Thursday, December 8, 2011

Romans, Egyptians and the Parameters of a Fictional Universe

Last week, we discussed whether all the Universal Studios Invisible Man films took place within the same continuity, coming to the conclusion that The Invisible Man’s Revenge was too different and existed in its own parallel universe.

For the most part, deciding which stories go together into the same universe is pretty easy. The original work or works by the same author or studio make up the Prime Universe for any one series or character. Individual parts of that series can be ignored when necessary. In the case of The Invisible Man’s Revenge, it was too many internal differences in continuity that obligates us to exile it to a parallel universe.

Sometimes, entries in a series get left out of a fictional universe because they stink. Alien 3, for instance, simply doesn’t exist. It never happened, with Ripley’s story coming to a relatively happy ending at the end of Aliens. Star Trek 5 never happened. Highlander 2 certainly never happened.

But can this go in the other direction? Can we add something from outside the original author's work to a Prime Universe?  Let’s take a look the universe of Edgar Rice Burroughs to examine one reason for doing so.

The ERB solar system includes a Mars, Venus and Jupiter that are all habitable. It includes a small but interesting lost continent near Antarctica. It includes a hollow earth and what is essentially another world at the earth’s core. It includes a surprising number of small but viable civilizations scattered around the African jungle. And there’s no question that ERB’s various series exist in the same universe. Tarzan visits Pellucidar and the character of Jason Gridley links Mars with both Tarzan and Pellucidar. Tossing in the Venus and Caspak series into the same mix is a relatively safe thing to do.

Let’s take a look at the novel Tarzan and the Lost Empire (first serialized in Blue Book Magazine in 1928 and 1929), which tells us about one of the many lost civilizations in this universe.  Tarzan is trying to find a missing German explorer named Erich Von Harben. Both men individually stumble into a large valley that contains a remnant of the Roman Empire.

There are two cities, each with its own Caesar. Tarzan ends up a prisoner in one city; while Erich is captured by soldiers from the other city. Erich falls in love with a patrician’s daughter: since the Jungle Lord was spoken for, falling in love was the usual responsibility for co-heroes in any given Tarzan novel.

Tarzan gets tossed into the local Coliseum to fight as a gladiator. But he’s… well, he’s Tarzan, so he proves to be pretty good at this, winning fight after fight until he’s able to engineer a mass escape. He and his fellow escapees (along with a half-dozen apes who were also being caged in the Coliseum) attack the palace and try to foment a rebellion against the current unpopular Caesar. They come close, but the group soon ends up besieged in a small room, surrounded and apparently without hope as a ballista pounds a hole in the room’s outer wall. .

But Tarzan is never without hope. If one plan fails, he’ll improvise another. And it just might turn out that Tarzan’s little monkey friend Nkima (making his debut appearance in the Tarzan series) will play a key role in saving just about everyone’s butt.

Anyway, the novel ends with not one, but two evil Caesars overthrown, allowing Tarzan to finally join up with Erich Von Harben. It’s a solid and fun adventure, with Tarzan’s battles in the arena being the highlight of the tale. As usual, Burroughs shamelessly uses coincidence to move the story along, but his prose is entertaining and his sense of pacing so perfect that he gets away with it.

So we have a nifty adventure written by ERB, with there being no question it belongs in the Prime ERB Universe.

{Here’s an interesting aside: During World War I, Germans in ERB’s novel were all bloodthirsty brutes. This is especially noticeable in stories such as Tarzan the Untamed and The Land That Time Forgot. During the 1920s, several ERB novels—such as Lost Empire and the Pellucidar novel Back to the Stone Age—featured heroic Germans. I always wondered if ERB wasn’t making a tacit apology for his wartime propaganda.}

Usually, anything outside ERB’s original prose—movies, comics, Little Big Books, etc-- would exist in one or more parallel universes. They might be good stories and perfectly entertaining in of themselves, but they are not a part of the “real” Tarzan’s biography.

But can we ever make an exception to this rule? From 1931 until 1937, Hal Foster did a brilliant Sunday newspaper strip recounting new adventures of Tarzan.

And it was a brilliant strip. Foster’s art was a little more raw than it was when he moved on to Prince Valiant, but this fit the subject matter perfectly. His pacing, his page and panel designs and his plotting all meshed very nicely with the original Tarzan novels.

For instance, in a year-long sequence from 1932 and 1933, Tarzan again meets up with Erich Von Harben. They enter a swamp inhabited by hungry dinosaurs, then find their way into a nearly inaccessible land containing yet another remnant of an ancient empire. This time it’s the Egyptians.

It’d take far too long to recount Tarzan’s adventures among the Egyptians in any detail: There’s political intrigue, trouble with a high priest, a few damsels in distress, a treasure hunt, several full-scale battles, and single combats involving both men and beasts. Eventually, Tarzan manages to find his way out of the land. Interestingly, he leaves Von Harben behind. The German had fallen in love again and the last time we saw him, he and his girl were staying with a shepherd, hiding out from a jealous queen. I always wondered if Foster either forgot about Von Harben or simply couldn’t fit him comfortably back into the narrative and just thought “Oh, the heck with it.”

Also, I wonder what happened to Von Harben’s Roman girlfriend. I suppose it didn’t work out between them. Or maybe she died of diphtheria or something. I guess we’ll never know.

Anyway, I am slowly making my way to an actual point. Despite a little carelessness in wrapping up Von Harben’s fate, the entire Egyptian sequence is wonderful storytelling that could easily be considered a part of Tarzan’s official adventures. Both its quality and its faithfulness to the original character seem to qualify it for inclusion in the official ERB Canon.

It’s tempting to do so—oh so tempting to place Foster’s Tarzan work into the original ERB Canon.

But, well, I just can’t force myself to do it. It's too great a break from tradition and we'd be just asking for trouble. It is, in fact,  the sort of decision that--if made incorrectly--can cause nations to tumble; financial markets to collapse; wars to break out; and Inquisitions to begin. In the end, I simply can’t ignore the awesome responsibility of maintaining the integrity of make-believe realities. So Foster—one of the best storytellers from the Golden Age of the American comic strip—must be regulated to a parallel universe as far as his Tarzan stories go. 

But it’s a really, really fun parallel universe.

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