Review: 'Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years Volume Ten'

Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years Volume Ten (Dark Horse Archives, $49.99)

 

While I've been busy puzzling on this site over the last nine volumes why artist Jesse Marsh is so widely admired -- I find his work adequate, but not much more -- I've mostly forgotten to comment on the stories. And I should, because writer Gaylord DuBois -- noted more for story production than creativity -- did a sterling job of slowly growing Tarzan's world into a sprawling, character- and story-rich environment.

 

For example, the first story in this volume guest stars -- if that's the proper word -- Dr. MacWhirtle, an eccentric scientist who has grown on me for the various functions he serves in a story. For one thing, he gives Tarzan someone to talk to, so the Jungle Lord can explain to us all sorts of jungle lore. For another, MacWhirtle provides modern conveniences like helicopters that help the story move from place to place without long, draggy marches through the jungle/desert/mountains. For a third, he is a scientist, and a good one, so sometimes he, too, can save the day. For a fourth, he's a story springboard, as he enlists Tarzan in search of this egg or that plant, or gets captured by this lost tribe or that one. And for a fifth, he is quite clearly comedy relief, playing the clumsy, tunnel-visioned, absent-minded professor. At first "Dr. Mac" made me groan over the cliche that he is, but now I see why this particular type of character became a cliche -- he is both useful (to the writer) and entertaining (to the reader).

 

This book also features a number of adventures in Pal-Ul-Don, where dinosaurs, giant animals and various lost races dwell. DuBois returns Tarzan to Pal-Ul-Don frequently, and why not? It's got bizarre dangers and gigantic monsters, plus a number of FOTs (Friends of Tarzan) who are invariably the leaders of their lost civilizations. These includes some ancient Romans and a few others of the like. 

 

Outside of Pal-Ul-Don, there are a number of other FOTs that feature prominently in DuBois stories, including the faithful Waziri -- yes, Tarzan has a whole tribe at his beck and call -- and Buto, a gigantic tribal chief who is fiercely loyal to Tarzan, the only man who has beaten him in single combat. Tarzan has lots of animal friends, too, including Jad-Bal-Ja, the giant golden lion; Argus, his gigantic eagle steed; Tantor, apparently the name of every elephant in the jungle; various apes (both useful in combat and amusing in conversation); and the occasional gryf (triceratops). Most of these appear in Volume Ten, as they do in other volumes.

 

Somewhere along the line Boy has joined the cast -- DuBois apparently felt no need to introduce him to readers who had probably seen the many Tarzan movies -- and he is as useful as Dr. Mac at getting into trouble. But he is much better at getting himself out of trouble, and many of his stories don't feature Tarzan at all. Boy's adventures are genuinely dangerous, but DuBois allows him to display courage, resourcefulness and quick thinking that makes his narrow escapes feel plausible.

 

Boy, too, is drawing to himself a supporting cast. His buddy Jombie gives him someone to talk to (and outshine), as does his best ape friend, Korak. (As all Tarzan fans know, "Korak" means "killer" in ape lingo, and Boy himself adopts that name somewhere down the line in the comics, at least by the time DC gets the franchise. But I doubt that happens in the Dell books, which are trying to appeal to the movie fans, where Korak is always called "Boy," rather than the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories (and later comics), where I believe he is called Korak from the get-go. Since Boy is probably Boy through the end of the Dell series, I guess we can't consider Korak the Ape any kind of foreshadowing. But we can pretend if we want to!)

 

As you can see, DuBois builds a rich world where lots of fun things can happen, and often do. It also must be said that the inherent racism of a white jungle lord in Africa is played down; Tarzan may be better at everything than his native allies, but he treats them as equals and they follow him out of friendship, not obeisance. 

 

In short, while I still don't understand why Jesse Marsh is so widely praised, I am coming to appreciate the writing. I believe that had I been a comics fan in the 1950s I would likely have been a regular Tarzan reader, and perhaps I, too, would have come to appreciate Marsh more. As it is, I find myself anticipating each new volume in this series more than I ever thought I would, just for the stories.

 

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Jesse Marsh is the most recent in a line of artists whose styles I had to learn to appreciate, artists whose styles were widely admired by other artists, the merits of which not readily apparent to the layman. I’m referring to artists such as Alex Toth, Frank Robbins, and even (years ago, in my case) Jack Kirby. What it took, in those cases, was a willingness to be shown by others who knew more than I about the relative merits of the art style under discussion. In my case, that understanding is coming from the introductions to archive collections featuring the work of Jesse Marsh. According to Dan Nadel’s introduction to volume nine, “These 1953 issues of Tarzan find Jesse Marsh at one of his peaks. He’d shaken off the steep learning curve that the first couple of volumes show in spades, and was in full command of his material.”

Jesse Marsh would go on to draw Tarzan through the mid-‘60s. Think how much Jack Kirby’s work changed in 15 years, say from 1961 through 1975. Being familiar with Kirby’s mid-‘60s peak, I can look back on his work and appreciate it all the more because I know where he’s going. When critics such as Nadel point out such things as Marsh’s “scalloped brush strokes for clouds, the tangle lines for the brush, and the swift, course outline of Tarzan’s body in motion,” I try to keep those things in mind and look for them going forward.

But the most helpful critique of Marsh’s work I have read lately is not from the Tarzan Archives series, but rather Brothers of the Spear. In it, Gary Panter pointed out the thick line of Marsh’s stroke, and described it as “a stripped-down version of Milt Caniff’s or Noel Sickle’s movie-influenced drawings. Marsh’s style was virtuosic in the use of blocks of black areas and empty spaces, in compositions derived from Orientalism and the influences of Japanese ukiyoe prints on late nineteeth-century painters and illustrators, like Whistler, Toulouse-Latrec, and Aubrey Beardsley , a generation before the first Sunday comics pages.”

See, that’s what I mean. Point out the similarities to styles I’m familiar with (Caniff and Sickles), then explain to me what all those other later trained comic book artists see in his work that I, the layman, don’t. Then drop hints that he’s only going to get better in successive volumes, and I’m hooked. I may not see all of the nuances of his style yet, but I hope to by the time this series gets to reprinting issue #153.

Good points, Jeff, and I've been reading those forewords (and the one in Brothers of the Spear) with the exact same hopes and expectations that you are. So far, though, I just haven't caught on.

 

Or maybe I have, and just don't like Marsh's work. This would be a good time to mention that I've never enjoyed Milton Caniff's style either, despite the humongous praise heaped on it by everybody. I understand intellectually why other artists love it, but I still find his Caniff's work -- there's no other word for it -- ugly. 

 

Then again, sometimes artist praise rings strained or hollow to me. In the latest book, the foreword jabbers on about a page that shows a gryf at a bunch of different angles that demonstrates Marsh's mastery of light, anatomy and perspective. But when I looked at the page, I didn't see mastery -- I saw drawing 101. The gryf was shown from the front and the side, two of the simplest ways to draw something, and always from a middle-distance perspective, also the easiest way to draw something. Maybe I was looking at the wrong page, but I saw nothing particularly impressive about it.

 

I'm not giving up, though -- I intend to keep paying attention and hope that maybe (as you suggest) when he gets all the mo bettah later on, I'll see how he got there from here, and appreciate "here" a little more.

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