Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, the world's best-known apeman, first swung into view in the pages of a pulp fiction magazine in 1912. The Lord of the Jungle went on to conquer the media, including books, movies, comic strips, radio, comic books, and television. Burroughs was in his middle thirties and had failed in several professions—including being an instructor at a military academy, running a stationery store, and working as a salesman of pencil sharpeners—when he turned to the writing of pulp fiction in the second decade of the twentieth century. His first published work was a serial titled Under the Moons of Mars. It introduced his science fiction hero John Carter and started in the February 1912 issue of All-Story magazine. Later that same year, borrowing from the works of such writers as H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling, Burroughs invented his major character. His novel Tarzan of the Apes, subtitled "A Romance of the Jungle," appeared in its entirety in the October issue of All-Story.
Tarzan, like Kipling's Mowgli, was a feral child. In the case of young John Clayton, the future Lord Greystoke, the little boy was raised by apes in the wilds of Africa. His parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, were marooned on the African coast by the mutinous crew of the ship they'd been traveling on. Tarzan's father built a hut for himself and his pregnant wife, and it was there that the boy was born. His mother died soon after and his father was later killed by an attacking band of great apes. But a female ape named Kala, who'd just lost her own offspring, adopted and raised the child. "The apes called him Tarzan, meaning white-skin," as the comic strip version explained. "He grew up among them. He learned to speak their language and he lived as they did, in the trees." Somewhere along the way the wild child learned modesty and took to wearing a sort of sarong fashioned from a leopard skin. He later, after stumbling upon his family's hut, discovered books and taught himself to read. As his knowledge increased, the boy began to suspect that he was no ordinary ape.
Burroughs was basically a fantasist and well aware that in a real life situation, his little white-skinned hero wouldn't have made it to his first birthday. But it was more fun ignoring reality. The novice author also didn't have much of an idea of what Africa was really like. In the pulpwood version of Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs included a tiger named Sabor among his animal cast. His editor didn't catch this, and it took a reader to write in and point out that "the tiger is not and never has been included in the fauna of the African continent."
Eventually Tarzan encountered other humans. Initially they were natives, and the earliest interactions were far from cordial. Then another group of mutineers arrived in his stretch of wilderness. This bunch had captured a group of treasure seekers headed up by Professor Porter and included his daughter Jane and Tarzan's cousin William Cecil Clayton, the present Lord Greystoke and suitor of Jane Porter. Once Tarzan, now a full grown young man, encountered Jane, he was smitten. He proceeded to rescue her and her friends and to arrange a jungle interlude, perfectly innocent, with her. Eventually, however, she sailed back to America, leaving her Jungle Lord behind. Tarzan, with the help of a new friend, was able to establish that he was the true Lord Greystoke. But when he followed Jane to her home, he became convinced that she actually loved the other Clayton. So rather than tell her or William Clayton the truth, he delivered one of the great curtain lines in fiction—"My mother was an Ape. I don't know who my father was."
In addition to Kipling and Haggard, Burroughs was very much influenced by Victorian fiction in general. Tarzan is very much a typical Victorian hero, a fellow who is a gentleman to the core. And just as true gentlemen like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield survived in the urban jungle of nineteenth century London, Tarzan survived in the jungles of Africa and proved that he, too, was a gentleman. A gentleman, if he's honest and right-thinking, can't be kept from rising to his true rank in society. And in the next several books John Clayton did just that, eventually winning back his title and marrying Jane. Burroughs, knowing his audience well, always made certain that there was an abundance of jungle action, lost cities, cruel villains, lovely maidens, wild savages, white goddesses, and untamed beasts in each subsequent Tarzan book.
