Allow me to misremember where I first saw Russ Manning’s artwork. I’d say it was a Magnus, Robot Fighter cover–but not an original, from the 1963 Gold Key series. It would’ve been from the Valiant relaunch of the character in 1991, featuring Magnus (still dressed in the red miniskirt of a Beatles groupie) as he judo-chopped one of Isaac Asimov’s lanky shoe-shining robots to oblivion.
That wasn’t Manning either–merely an homage. His impeccably clean style first found me, I’m positive, in the pages of Nexus. This series, by Mike Baron and Steve Rude (for both First and Dark Horse Comics), boasts a panel-for-panel intricacy that is deceptively tame, gorgeously retro, and representative of sequential art at its finest.
Still not Manning himself, no. Yet Rude, like the Jack Kirby-obsessed Mike Allred, has spent his career time traveling via illustration. His work is the natural extension of Manning’s in every way–which didn’t occur to me until I finally read some Tarzan comics.
Cleanly pulsing with mid-century allure, the pages of Tarzan in the Land That Time Forgot & The Pool of Time come from 1974. Though Manning had started drawing Tarzan in 1965 (and is known alongside Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster as one of the character’s greatest artists), these two tales weren’t published in the United States until Dark Horse released a trade paperback in 1996.
Grandly pulpy and worth the wait, these stories find Burroughs’ jungle man in treacherous terrain off the coast of South America. Helping his wasp friend Val, Tarzan searches for the missing Lya Billings, “the greatest woman athlete in the world today!” They sail to an island of steep cliffs and dreadful fog, where Lya supposedly hunts for traces her own mother.
Once atop the cliffs, Tarzan says, “Feel it? Heat! Pouring from inland! And smells… jungle… immense… lush… fetid–!” He’s excited alright, until a pterodactyl carries him away. Val descends into the jungle alone, only to battle some wild boar. Throughout, Manning knows exactly when to trim back the dialogue and let his spectacularly balanced panels speak for themselves. The colors, by Studio SAF (whoever they are), seems right on the line between digital warmth and tropically blended magic marker.
Brisk narration soon plunges Tarzan into an arena-like tempest of saurian combat. Then, once he careens past Tyrannosaurs and Triceratops, he encounters mastodons and saber-toothed tigers (that he dispatches with a spear). This leads, of course, to the sight of neanderthals chasing a fur-clad blonde.
When the confused Lya runs from Tarzan, back into neanderthal arms, his rescue attempt reminds us why the premise of a heroic noble savage is so breathtaking. He scoops her up and ascends into the trees, like the proto-Batman he is. But then he’s cut down and clobbered by the natives. This leads to temporary embroilment in epic tribal warfare and dino-danger. Oh, and Lya gets jerked around liberally by her golden mane.
Later, in The Pool of Time, when Tarzan and Val must once again rescue Lya from grabby weirdos, Manning offers more ambitious spreads that a young Rude probably studied often. Sorry, did I say weirdos? I meant Wieroos, a clan of bald and wrinkly bat-men, who’ve adorned their island fortress with skulls and watchtowers.
When we learn that the Wieroos worship a time-altering deity called Luata, our hero is soon gazing into nightmarish swells of the impossible: “Strange dreams beckon with insidious talons… but Tarzan’s unshakable self-confidence, his jungle-forged oneness with nature, and his magnificent strength are as firm as a great rock in a hurricane… and the ape-man does not break!” A well-earned chest-beating follows, as does Tarzan and company’s successful escape from the deadly island.
Thankfully, Dark Horse is also reprinting Manning’s original Tarzan run in hardcover volumes. His honest, fluid style, built around love for his own influences, is still felt in comics today (in titles with razor sharp lines and perfect anatomy). To think I almost missed him, as I swing through the funny-book jungles.