The Legacy of Tarzan: 5 Heirs to the Lord of the Jungle
On shelves now is the first issue of Dynamite’s Lord of the Jungle, the beginning of a brand-new retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original “Tarzan of the Apes” story. Promising a more faithful interpretation of a story that’s been retold several times in several mediums, Dynamite is hardly entering into new territory. Tarzan is one of the most enduring fictional characters of all time, and one that has inspired oodles of homages, ripoffs, analogs, and apers. As he marks his 100th anniversary this year, lets take a look at 5 wayward sons and daughters inspired by the character of Tarzan.
Also, in the spirit of the recent SOPA/PIPA protests, this article was written without that much use of Wikipedia. Let’s find out if that makes it more or less accurate.
Ka-Zar! Tarzan is a cool-ass name, but you’ve got to give the edge to this guy. After the death of his family, David Rand was forced to survive in the wild, befriending the animals – in particular the lion who protected him, Zar (thus the name Ka-Zar, meaning “brother of Zar,” in case that wasn’t obvious). Ka-Zar began as a pulp novel by Bob Byrd for Martin Goodman, later put into comics form for Marvel Comics #1 alongside The Human Torch and Namor, The Sub-Mariner.
The character didn’t last that long in his initial iteration. In the early sixties, the rising creative forces at Marvel took another look at Ka-Zar, updating the character much like they did with Namor and Human Torch. The new Silver Age version was given a new identity, crazier surroundings, and a much better physique. Now Kevin Plunder — also a badass name — Ka-Zar Lord of the Savage Land, a hidden area of Antarctica populated by dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs! Ka-Zar has flitted in and out of popularity, usually through his relationship with the X-Men. Mixing the regal side of Tarzan with Joe Kubert’s barbarian Tor, Ka-Zar is both a mongrel character and a classic one. He hasn’t had too many of his own comics, but for the absolute best, check out the series by Mark Waid and Andy Kubert, a cult classic.
SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE
As Red Sonja is to Conan, Sheena is to Tarzan. The original female takeoff of the jungle lord, Sheena was created by Will Eisner’s studio partner S.M. Iger under the pseudonym W. Morgan Thomas, probably with at least some input from Eisner. Combining the the jungle orphan adventure of Tarzan and other characters in literature with bouncy, rippling girl-flesh rendered fantastically by Eisner, Robert Webb, and Bob Powell, Sheena was an instant success, becoming the first female character to have her own title.
She was so popular that at one point she even seemed to threaten Tarzan’s place atop the jungle, with her own television series in the fifties inspiring millions of future pervs, and literally dozens of her own imitators: Cave Girl, Camilla, Lorna the Jungle Girl, Shanna the She-Devil, and Fletcher Hanks’ insane Fantomah among them. Daughter of some highborn twerp named Cardwell Rivington — not a cool name, that sounds like a law-firm that got a fratboy off for rape — and raised by a witch doctor, Sheena could communicate with the animals, but in most cases seemed to prefer fighting them. Feisty.
Throughout the years the rights to Sheena have been held by several publishers, currently Devil’s Due, and there have been updates, revamps, and even a movie starring Tanya Roberts, the “hot” mom from That 70’s Show. (That’s right. Airquotes.) For a more in-depth look at the character, check out this great article by El Santo.
KRAVEN THE HUNTER
Sergei Kravinoff, a.k.a. Kraven the Hunter, is the cruel mirror held up Tarzan. Hear me out. Like Tarzan, he’s an orphan, but not by plane crash or shipwreck. After the Bolsheviks murdered the Tsar, Kravinoff’s family were chased out of Russia and forced to live in abject poverty in foreign lands, an experience that eventually killed his parents. Sergei survived by learning to hunt, and eventually made his way to Africa, where he became Kraven, the most famous big-game hunter in the world.
When animals no longer appease him, he moves on to men and then supermen, with Spider-Man as his primary quarry. Like Tarzan, he reveres animals, hunting only with his bare hands. Whether it was initially intended or simply accumulated through years of storytelling, the perverse mix of nobility and savagery of Kraven can’t help but make you think of Earl Greystoke, so-called King of the Apes. Unlike Tarzan, Kraven indulges in shamanistic hunting rituals like the ingestion of toxic substances and adorning oneself with freshly-skinned costumes. Allegedly.
Analogues count! The fantastic Planetary by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, and Laura Martin used alternate take on classic pulp characters as the bedrock for its rich history of the impossible. Ellis’s take on Tarzan was a concise exploration of the inherent racism of the character without tarnishing the qualities that make him iconic.
Unfortunately, yes, Edgar Rice Burroughs was a racist. And he wasn’t even that good a writer, he just had good ideas. Except for the racist ones. Burroughs believed that white people were naturally superior to black people, and that even under the worst circumstances, whites would eventually rule blacks. Thus you have a white orphan rising up to rule not only the apes, but the African tribes that helped the ungrateful little sh*t survive.
In Planetary, Kevin Sack, the orphaned Lord Blackstock, befriends the hidden African society of Opak-Re, a highly technologically-advanced society of native Africans. Ellis quickly implodes the theory of natural white rule with evolutionary law: hoever has the best toys wins. Though Blackstock feels his lineage makes him superior to all non-aristocracy, Opak-Re demands blood purity in their society, and rejects the child fathered by him, future Planetary team nut-buster Jakita Wagner. Perhaps the best single issue of the series, Planetary 17, tells the story of Lord Blackstock and Opak-Re, and the fallacy behind Tarzan’s adventurous veneer.
Like many of Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics characters, Tom Strong was a hybrid/amalgamation/mashup of classic characters. In Tom Strong, Moore and artist Chris Sprouse combined the origins of Tarzan with Doc Savage to fantastic effect. Marooned in a savage environment, the Strong family had the distinct advantage of scientific genius on its side. While living on the mysterious island of Attabar Teru, Tom’s parents performed “gravity experiments” that gave him superhuman strength.
Though not raised by or lord to animals, Tom Strong goes on to have great relationships with the island’s native inhabitants, ingesting his tribe’s life-lengthening Goloka Root, marrying a local girl and conceiving a daughter, as well as a strong friendship with King Solomon, a talking gorilla. In a way, maybe Tom Strong was more like Doc Savage dropped into Tarzan’s environment and given the same task as Planetary, debunking Burroughs’ fallacy. If anything, Strong is a beneficiary of the generosity of the people of Attabar Teru, but it helped that Strong kicked the crap out of a few hundred Nazis.