The Forgotten Comic Book Legend of 'Tarzan'

Tarzan Comic Cover-DC Entertainment-P 2016
Courtesy of Tarzan Comic Cover, image credit Joe Kubert/DC Entertainment
Edgar Rice Burroughs' jungle hero has been leaping around comics since 1929, with releases from DC, Marvel and more.

Tarzan might not be a character many associate with comics, but he's been a constant presence in the medium since 1929. With series issued by Marvel, DC and many other publishers and a long-running newspaper strip that featured work from some of the medium's greatest artists, the question might be asked: Why don't more people know about the Lord of the Jungle's comic career?

The character got his start in the medium with a newspaper strip created for the United Features Syndicate in 1929 that originally adapted Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 Tarzan of the Apes novel with art by Hal Foster, who would later go on to create Prince Valiant.

Subsequent stories would mix adaptations of novels and all-new material, with artists on the strip including Nick Cardy (known for his work on DC's Aquaman and Teen Titans), Burne Hogarth and comic book great Russ Manning. The strip would run until 1972 before switching to reprints on the daily material, with the Sunday strip running all-new stories until 2000 before it, too, became an all-reprint feature.

By the time Manning signed onto the newspaper strip in 1967, he already had some Tarzan experience under his belt; by that point, he'd been drawing the hero's comic book for some years. The initial Tarzan comic books were simply collections of the newspaper strip, although he graduated to all-new adventures with 1947's Four Color Comics No. 134, published by Dell Comics — an appearance so successful that it led to a return engagement in the 161st issue of the series ("Tarzan and the FIRES of TOHR!" the cover exclaimed, with artist Jesse Marsh showing a laughing Tarzan, knife in hand, as multi-colored flames burned behind him), and then to his own series, which launched in 1948.

Featuring artwork from Marsh, Doug Wildey and Russ Manning, the Tarzan series ran through 1972 — switching publishers from Dell to corporate sibling Gold Key with 1962's No. 132 — and was successful enough to spin off a Korak: Son of Tarzan title. That wasn't enough for the Burroughs estate, which wanted more product and ended up moving the rights to DC Comics to ensure that happened.

DC's Tarzan comic maintained the numbering of the earlier run, but gave the character a visual makeover thanks to Joe Kubert, whose lush linework and dynamic staging brought an energy to Tarzan that previous comics versions had missed. (Kubert's Tarzan material remains many fans' high watermark for the character in comics; a high-quality reprint was published by IDW in recent years.) DC also continued the Korak series, retitling it Tarzan Family, and launched a Weird Worlds anthology title based on other Burroughs characters, but sales weren't high enough to support the arrangement. After just five years, ERB, Inc. and DC parted ways, and Tarzan moved to DC's biggest competitors, Marvel Comics.

Marvel put two of its top creators — Roy Thomas and John Buscema, late of both Fantastic Four and the wildly successful Conan the Barbarian comic — on the relaunched Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle series, which ran from 1977 through 1979, but it was a doomed relationship, with both Marvel and ERB, Inc., pulling in different directions from the start; everything from story length to visual aesthetic was up for debate, and after just 29 issues, the series was cancelled and Tarzan left comic books for the first time in three decades.

He would return, of course. After a couple of false starts — Marvel tried to resurrect the character in the mid-1980s, and Malibu, an independent later purchased by Marvel, would do the same in 1992 — Dark Horse Comics took on the character in 1995 with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan the Lost Adventure, a series that tried to recreate the pulp feel of Burroughs' original stories (horror writer Joe R. Lansdale even completed an unfinished Burroughs story for the series). The success of that four-issue series launched a number of subsequent projects, including team-ups with DC's Superman and Batman, and a series which pit the lord of the jungle against 20th Century Fox's Predator.

While ERB has officially licensed Tarzan to Dark Horse, a second independent publisher, Dynamite Entertainment, launched its own Tarzan comic in 2011 thanks to the fact that the original novel was, by that point, in the public domain. A lawsuit followed, ending in 2014 with a new partnership between Dynamite and ERB. Currently, Dynamite is in the midst of a relaunch of the property that teams Tarzan with fellow jungle hero Sheena in a new series called Lords of the Jungle.

With such a lengthy history — almost 70 years in comic books, with an additional 18 in newspaper strips — Tarzan turns out to be one of the longest-serving comic heroes around, even if it's not a medium often associated with the character.