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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

tarzan sunday comic strip

My father’s parents never learned much English. Their newspaper included only one comic strip, Tarzan, translated into Slovak. Mutineers didn’t maroon them on the jungle shores of rural Pennsylvania, but like Tarzan’s parents, they settled in a strange land oceans from their ancestral homeland. Tarzan swung into newspapers on January 7, 1929, same day as Buck Rogers, and so another Minute Zero in superhero history. The strip expanded to a Sunday full-page in 1931, the year my father was born. Jerry Siegel was soon parodying it in his school newspaper with “Goober the Mighty,” the oldest and least promising of Superman’s siblings.

My grandparents were still new to the U.S. when All-Story Magazine published Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. It was an instant, imitation-spawning hit. Charles Stilson’s 1915 Polaris of the Snows swapped Africa and apes for Antarctica and polar bears, but it’s the same formula (especially since there are no polar bears in Antarctica and no “anthropoid apes” anywhere). Stilson wrote two more Polaris novels (and his own ending to Tarzan of the Apes since Burroughs’ marriage plot cliff-hanger annoyed him so much), but as the King of the Jungle expanded his reign to stage and film and radio, imitators stopped disguising their loin-clothed knock-offs: Bomba the Jungle Boy (1926), Morgo the Mighty (1930), Jan of the Jungle (1931), Bantan (1936), Ka-Zar (1936), Ki-Gor (1939).

polaris of the snows

Of course Tarzan was a knock-off too. He’s a lost worlder, the genre H. Rider Haggard kicked off in 1885 with King Solomon’s Mines and into which Doc Savage and Superman boldly followed. Burroughs also swapped out Rudyard Kipling’s India and wolves; his jungle isn’t that different from Mowgli’s. W. H. Hudson preferred Venezuela for his 1904 jungle girl Rimi in Green Mansions. DC adopted Rimi decades later, when the softcore jungles were already well-endowed with leopard-furred felines. Eisner and Iger’s Sheena beat Superman to comic books by a year, with literally dozens swinging behind her. Stan Lee tried Lorna the Jungle Queen in the 50s and in the 70s Shanna the She-Devil. She later married Ka-Zar, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman’s first pulp jungle man who re-premiered in Marvel Comics No. 1 beside Namor and the Human Torch. Stan Lee transplanted him to Polaris’ Antarctic lost world, swapping out ancient Romans for ancient dinosaurs.

ka-zar and x-men

My father and his friends debated who would win in a fight: Tarzan or Buck? Tarzan or the Phantom? Tarzan or Batman? If you don’t think a loin cloth counts as a superhero costume, remember the original Jungle King is also secretly the English aristocrat Lord Greystoke. If that’s not enough of an alter ego, reread chapter 27, “The Height of Civilization,” in which the former savage transforms into Monsieur Tarzan, a French-speaking socialite who on a gentleman wager can strip off his tux, wander naked into the wilds, and return two pages later with a lion across his shoulders.

Burroughs calls him a literal “superman,” the first time the eugenic term immigrated into pulps, evidence of its own genre expansion. Corn flake tycoon John Kellog founded the Race Betterment Foundation in 1906, and Indiana, with a boost from future president Woodrow Wislon, passed the nation’s first sterilization law a year later. In 1911, the American Breeder’s Association added immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, and gas chamber “euthanasia” in the fight to stop unfit breeding, while the First International Eugenics Congress met at the University of London the following year to discuss the same agenda.

Burroughs did not attend, but he was a fan. One biographer describes him as “obsessed with his own genealogy” and “extremely proud of his nearly pure Anglo-Saxon lineage,” believing in the “extermination of all ‘moral imbeciles’ and their relatives.” The October issue of All-Story hit stands a few weeks after the Eugenics Congress convened. I doubt Winston Churchill ever touched an American pulp mag, but he and his fellow attendees agreed with Burroughs’ bewildering ideas about genetics. I always photocopy chapter 20, “Heredity,” for my class. Despite being reared by apes, the young Lord Greystoke knows how to bow in a courtly manner, “the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.”

DNA wouldn’t be discovered for decades, so Eugenicists thought they could weed out everything from crime to promiscuity by stopping unfit parents from giving birth to unfit babies. One of those babies was my dad. His honky parents hailed from the degenerate regions of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, what anti-immigration advocates called “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” men with “none of the inherited instincts and tendencies which made it comparatively easy to deal with the immigration of the olden time.” That’s why Congress capped the immigration quota for Eastern Europeans at 2% of their 1890 U.S. population.  But my grandparents had already weaseled in.

Adolf Hitler was a private in the Austrian-Hungarian Army at the same time and in the same city as my grandfather, but rather than accept a second conscription, Stefan Gavaler bound over the Tatra Mountains to land in Carrolltown, PA. He died in the kind of mining accident Superman tries to prevent in Action Comics No. 3 (“Months ago, we know mine is unsafe—but when we tell boss’s foremen they say, ‘No like job, Stanislaw? Quit!’”). One of Stefan’s sons went on to marry the daughter of a corporate vice-president of good German stock and produce just the sort of Aryan-diluting mongrel Burroughs most feared: me.

Tarzan, however, marries well. After learning he’s not a half-ape but an undissipated carrier of high English blood, he forgoes both his kingdoms to pursue the eugenically fit daughter of an American professor to the woods of Wisconsin.  It takes a second book for Jane to marry him, and a third to produce a son. Burroughs wrote a sequel almost every year until 1939. Tarzan (the name means “white skin” in anthropoid ape language) could wrestle a gorilla into submission, but Adolf Hitler was too much for him. After Nazi Germany, Eugenics retreated into a lost world in the cultural jungle. Burroughs only published one more Tarzan novel before his death in 1950.

I think Disney was the first to send Tarzan to Czechoslovakia. A Slovak-dubbed version of the song “Son of Man” is on youtube. I can’t understand a word of it, but I’m happy it exists.


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