Last month, Titan Books released Tarzan - The Centennial Celebration by Scott Tracy Griffin, a massive full-color coffee table book that looks at 100 years of Tarzan. It's a gorgeous book, and perfect whether you're an avid fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs's enduring character or have just a passing interest in the Lord of the Apes.
Even though I enjoy pulp stories, I admit that I'm basically a Tarzan tyro. I haven't read any of the Tarzan novels yet, though I intend to read some of Burroughs's 20-plus-book Tarzan canon. As far as the films go, I've seen just two of the Johnny Weissmuller movies, the Disney film, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, and Tarzan, the Ape Man. (The last one, full disclosure, I watched as a teenager only to see Bo Derek naked. I think the movie had something to do with Tarzan, but I still can't be sure.)
As a dive into the world of Tarzan, The Centennial Celebration is absolutely riveting, and it actually shows just how deep and well-realized Burroughs's world was. Though there hasn't been a theatrically released Tarzan film since 1999, the book makes me curious about the character's future on the big screen.
Tarzan - The Centennial Celebration is the size of two vintage pulp magazines.
Tarzan was a character so much of his time. In his foreword to the book, Tarzan actor Ron Ely situates the character smack in the middle of 1912. A century ago, travel was treacherous and difficult. The comforts of society and its technological innovations would be rivaled by the primordial tumult of the jungle wild. These overgrown and unmapped places housed mysteries -- intelligent apes, lost cities, unknown (and therefore likely cannibalistic) tribes. That's just part of the zeitgeist that gave birth to Tarzan, though. There's also the nascent superhero model built in the pulp adventures of the early 20th century, with characters like Tarzan and John Carter paving the way for Philip Wylie's Gladiator, Robert E. Howard's Conan, Lee Falk's The Phantom, and Doc Savage (though created by three people, the character is best linked to the mind of co-creator Lester Dent).
And then there's Burroughs himself, and 1912 was an ideal year for him to make a living for as a writer, something that seems more difficult now, especially given the pressure to do this sort of thing while young. Burroughs turned 37 in 1912, the year he wrote and published his first John Carter and Tarzan stories. Before this, he'd been unhappy and/or unsuccessful at his other jobs: stenography department manager at Sears, patent medicine salesman, proprietor of a stationary store, and railroad policeman. (Today, all of those occupations would probably pay better than full-time fiction writer.)
After covering Burroughs's early life and first writings, Griffin steers the reader through The Centennial Celebration book by book in chronological order. There's a basic plot synopsis for each Tarzan tale accompanied by some excellent full-color art by people like Neal Adams, Frank Frazetta, Joe Kubert, and Boris Vallejo. A few original Burroughs sketches are included as well. The Tarzan synopses are followed by some publication history, which explores how Burroughs negotiated payments with various competing pulps and leveraged his growing popularity to his advantage.
There's a certain anarchic absurdity to the later Tarzan books that is absolutely incredible
Along the way, Griffin takes time to dispel a few Tarzan misconceptions. For one, the Tarzan of the Burroughs stories was well-versed in many languages rather than a grunting, monosyllabic savage. He could speak English, Mangani (ape language), German, Arabic, Swahili, French, Dutch, and much more. Essentially, if the story called for it, you could count on Tarzan to know it. The Centennial Celebration even includes an ape-to-English and English-to-ape glossary, showing Burroughs's dedication to world building. (If only there was more time -- there would be an entire section of this piece written in ape.)
The MGM movie version of Tarzan (played by Weissmuller) defined many public perceptions about the character, which explains the common idea of Tarzan as a dim yet noble brute. This frustrated Burroughs to no end and led him to produce his own Tarzan films with Herman Brix in the lead. The Centennial Celebration details some of MGM's studio tactics to limit the success of the Brix films. The most interesting misconceptions about Tarzan stemming from the films involves two supposed Tarzanisms: "Me Tarzan, you Jane" and the all-purpose ape-language word "umgawa." Neither of these appeared in Burroughs's books. ("Umgawa" is clearly ape for "Play it again, Sam" and "Elementary, my dear Watson.")
As Burroughs progressed with his Tarzan books, his imagination seemed to become unbridled, hurtling Tarzan into undiscovered cities, sending the hero to fight against the Nazis, and even placing him in fantastical situations. In the tenth Tarzan book, Tarzan and the Ant Men, Tarzan teams up with the diminutive race of humans known as the Minunians, a clear riff on the Lilliputians from Gulliver's Travels. (And of course Tarzan speaks Minunian.) There's also an adventure in the world of Pellucidar, a land in the hollow interior of the Earth that can only be accessed by a hole in the North Pole. While in Pellucidar, Tarzan (who obviously speaks the language) battles pterodactyls and other prehistoric creatures. Not only does Tarzan conquer the wild while traipsing between the savage world and the civilized world, he battles the unknown, the unimaginable, the unreal.
Waiting for Tarzan in the 21st century
And I suppose it's this absolute openness to the Tarzan tales that makes me wonder why there hasn't been a 21st century attempt at a Tarzan film. Here's a character whose fingerprints are all over superhero comics and imaginative fiction -- from the perambulations of Spider-Man, to the primate obsessions in DC Comics (e.g., the gorilla cities of The Flash), to the homage/pastiche in Alan Moore's Tom Strong and Warren Ellis's Planetary. The character is still well known, and I'm pretty sure children still know what a Tarzan yell sounds like and could mimic one if pressed. Though maybe Tarzan would have suffered a box office fate similar to his fellow Burroughs centenarian, John Carter.
I wonder if there's something distinctly early-20th-century about Tarzan in the same way there's something so late-19th-century about Captain Nemo and Phileas Fogg. Is there something about the foundling in the wild becoming a hero that doesn't transfer to the heroes of the 21st century? We prefer our orphans in human homes, maybe. Even if Tarzan is a kind of relic, there's a certain kind of spirit that seems ripe for exploration. If the Disney Tarzan could use skateboarding to help send the character around the trees (which sounds even more quintessentially 90s when I type it out), why not parkour on the jungle floor and up in the canopies of trees?
There's less and less to explore in the wild, which is definitely different than the world Burroughs lived in. And travel is more convenient -- daring hipster tourists with the right vaccinations and a little know-how could probably tackle the jungle with some help from local guides. If lost in the jungle, they'd only need to listen for an engine somewhere while following the advice of Les Stroud and Bear Grylls. (Me Tarzan... better drink my own piss?) But there seems to be room for Tarzan in the 21st century. Perhaps it just needs a kick of Burroughs-like imagination to make it happen.