Some literary characters slip free from their creators and become part of our shared culture, becoming the closest thing we have to a modern mythology. You don’t need to have read Arthur Conan Doyle, Carlo Collodi and Mary Shelley to understand Sherlock Holmes, Pinocchio and Frankenstein. It is certainly the case with the most famous creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs – Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, who first appeared in print 100 years ago. Very few of the boys who beat their chest and warbled the distinctive animal-ish yodel (“the bull ape’s savage roar of victory”… “What a frightful sound!… I shudder at the mere thought of it. Do not tell me that human throat voiced that hideous and fearsome shriek”, as the novel has it) had read the novel. It could be said that not many of them even should.
Alan Grant, the Scottish comics writer who has worked on Judge Dredd and created Mr Zsasz and Jeremiah Arkham for Batman, has called Tarzan the original superhero (indeed, Grant’s career began writing Tarzan comics). Tarzan was almost immediately a multimedia hero: on film by 1918, as a comic by 1929, on radio by 1932. The character also has the strange plasticity that allows him to be put into countless, even contradictory, kinds of story.