The History Of Tarzan In Comics
Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs and premiering in the October 1912 issue of pulp magazine The All-Story, Tarzan of the Apes has become one of the most well-known heroes in fiction. He's been in hundreds of films, novels and video games, with the latest film, The Legend of Tarzan, hitting theatres this past weekend.
But Tarzan has perhaps cast his biggest shadow in comics. Spanning newspaper strips, comic books and webcomics under a rainbow of comics greats, Tarzan has been a steady presence in the medium for almost 90 years.
Tarzan's initial popularity dovetailed with the Golden Age of Newspaper Comics. Before long, the two met; on January 7, 1929, United Features Syndicate premiered a daily newspaper strip drawn by advertising artist Hal Foster. After ten weeks spent adapting the original Tarzan of the Apes novel in his trademark sumptuous style to enormous acclaim, Foster went back to ad work. Wanting to keep the gravy train going, United assigned staff artist Rex Maxon to the job.
Maxon, whose drawing was solid if not breathtaking, stayed on the strip for eighteen years, also launching a Sunday strip that followed a different storyline on March 15, 1931. A few months after the Sunday strip's launch, Foster returned and took it over until 1937, when he moved to King Features and launched his most famous creation, Prince Valiant.
The Tarzan Sunday strip then went to Burne Hogarth. Hogarth, born a year before Tarzan, brought a level of anatomical skill and an eye for detail to Tarzan's adventures He stayed on the strip for twelve years, even taking over the daily for a short while. Hogarth's work was reprinted in several countries and his era of Tarzan is often considered the strip's high point.
By this stage, comic books were an emerging presence, mainly as an efficient way for comic strip syndicates to repackage old material. Tarzan was no exception; soon the newspaper strips' deep back catalogue was finding a whole new audience via the spinner racks.
But by 1948, Dell Comics was ready for the Ape Man to take his next step. Thus, after two appearances in the anthology title Four Color Comics (best known for featuring the first Carl Barks Donald Duck work n 1942), Tarzan got his own monthly comic.
While Turok co-creator Gaylord DuBois handled the scripts (a position he held for the next twenty-five years), Tarzan was drawn for its entire 131-issue run by Jesse Marsh. In 8-10 page stories about Tarzan and/or his son Boy (an invention of the then-still-popular Tarzan film series), Marsh drew stories that, while a lot simpler than what Foster or Hogarth had done, were still nicely drawn, if a tad formulaic and prone to abrupt endings.
In November 1962, Western Publishing, who had provided talent for business partner Dell, took their operations in-house and launched Gold Key Comics. With this new imprint came the most popular Tarzan artist since Hogarth and easily the most influential: Russ Manning.
Manning --- also the creator of Magnus, Robot Fighter, and known for his work on the Star Wars newspaper strip --- had illustrated backups in Tarzan for years along with the spinoff Korak, Son of Tarzan. He took over as penciller with #165 in November 1965, following Marsh's retirement. Under Manning, Tarzan experienced an artistic renaissance. With impeccable staging and dynamic action scenes, Manning made Tarzan worth talking about again.
During their tenure together, Manning and DuBois eschewed the previous, film-derived continuity of the book for a more Burroughs-centered universe. They adapted ten of the first eleven Tarzan novels, condensing some into single issues while serializing others. With gorgeous painted covers by George Wilson, Tarzan became a standout adventure book.
In 1967, Manning took over both Tarzan newspaper strips. His Sunday strips, while not as classically influenced as Hogarth's, were just as sweeping. The daily strips were limited to just three panels (generally) but the energetic inking and pencilling of Manning and his assistants --- which included Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens --- made it stand out. There were monsters and dinosaurs as bombastic and huge as anything Jack Kirby might dream of.
Hogarth returned to Tarzan's jungle after 20 years away with 1972's Tarzan of the Apes. A full-color original graphic novel published by Watson-Guptill Publications in 1972. Hogarth's Apes echoed his work on the newspaper strip. That level of decompression served the story beautifully, allowing for a greater exploration of Tarzan's mental and emotional growth. Gorgeously illustrated and painted, the sheer amount of detail on display recalled the life drawing that Hogarth had become famous for. A 1976 sequel, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, had the same level of detail but lacked color, which lessened its pop a little.
