s father. After a breathtaking escape back into the sea, they find themselves on a ship carrying a cargo of wild beasts, including the mangani Bohgdu.
     In an episode that anticipates Edgar Rice Burroughs’ short novel “Tarzan and the Castaways,” Tarzan and Mihrama are shipwrecked on an island and Tarzan frees the ship’s wild cargo (Volume 4). (It’s tempting to speculate that this sequence, underdeveloped in the Sunday comics, may have inspired ERB’s own tale.) On Ramalek, as the natives call the island, Tarzan encounters Dester Molu, “God and ruler of the Waioris”—an evil white man who has convinced the local inhabitants that he possesses divine powers. Mihrama leaves the story when she escapes back to sea in a small boat and Tarzan remains behind to fight Dester Molu (#196). After Molu is killed by the ape Bohgdu, Tarzan becomes “god-king of the Waioris,” at least briefly. He is soon joined by Sybil Stoneley (#205), a beautiful blonde aviatrix whose aeroplane suffers the fate of virtually all aircraft that venture over central Africa in a Tarzan story. Tarzan pulls her from the plane’s wreckage, but finds her to be a suspicious and ungrateful lass who is convinced that she doesn’t need any help taking care of herself. (In the person of this stereotypical “spunky” 1930s heroine, Foster gives us yet another of his truly wonderful portraits of female beauty.) Eventually Sybil, Tarzan, and Bohgdu escape the island and its treacherous inhabitants by raft (#216).
     When they reach the mainland, the next great sequence of the Tarzan Sunday strip unfolds as Tarzan and Sybil become involved with a lost colony of Vikings in a story that runs from strip #220 (vol 4) through #251 (volume 5)—32 weeks. The plot develops in predictable fashion, with a love triangle involving Sybil, the Viking prince Thorik, and Sigreda, a princess from a neighboring Viking city, who is Thorik’s betrothed. Within this stale framework, however, lies ample opportunity for action and adventure, with one of the most memorable action sequences in all of Foster’s tenure occurring in strip #224. As Tarzan climbs a rope to the top of a high cliff, he comes face to face with an enemy Viking wielding a broadsword. Looping his legs around the rope, Tarzan allows himself to fall backwards, at the same time pulling his bow and an arrow from behind him, notching the arrow, and firing it upward into the chest of his adversary. It’s breathtaking action, Foster and Tarzan at their best. The Viking theme, like its Egyptian predecessor, offers Foster ample opportunity for pageantry as well.
     Finally escaping both Sigreda and Sybil, Tarzan leads the ape Bohgdu back to the jungle. Next, in what may be the longest continuous story line in the history of the feature, Tarzan becomes involved with Gloria Flint and her father, the pudgy villain Rufus Flint, and the three find themselves in Balakan, the City of Gold, which lies in the land of Taanor. This sequence runs from #253 in Vol. 5, through Vol. 6, and concludes with strip #343 in Vol. 7—a total of 91 weeks. The nearly exhausted adventurous potential of a lost city is spiced up with the addition of fighter aeroplanes and even a dog-fight sequence in which Tarzan is one of the combatants. Still, the story goes on far too long. Hal Foster relinquished the strip during this period (with #321 as his last page), going on to work on his own comic feature, Prince Valiant, and an era came to an end.
     A new one would begin seven days later.

