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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Tarzan

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

It all started with a scream.

Everyone knew the scream. It didn’t matter if you were young or old. The fierce jungle cry of Tarzan was a shared reference in our common pop culture, as was the familiar exchange of “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Some knew the story with a greater measure of depth than that. But everyone knew the scream.

And, with that said, I confess I don’t know exactly where and how I first encountered this iconic Lord of the jungle. Well, except that I’m reasonably certain that my introduction to Tarzan came via my TV screen.

I was six years old when the weekly Tarzan series debuted on NBC in September of 1966. Contrary to the collective popular conception of Tarzan as a savage warrior with limited command of the English language, actor Ron Ely played the title hero as articulate and educated. He still had the scream, of course, but he spoke in complete sentences. Years later, I would discover that this well-spoken character was the (if you will) real Tarzan, the Tarzan featured in the original novels written by the character’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs. That “Me Tarzan” jazz mentioned above? That was just Hollywood messin’ with the concept. Eff the man, man.
But, as much as I want to say that Ron Ely and his two televised seasons of protecting the jungle served as my gateway into all things Tarzan…the math isn’t there. I was six years old, already a veteran viewer of TV heroes from Flash Gordon and Superman to The Cisco Kid and Batman. By the age of six, I knew about (or at least thought I knew about) Tarzan. Everyone knew Tarzan. The guy with the scream. Tarzan of the Apes.
It’s quite plausible that my early knowledge of Tarzan formed via pop culture osmosis. I may or may not have seen a Tarzan movie, but the character was such an integral part of Americana that, well, he was just there. Always. A specific introduction wasn’t strictly necessary. No one introduces you to running, or clouds, or snowfall, or the idea that girls can be cute. It’s a fait accompli. It is because it is, was, and ever shall be. Chicken. Egg. Tarzan. 
Anyway, knowing Tarzan wasn’t quite the same as being interested in Tarzan. Let’s presume I caught an episode of the TV show in there somewhere. Let’s further presume I’d had a glimpse of one or more of the older Tarzan movies in TV reruns. Neither of these presumptions is Gospel, but sometimes ya gotta grab that vine and take a swing of faith. I might have thumbed through one of Gold Key‘s Tarzan comic books at the doctor’s office. But even if I did see something of the new or old adventures of Tarzan, they didn’t inspire me to become a fan. Not yet.
The first Tarzan product I ever owned was a Big Little Book. I went through a Big Little Book phase in fourth grade, 1969-1970, and I snapped up as many of those little treasures as I could. The Big Little Books were licensed properties, tiny hardcover volumes featuring a page of text accompanied by a facing page of illustration. I accumulated BLBs starring Batman, The Fantastic FourTom and JerrySpace GhostAquamanDick TracyThe Lone RangerDonald DuckBugs BunnyFlipperThe FlintstonesMickey MouseFrankenstein Jr.…man, any of ’em I could get my hands on. I even grabbed some BLBs based on TV shows I didn’t really watch, like BonanzaThe Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Invaders. And my haul included the lone ’60s Tarzan BLB, The Mark Of The Red Hyena.

I remember the cover. I know I owned it, and I know I read it. I have no other recollection of The Mark Of The Red Hyena.
But my interest in Tarzan was about to manifest. In 1972, the Burroughs estate terminated Gold Key’s license to publish Tarzan comics, and DC Comics eagerly picked up that license. At DC, writer-artist Joe Kubert began adapting the original novels, and the result was stunning and irresistible. It would be a little bit of an exaggeration to say I was hooked, but I was intrigued, and I read the book as often I could fit it within my comics-buyin’ budget.

Kubert’s work was my real gateway into Tarzan’s world. From there, I started watching the old movies on TV, both the ’30s and ’40s films starring Johnny Weissmuller as the less-loquacious hero and the ’50s and early ’60s action flicks starring Gordon Scott or Mike Henry. I soaked up reruns of the Ron Ely TV series when I could find it. I started reading some of the novels, and DC even published a 100-Page Super Spectacular reprinting a Tarzan newspaper strip storyline, with gorgeous art by Russ Manning.

I became dismissive of the Weissmuller movies, smugly insisting that the monosyllabic brute depicted in those pictures was a distortion of the character. Yet I enjoyed those anyway, especially Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Ron Ely was my favorite Tarzan, but I came to respect the Weissmuller films, too.

In this 21st century, Tarzan isn’t quite the ubiquitous figure in pop culture that he was in the ’60s and ’70s, when I was a mere lad and beardless youth. I’ve never seen the Disney animated take, and I’m sure the House Of Mouse’s Tarzan provides the key contemporary reference point for today’s kids, if they know Tarzan at all. When my daughter was in college, one of her fiction courses required her to read the first Tarzan novel, ERB’s Tarzan Of The Apes from 1912. That was, at least, a text book she didn’t have to buy, as I lent her my copy instead. She hated the book, of course, appalled by its casual, implicit racism and its imperialist POV. I’ll have to ask her if the Disney version is more to her liking.

And maybe I should check out Disney’s Tarzan, too. Does he still have the scream? Gotta have the scream, I say. Gotta have the scream.

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