Over in comic books, Tarzan and Korak ended in 1972. Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. --- founded by Burroughs himself in 1923 to maintain his copyrights --- wanted more comics to be made for sale to the lucrative overseas markets on a per-page rate. When Gold Key refused, ERB Inc. took the license away and sold it to DC, who continued the previous books'numbering while ushering in a new Tarzan artist: Joe Kubert.
Already a legend for his work with Hawkman, Sgt. Rock and others, Kubert was serving as DC's director of publications when they acquired Tarzan. A lifelong fan of the character, Kubert wrote and drew every Tarzan issue for five years. Like Manning and DuBois before him, he stuck to the original, retelling the origin in his first few issues while deviating enough to make it fresh. Kubert also told effectively illustrated stand-alone stories, full of furious man-on-animal action that only he could draw.
Unfortunately, Kubert's work didn't really find an audience outside of the U.S.; most foreign publishers simply reprinted Manning's work from Gold Key and the daily strip (which had ended in 1972). Wanting to keep them happy, ERB Inc. took Tarzan across the street to Marvel, and Roy Thomas and John Buscema, in 1977.
At the time, Thomas and Buscema were in the midst of their trend-setting Conan the Barbarian run and so Lord Greystoke borrowed from his protege (Conan was created 20 years after Tarzan). Marvel's Tarzan was far more ruthless and violent. But he didn't last too long at the House of Ideas; this Tarzan folded after 29 issues in October 1979.
For the next decade and a half, Tarzan had no new comics outside of the Sunday comic strip (which ended in 2000). Then came Dark Horse.
Surviving the early 1990s speculator crash, Dark Horse had begun building up a name for itself as a quality reprint publisher. It acquired the Tarzan license in 1996, and in addition to reprinting high-end hardcovers of the Marsh, Kubert, and Manning eras, Dark Horse also published original material, including crossovers like Batman/Tarzan: Claws of the Cat-Woman, and Tarzan/Predator: At the Earth's Core, plus a monthly Tarzan comic with rotating creative teams and stories of varying quality.
In recent years, Dark Horse has distributed other Tarzan projects such as 2015's Jungle Tales of Tarzan from Sequential Pulp Publishing --- an adaptation of Burrough's short story collection by writer Martin Campbell and a variety of artists --- and the Idaho Comics Group's two-issue anthology series, Tarzan and the Comics of Idaho (featuring work by Charles Soule, among others).
But Dark Horse isn't the only one reprinting or creating Tarzan material. Titan Comics and IDW's Library of American Comics have respectively reprinted the Burne Hogarth and Russ Manning eras of the newspaper strips. And in 2012, to mark Tarzan's centennial, Dynamite released Lord of the Jungle.
Written by Arvid Nelson and drawn by Roberto Castro, Lord retold the original Tarzan of the Apes novel (which by then had fallen into U.S. public domain) with considerably more brutality --- at one point Kerchak, leader of Tarzan's tribe, smashes an infant ape to death against a rock --- while subverting and confronting the racism of the original material (particularly in how other characters treated Esmeralda, Jane Porter's African-American maid). Although legally, Dynamite was in the clear, they were still sued by ERB Inc. for copyright infringement.
The two companies eventually worked out an agreement that kept Lord of the Jungle going for 15 issues, along with Warlord of Mars (a series on Burroughs' other famous creation, John Carter of Mars), Lords of Mars (a crossover between the two) and the recent Lords of the Jungle (which pairs Tarzan with Will Eisner and Jerry Iger's Sheena, Queen of the Jungle).
Although Tarzan is a lot more controversial now than in 1912 due to the character's inherent colonialist nature, Lord Greystoke still endures in the popular imagination, and he shows no signs of stopping. ERB Inc. publishes a subscription-only weekly webcomic by Thomas and Tom Grindberg, and at this year's Emerald City Comic-Con, Boom Studios and Dark Horse announced Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes. We may well be reading Tarzan comics for the next ninety years and beyond.
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