This month, Tarzan, lord of the apes, becomes a centenarian. Since he first appeared in 1912, the original all-natural superhero has had many highs and lows, and is now all set to woo newer audiences
The October 1912 issue of the American pulp magazine All Story was devoted to a 131-page novel by an obscure young writer called Edgar Rice Burroughs. The cover depicted a wild muscular man in a dense jungle about to plunge his dagger into a lion even as another man – presumably the lion’s intended dinner – looks on in horror. The story was tantalizingly titled Tarzan of the Apes – A Romance of the Jungle. This month marks the century of the first appearance of the wild jungle man who made his debut in a 15-cent magazine but has since gone on to become an iconic character who, along with his creator, is famous the world over.
The adventures of Tarzan, the ‘noble savage’ whose parents are British peers but who is raised in the dense African jungles by a tribe of apes, have been serialized in two dozen novels and have spawned a gold-mine of a franchise that has led to numerous comics, merchandise and movies (besides Hollywood, the character is also a perennial favourite of B-grade Hindi filmmakers – images of Hemant Birje as Tarzan and Kimi Katkar as his lady love, continue to haunt us till date! ). But when Burroughs wrote the story – after being a self-described flop at nearly everything he tried, including being a gold miner and a railroad cop — he had hardly expected the kind of success that Tarzan would enjoy. “Frankly, he was surprised when the book publishers were bidding against each other for the rights of Tarzan of the Apes. In fact, as years went by he had plans of killing off this original eco-warrior because he wanted to write historical novels and westerns,” says Burroughs’ grandson John, who heads Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc, the California-based conglomerate that markets the author’s creations.
If Burroughs was vexed by the character that he created, it may not be surprising. The vine-swinging, do-gooder lord of the jungle is a complex – some would even say troubling character – whose different characterizations across multiple novels, comics and movies make it difficult to define him. For instance, the Tarzan of the novels is quite different from the one in the comics. “In the novels, Tarzan is essentially a great ape at heart even though he later acquires a thin veneer of civilization. His moral code is also governed by his animal instincts. But as a comic character, he is greatly watered down and is more of a conventional hero without some of the more savage traits he exhibits in the books,” says Vineeth Abraham, a Delhi-based comic book collector who got hooked onto Tarzan when he was nine.