Has time passed Tarzan by? Does he have any cultural cachet left in the 21st century? Note: I’m not debating the aesthetic merits of the various films, comics, or original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (which I admittedly have not read), but whether or not the character himself still has any hold on the public imagination the way he did 80, 50, or even 20 years ago. I suspect the answer is “not,” for the simple reason that the Lord of the Jungle just carries too much baggage with him. Africa is no longer regarded as a place of wonder, mystery, and danger where ant-men and other weird beasties might dwell, but as a continent full of famine, civil war, and other strife brought about by decades of imperialism and colonialism. Burroughs created Tarzan during an age of American expansion (in the Philippines and Cuba, for example), when the notion of the “White Man’s Burden” was still regarded as a noble calling (Kipling’s poem was published in 1899; the first Tarzan novel was published in 1912), and there’s simply no getting around the awkward racial and cultural issues that cling to him in contemporary eyes. My suspicion is that the 1999 Disney movie will turn out to be his swan song.
But it’s not as though people weren’t aware of the problems surrounding everyone’s favorite loincloth-wearing lad in years past. Take for, example, cartoonist Russ Manning, who took over the Tarzan newspaper strip in 1967, not exactly a year devoid of cultural upheaval. Manning took over the strip with two intentions: 1) Move away from the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” reductionism of the Johnny Weissmuller movies and hew closer to Burroughs’ original novels, and 2) Make the character more appealing to a more modern and perhaps cynical readership or at least offer an apologia of sorts.
That second goal is made obvious by a storyline in Volume One of IDW/Library of American Comics' new Tarzan Vol. 1 which collects the first two years or so of Manning’s run. At one point, Tarzan and his family, who live on a rather palatial ranch in deepest Africa, are attacked by a band of would-be freedom fighters. The leader is a Che Guevara-type, beard and all, who claims to want to “liberate the savages” he accuses Tarzan of exploiting. Of course, it eventually turns out he’s a ruthless, cutthroat, treasure-hungry thug, neatly turning the voice of anti-imperialism into that of a vile oppressor.
Before we discover his true colors, however, we get to see him make a speech to the African tribe Tarzan “rules” over (Tarzan seems to have a rather laissez-faire attitude towards governing). He promises these “savages” to free them from Tarzan’s enslavement and bring them machines that will help them build great cities. Their response? Thanks, but no thanks, we prefer Tarzan. Because, for all the trappings of imperialism he’s seems to be bedecked with, he ultimately understands their way of life better than this left-wing interloper.
To his credit, Manning takes great pains to avoid offensive racial and ethic stereotypes. His Africans aren’t reduced to playing porters and pounding jungle drums but are portrayed as noble, intelligent, and if not equal to Tarzan, at least fierce, proud warriors in their own right. Manning obviously spent a good deal of time researching the dress, customs, and environment of sub-Saharan cultures and it shows frequently in the strip.
Indeed, if there’s anyone in Manning’s strip that comes off really badly, it’s Jane, Tarzan’s wife. I don’t know how she’s portrayed in Burroughs’ novels, but she’s little more than a cipher here, a pretty face that constantly needs rescuing from various monsters and evildoers and seems completely incapable of rescuing herself or really doing anything beyond looking pretty and worrying a lot. She’s the ultimate damsel in distress.
In fact, I found myself wondering how Jane feels about being constantly left on the sidelines while her husband and teenage son, Korak, go off on wondrous and extremely dangerous adventures. At one point, she becomes slightly horrified watching her family cavort with apes in a practice known as “dum-dum” (draw your own racial allusions) and wonders if she can ever truly understand them. No wonder that the Sunday sequences end with Jane leaving a “Dear John” letter for Tarzan saying she’s had it with the jungle and is going back home to England. Who can blame her?
It’s a shame considering the number of more interesting or at least better realized female supporting characters that pop up in the strip from time to time. True, most of them are villains or at least have ignoble motives (the bulk of them just want to get into Tarzan’s pants, such as they are) but at least their sexual aggressiveness is a welcome change from the mousy blandness of Jane.
There’s a disturbing sexual current that runs through Manning’s strips, especially in one storyline where Jane is kidnapped by a group of creepy, bird-like “winged men.” It is extremely clear that they intend to rape Jane and impregnate her. Manning makes this as explicit as possible without actually using the r-word or having any torn clothing. “If they are like roosters, the winner will claim the hen. I’ve got to get away,” Jane tells herself. If that didn’t telegraph the subtext loud and clear, there’s the cavern of kidnapped women Jane comes across that have already given birth to a generation of winged men. I credit Manning for being willing to push the envelope a bit in a family newspaper, but there’s no denying that for any 21st century reader with even the slightest understanding of the horrors of sexual violence, this storyline leaves a creepy after taste.
There are other bits too that suggest a weird, sexist undercurrent: A savage tribe of giant, well-tanned, women that like to munch on a tiny, mouse-sized race of people; a young female adventurer who’s constantly showing up her whiny, emasculated suitor but still needs lots of saving from Tarzan (she later dons a racy costume of ostrich feathers when her clothes get ripped off [don’t ask] making her look like a burlesque performer. I don’t know if Manning is simply aping Burroughs or indulging in his own fetishes, but it’s all a bit odd to put it mildly.
Despite all of this, there’s no denying Manning’s capability, not just as an artist but also as a storyteller. His crisp, dynamic art excels in the best Alex Raymond/Burne Hogarth tradition and his panels are full of a lean, muscular Tarzan leaping and gallivanting through the jungle and toward the reader. He’s excellent at pacing the strip, especially given the minimal amount of space he was given (usually only three panels a day), some of which had to be occasionally be given to exposition or recapping the past adventure. Drawn as it was in an age that was moving away from photorealistic soap opera and adventure strips, it’s hard not to view Manning’s Tarzan as something of a middle finger to newspaper editors, a sign that not everything on the funnies page needed to be drawn on the level of Miss Peach, dwindling space be damned.
There is something charming about the fantastical elements that Manning and Burroughs draw upon in Tarzan. It’s hard not to smile or be at least a little thrilled when the so-called Lord of the Jungle crosses a raging river riding a triceratops, fends off his village from a rampaging tyrannosaurus, or just leaps across a wide ravine. At the same time, Manning’s hard work is brought down by the character’s essence and the racial and cultural overtones that surround him. As good as Manning’s work is, Tarzan feels more like a cultural artifact than a thriving, vibrant character. Certainly those who have an affinity for the sort of pulp adventures Manning and Burroughs indulged in will able to enjoy this even while acknowledging some of the more unpleasant aspects of the work. And those readers looking to simply marvel at Manning’s artistic talents will find plenty of pretty pictures to gaze upon. For some, that’s enough. Others might well read it and wince.