Welcome to the Jungle

They’re making a new Tarzan movie.

I have mixed emotions about that. When my grandfather made that fateful pronouncement that cost him so much money one of the series I went hunting for was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels. It took me a few years to collect all 24 of them, and re- reading them occupied many hours of my childhood. My first impression of jungles came from  the rich descriptions of Burroughs. The mysteries of his Dark Continent kept me forever fascinated. But all of that paled before the excellence of the Ape-man himself.

Tarzan is perhaps the best example of  the Noble Savage in all of literature. Lost in the jungle as an infant, Tarzan is raised by Great Apes, or Mangani, as they call themselves, creatures caught in that nebulous place between animals and men. Despite this, Tarzan’s essential humanity allows him to rise above his circumstances.  For example, while the most iconic first contact between Tarzan and human civilization is immortalized by the words, “Me Tarzan, You Jane,” in the novel Tarzan of the Apes, it was the Ape-man who first made contact . . . by letter! John Clayton and his wife knew they were expecting when they began their ill fated journey and packed accordingly. Among their belongings were several children’s primer’s and young reader’s books. As a child, while fleeing the abuses of the ape clan that raised him, the young Tarzan took refuge in his parent’s old shelter, and taught himself to read and write. In all the movie translations of Tarzan, I have never seen any that kept that facet of the original novel.

Another facet of Tarzan rarely seen in the movies is the violence. While Tarzan is a noble savage, he is still capable of considerable savagery. The Mangani are an inherently violent species. Leadership passes in trial by combat. In Burroughs’ Africa death lurks behind every tree, blood soaked and visceral, waiting for the unwary to stumble. Predators stalk through the trees, waiting to take the unwary.  Once again, no movie has truly captured this aspect of the Ape-man. It’s an issue skirted around for the benefit of the audience.  While Tarzan is frequently shown to be more clever than his opponents, rarely is he shown to be mightier, or more savage. In the books it is a completely different story. The Ape-man wins many of his battles by overpowering his enemies, and several more by crossing lines a civilized man would never cross.

It comes down to faithfulness. Hollywood is renowned for ignoring their source material in favor of what hey believe their audience wants to see. In the process, they frequently forget who their audience is. It happens in their comic genre adaptations a depressing number of times, although in recent years they’ve gotten better. They’ve done it to Stephen King, numerous times. They’ve done it to Tom Clancy. And they’ve done it to Tarzan more than once. Honestly, you can’t really blame them. They were targeting an audience as young as I was when I began reading the adventures of the Ape-man. (And yes, there is a huge difference between reading about bloody battle and watching it on a big screen.) And as much as I want to see Tarzan introduced to a new generation,( this time without the surfer-dude moves, thank you Disney,) Just once, I wouldn’t mind seeing a version aimed at me, who first met our hero in his original, literary form.  I want to see a Tarzan who triumphs over his adversaries by being more cunning  than the ones he can’t overpower, stronger than the ones he can, and savage enough to surprise either if it gives him an advantage. That’s the Ape-man I grew up with. This time, that’s the one I’d also like to see on film.

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Joe Kubert (1926-2012)

Joe Kubert

Joe Kubert has died.

For many readers of DC comics in the 1960s and 70s, Kubert was one of the most recognizable artists of the company.  You literally couldn’t pass the comic rack in those days and NOT find a comic that he either drew or did the cover.  His accomplishments were many and legendary in the field not the least of which is the fact that he created the only school to specialize in the teaching of “Cartoon and Graphic Art”.

I never met Joe Kubert personally.  I never had the pleasure of working with him.  Despite my fondest desires, I never attended the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art.  All I did was read his comics and be a fan.  Because of his decades of work in the field, I don’t think there was ever a time when I did NOT know who Joe Kubert was.

I was born in 1962 and don’t have many clear memories of the 1960s.  Oh, sure, I remember my friend’s names and playing games with them on our street in New Milford, CT.  I have vague recollections of television shows (like STAR TREK) and the toys I had and major events like the Moon Landing and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  What I remember most of all were the comic books.

I grew up reading comics.  I think I probably started when I was about 5 or 6 years old and mostly because my older brothers (9 and 10 years older than I) used to read them.  My oldest brother, Carl, had a massive collection that he had started around 1959 or so and allowed me free access to all of them.  By the time I was 10, I had read his collection through at least 2 or 3 times.  Even though he had a great collection of Marvel comics, I was drawn to the DC comics.

And many of those that drew me in were drawn by Joe Kubert.

I started with the early Silver Age appearances of Hawkman.  I had no idea who the hell Hawkman was or that there had been another Hawkman decades earlier or that the same artist had worked on both.  All I knew was that those comics were amazing and, even at 10, I knew that they were cool.

The artwork drew me in immediately.  It stood out from the usual art in the Superman and Batman books.  It had a gritty ‘realism’ to it that I hadn’t seen before.  This hit me the hardest when I eventually moved onto Kubert’s war comics like Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace (soon to become one of my most favorite characters).  This artwork wasn’t safe or clean like what I was used to seeing in superhero comics.  It was tough and earthy.  You could almost smell the sweat on Sgt. Rock and feel the noble dignity of Enemy Ace as he cursed the war he fought.

Throughout the years, as I would find more and more of Kubert’s art, what struck me most was the integrity.  No matter the project, Kubert gave it his all.  One of my first exposures to Tarzan came when DC began their TARZAN comic book with, of course, Kubert doing the art.  I devoured those comics.  Others will talk about how Burne Hogarth or Hal Foster were the best Tarzan artists but, for me, Kubert was THE Tarzan artist.  He defined how I saw the character and, when I close my eyes, Kubert’s artwork is what I see.  Because of those comics, I sought out the TARZAN novels and then the John Carter of Mars novels and so many more.

One of the sad realizations of today is that we are losing or have lost many of the great comic artists.  Kirby, Kurtzman, Buscema, Joe Simon, Eisner, Toth, Swan, Heck, Colan… the list goes on and on.  These were giants who walked among us and left us tales of gods and men.  Their like will never come again.  Today, I will sit down with a stack of Sgt. Rock comics, the hardcover collection of VIKING PRINCE and the SHOWCASE edition of ENEMY ACE and I will remember the greatness which Kubert left for us on those pages and be thankful that, for a brief time, he shared these with us.

Godspeed, Joe.

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