A CENTURY ago this year Tarzan was created by an American salesman keen to break into the pulp fiction market. Here, comics writer Alan Grant, who penned many Tarzan stories, takes a personal journey with the king of the apes
Along with Dennis the Menace and Batman, Tarzan of the Apes was in my top three childhood heroes. My brothers and I got our fix of Dennis from the pages of DC Thomson’s Beano, which our parents bought religiously for us each week. Our less-regular doses of Batman came from the bundles of American comics my emigré cousin sent back to us every few months from his new home in Canada. Although I believe there were Tarzan comics around at the time, we got our shot of the Jungle Lord from the Saturday morning matinees at the Picture Palace.
The Palace was a real – and cheap – treasure trove of exotic culture in Newtongrange (“Nitten”) the mining village where we grew up in the 1950s: Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges provided us with our laughs; Superman serials gave us superhero adventure; and Tarzan introduced us to the jungles of Africa. The Victoria Park – at least in summer – became the Dark Continent, and we constantly squabbled about who would be Tarzan, who would be the tribal warrior-chief, and who would be whatever villain had starred in that morning’s show.
We unquestioningly accepted the fact that Tarzan in the movies was played by a series of different actors – I read recently that five Olympic athletes had filled the part at various times – but for me it was Johnny Weissmuller who epitomised the role. He had been an Olympic swimming champion and, with his long black hair, rugged physique and ability to swing on jungle vines, was far and away my favourite.
Tarzan had originally been created by American salesman Edgar Rice Burroughs back in 1912, in an attempt to break into the then lucrative pulp fiction market. Burroughs had never been to Africa, but that fact proved no rein on his imagination; he’d never been to Mars either, but he also produced the popular John Carter novels.
The son of English aristocrat Lord Greystoke, the boy who became Tarzan was lost in the jungle as a child, and grew up able to communicate with the animals. This was the stuff that young boys’ dreams were made of. My brothers and I joined the local cub pack, and under the watchful eye of Akela Davie Erskine did our best to learn the rudiments of tracking, animal recognition and survival – with Nitten’s Red Woods, on the banks of the River Esk, taking the place of the African jungles. In 1960, when I was 11, Marvel Comics under Stan Lee released their first titles of a new Golden Age of Comics – The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man – and I was immediately hooked. These were modern heroes for modern times, and, in the face of this competition, Tarzan seemed outdated, a relic from the past. Later on in the decade, however, the Jungle Lord’s televised adventures, now starring Ron Ely, were still a highlight of my teenage week’s viewing.
When I finished school and went to work, boyhood dreams faded away. After unhappy stints as a bank clerk and accounts assistant, I managed to get a job with Dundee publishers DC Thomson. Although I was desperate to work in the comics side of the industry, my bosses decided I had a penchant for romantic fiction, so I learned my trade as sub-editor on a variety of titles like Family Star and Secrets Story Library (which at least had the merit of being a comic, albeit aimed at teenage girls).
I migrated from Dundee to London, where my new bosses at IPC Magazines liked the fact that I’d been grounded in romantic fiction and continued the tradition by placing me on their own romantic titles – Loving, Love Affair and Honey. In my early twenties now, I was still an avid Marvel comics reader, but despaired of ever having the chance to work for any comic at all. Disillusioned with London, I left to become a freelance writer – and, of course, I wrote what I’d been trained to do: romantic fiction. Most of the stories then were first-person confessional, so I had to pretend to be a female to write stories with titles like My Boyfriend Was A Hell’s Angel and I Stole To Have An Abortion. Despite having a modicum of success, I knew in my heart this was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, so I upped sticks and moved back to Scotland, where I drifted aimlessly for a couple of years.
Then my friend John Wagner, who I’d first met at Thomson’s and later at IPC, put me in touch with a young publisher who produced a series of monthly puzzle magazines. Keen to get back into journalism of any stripe, I began making up crosswords, word searches and simple arithmetical puzzles for his publications. Wagner was also working freelance for him at the time, writing – of all things – Tarzan comic stories. When he went off to start intensive work (with Pat Mills) on the stories that would eventually become Britain’s space-age comic, 2000AD, the publisher asked me if I thought I could take over the writing chores on Tarzan. It’s the quickest “yes” I’ve ever said!
Memories of my boyhood hero flooded back as I set about the dream-come-true task. The publisher held the rights to produce Tarzan only in foreign- language editions (anything except English), and in order to be paid at the end of each month I had to furnish him with the titles of the stories I intended to write at the beginning of the month. It was a novel way to work, coming up with a title and then fitting a story to it at a later date. Tarzan and the Sabre-tooth Tiger was my first-ever story; my script was sent to a translator, who rendered it into Spanish for the benefit of the Spanish agency which provided the artwork. I still have a copy of that comic (in Finnish!) somewhere in the boxes that contain my collection. Others that came title-first were The Man From Nyabingi, And The Beggar Cried ‘Death!’, Tarzan and The Poison Dwarf and dozens of others – none of which I’ve ever seen in an English version.
There’s one major difference between writing for girls and writing for boys: girls’ stories are mostly emotion-based, so the heroines are allowed to make mistakes from which they learn about life. Boys’ stories are mainly adventures, which largely depend on the hero being brave, principled and never being wrong. With Tarzan it was easy to follow this template, as the Jungle Lord is a straightforward hero character. Of course, there were flashes of humour from Cheeta, the chimpanzee, with emotion provided by threats to the animals of Tarzan’s beloved jungle. I have to confess, I never wrote a story that featured Jane.
Wagner still had the contract to write the 56-page Tarzan “specials”, which came out three or four times a year. We wrote several of them together, the one I remember best being about a madman who was transporting his boat across a range of African mountains. 2000AD was up and running by this time, and we used many of that comic’s now-famous artists as characters – Brian Bolland, Kev O’Neill, Mike McMahon and others – all of whom were killed in the line of duty.
But times in comics were changing. 2000AD was a runaway success and after a stint as assistant editor of the comic, I went freelance again. I started co-writing Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and Robo-Hunter with John, and these future-based science fiction characters fired my imagination in new and exciting ways. They also paid much better than Tarzan scripts did, so the Jungle Lord was quietly dropped from our repertoire.
However, I had long since realised that Judge Dredd – and, later, Batman – was almost exactly the same as Tarzan. The only real difference was that Batman’s adventures took place in the urban jungle of Gotham City, and Dredd’s were set in the futuristic jungles of Mega-City One. The settings changed, but the timeless hero remained the same.
It’s 25 years now since I wrote a Tarzan story, but the Jungle Lord still holds a special place in my affections. I still watch the Tarzan movies, and I was delighted to learn that author Andy Briggs has been licensed by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Estate to produce a series of new Tarzan novels, updating the character for modern times.
I’ll be picking up my copies soon.