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Book Review: Tarzan – The Centennial Celebration

By (November 19, 2012) One Comment

Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration

by Scott Tracy Griffin

Titan Books, 2012

The autumn of 2012 is famously (for those who keep track of such things) the 100th anniversary of the appearance of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character Tarzan in the pages of The All-Story magazine. From one viewpoint this seems a fairly venerable birthday; how many of today’s pop fantasy creations – Hellboy, Jason Bourne, Bella Swan – can realistically hope to reach 100? But from another point of view, it seems almost ridiculously recent; Tarzan’s fame has spread to such astronomical proportions that he feels almost Homeric, like some kind of heroic phoneme that’s always been a part of human speech, a “pervasive pop-culture presence” as long-time Burroughs fan and authority Scott Tracy Griffin puts it in his Introduction to Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration, a platter-sized compendium of all things Tarzan that encompasses all the official ERB-authored novels, all the authorized sequels, the comic-book adaptations, the movies, the TV shows, the collectible paraphernalia, Tarzan – the character and cultural phenomenon – has had many tributes in the last 100 years, but nothing has ever come close to the scope and sheer physical beauty of this volume. No Tarzan fan can possibly be without it.

And we are all Tarzan fans. By that strange osmosis of cultural saturation, the character’s myth is known all over the world, the hack and huckster Burroughs having stumbled upon an avatar of the collective consciousness when he invented the story of an English lord and lady who are stranded in what was once called darkest Africa, die there, and leave behind their baby son who’s raised by a tribe of apes (in Burroughs’ original story, he specifies they’re mangani, an otherwise unknown species of great ape somewhere between gorillas and humans) as one of their own. The character went through much finer delineation in the novels that followed; he married his beloved Jane Porter, had a son who became a jungle adventurer after him, etc. But that original premise – the scion of British nobility growing into a man entirely free of Victorian behavioral constraints, an animal-powerful man with hyper-developed senses and no compunctions about killing – has proven so irresistible to the popular imagination that Burroughs’ ink was scarcely dry on the first serial than the character was being adapted into every medium available.

Astonishingly, virtually all of those various adaptation-categories get equal and respectful attention in this wonderful book. Griffin tirelessly slogs through every novel (to put it mildly, they’re uneven affairs; classics like Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar are ballasted with more rote numbers like Tarzan’s Quest), provides a lively overview of every knock-off production, and proves an endlessly intelligent enthusiast for every manifestation of Tarzaniana in existence. The highest compliment a reader can pay to Griffin’s enormous work here is that it would be every bit as entertaining if it were an unillustrated work of black-and-white prose.

But it’s hugely, almost outrageously not that. As befits a character who’s been intensely visual from his first incarnation, Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration is profusely illustrated. The long history of often glorious Tarzan-artwork is on display in these oversized pages. The series of novel covers done by the great comics artist Neal Adams for Ballantine Books in the 1970s are given their first-ever full-page color reproductions, as are the far more sensuous ones done for the same series by Boris Vallejo. And in a wonderful and long-overdue visual tribute, so too are highlighted the dorkily earnest and striking cover illustrations for the old Gold Key series of Tarzan comics – and the book covers done for the previous run of Ballantine paperbacks by veteran artist Robert Abbett, whose work’s shimmering colors and rough brush-strokes look gorgeous in an extra-large presentation. Tarzan’s other great artists – Frank Frazetta, Burne Hogarth, Russ Manning, the great Joe Kubert – are here as well, looking better than their originals ever did in newspaper or comic strip.

gordon scott as tarzan

Tarzan’s life as a fictional character coincides with the advent of popular cinema, and all the actors who’ve played the Ape Man are profiled in Griffin’s book, from the emblematic if slightly doughy Johnny Weissmuller to the leaner Herman Brix to the almost cartoonishly muscular Gordon Scott (tall and charismatic actor Ron Ely, who played Tarzan in the character’s only successful U.S. television series, writes the book’s Foreward). The various actresses who’ve played Jane are also here, from Karla Schramm in 1920 to Sarah Wayne Callies in the disastrously ill-conceived 2003 TV ‘update’ of the character. Casper Van Dien, Wolf Larson, and Joe Lara – three of the luckless actors to portray Tarzan most recently – are loyally represented in full-page studio shots that give little hint of how disappointing their finished products were (although Van Dien brought a quicksilver physicality to the character in 1998’s Tarzan and the Lost City and Lara’s portrayal in a 1996 television series at least dispensed with the ridiculous “me Tarzan” pidgin-talk inflicted on the character by an entire generation of Hollywood movies).

Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration arrives, ironically enough, in something of a Tarzan-lull. There are no ongoing comics series, no TV series, no movies (and none in the offing, except a 2013 animated feature whose trailer is admittedly arresting), no new novels. The 21st Century has left all of those old Victorian behavioral strictures far, far behind, and it’s possible this has lessened somewhat the elemental appeal of a character who does exactly as he pleases, but this magnificent Tarzan tribute volume makes a compelling case that the Ape Man has as strong a grip on our collective imaginations as he always did. With any luck, he’s still out there in the jungle, waiting to be remade by a new century.