Next month will mark the 100th birthday of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan character. The famous jungle hero made his debut in “All-Story Magazine” in monthly serialization on Sep. 10, 1912, according to ERBzine.com. But it was last weekend of Aug. 26 – 27 that the Sacramento Central Library along with the Northern California Mangani, an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan organization, celebrated the character’s birthday with a conference open to the public. Burroughs (who died in 1950) was very famous for his pulp fiction, fiction that often included novels initially serialized in magazine form before they were composed into single books. This was the case with his first novel of the Tarzan series, “Tarzan of the Apes”. Burroughs was also author of the Mars series of novels which Disney’s “John Carter”, released in theaters earlier this year, was based on. But, as the Central Library and Mangani demonstrated this past weekend, Tarzan is much more than an escape fiction hero: he’s a hero of mythology.
Both Saturday and Sunday had 12 p.m. tours of the library’s Tarzan exhibit. The displays included early and rare editions of Tarzan books and magazines in which the novels were first serialized, movie promotion posters, board games, comic books, and many other rare collectibles. The collections were on the first and second floors, including a display that covered the entire north wall of the West Meeting Room where the presentations were held.
Saturday started off with a welcoming and introductions to the conference speakers and coordinators, including pop culture museum curator and Tarzan history author David Lemmo. Unfortunately, yours truly did not make it to the conference until late and so can’t give a lot of details about Lemmo’s talk on “Tarzan’s Place in Mythology”, the first of the presentations. The second was pop culture historian Richard Lupoff’s entitled “Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Worlds of Tarzan”. Lupoff spoke about his work that traces the writing career and life of Burroughs. Both presentations were supplemented by slides shows like most of the other presentations.
Next, was Sacramento native and Tarzan comic book artist Tom Yeates’s presentation, “100 Years of Tarzan Artists”. He talked about the work of comic book and novel cover artists such as Hal Foster, John Buscema, Frank Frazetta, and Boris Vallejo. Yeates’s latest work is “The Once and Future Tarzan”, found in the monthly comic book anthology “Dark Horse Presents.”
CSUS Professor of Geology, Tom Krabacher, gave his talk entitled “Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Pulps”. Krabacher began discussing Burroughs’s start in publishing a variety of genre fiction in the pulp magazines of the 1910s. He then moved on to Burroughs’s Tarzan fame beginning with the novels’ serialization. Tarzan was “’Harry Potter’ for his time,” as Yeates put it at one point. Burroughs’s influence on other writers, especially ones of Tarzan knock-offs (imitation Tarzan characters and stories) were also discussed. Some of these knock-offs included Ka-Zar and Sheena (who was more specifically a knock-off of Jane). Krabacher concluded his presentation explaining how pulp magazines led to paperbacks which he refers to as “post-pulps”.
A panel of three speakers presented “Tarzan on Film”, a discussion of the history of Tarzan’s movie adaptations including old weekly movie serials. Lemmo, in particular, talked about the actors’ experiences in the films and their sometimes deadly stunts they would have to perform as the Ape-Man. He described how one actor playing the Ape-Man on the set was nearly crushed to death by a live python which took several men to pry it from him. Talk about fiction becoming reality!
Day one of the conference concluded with a screening of a 1925 chapter of a silent movie serial, “The Wonderful Adventures of Tarzan”. The screening was presented and discussed by former Crest Theatre manager, Matias Bombal.
Sunday’s presentation line-up opened with Yeates’s Tarzan victory yell which sounded very close to those in the movie adaptations. As part of the introductory ceremony, a live voice over recited a quote from Burroughs. Then a group of Tarzan aficionados performed a folk-rockish Tarzan inspired song accompanied by guitars, tambourine as well as Lemmo’s “ape chest drum” beats. All five performers provided vocals.
The first talk was “Tarzan in the Comics”, presented by Yeates. The gem of Yeates’s presentation was how he and his fellow Tarzan comic book creators revived the Lord of the Jungle in an age of high tech dependent super heroes such as Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman. He said they utilized the idea of Tarzan being given the youth treatment that enables him to live into the future when cities are reclaimed by nature. Thus they came up with “The Once and Future Tarzan”.
Next was a presentation called “Tarzan Collectibles & Merchandising”. Tarzan memorabilia and commercial promotion items discussed were everything from gum pack trading cards and action figures to a Tarzan-labeled glue which is exemplary of how Tarzan is right up there with other American icons such as the cowboy and Indian.
After an interlude with another musical performance, a Greek style Tarzan song accompanied by a mandolin among other instruments, the conference continued with a presentation on Tarzan fandom. In this presentation, a history of 20th century Tarzan clubs, membership cards and fanzines were discussed.
Lemmo gave a “crash course” on Tarzan history entitled “100 Years of Tarzan of the Apes”. Although he spoke very fast, he did so in a nice dramatic tone discussing Tarzan as a hero of modern myth and Tarzan’s influences from heroes of ancient myth such as Hercules and King Arthur. Lemmo described Tarzan as “a bridge between the old pantheon and the pantheon of the 21st century.” But it’s doubtful that this was simply a rehash of his presentation from the day before: he also discussed the Ape-Man’s various other roles besides jungle hero, roles such as international spy, noble and even paranormal investigator! Perhaps “X-files” Agents Mulder and Scully had some influence on the Lord of the Jungle. Lemmo also said that the Tarzan franchise along with “Star Trek” in the ‘60s helped bring fandom into the modern mainstream.
After a very brief presentation on Tarzan in the pre-television/radio era, the conference ended with another film screening by Bombal. This time it was chapter two of the 1929 serial, “Tarzan the Tiger”. Unlike Saturday’s silent film, which was as silent as a film could get and so was not even accompanied by music, this episode was from a serial that was part sound. The audio effects were limited to such sounds as horse trots and animal roars but featured Tarzan’s first sounded victory call in film. Such a sound system was a state of the art thrill for audiences of that time.
After the movie, there was a question-and-answer panel which included some discussion of how Tarzan even influenced primate scientist Jane Goodall’s career (who was actually discussed off and on throughout the conference). The conference officially ended with a dramatic oral reading by Lemmo of an excerpt from “Tarzan of the Apes”.
Rather than just a hero of entertainment fiction, Tarzan has become an American myth figure that has influenced culture overall. He has impacted pop culture at the level of comic book heroes such as Superman and Spider-Man and has been referred to in intellectual discussions at a level that ancient heroes such as Hercules and Arthurian knights in shining armor have. The Tarzan exhibits will continue to be on display at the Central Library, 828 I Street, until Sep. 30. For library hours and more information on the exhibition, please visit saclibrary.org or contact the library at 916-264-2700 (or toll free at 800-561-4636).
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