It’s hard to believe that a story first published in 1912 and then re-published in a weekly comic strip format in 1936 would have much to offer a 21st century audience. However, the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs are proven, immortal stories and the art of Burne Hogarth is nothing short of classic workmanship. The concept of a weekly serial is nearly a forgotten art by today’s standards but is a powerfully compelling technique that modern storytellers in any medium would do well to study and learn from. Tarzan: in the City of Gold shouldn’t just be entertainment – it should be a textbook and required reading for any aspiring comic creator.
Tarzan: in the City of Gold is a collection of several story arcs that ran in weekly serials. These were full-page multi-paneled stories that included “Tarzan and the Boers, Parts I & II”, Tarzan and the Pygmies”, “Tarzan and the Amazons” and “Tarzan and the Chinese”. These are a wonderful variety of stories that Burroughs modified to fit the demands of a weekly serial or were original creations by other writers, but the real focus of this collection is the artwork of Burne Hogarth.
America in the 1930’s was a place in dire need of escapism. The Great Depression, unrest in Europe and other signs of political instability elsewhere in the world contributed to a communal desire for fantasy in mainstream entertainment. These were the days of the Buck Rogers comic strip, evening radio programs that showcased characters like The Shadow or weekly cinematic serials with Zorro or The Lone Ranger, not to mention the full length masterpieces like The Wizard of Oz or King Kong. Eager to capitalize on this demand for fantasy was Edgar Rice Burroughs who had re-tooled his Tarzan for comic strip publication and was already being drawn by Prince Valiant artist, Hal Foster.
When Foster left United Features Syndicate for work on Prince Valiant, the art responsibilities were turned over to Hogarth. Foster left a four-month backlog of stories thinking that his work would never be topped. However, Hogarth’s work not only matched Foster’s in emulation but was also trained from classical and baroque styles of art which complemented Burroughs’ epitomization of the classical hero figure. In short, Hogarth was the perfect replacement for Foster.
The simplicity of the comic strip is misleading. Though the characters are drawn to reflect their natures, this frees the reader to contemplate Burroughs’ concept of the nature of humanity. Is Mankind intrinsically good in the natural state of the jungle or does civilization change his nature in his pursuit of “civilized” concerns and conceits? Tarzan has no need for power or wealth or even sex; he simply is the lord of the jungle, heroically devoted to the protection of his animal friends and the welfare of all those who seek to live in his kingdom. This is a lofty and noble aspiration that can only truly visualized in the world of comics.
Titan Books has not only created an archive worthy of the golden age of comics, but they have also resurrected a segment of comic history that needs to be seen by today’s audience. Comics have a magical power through visualization and storytelling that allows a reader to fully appreciate literature and to escape reality for a little while. Not only was this a societal necessity in the 1930’s but it also revealed the reach and capability that comics had and allowed for further innovation in the art.
With today’s more-travelled generation, the idea of the jungle doesn’t seem as exotic and dangerous any more. Adventurers have very few places to travel and explore any more. This collection of Burroughs’ stories, illustrated by Hogarth, allow us to see the wilderness of Africa through the eyes of the people of the early 20th century who would see it as alien and unpredictable.
In Hogarth’s art, the rocks on the ground have jagged, sharp edges and the trees seem menacing and intimidating. Tarzan’s rapport with animals is a magical ability and he is able to command them to do his bidding. To readers in the industrial age, nature is frightening and animals as monstrously large and fierce like bull elephants, wild apes and man-eating lions would seem just as foreign as aliens from another planet. Yet Burroughs’ Tarzan acts as an intermediary between the two societies, preserving a balance between nature and civilization. It is a wonderful collection of stories; a hallmark of a time when comics both inspired and satisfied the imaginations of millions of people who longed to see a different world.
Step back in time and pick up this collection. Comic readers will be both delighted with reading these stories while also understanding their composition and structure. It simply is a treasure that has been buried in the jungle of the past waiting for a modern-day adventurer to discover and explore it again.