Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ape Man on Ice

This epic cover (painted by George Wilson) actually fibs to us a little bit. In Gold Key's Tarzan of the Apes #149 (April 1965), the Jungle Lord does find an ice cavern full of frozen ancient warriors, but he doesn't actually fight any of them.

All the same, the story we do get is pretty darn good. Written by Gaylord Du Bois and drawn by
Jesse Marsh, "The Secret of the Frozen Caverns" starts with a rather brutal bang. Two poachers in an airplane are shooting animals from the air, including an ape named Mogok, leaving his mate to grieve his death.

Tarzan stows away on top of the plane when it lands to harvest tusks off a dead elephant. When the plane is forced down by bad weather, it lands near a lost civilization--because Tarzan is incapable of travelling anywhere without stumbling across lost civilizations.

The poachers, by the way, die off-screen a little later in the story--because the main focus of the story will shift to something else. But there is an interesting scene concerning them first. After the plane lands again, Tarzan announces his plans to turn the poachers over to their government. The two men laugh at him--it turns out they are relatives of important government officials and free to whatever they want--legal or illegal.

The scene seems to be an acknowledgement of the often open corruption that has plagued real-life Africa pretty much forever. But then the two are hauled out of the main plot and there's no follow-up. It might be that Gaylord Du Bois wanted to counterpoint the corruption of the outside world with the utopia Tarzan has discovered.

Because the Xung people have discovered a life-prolonging serum using the venom of giant wasps (Their king, Kwai, walks around with one of the wasps perpetually sitting on his head.) They've also achieved mastery of many languages, send their people to the outside world for advanced education, and defend their land against invaders by using the wasps to sting enemies unconscious. They then place invaders in suspended animation in their ice caverns, letting a few out every so often to see if they can find satisfaction working among the Xung.

Since this book was published in 1965, it really is remarkable that the advanced and peaceful Xung are black Africans and not some long-lost white race. But a few of them do seem to be lacking in common sense. Kwai ordered the poachers' plane to be moved out of sight. While Kwai is showing Tarzan the ice cavern full of frozen soldiers, some of his people decide to move the plane by tossing it off a cliff. The gas tank explodes and seals up the cavern.

Kwai suggests they use wasp venom to go into suspended animation, otherwise they will soon freeze to death. But Tarzan notices a hole in the cavern roof high above. They've already thawed out an ape whom Tarzan wants to fix up with the she-ape who lost her mate at the beginning of the story. Together, the two men and the ape manage to climb up and out the hole.

The climbing sequence is the highlight of the story, as is the characterization of the ape. Though intelligent enough to have a primitive language, Burroughs' apes were a bit on the dense side. Tarzan has to wrestle the ape into submission to get him to help. Later, the ape misunderstands an order and throws a badly-needed rope off a cliff. The scene feels just right for Edgar Rice Burroughs' version of African apes.

I don't know if Tarzan ever returned to Xung in later stories. I suspect not--and a character search in the Grand Comics Database seems to confirm this. "The Secret of the Frozen Caverns" is a good story, but Xung is  little too peaceful and idyllic. This makes it a lot less interesting that lost civilizations where wars are fought or palace intrigues are carried out. Peace and tranquility are worthy goals in real life, but they don't belong in an adventure story.

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