The Dream Vaults of Opar

Burne Hogarth's
Tarzan in Color

    Burne Hogarth is my favorite comic strip artist. Actually, along with St. John and Frazetta, he’s one of my all-time favorite artists, period. (It’s pointless to try to rank them; I love their work for different reasons.)
     Hal Foster is wonderful, of course, both in his looser Tarzan style and later in his more stately Prince Valiant pages, and Russ Manning is the best writer ever to grace the Tarzan feature; but it is Hogarth’s depiction of the ape-man that automatically springs to mind when I think of the Tarzan of the Comics—all those wonderful scenes filled with dark drama, hidden tension, and ceaseless, swirling activity.
     Several years ago I finally got around to telling Mr. Hogarth what I thought of his work. In part, this is what I wrote:
     June 29, 1991 
Dear Mr. Hogarth: 
     I’m a lifelong (well, almost) admirer of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and have been a fan of yours almost as long. You might be amused to learn that I first became aware of you in a very oblique manner in the late 1950s or early '60s. At the time Mad magazine occasionally published parodies of the Tarzan comic strip, and I found myself fascinated by the style of some of these. They were wonderfully dramatic and dynamic, with a fine sense of romantic realism (which may not be the accepted terminology but is the way they struck me) that was seldom to be found in the comics with which I was familiar. I became extremely curious about the original that these cartoons were parodying. It was some years later, after I discovered organized Burroughs fandom, that I learned you were that original.
     My longtime admiration for Burne Hogarth was largely based on the occasional reprints of his newspaper work that I ran across (such as a run of the British comic Tarzan Adventures, which I was lucky enough to borrow in the mid-sixties) and the Watson-Guptil volumes of the seventies. All of this did little more than whet my appetite. You may imagine my delight at the prospect of finally gaining access to Hogarth’s complete Tarzan oeuvre, as reprinted in Tarzan in Color. For the first time I would be able to view this material in context, in reasonable size and full color.

    Hogarth’s first Tarzan Sunday page appeared May 9, 1937 (#322, Volume 6), toward the end of the lengthy (ninety-one week, #253-343) Taanor/City of Gold story. Most people following the story week to week probably were almost unaware of the change of artist, so much in Foster’s style are these earliest strips. By mimicking Foster, Hogarth eased the transition.
     As competent as these first strips are, a few weak drawings do appear. Hogarth’s first attempts to depict lions, for instance, are unconvincing (#328-330). (It should never be forgotten when discussing the popular arts that deadlines can affect the quality of work by forcing an artist to release work before he’s fully satisfied with it.) These growing-pains of a young artist surprised me, for I had become so accustomed to Hogarth’s mastery of his medium that it never occurred to me that he actually had to learn some of his skills. Without realizing it, I had slipped into the habit of thinking of Hogarth as somehow more than human—as if the artist had been born into the world fully mature, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. His early efforts are an instructive reminder that even geniuses must work to develop their gifts.
     Whatever minor shortcomings one might find in these early pages, by the time he ends Foster’s Taanor story Hogarth is already coming into his own, with his wonderful artistic trademarks in evidence, such as his fascination with action and dramatic poses. This is all the more remarkable when one remembers that Hogarth was only 25 years old when he took over the comic feature.

    After the Taanor story comes a charming interlude in which Tarzan revisits the scenes of his childhood, including the cabin where he was born. This is a favorite sequence for me, in part because I’ve long nursed the thought of writing such a story myself (not knowing it had already been done). It is particularly noteworthy that Hogarth’s flashback panels of Tarzan’s youth and his portrayal of Mbonga’s tribe are very similar to what we find in his Tarzan of the Apes book some three decades later; such consistency adds authenticity to his storytelling. It is also interesting to note that Hogarth, the younger artist, gives us a more youthful depiction of the adult ape-man than did the older Foster, who was about forty-four when he left the strip.
     The next long story begins in strip #349 (11/14/37). It involves an oddly out-of-time group of Boer Trekkers. This tale may have been inspired in part by H. Rider Haggard’s Zulu stories, such as Allen’s Wife, which has a sequence very similar to the battle around the pioneer house. Hogarth’s gift for portraiture is especially evident in many of these panels. The characters introduced here will appear again later, but this story concludes for the time being with strip #377 (5/29/38), after 29 weeks.
     While reading this tale, I became aware that for the first time in the first seven volumes of Tarzan in Color I was genuinely enjoying the story for itself—as a story—rather than appreciating it for its artistic merit or as a sixty-year-old collectable. Perhaps a different writer took over scripting chores, or perhaps Hogarth had a hand in molding the story.
     The tale of the Forbidden Empire, a lost outpost of imperial China, begins with page #378 (Volume 7) and runs 24 weeks, concluding in Volume 8 (#402). The storyline gives the artist his first genuine opportunity to display his skill at depicting ancient grandeur, and he responds with an abundance of lush, magnificent palaces and exotic costumes. The costumes are totally illogical—heavy, fur-trimmed clothes and hats suitable to a northern climate but totally out of place in tropical Africa, an absurdity exacerbated by Tarzan’s usual lack of attire; but I doubt that many readers minded then or now, since the drawings are so beautiful. Another noteworthy event occurs on page #380, when Tarzan’s loin cloth, without explanation, changes from a familiar leopard skin to what appears to be doe skin. It is said that the syndicate ordered the change, to make Tarzan look more like what people saw in the movies.
     While there is a general improvement in storyline under Hogarth (who probably had little or no control over the script), occasional out-of-character actions slip in, as when Tarzan fights three lions that have treed him and several other people. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan would never be so disrespectful of the savage prowess of real lions!
     Overall, the Forbidden City sequence has to be ranked as one of the most artistically pleasing of the early Hogarth stories.
     Next we return to the jungle. With strip #404 Tarzan joins Linda Farr in her father’s search for ‘the missing link’; this story bridges into an encounter with tree-swinging Amazons and runs through #437—34 weeks. There is seldom a panel that fails to display riotous action.
     Finally, toward the end of Volume 8 (#438), Tarzan rejoins the Boers for Part 2 of their story. This sequence, unfortunately, struck me as tedious and over-long, though Hogarth’s art never disappoints.

    One particularly interesting thing that Mr. Hogarth told me when I wrote him, which gave me new insight into his work, was that he was drawn to the Sunday Tarzan feature at least in part by his admiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories; in other words, he was a fan before he began drawing Tarzan professionally. This marks a significant difference from his predecessor, who to the best of my knowledge never expressed any particular liking for ERB or Tarzan.
     Hogarth’s style is occasionally criticized as overwrought, overly dramatic, or too stylized. It’s pointless to argue esthetics, but it is exactly those characteristic touches that I find most appealing in his work. His statuesque Tarzan—caught in a moment of dramatic immobility, arm outstretched, head back, pulsing with life and nobility—is a sublime figure, magnificently larger than life. (ERB managed a somewhat similar effect with some of his verbal flourishes.)
     In this unheroic Pewter Age in which we live, few artists dare to strive for magnificence. Burne Hogarth did, does, and succeeds breathtakingly!

     —September 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.