Tuesday, July 10, 2018

COMIC BOOK REVIEW BY BILL SHUTE! TARZAN #28 (Marvel Comics, September 1979)

I should probably organize my comic books. I do have a list on the computer of what I own, so I don’t purchase anything I already have. I also have a printout of the most recent update of that list in my car, so when I’m on the road and hit a junk store or flea market or antique mall or used bookstore, I can take the list in with me. As a child I may have followed story arcs and waited for the next issue of SUBMARINER or DETECTIVE COMICS or whatever, but for most of my life, I have just picked up cheap comics which were not new when I acquired them—I’m the comics equivalent of someone whose record collection was built exclusively from the cut-out rack and used record stores. They are organized, if you can call it that, by when I acquired them. I’ve always basically just filled one box, which I use for present time-killing reading, and when that’s full and I’ve devoured everything in it, it goes out to the garage or the storage unit, and I start filling another. Every once in a while, I’ll dig an older box out and re-read whatever looks interesting. As comic books kind of blur together (that’s actually one of their charms), it’s not a problem to re-read something 3-5 (or 25) years down the line. That’s where I get most of the old comic books I write about here—and because they are usually stored together with purchases from the same period of acquisition, it helps me to remember the circumstances at the time I got them, which inspires the somewhat-fictionalized reminiscences growing out of the comics (I was tempted to provide one of those here about my supermarket work in Virginia in the 1980’s, when I originally picked up this comic probably for a dime or twenty cents, but I’ll save it for later).

I’ve also never been a “collector.” Remember when President George W. Bush, wanting to seem like a strong-willed leader, labelled himself “the decider”? I am “the enjoyer.” I’ve never “upgraded” a comic. I’ve never kept anything sealed. The concept of “ratings” is offensive to me—numerical scores should be saved for the Olympics and standardized tests in school. I’m attracted to cheap (that’s priorities one, two, AND three for me) comics, and that usually means well-worn. Were I an organized collector, I would assemble the issues together which contained the story arc found in this #28—I probably own the issue before this and after this (I should check my list), but that’s OK. I like the randomness factor. We are born into a collective life that’s already going along quite well without us, and we’ll drift away from this life the same way—things will get along just fine without us. Drift in, drift out.

The comic book Tarzan has drifted from one publisher to another over the decades. Dell had the rights from 1947-1972 and did a lot of great work. The Jesse March years at Dell are collected in a number of handsome hard-cover volumes which are highly recommended. DC picked up the character in 1972 and ran with it until 1977. I have most of those as they were not hard to find cheap (and you can still get them cheap in lesser condition). Marvel picked it up in 1977 and had a relatively short run of just two years. There was just one more Marvel Tarzan issue after this one in the Fall of 1979. Tarzan was without a regular comic book home until the 1990’s when Dark Horse picked up the property—they still own the license from ERB (the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate) for the comic book rights to the Tarzan character, to my knowledge. There was also a rare four-issue run at Charlton in the 1960’s (Charlton believing that the character had lapsed into the public domain), but those were pulled from shelves quickly. They are very good and are collected in a hardcover volume called THE UNAUTHORIZED TARZAN, which is highly recommended.

This particular issue, the second-to-last one published at Marvel, puts Tarzan in an urban environment and drops us well into an existing story---and more than that, into the climactic fight near the end of an existing story. It’s as if you took a ten-minute chunk out of Chapter 12, the concluding chapter, of a movie serial, slowed it down, and created a comic book story around that. I’ve been reading so many crime and western comics in the last year, which usually contain at least four separate stories, that I am not used to these issues which devote the whole thing to a slice from a multi-book ongoing story arc. Comics writers were well aware that many readers would never read the whole thing in sequence (their target audience might not have gotten an allowance or mowed anyone’s lawn that particular week, and thus would not have the 40 cents to blow on a copy), so they do drop hints about the non-regular characters involved in the plot—here, an evil maniac (Mr. Tory) who runs an urban “zoo” in his penthouse, and an African-American organized crime leader who winds up helping Tarzan and whose backstory is presented to make him sympathetic the way a similar character in a 1930’s Warner Brothers urban crime film, played by an Edward G. Robinson or a James Cagney, might be presented. Interestingly, some of the police who are present at the climactic battle are on the take from this guy (Blackjack) and let him walk away after the fight (he’s after all not the one they are after).

From the cover image, which tips the hat to King Kong, to the story and the art, which seems like it could easily have been a Batman plot, something seems strangely derivative about this issue. Maybe they knew the license was going to run out or that the series had been cancelled or whatever and they just fell back on what they usually did in other Marvel comics because it was easier and they could save their effort for something that interested them more (I do have to point out, though, that there is a majestic two-page illustration of the climactic battle that is worthy of framing). After all, it’s just product, and product to be gotten out by a deadline. Jane is kidnapped, their son Korak is away dealing with other problems but manages to fly in at the last minute and save the day, and Tarzan (even though drugged by his enemies), with his faithful Lion companion Jad-Ba-Ja, manages to defeat a massive gorilla who seems to be the scale of some Japanese movie monster. However, as stated above, the setting and the fight and the way everything is drawn in the climactic battle—even the dialogue, except for the occasional cry of “Kreegah!”-- feels like it could be from a Marvel Spider-Man comic. It’s much more “Marvel” than it is Tarzan, but that’s fine….no one reading this comic could fail to know it’s a Marvel comic, even without seeing the cover or the art/writing credits. The 60’s-80s Marvel DID have a clear brand identity, and it was deeply etched into the DNA of everything they did.

If you are looking to try some vintage Tarzan comic books, I’d recommend any of the 11 (!!!) volumes of THE JESSE MARSH YEARS, from the Dell run, which have come out from Dark Horse—see which volume you can get at the lowest price (though, of course, I’d be partial to the ones with Lex Barker on the cover). They are beautiful and well-restored and have a kind of legendary or ‘magnificent’ quality I’m not seeing in the Marvel or DC comics, but then Marvel and DC had to sell Tarzan comics to superhero fans, so they pretty much had to make their versions of Tarzan somehow echo the house style.

I reviewed one of the Lex Barker Tarzan films here a while back. I can make a point of writing about one of the Gordon Scott ones too, perhaps over the summer, for BTC’s Tarzan fans. Scott had a good run with the character, riding that wave until his second career in Europe in the 1960’s where he made many excellent sword and sandal films, some westerns, and for his final two films, two outrageous Spanish-made Eurospy romps!

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