Saturday, March 10, 2007

Tarzan and Me

I mentioned in another post that I'd get around to talking about Tarzan. Today's the day. Now if your knowledge of Tarzan comes primarily from the movies, you don't know zip about Tarzan. Have a look at the beautiful Russ Manning Sunday newspaper strip over there to the left. That's Tarzan. That's what he looks like inside my head. Speaks perfect English. No "Me Tarzan" stuff.
See, Tarzan and me go back to before I was even born. I've been aware of him longer than any other fictional character, I think. My mom absolutely loved Tarzan and in the early 1960s she was reading her way through the 24 recently reprinted Tarzan novels. Yeah, 24. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a ton of them.
Anyway, my mom bought the whole set of Bantam paperbacks, She had read some of the novels in hardback that had belonged to her grandmother, so she had been a Tarzan fan most of her life. About this same time, Gold Key Comics Company, which had taken over the publishing rights to the Tarzan property from Dell comics, was starting a series of adaptations of the novels with art by Russ Manning. Mom began buying these as well. By the time I was born, in 1962, mom had all the Tarzan books and was buying the Tarzan comic every month.
The comic is important because that's my first exposure to Tarzan. I began flipping through those comics before I could read, staring at the images and wondering what the people were saying. I remember that I would make up my own stories to go with the pictures. May have had an influence on my becoming a story teller. Who knows. Over the years, as my reading skills developed, I would return again and again to those comics, and I read them so many times that I can still tell you most of the plots to this day.
Now I saw the movies too. The 12 Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films were rerun constantly on Television when I was a kid. This caused me a little confusion. The movie Tarzan spoke like Tonto (or Frankenstein) and he lived in a tree house and had a brunette wife and a son named Boy. MY Tarzan spoke not only English but French as well. He lived on an estate in Africa and in a manor house in England. His wife was a blonde and his son's name was Jack in England and Korak in the language of the great apes.
Luckily, at about the time I was four years old, new Tarzan movies starring Jock Mahoney and Mike Henry started showing up at the theaters, featuring a Tarzan who was fluent in English. Mike Henry's version, in a nod to the then wildly popular James Bond films, even wore a three piece suit in one movie before shifting to the standard loincloth in the second reel. Plus NBC started a new Tarzan TV series, starring Ron Ely as an articulate and intelligent Tarzan.
All of these versions of Tarzan became merged in my mind, but they never dislodged the mental picture I had of the ape man which was still the Russ Manning version. I started reading mom's Tarzan novels when I was about nine and pretty quickly read all of them. I spent a lot of time in the woods pretending I WAS Tarzan, running around in ragged cut off jeans and annoying the neighbors with my rendition of the Weissmuller yell. When I was 10 my dad gave me a hunting knife and a 50 ft coil of rope so that I could really get the Tarzan thing down. They remain my favorite toys I ever received. In a side note, I had a burglary at my old renter house and someone stole my knife collection, which included the small hunting knife dad had given me. That was the only knife out of close to 200 that I really felt bad about losing. A couple of years ago on my birthday, dad presented me with a new knife and a new coil of rope. That' a father right there, folks. The new knife rests in the desk drawer to my right. I keep it handy in case sheeta the panther or numa the lion should come calling.
Speaking of sheeta and numa, Tarzan's creator created a language that the great apes spoke. Tar is white and zan is skin in the mangani language. Mangani is what the great apes call themselves. Oh and in case you saw the Disney Tarzan cartoon, which I really liked, Tarzan was raised by apes, not gorillas. I used to be pretty fluent in mangani (see the 2006 post, Lord of the Aisles) but I've gotten a bit rusty.
As you can see, Tarzan has been a fixture of my life for as long as I can remember and even before. In fact, on the insides of the covers of mom's Tarzan paperbacks, written in blue ballpoint pen by my then 22 year old mother, are the words, "property of Doug and Charles Rutledge." Doug (my older brother) never was very interested in Tarzan so he lost out. Those paperbacks reside now on the book shelf in my bedroom. Mom gave them to me when I was about twenty, along with her comics. The comics are here too, some of the very few that I kept. I've added to mom's original collection over the years, turning her fifty or so comics into about 300. Though I'll part with many things, those don't go. Other interests wax and wane and other characters push to the front of my consciousness, but Tarzan is always there, stalking the shadowed jungle trails in the back of my mind.


Heath Lowrance said...

What an excellent post. Like you, my world was shaken pretty thoroughly by Tarzan, and at about the same age. I started with the movies, but after reading the books at age 11 or so, I couldn't watch the movies anymore for a long time. The mono-speak Tarzan just annoyed me too much.

And I was incapable for a long time of going swimming without pretending I was Tarzan fighting an alligator.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

I did the alligator thing too, Heath, taking an inflatable raft and rolling over and over in the water with it as I plunged my pretend knife into it.