In November Dark Horse Comics published a one-shot comic titled The Once and Future Tarzan, which details the adventures of Tarzan in the future when the ocean levels have risen. I haven’t read the entire thing, but when an eight-page excerpt appeared in Dark Horse Presents #8, which I reviewed in February, I noted it was “terrible.” With hindsight I’d say it’s probably unfair to judge an excerpt so harshly, but the pages felt stiff, and the concept odd. Is a sci-fi reimagining of sorts the only way for a classic character to be relevant again?
At the time I didn’t know that the publication of the full issue would coincide with the 100th anniversary of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes, and the release of several Tarzan and Burroughs-related materials, including Scott Tracy Griffin’s Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration. Knowing that, the revival makes more sense, but it doesn’t answer my central question: is the Tarzan property so moribund that it has to be drastically altered to reach an audience?
Griffin doesn’t seem to think so, though he doesn’t directly address the question in his book. Tarzan: the Centennial Celebration is very much a devoted fan’s paean to the character and its creator. In this case, the praise takes the form of an exhaustive overview of Tarzan’s history, including summaries of each novel, details of the various serials and feature films, comics, stage productions, etc. Griffin also fits a biography of Burroughs into the media history, giving the work some context. Interspersed throughout the summaries are full-color reproductions of book jacket and interior illustrations by a variety of artists, including Frank Frazetta, J. Allen St. John, Neal Adams, and Boris Vallejo. At its best, the Centennial Celebration is a well-maintained, engaging archive of the Tarzan canon.
But the risk of that comprehensive approach is the myopia that has long characterized nerd culture. Each of Griffin’s summaries of the Tarzan novels is accompanied by a detailed publication history, including retellings of the story. Fellow Tarzan and Burroughs scholars and devotees would likely find such information useful (even if only to quibble about minor details) and if this were an esoteric publication intended for such an audience it wouldn’t be an issue. Instead, Tarzan: the Centennial Celebration is a coffee table book, intended as a casual read judging by the wealth of illustrations and text boxes. And any nerd knows that fixating on minutiae is the alienate anyone who might be curious about comic books, sports, rare coins, or any of a thousand other obsessions.
I’ve always experienced Tarzan at a remove. I’ve never read any of the novels, nor seen any of the movies. I think I might’ve read some of the comics, but my most direct consumption of the character is watching reruns of “George of the Jungle.” But I absorbed Tarzan just by reading and watching cartoons as a kid. He’s like Superman; the broad strokes of the concept are downloaded into your brain through socialization, but to fill in the holes you have to put in some effort. Tarzan: the Centennial Celebration provides most of those details, but I finished the book still wondering how Tarzan achieved that ubiquity, and what impact Burroughs’s creation has had on popular culture. Has 100 years tempered the colonial overtones of the Tarzan stories? Did Burroughs, and the Tarzan novels in particular, have any influence on contemporaries like Robert E. Howard? Does Tarzan have a place in a media environment where intellectual property is endlessly recycled? What effect has entering the public domain had on the stories?
As I said, Tarzan: the Centennial Collection is a coffee table book. I didn’t go in expecting a monograph on post-colonialism, though I’m sure Griffin is capable of producing one. The author is clearly wedded to the subject in the best way, and I’d be surprised if anyone who cracked Centennial Collection didn’t want to pick up Tarzan of the Apes. But mired in the dates and publishers and varying book jackets, I kept hoping for more analysis – maybe something that would help me make sense of the dystopian future Tarzan comic that I initially recoiled from.
Similar reads: Conan: the Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Savage Barbarian by Roy Thomas; Batman: the Complete History by Les Daniels; Superman: the Complete History by Les Daniels; Wonder Woman: the Complete History by Les Daniels
[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]