The Lord of the Jungles’ Long, Strange Journey Through the Jungles of Three Publishers
Bob Hodes had a problem. As the representative for Burroughs Inc, Robert M. Hodes oversaw the Burroughs estate and its literary legacy: Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, Carson of Venus, David Innes, Red Hawk and the Moon Men… the vast galaxy Edgar Rice Burroughs left behind him upon his death in 1950. The properties had languished after the passing of the founder, falling prey to pirated copies of the Burroughs originals, and unauthorized comics (first time pirates ever got the better of Tarzan!). Funny thing was, the very pirated novels that caused the problem helped spur a Burroughs revival. ERB Inc started tending to business. At the end of the sixties the House of Burroughs (in Tarzana California, of course) was back in order, overseeing worldwide rights for movies, books, reprints, comic strips, and, of course, comic books, especially Tarzan comic books.
Since 1912, when Edgar Rice Burroughs, a man who had famously failed at almost everything he put a hand to, borrowed someone else’s stationary and wrote ‘Tarzan of the Apes”, Tarzan had been a phenomenon, and a very valuable property. More books followed, pushing Tarzan into a publishing empire status (before Amazon.com, mind you). Movies both silent and sound, radio, gasoline, (well, he endorsed it), comic strips all came spilling out to meet the demand (he even got his own town, Tarzana). And, again, the comic books.
Ah, comics. It was a small, but not unimportant part of Burroughs Inc. Tarzan was popular all over the world, one of the most recognizable fictional characters in history, and his comics were just as popular. Starting with strip reprints in the thirties, Tarzan started appearing regularly in new stories, written especially for the comic books, over at Dell in 1947, soon getting his own title. For years the Dell Tarzans were written by the very prolific Gaylord DuBoise and drawn by Jessie Marsh (the Mike Sekowsky of Tarzan, either you loved him or hated him. Or hated him, then loved him). DuBoise and Marsh strayed far from Burroughs original (maybe not as far as the MGM ‘Me Tarzan’ movies did), making many Burroughs purists cringe, but they kept the title a popular one right up until Marshes’ retirement in 1965, when Russ Manning took over. Manning restored Burroughs to the title and helped regain popularity for the comic book, (and newspaper strip, which he later took over as well) especially in the overseas foreign markets.
This was the problem.
The foreign markets were printing and reprinting all the Tarzan material they had. Forty years of comic strips, (Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth even Rex Maxon) over twenty years of Dell/Gold Key comics, it all went to feed the foreign annuals, monthlies, weeklies, translated and sold all over the world. It was a sweet deal. Gold Key paid the writers, artists, editors, all the overhead, ERB Inc kept the negatives of all the stories, sold them for so much per page to South America, Europe, Africa, wherever Tarzan was needed and wanted. Sweet. Only one thing wrong. The reprints were running out. They needed more. Much more.
The Russ Manning stories that Gold Key was printing were very popular with the overseas publishers, so popular in fact, that when the art wasn’t coming in fast enough, they hired their own Russ Manning's, and set them to apeing (yes, that was intentional) the Manning style on new pages (something that didn’t make Russ happy, but why would it?). More was needed, and ERB Inc felt Western should provide. Hodes went to Gold Key.
At this time, Gold Key wasn’t in the expanding vein. After years of supplying material, Western split with Dell, and entered publishing on its own by putting their leg in the water, but only up to the knee. Hodes asked that the publishing be stepped up, and that other Burroughs properties be looked at also (another stab at John Carter?). Their schedule was fixed. Tarzan titles sold well at eight times a year, why change it? Gold Key said no. After two hundred issues, the Gold Key Tarzans ended. ERB Inc would have to look elsewhere (Western lost the Hanna Barbera books the same way, not putting out enough issues to satisfy the foreign markets).
But where? Why not ERB Inc itself? Why not a whole line of wholly owned Burroughs comics, published by the people who knew the properties the best, ERB itself? Hodes had it all costed out, so much for scripts, for artists, paper, printing. All he needed was a distributor.
That was a problem. In the early seventies, no distributor wanted to take on a new comics publisher, even one waving the flag of Tarzan before him. Comics were seen as a low profit medium with not a lot of future (even then!). The biggest comics distributor, Independent News Corp, told Hodes to go down the hall to DC, maybe they could help him (DC owned INC). In 1971, going to DC meant going to see Carmine Infantino, former artist, then art director, then editorial director, and at this time, publisher.
“I choose who I choose”
DC under Infantino was willing to try new things. New titles, new takes on old characters, new blood, and Kirby was coming! DC was also no stranger to licensed properties, having had a long run of Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comics, among others, but would it make sense to take up the ERB Inc deal, under the terms that ERB wanted? To Carmine it was about the numbers:
“Well, it was doing well in Europe at the time. In fact our European publishers talked to me about doing it here in the states, and I said, ‘If the numbers were right.’ We had a meeting with the California people, out there in Tarzana, with Bob Hodes. We worked out the deal, and we put it out. The best things happen simply!”
