Ripening on the Vine

Tarzan: The Joe Kubert Years Vols. 1-2

(this review was first published in The Comics Journal #282, April 2007; as always, I've toyed with the formatting to match the rest of this site)

I couldn’t quite isolate the moment where Dark Horse became the publisher with a bit of everything, but that’s surely the way I see them now. One can hardly think of a relatively popular aboveground zone of comics interest that Dark Horse doesn’t have a toe dipped into, be it pamphlet-format action/adventure/fantasy, licensed comics, manga, original graphic novels, all-ages efforts - hardly a corner left unexplored. Most pertinently, there’s the classic reprints, of which there are also several different forms. As of this writing, there are already 14 volumes of $9.95 Little Lulu reprints out there, waiting to be snapped up in fat, compact softcover form.

And then, there’s reprint projects like this (or Magnus, Robot Fighter or Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom), which essentially mimic the format of DC’s Archive Edition hardcovers: 200+ page compilations of comics on slick paper for $49.95. It’s a popular format; the sheer number of these types of books that DC’s put out suggests that the form is quite financially viable, and it’s become almost a default style of reprinting for certain older superhero or action comics. I can’t say I’ve partaken much in these types of books myself - as the old saying goes, the only comic that’s too expensive is the one that’s not good enough, but I’m never quite ready to roll the dice on whether or not a reprint project will prove ‘good enough’ at such a price point. Hey, my wallet’s an awful coward.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Dark Horse’s Tarzan: The Joe Kubert Years is a perfectly nice packaging of some perfectly sleek, entertaining cuts of ’70s adventure comics, albeit one that’s probably doomed to cut off the material from potentially delighting an audience outside of Joe Kubert’s and/or Tarzan’s devoted fans. And believe me, there’s still some immediate appeal tucked away in this work; Kubert took over Tarzan of the Apes with issue #207 in 1972, after the series arrived at DC from Gold Key, and there’s a palpable sense of enthusiasm behind the acquisition. Kubert wrote, drew and lettered most of the 18 issues collected in these volumes (a third and final volume has since been released), and there’s an unmistakable delight beaming from nearly every page, as if Kubert had found a setting and character perfectly suited to the sinewy texture of his art.

Each of these books presents a multi-part adaptation of one of creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’ early Tarzan novels, and maybe the most prominent strength of these stories in present in those longer examples, as Kubert proves to be surprisingly canny to the many traps that lie in wait of comics adaptations of prose works. While no less reliant on extraneous wordiness than other comics of its day and publisher, Kubert’s Tarzan adaptations never become bogged down in the minutiae of scene or speech, and smartly balance the necessities of exposition with copious, agile sequences of activity. Indeed, Kubert grasps the moment-by-moment appeal of good pulp fiction, the kind of stuff happy to plant itself in the reader’s brain as they speed through their entertainment with as few hurdles in the way as possible. Crucially, the work never once slows down, packing each chapter with enough stuff that a reader of today’s airier, allegedly bookshelf-paced comics might glean a sense of supercompression, of skilled packing. That’s pleasing, and informative.

The best of Kubert’s single-issue stories capture the same feeling, tearing through their 20 or 18-page allotments like more a furious recounting of events than a casually-told tale, and all the better for it; a Burne Hogarth collaboration in Volume 1 is particularly pleasing in this way, as Tarzan accidentally stumbles into a land of giants (there’s quite a lot of mysteriously undiscovered cities and wonders in Tarzan’s immediate area, it seems), meets up with an enlightened tribe, faces off with a giant ape, a giant lion, and an evil, tiny hunter, learns the secret for growing large, witnesses a brief allegory for power’s corruption, fights several wild human giants, tussles with an even more gargantuan ape on the wing of an aircraft piloted by a pretty girl - I find it difficult not to get caught up in the cockeyed escapist momentum of it all, since characters almost never stand still, constantly leaping and twisting or evidently preparing to do so.

It’s good, energetic work, as prone to sudden waves of violence as the animals that populate the title character’s world, constantly lunging into irrational fighting from pure instinctual kick. If you’re going to do Tarzan, it might as well feel like that. But I can’t help but thinking that this presentational format is a bit heavy for the work inside. The image presentation is decent enough, in that there doesn’t seem to be any significant loss in clarity of line. Be on notice that there’s digitally restored colors at work, from Sno Cone Studios, based on Tatjana Wood’s original hues, though there‘s mercifully little overt computer augmentation of the image (I think I caught a little digital texture in a passing cloud and a lick of flame in Volume 2). As such, the image sometimes seems antiseptically clean in the way that modern simulations of period colors tend to be; my personal preferences probably run more toward yellowed pages, especially for works this unabashedly pulpy, but I trust the archival aim of this particular brand of reprint values cleanliness as godliness.

But does it really represent the flavor of the work? Call be ignorant of the demands of the comics business, and blind to marketing strategy and the value of branding, but a stack of fifty-dollar hardcovers just can’t seem to accurately convey the immediacy of the comics they contain. There’s a genuine amusement to these stories, and a velocity of exuberance that’s hard to deny, but pulp of this sort seems primed most for pulp, not the spotless, costly plane of the archival page. Like me, I suspect that many curious or half-curious sorts wouldn’t have the wherewithal to take a chance on books like these, unless they absolutely knew they loved Joe Kubert or whatnot, and that’s too bad, since these comics really do hold disarming pleasures primed to catch the passing fancy of the contemporary, casual reader. I’ve said it before in this publication, but we live today among a multiplicity of fine reprints of fine comics from many fine years, and more and more they position themselves as accessible and inviting to random onlooker. I’m not saying these books aren’t inviting, but their accessibility is muted a bit by their very fan-targeted, costly nature. That doesn’t undo the work itself, but it’s a little too bad.