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Book Review: Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Sunday, December 2, 2012

I’ve never been much of an admirer of Tarzan, the savage apeman creation of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. While I can’t say that I didn’t like the character, I was always more into science fiction and thus my interest lay with Burroughs’ other, lesser known creation, John Carter of Mars. That’s not to say that I didn’t hate Tarzan, it’s just that he (and his adventures) seemed one-dimensional and pretty tame. After all, what’s there to do in deepest darkest Africa except fight wild animals?

Thanks to the efforts of writer Scott Tracy Griffin, my knowledge of Tarzan and his world has expanded greatly. Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration is Griffin’s new hardcover tome, a 320-page coffee table book that lays out the history of the character, from the original stories written by Burroughs nearly a century ago to Tarzan’s transfer to movie hero and later a television one.

The greatest appeal of Griffin’s book is that it seeks to chronicle a century of Tarzan adventures. Griffin begins by setting the cultural tableau which led to Burroughs sitting down and coming up with Tarzan, namely the pulp book publishing industry in the early teens of the 20th century. For the first half of the book, the writer provides a summary of a Tarzan novel beginning with Burroughs’ first, Tarzan of the Apes, and going through the next 30 years to the final book that’s considered official canon in the Tarzan mythos, Tarzan and the Castaways. After each book summary Griffin presents a mini-essay examining a facet found in the preceding book, such as focusing on a supporting character or setting or how the culture of the time received these stories.

Upon reading the Tarzan book summaries, they are pretty much a textbook example of the high adventure found in the days of the pulps. Grand ideas are easily explored and presented by Burroughs, such as Tarzan’s trip to the land of Pelludicar (which resides in the center of the Earth), lost cities of gold, the members of a dangerous jaguar tribe or even the miniature denizens of the ant-men tribe. Even with the grand scale of danger and thrills, the romance between Tarzan and Jane, the civilized woman he loves, carry through.

Punctuated in each book summary are bulletpoints that illustrate the high speed writing process Burroughs was able to perform, sometimes turning around a new Tarzan book in less than three months.

After the first half of these book summary chapters Griffin turns his attention to examining the other media forms of Tarzan. These include the popular cartoon newspaper strips; the radio adaptations; the films from the silent movie era and then the later 40s and 50s; the TV show that starred Ron Ely (and who contributes the book’s forward); and the more contemporary Tarzan films including the recent Disney animated one as well as Greystoke, the one that introduced Christopher Lambert to a worldwide audience. After that, there’s some time spent examining the industry that spring up from Tarzan, such as the actual Burroughs land of Tarzana, California, as well as collectibles.

All this information makes the book fun to read, even if it runs the risk of putting one into Tarzan overload. It’s a good thing that Griffin’s writing style complements the Wikipedia-like tour of Tarzan throughout the ages.

The part where Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration kicks up a notch is with all of its amazing Tarzan artwork. Griffin includes original jacket book covers as well as the ones I know from Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo and Neal Adams. To my mind, it’s Adams who I instantly associate with the mental image that I have of Tarzan. The Centennial Celebration is stuffed with such artwork, especially tons of material from Neal Adams, making it also a great book to just thumb through and digest visually. (As an added bonus, it's Adams' 1975 cover art from The Return of Tarzan that the publisher chose for The Centennial Celebration's cover art. Niiiice!)

Titan Books and the author give a lot of love here to Tarzan, and it easily lives up to its title of being a masterful centennial celebration of the character. Both pretty to look at as well as informative, it’s a book that deserves to be included in the library of Tarzan fans.

Review Score: 80 / 100

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