The numbers were good. Carmine must have thought that a gift had fallen into his lap. Right at the start of the Sword and Sorcery fad, here comes some of the properties that defined the genre, John Carter of Mars, Carson of Venus, David Innes, and most important: Tarzan, a character more popular in more countries than even that DC flagship title, Superman. And he had the perfect man for it, Joe Kubert. Carmine?
“Of course they wanted their artists on it. But I insisted on Kubert. I think I was right. He was the perfect guy for the strip. I told them ‘I choose who I choose’. They said, ‘Well what if we don’t approve?’ I said, ‘then we drop the whole project.’ They saw Joe’s work, and there was not another word.”
Joe Kubert signed on as editor for the Tarzan books (later taking over Korak from Joe Orlando) He also adapted the novels, writing the dialog, doing the covers and interior artwork, setting the bar high for the rest of the Burroughs adaptations. Continuing the Gold Key numbering (hoping to keep the readers that the GK books had) Joe began at the beginning, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan novel, ‘Tarzan of the Apes’. Kubert used the first four issues (the first three were in the new ’25-cent, 52 page’ format) to tell the origin of the ape-man. Joe turned in an elegant, dynamic adaptation, easily the most vibrant, alive, sweaty Tarzan since Foster’s. Kubert was a fan! I’ll let Joe tell you:
“Tarzan was one of the reasons I became a cartoonist in the first place, having read the strips and being really taken by the way Foster had handled it. As a kid I recall vividly the strip, I looked forward to it every Sunday, incredibly exciting. What I tried to do then was to capture the same kind of excitement it generated in me. …It was like revisiting my childhood.”
Joe also used the assignment to dig out some childhood books:
“I reread all the Tarzan books. I felt I wanted to touch home base again. I really wanted to do a very literal, pictorial depiction of ‘Tarzan of the Apes’. It was exciting.”
And Joes’ excitement shows in the work. Joes’ Tarzan was a lithe savage, muscles coiled, always ready to spring, with a veneer of civilization to pass in polite society. The jungle surrounding Tarzan was dense, dark, mysterious, a place that could hide danger and lost cities. Kubert’s Tarzan could stand proudly along side any others.
Along with Tarzan of the Apes, Kubert adapted Return of Tarzan, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Tarzan and the Castaways, Tarzan the Untamed, Tarzan and the Lion Man, and Tarzan and the Champion, all done with respect for the source stories, but packed with visual energy and, yes, excitement (especially the ones drawn by Kubert himself).
“It was a pleasure to do it!”
Infantino let loose a veritable Burroughs flood! John Carter, Carson of Venus, David Innes of Pellucidar, all burst forth, released from comic book limbo. They were then gathered from the backs of Tarzan and Korak titles (after they went through the reducing the DC line did after the failed 25-cent experiment) to a new title created specifically to contain and feature Burroughs adaptations, Weird Worlds, edited by Denny O’Neil. It was an exciting time for the Burroughs fans. Hodes had got what he had asked for, more adaptations, more Tarzan, Korak, and all the negatives to sell to the overseas markets. Carmine?
“Hodes was always asking for more, more, more.”
He got a great deal. He got a company that agreed with his demands, did the work of putting out the pages, publishing the books. ERB would collect its licensing fees and then sell the produced pages to other countries, like before. Only there was another snag: the overseas markets didn’t like the Kubert stuff. They expected more Russ Manning Tarzan, that was what was selling, that was what they wanted, nothing new please. Infantino insisted on Kubert for Tarzan, it was a deal breaker. Nothing is ever easy in comics.
Only one thing to do… get Russ Manning. Hodes hired Manning to oversee a line of foreign only Tarzan/Korak comics. Russ was editor, Dan Speigle took on Korak, and Russ (and his assistants, like Mike Royer and Dave Stevens) did new Tarzan stories. Mark Evanier later took over as editor after Manning had a falling out with the Burroughs people. Hundreds of pages were produced by people like Stevens, Spiegle, Doug Wildey, Alex Nino, and Bill Wray, stories that were never seen in the American market.