Tarzan's conquest of the media began almost at once. In 1914, Tarzan of the Apes appeared as a hardcover novel. Eventually there would be two dozen novels about the apeman, the majority of them serialized in pulp magazines, such as Argosy and Blue Book, prior to publication. Tarzan of the Apes became a silent movie in 1918. Barrel-chested Elmo Lincoln, who'd portrayed a blacksmith in The Birth of a Nation, was the first screen Tarzan. He was followed in the role by such actors as Frank Merrill, James Pierce (who married Burroughs' daughter Joan) and P. Dempsey Tabler. In the talkies of the 1930s, Buster Crabbe, Bruce Bennett (under his real name of Herman Brix) and Glenn Morris all took turns at wearing the leopard skin. But the definitive Tarzan of that decade, as well as of the 1940s, was Johnny Weissmuller. Not an actor but a record-breaking swimmer, he was in his late twenties when he first took to the trees for MGM's Tarzan the Ape Man. It's said that he beat out such contenders as Joel McCrea, Johnny Mack Brown, and Clark Gable for the part. W. S. Van Dyke directed the film, and Maureen O'Sullivan played Jane.
MGM's Tarzan was not the articulate gentleman of the novels. He was a rather primitive fellow not much more versed in human speech than one of his apes. "My lines read like a backward two-yearold talking to his nurse," Weissmuller once complained. The major reasons for making his screen apeman less than fluent were probably Weissmuller's slightly flutey voice and his evident inability to get conviction into any line of dialogue containing more than a half dozen words. For swimming, grappling with man and beast, rescuing Jane, and swinging from tree to tree on a vine, though, he had no equal. An assortment of others, usually athletes rather than actors, succeeded him in the role in the more than 50 films created around the Tarzan character. Of all the Tarzan films, however, the 1984 Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, best captures Burroughs' original vision of the character.
Tarzan came to the comic pages as a daily strip in 1929, with a Sunday page added in 1931. The dailies, for several years, were anonymous adaptations of the Burroughs' novels. There were no dialogue balloons or sound effects, and the copy, set in type, ran below the pictures. Hal Foster, a seasoned advertising illustrator by then, drew the first sequences. Having little faith in comics and even less love for Tarzan, he soon dropped the project, and a less gifted artist named Rex Maxon took over drawing the daily and the Sunday. Burroughs, who had originally wanted pulp illustrator J. Allen St. John for the job, never thought much of Maxon's rendering of his hero, nor of the jungle denizens. Since United Feature Syndicate had the final say, all the author could do was write disgruntled letters to the editors there. These apparently had some effect, because Foster was eventually persuaded to come back and draw the Sunday Tarzan page.
Foster's pages were impressively and ambitiously drawn, and he could render ancient Egyptian civilizations surviving in contemporary Africa, Viking pirates, prehistoric monsters on the rampage, and even a foxhunt in rural England with equal ease. When he left the feature in the middle 1930s, he was replaced by Burne Hogarth. Among the subsequent artists were Bob Lubbers, Russ Manning, Gil Kane and Gray Morrow.
United Feature included reprints of Tarzan in the lineup of Tip Top Comics, launched in 1936, and subsequently also in Comics On Parade and Sparkler Comics. Dell introduced original adventures of the jungleman in 1947 with artwork by former Disney artist Jesse Marsh. In later years, both Marvel and DC Comics tried, unsuccessfully, to make a go of a comic book devoted to the character. The chief artist at DC was Joe Kubert. Tarzan's influence in the comics did not die with his strip; other comic strips used the character for comic effect, including Sam Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes (in 1986), Gary Larson's The Far Side (1991), Dan Piraro's Bizarro (1997), Gary Blehm's Penmen (1997), Wiley Miller's Non-Sequitur (1997), and Mike Peters' Mother Goose and Grimm (1998), among others. Burroughs' hero also appeared in Big Little Books, on the radio, and on television. Disney also produced a full-length animated feature.
Foster, Hal. Tarzan. Vol. 1. New York, Flying Buttress, 1992.
Goulart, Ron, editor. The Encyclopedia of American Comics. New York, Facts-On-File, 1990.
Sampson, Robert. Yesterday's Faces. Vol. 2. Bowling Green, Popular Press, 1984.