    As with the earlier volumes in this series, the stories are the weakest element of the Sunday Tarzan feature. Far too often we are treated to reworkings of familiar plot elements with interchangeable secondary characters, all at interminable lengths. Though perhaps somewhat stronger than many of the earlier tales, they are still generally predictable and flawed by a sameness of subject matter. Tarzan, in particular, is disappointing in that he displays little or no character. We seldom get any insight into him, and precious little into any of the other characters, either, other than the expressions of easy and obvious sentiments of love, jealousy, or greed. There are also occasional errors, which can be surprisingly prominent, as with Rufus Flint’s “revolver” (so called in the text), which is clearly depicted as a semiautomatic pistol, not once, but several times. (This error, carried on into the Hogarth period, was quite common in the pulps of that time, perhaps reflecting slang usage.) The geography of the tales is often puzzling, with desert, mountains, and sea seeming all to be within easy access of each other.
     All of this can be excused, of course, by noting that these stories were never intended to be read whole, and that most of their flaws would pass unnoticed if read with a week-long gap between pages. One also would not so readily notice how few breaks the characters take to sleep or eat.
     As a vehicle for action-filled art, however, they succeed admirably. What a wonderful panorama of adventure and romance these Foster pages supply! Despite their flaws, they constitute an impressive vehicle for the nonstop action that is their true raison d’etre. Foster’s Tarzan Sunday page is a tumultuous, never pausing spectacle of exotic danger, adventure, and romance—in rather sharp contrast to his stately but more static Prince Valiant work. I find them particularly appealing for the sense of endless adventure they suggest. This Tarzan, more even than ERB’s, inhabits a world of unceasing adventure, where you never know what waits just around the next bush—though you can be sure it is exotic, exciting, and filled with danger.
     John Guidry has quoted Hal Foster as saying that when he realized he would be leaving the Tarzan strip, he made a point of doing his best work, so that the syndicate would have a difficult time replacing him. (“Then they hired Hogarth,” Foster is quoted as concluding.) Examination of Foster’s final strips, however, casts doubt on this story. While perhaps not noticeably below the quality of the work that immediately preceded them, Foster’s final strips show no particular verve or striving to impress; and Hogarth’s opening efforts (intentionally modeled on Foster’s style, to ease the transition) are a long way from the masterful work he would eventually achieve. (I suppose few gods are born full-grown, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.)

    Tyler McCulloch: Yes, we do disagree about Jane’s character in Tarzan of the Apes.

    In Jane Porter we have a young woman who voluntarily exposed herself to all of the dangers and hardships inherent in an expedition to an unexplored region of Central Africa in the first decade of the Twentieth Century—an era when the Dark Continent really was the Dark Continent. This alone puts her in the forefront of her generation in terms of daring and bravery; and that she undertook such risks out of devotion to her dottering old father makes her bravery even more noteworthy.
   While it is true that she faints several times, such weaknesses always occur after the danger has passed, or seems to have passed. For instance, when the lioness is trying to enter the cabin through the window, Esmeralda faints; Jane, though terrified, manages to find a pistol and fire point blank at the beast before passing out in nervous exhaustion. When the beast returns and she thinks they both are about to be eaten alive (in a passage cut from some later editions), she steels her “brave heart” and prepares to shoot both Esmeralda and herself.
    Abducted by Terkoz, she is paralyzed with fear, yet has the presence of mind not to wear out her voice with useless screaming, conserving it instead for a time when possible rescuers might hear her. Thinking Tarzan is trying to force himself upon her, “She turned upon him like a tigress, striking his great breast with her tiny hands.” When Clayton suggests that Tarzan is a member of the cannibal tribe and left her to join them in feasting on the French sailors, she tells him icily, “There could be but one suitable reply to your assertion, Mr. Clayton, and I regret that I am not a man, that I might make it.”
    Faced with inevitable death in the forest fire, “Calmly the girl kneeled down in the dust of the roadway and prayed for strength to meet her fate bravely, and for the delivery of her father and her friends from death.” After she realizes the terrible mistake she has made in agreeing to marry Clayton, she accepts her fate stoically rather than dishonor herself or her father by breaking her promise.
     Jane Porter is one gutsy gal, and her actions certainly aren’t those of a “wimp.” ERB’s portrayal is essentially realistic; she has the fears, misgivings, and impetuosity one might expect of a nineteen-year-old girl stranded in the African wild in 1909. Of course her heroism pales in comparison to an idealized, superhuman character like Tarzan, and this may be why so many people (especially younger readers) seem to consider her less than fully admirable; many would prefer a female Tarzan, which is not what Burroughs intended. That she is subject to fear, doubt, and flawed judgement makes her a more realistic and human character, and all the more heroic because she has to overcome such weaknesses.

     —June 20, 1995
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.