Back at DC, after hitting the ground running, Tarzan was slowing down. Dell sales had been slipping towards the end of their run, and DC’s had slipped even more. Tarzan and Korak kept on, but the Burroughs stories in Weird Worlds ended with #7. Most of the features later found a place in the revamped Korak, now ‘Tarzan Family’, featuring new Korak stories by Robert Kanigher, wandering past Burroughs and sending Korak on a very long quest to find his lost love. Some new John Carter stories found their way into Tarzan Family, but Carson of Venus was reprints (and only four years old at that). Joe Kubert, loaded down with work, (he was still doing the war books, plus covers for them and Tarzan) only wrote the stories and very reluctantly gave up doing the interior art, giving layouts to other artists to follow:
“The heavy lifting part of the art was the storytelling. I did them (breakdowns) on 81/2 by 11 sheets, which they followed very closely, but it was frustrating, not that they were doing a bad job, but it was different, just not the way I would have done it.”
Joe even tried to save some time by reprinting some of the best of the Russ Manning Tarzans, and converting some of the Foster and Hogarth strips to comic book pages, “But nothing saved time, it’s like chasing your own tail.”
Finally, after some five years of some of the best Tarzan adaptations to appear in comics (yep, I’m very biased), Korak was cancelled in 1976. Tarzan followed in 1977. What happened? Here’s Carmine:
“It didn’t do as well as we thought, for some reason. It sold beautifully in Europe, not so much here. I was a little surprised by that. I expected big numbers. Maybe it wasn’t the time”
Was it the format? The first few Tarzans were published in the new 25-cent format, with John Carter of Mars as back up (Korak had Carson of Venus as backup), a format that proved disastrous for DC. Marvel undercut DC by at first matching DC’s increase, then going down to 20-cents. It was still a price increase, but less than DC’s, and what kid is going to spend 25-cents, when he could have a comic at 20-cents and a nickel to blow on candy (yep, you could buy candy for a nickel back then). Was it that with the canceling of the Tarzan TV series, and no new movies on the horizon, Tarzans’ popularity in America was fading? Or maybe it was the general slump in comics sales all around, or a combination of all the above.
The license was up for grabs again.
In the Marvel Manner
Marvel stepped in next, but there were to be some changes in the cast at ERB Inc. The Burroughs heirs, led by Marion Burroughs, had taken over the administration of the Burroughs estate, and signed the deal to bring the Burroughs proprieties to Marvel. No one told Bob Hodes until after the deal was signed. The foreign story shop was closed down. Hodes was gone.
Roy Thomas got the job of Tarzan scripter, the art going to his Conan collaborator, John Buscema. How did Roy come to be chosen for Tarzan?
“Stan (Lee) called me up and said we’re going to do some Burroughs stuff, you’re going to do Tarzan and Marv Wolfman is going to do John Carter. Which seemed to me to be backward.”
Roy was a big Burroughs fan, and had more than a passing acquaintance with the characters. In fact, he’d had made plans for John Carter;
“…I had written a several page memo on what Marvel should do in terms of the Burroughs characters, which went way beyond John Carter and Tarzan. Marion Burroughs alluded to it.” Roy had plans for other, more obscure Burroughs characters, like Red hawk and the Moon Men,
“Sounds like a rock band, doesn’t it?”
Roy, Stan, and Marion Burroughs went to lunch in LA, where she stated how impressed she was with the memo, and Roys’ knowledge of the characters. She wouldn’t be impressed for long. With John Carter in Marvs’ hands, Roy started in on Tarzan, like Kubert, by going to the Burroughs novels. Marvel would do Tarzan “but in our own way”
Marvel started with a new numbering system, abandoning the Gold Key numbering that DC had continued. Roy and John started off with an adaptation of ‘Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar’, done in a serial format, much like the original publishing. Roy didn’t see the need to reinvent the wheel:
“I wanted to pick up were they (DC) left off…We picked up with ‘Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar’, which I believe, was the next novel after the ones DC did. That was my deliberate plan. I didn’t feel it made any sense to go back and redo those first two novels. They wouldn’t have wanted to do it; I didn’t want to do it. None of us, John Buscema, and I, wanted to compete with the memory of what Joe Kubert had done, plus it was so recent.”
Were there any plans for new stories?
“I didn’t want to do any new Tarzan stories, until I had adapted all the Burroughs books. That was what I said going into it, and that was fine, I tried to keep as much of Burroughs prose as I could. With (Robert) Howard, you could be a bit more purple which fit the comics, but Burroughs was more descriptive…I should have probably have found a way to use less captions”
The first Marvel issue appeared about six months after the last DC issue, starting with Roy and John’s ‘Jewels of Opar’ adaptation. Roys’ script stuck close to the novel (with a few changes to move things along for the comics medium) John’s art was strong, hampered maybe by some truly poor printing (maybe your copies are better?), the first couple of issues featuring his own inking.
How did John Buscema like doing Tarzan? Roy?
“I got the feeling he didn’t really care for Tarzan, not like Conan. I think he didn’t care to be compared with Foster…and the fact that Kubert had just done it. I think he preferred Conan (over Tarzan)”.