Tarzan, the Lord of the Jungle, has been one of the most enduring heroic figures in American popular culture. Created by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950) in 1912, the Tarzan character first appeared in the pulp fiction All-Story Magazine. (Pulp magazines [see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2] of the era consisted of sensational stories printed on low-quality—that is, pulp—paper.) Tarzan has appeared in more than twenty novels, forty films, several television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) programs, radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) serials, comic strips, cartoons, comic books (see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2), toys, and thousands of items of merchandise. The character's stories have been translated into more than fifty languages. He is one of the most famous men who never actually lived.
Burroughs had failed at nearly every endeavor he attempted before he devised Tarzan. In the initial tale of the "Lord of the Apes," Burroughs reveals his animalistic jungle man to be, in actuality, John Clayton, the future Lord Greystoke. As a child, Clayton's parents die while on tour of Africa. A female ape named Kala, who calls him Tarzan ("white-skin" in ape language), adopts him. Raised among the apes, he learns to communicate with all the wild beasts. As an adult, Tarzan encounters African natives as well as white people visiting the continent. His most significant relationship is with Jane Porter, an English woman on expedition with her father. A romance blossoms between the jungle man and the civilized lady. The two face many obstacles in both Africa and England, where Tarzan eventually claims his family's inheritance.
Tarzan was an immediate hit with the public, who thrilled to his jungle adventures filled with lost cities, fierce animals, evil poachers, and tribal warfare. Tarzan achieved even greater popularity through his many film appearances. In 1918, Elmo Lincoln (1889–1952) was the first movie Tarzan in Tarzan of the Apes. Numerous muscular actors would also don the hero's signature loincloth over the years. The performer most associated with the role was Johnny Weissmuller (1904–1984), a former five-time gold medal winner in swimming from the 1924 and 1928 Olympics (see entry under 1900s—Sports and Games in volume 1). His powerful physique and great athletic abilities served him well in a dozen Tarzan movies filmed between 1932 and 1948. In film, Tarzan is usually played as a much less well-spoken figure than Burroughs' original character. The famous line of dialogue "Me Tarzan, You Jane" never appeared in a Burroughs tale. The film most closely capturing Burroughs' conception of the character is 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, starring Christopher Lambert (1957–) as Tarzan. A new generation of fans encountered the jungle hero in a 1999 animated Disney (see entry under 1920s—Film and Theater in volume 2) feature film.
When Burne Hogarth (1911–1996), writer of the Tarzan comic strip, was asked in Comics: Between the Panels to account for the jungle man's lasting popularity, he stated: "He is energy, grace, and virtue. He symbolizes the inevitable life source, the earth, the seed, the rain, the harvest, achievement, the triumph of adversity and death."
For More Information
Duin, Steve, and Mike Richardson. Comics: Between the Panels. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 1998.
Foster, Hal. Tarzan Vol. 1. New York: Flying Buttress, 1992.
Horn, Maurice, ed. 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics. New York: Random House, 1996.
Taliaferro, John. Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan. New York: Scribner, 1999.
Tarzan ★★★ 1999 (G)
Disney animated film finds baby Tarzan lost in the jungle and raised by a gorilla family—patriarch Kerchak (Henriksen), nurturing mom Kala (Close), and bossy big sister Terk (O'Donnell). But, years later, a now grownup Tarzan's (Goldwyn) life is thrown into chaos when he first encounters humans—and realizes he is one. Eccentric gorilla scientist Professor Porter (Hawthorne) and his lovely daughter Jane (Driver) are willing to help, but jungle guide Clayton (Blessed) is the villain on the scene. Disney's animation is even more amazing than usual thanks to some new computer software that gives the jungle background unbelievable depth and Tarzan glides, surfs, and jumps in a wow! look! manner. 88m/C VHS, DVD. D: Kevin Lima, Chris Buck; W: Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White; M: Phil Collins; V: Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Rosie O'Donnell, Glenn Close, Lance Henriksen, Wayne Knight, Brian Blessed, Nigel Hawthorne, Alex D. Linz. Oscars ‘99: Song (“You'll Be In My Heart”); Golden Globes ‘00: Song (“You'll Be In My Heart”).
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Tarzan was used by the popular press as a nickname for the Conservative politician Michael Heseltine (1933– ).