Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Tarzan, Dinosaurs and Pirates--Oh, My! (Part 1)

The comic book rights for Tarzan have jumped all over the place across the decades and for a time during the late 1970s, they belonged to Marvel Comics. This resulted in a 29-issue run for the Ape Man in which John Buscema drew the first 19 issues and his brother Sal drew the remaining 10. John continued providing superb cover art throughout the book's run.

For reasons I do not now remember (but were probably at least in part financial despite the low cost of comic books at the time), I did not read this book during its original run. I regret that now, because I recently scored an 9-issue story arc from my local comic shop that is nothing less than epic.

It begins with Tarzan Lord of the Jungle #15 (August 1978).  It involves slave traders, an H.P. Lovecraft character who emigrates into Marvel continuity, a trip to Pellucidar, dinosaurs, pirates, and a kidnapped princess who is capable enough to rise above being a mere Damsel in Distress.

Tarzan learns that there is trouble afoot in the jungle. Brutal slavers are raiding villages, taking the strong with them to work in a mine and killing everyone else. Their prisoners include Ayesha, a princess who vows vengeance when the slavers murder her father.

The slavers are led by Abdul Alhazarared, the Mad Arab, the guy who is referenced in many Lovecraft stories as the author of the Necronomicon. (I love that Lovecraft is not explicitly referenced--the character is essentially an Easter Egg for those who recognize the name.) In the original Lovecraft stories, he was implied to have driven mad from researching and writing about the various horrors that exist in the universe. Here, we learn that he's much more than that. He is definitely nuts, but it's a dangerous kind of nuts. Because the Mad Arab isn't digging in the mine for gold or gems, but searching for something more sinister. That the mine is filled with poison gas which eventually kills
his slaves is a matter of indifference to him.

Tarzan begins tracking the slavers, killing several of them in an ambush. He's also met a band of four white who are planning on finding Abdul's mine and (assuming its treasure is the usual sort) loot it. But Tarzan doesn't immediately learn that these four are up to no good themselves. By the time he tumbles to this, he finds himself involved in a hang-glider dog fight with one of them.

In the meantime, Abdul has found what he was looking for--a magic portal that leads to Pellucidar. The various action sequences have divided up the various factions in odd ways by this time. Three of the four white villains have a tenuous alliance with Abdul and go through the portal with him. Ayesha is also sent through the portal, but is separated from the others. The last white villain, Frazier, goes through on his own, as does Tarzan.

The writer is David Kraft and he does an excellent job in terms of story construction. Taking advantage of the fact that the story will cover eight issues, he takes the time to introduce us to all the various characters and give us snapshots of their personalities and motivations. He does this skillfully, mixing the characterizations with continuous action. The whole thing is very reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs' best novels, which often involved simultaneous action involving several characters, which allowed him to jump from one character to another at cliffhanger moments.

By the third issue (#17--October 1978), everyone is in Pellucidar. Ayesha is rescued from a pack of hyaenodons by a Pellucidarian warrior. But while escaping Abdul's gang aboard a tame pterodactyl, the warrior takes a bullet. Tarzan has a run-in with cannibals who ride large flightless birds, then falls in with pirates led by their experienced chief, the Cid. He teams up with them and cements a friendship with the Cid by saving him from a sea monster, though several of the crew now plot to dispose of the ape man. Abdul and his gang meet the cannibals, but it turns out they are expecting the Mad Arab (in fact, he speaks their language.)

All this takes us through issue #18, the half-way point of the story. It's wonderful stuff--I've already mentioned the strong script. This is all packed up by John Buscema's great art. He brings the same sense of raw power to Tarzan that he was also giving to Conan during the 1970s. The visual storytelling supports and enhances the script and the fights scenes are all expertly choreographed and simply look awesome. These scenes include the hang-glider chase/fight, Tarzan's ambush of slavers, his fight with the cannibals, the Pellucidarian's fight with the hyaenodons, and the ape man's fight with the sea monster. Also, the Mad Arab's character design is fantastic, endowing the villain with a sense of both pure evil and raw power.

Rather than rush through the rest of the story arc, I'll cover the rest of it next week.

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