Roy’s Jewels of Opar adaptation ran for the first eleven issues, with a couple of issues out for some catch up filler. What’s up?
“There were some ‘Jungle Tales of Tarzan’ stories in there. Whenever I got behind, I’d give John one of these stories to do.”
Which is what led to Roy leaving the book. Before starting, Roy checked with Marvels lawyers about the use of the ‘Jungle Tales’ stories. No problem. Great! Roy went right ahead, adapting seven (one scripted by David Anthony Kraft, who would later take over from Roy), and using a couple to help him back on schedule.
“I had never had any real trouble with the Burroughs estate. I had heard stories. All of a sudden, I got a call at my apartment (in Los Angles) one evening. It was Marion Burroughs. Well, the last time I had talked to her she had been so happy with all the suggestions I had made (Roy and Gil Kane on Red Hawk and the Moon Men!), now she was really lacing into me because she had suddenly noticed we had come out with a ‘Jungle Tales of Tarzan’ issue. She was saying we had no right to do it, one story in particular, or one of several stories, because they were ones that had been done recently by Burne Hogarth in his Jungle Tales of Tarzan book.”
(Hogarth's book had come out in 1976.)
“So I had this weird conversation with her. I told her if she had a problem, it was with Marvel, she should call them…”
“But I’m calling you.” (It was a local call, from the headquarters in Tarzana)
“She kept at me about this…”
“Well, a lot of Johns drawings are very similar to what Burne did.” She said.
“Well, we are adapting the same story, and not to denigrate Hogarths talent, but John Buscema is no fan of Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan. He would much prefer Hal Fosters, I very much doubt if he’s bought or even seen those books”
“She ignored this like I hadn’t even said it, then started in on me about the writing…”
It seems she was able to find similarities between the stories that Hogarth adapted and Roy adapted!
“Even the wording is similar!”
After several patient minutes explaining the way an adaptation is done, and how two people adapting the same story might come up with the same basic approach, (while she kept up her ‘copying’ arguments), Roy asked Mrs. Burroughs flat out:
“Look, I hope you’re not accusing John Buscema and myself of plagiarism.”
“Well, you can hope that!”
“Well, I can do a lot more than that. And I hung up on her”
He called John Verpoorten the production manager at Marvel, and resigned from the book. He felt he already had enough to do without the problems.
“The weird part about that story, is that John Verpoorten died that weekend, I was probably one of the last people to talk with him. He’d passed away, sitting there in his chair at his house. When he didn’t show up at the office, someone went out to check up on him and found him there. I got the call that Monday.”
And that was Roys’ exit from Tarzan, the Burroughs adaptations went with him. David Anthony Kraft took over writing, with John Buscema staying on until # 18, when brother Sal took over. With Kraft plotting and Bill Mantlo scripting Tarzan went back to Pellucidar in a nine part serial, then Mantlo soloed for the last few issues, but the juice seemed to be gone. Marvels’ Tarzan ended after two years, twenty-nine issues and three annuals.
Marvels version of Tarzan didn’t sell any better than DC’s, and the foreign markets still didn’t have enough to satisfy them. Burroughs Inc approached Hodes former editor about restarting the operation that had supplied Tarzan and Korak for overseas, but he wasn’t interested.
What was the difference?
What was the difference between the two approaches? To tell you the truth, I had never read the Marvel issues, so I bought a set off eBay, dug out my DC issues, and started reading. I found the basic approach is very similar (check out Roys’ conversation with Mrs. Burroughs about two people adapting the same stories). Both Joe and Roy believed the key to Tarzan was to go back to what Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote, and stick close to that. Joe followed that as close as he could, what with the demands of his other books and the time it takes adapt a novel, doing several Burroughs books while keeping that flavor even in the new stories he wrote. His art gave the stories grace and power, just as it did his Tarzan. Marvels Tarzan (like Roy feared) is a bit text heavy, and seems cramped at times, not as clean as Kuberts. Marvel was at a disadvantage, following so close to Joes’ signature run. Roy chose the best way to deal with this, by keeping the momentum DC established, getting the best of their artists (one closely associated with a hot, non-superhero property) on art, and putting his energy into putting out a good book. John's art is very good, (his inking over his own pencils is a rare treat), but lacks the passion Joe brought to the book. I think if Marvel had picked up the license after Gold Key, rather than DC, their Tarzan would be better remembered today, and maybe I’d be saying what a shame that Joe Kubert never got the chance at Tarzan. All in all, a good effort from Marvel, but this time, DC had the advantage.
Hate mail can be sent in care of the editor.
Thanks to Carmine Infantino, Joe Kubert and Roy Thomas for taking time out of their busy schedules to rack their brains and try to remember what they did and said thirty years ago.