Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tarzan the Terrible (1921)

Golden Age Comic Book Stories today features a gallery of covers for Ballantine's run of Tarzan novels from the 70s. Painted by legendary artists Neal Adams and Boris Vallejo these illustrations graphically capture the physical vigor that characterizes Edgar Rice Burroughs' storytelling. As Gore Vidal observed in his article "Tarzan Revisited,"

"Though Burroughs is innocent of literature and cannot reproduce human speech, he does have a gift very few writers of any kind possess: he can describe action vividly." 

And it was that vividness, combined with his world building acumen, which inspired many subsequent sf authors, like Michal Moorcock and of course the late Philip José Farmer. A central theme to ERB's writing is the idea that modern civilization is enervating, and that only by reconnecting with primal nature can we regain vitality. In this sense his Tarzan novels, which ostensibly embody white male power fantasies, paradoxically display the insecurity of the colonialist mentality. There is a real sense that the dominance of the industrialized empires is artificial, that it lacks the primal strength of the "savage" Other it has seemingly vanquished. ERB's novels almost invite you to read them against themselves.

Cover by Boris Vallejo

ERB's best Tarzan novels were arguably those written in the 1920's. This book, 1921's Tarzan the Terrible, finds him in top form as he pens his answer to Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912). His unrestrained imagination and raw story telling drive are on full display as Tarzan travels to a land that time forgot teeming with prehistoric beasts. There he must confront in a literal way the primal past that ERB invites us to see beneath the façade of our everyday world.


NetherWerks said...

Excellent post. The whole Jungle Lord thing is quite a bizarre conglomeration of half-digested fears and fantasies rolled-up into a very troubled, often troubling super-hero. We set out to do a quick post on this and we're still digging into the subject deeper and deeper...

Jerry Cornelius said...

And then there's his counterpart, the Jungle Queen, who is usually treated as a "White Goddess" by the "savages." Which just foregrounds the psycho-sexual dimension of these figures. I'll be interested to read your post about this.