Hal Foster Brings the Jungle Lord to Life

Hal Foster's Sunday Tarzan by Dark Horse BooksEdgar Rice Burroughs’ TARZAN: the Sunday Comics, 1931–1933
Dark Horse Books, Milwaukie, OR
ISBN: 978-1-61655-117-9

This practically full-size reprint of the first 102 of Hal Foster’s ground-breaking Sunday comics pages is a delight. Digitally restored scans of original tear-sheets, the color is very close to many of the pages I have in my collection. The size of the pages,15 inches by 20 inches, allows the artwork to be printed at only a 4% reduction making this a fine companion volume to “The Golden Age of Tarzan” volume printed back in 1977 by Chelsea House.

The hardcover book is printed on two different papers: a laid-textured natural matte for the front matter (title page, contents page and introduction) as well as the divider pages that separate the years, and a white, matte coated stock for the art. This gives the book a rich feel and shows that some thought went into its production. On the contents page each story in the collection is listed separately, with the episode title and date of publication for each one of the pages.

The introduction by Mark Evanier, noted comic book and TV writer, and author of Kirby: King of Comics, covers the background of Foster’s art career, the beginnings of ERB the author, the genesis of Tarzan and the birth of the Tarzan strip, both the 10-week black-and-white “picturization” of the origin novel, the transition into a daily strip and the eventual hiring of Foster on the Sunday page. Unfortunately Mark’s research makes a couple of misses here and there. For examples, he repeats the story that J. Allen St. John was approached by Joe Neebe to do the initial strip and forgets that Metropolitan News Service had already merged with United Features Syndicate (UFS) when Foster gave them first right of refusal on Prince Valiant. Still, it’s a decent intro to the Sunday page. For anyone looking for a more detailed account of the birth of the Tarzan dailies and Sundays, I recommend Robert R. Barrett’s “Tarzan of the Funnies” (2002). Robert has studied the subject through interviews, letters and a long fascination with the material and his book will give you the “inside dope.”

The meat of the book is Harold Foster’s depiction of Tarzan and the evolution of his style over the two years of the book from September 27, 1931 to September 3, 1933. This period covers the advent of Foster at week 29 near the end of the story begun by R.W. Palmer and Rex Maxon, transitioning into the “Hawk of the Desert,” during which George A. Carlin, business manager at UFS, started writing the continuity. Carlin wrote the strip for the next two and a half years with edits and critiques from ERB himself.

As has been written many times before, Foster’s work on this Sunday page was a high-water mark in cartooning and illustration. Not only was his advent on the Sunday page a major leap forward in comic art, it was never surpassed by those who followed. Though Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff are often mentioned as introducing chiaroscuro to the comics page, it’s obvious that Foster was there first. Foster’s brushwork and the spontaneous quality of his line keeps the images lively even when figures were doing nothing. But there is very little standing around on a Foster Tarzan page! Each of the 12 panels shifts point-of-view, pose and lighting in such a way that the rigidity of the page layout serves more as a focus for each dynamic scene. Later Foster began to experiment with combining panels for larger shots, but the exigencies of newspaper printing, causing pages to sometimes be cut up and laid out differently, meant that he had to stick with a regular format for the most part.

Fans used to the tight inking of Prince Valiant might be surprised by the looser technique of the Tarzan pages. This is much like what Foster had used on the Tarzan of the Apes dailies of 1929. The brushwork is immediate, almost calligraphic in places, but still each figure, leaf, rock and beast has the weight and presence of realistic form. By the middle of 1933, during the Egyptian sequence, Foster is moving closer to the clean line of his later work. As we will see in a collection to come, he will open up his inking with a still more refined line, making room for more detailed and richer coloring, a precursor of the tightly drawn Prince Valiant.

Foster has sometimes been criticized for not being able to maintain a consistent look for Tarzan’s face and as you go through the pages you see that over and over. However the figure drawing, compositions, action poses and variety of angles is so impressive that I can forgive him his struggles in this early work. Foster also used assistants from the Palenske-Young ad studio for many of these early pages. We don’t know exactly what they did or did not do, other than letterer Charles F. Armstrong who Foster used constantly, even when he moved to Prince Valiant, but probably they inked backgrounds and minor characters as needed.

Seeing these pages at such a large size reveals more of what made Foster the master he was. Not only are the figures impeccably drawn, without fussiness, there is a constant emphasis on Tarzan’s humanity. Foster was not afraid to express feeling with body language and facial expression. Most of today’s comic book artists portray their heroes as stoic, stiff-lipped automatons — a scowl, a grimace, clenched jaws or a rictus smile. But through the pages of Foster’s Tarzan he gives us nobility, amusement, concern, anger, concentration, compassion. All delineated, not with the typical stylistic coding of the comics (even Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs used facial emotions not dissimilar from Popeye or The Gumps) but with naturalistic, human expressions.

All of these pages are, of course, scanned from vintage tear sheets. There can never be a collection of the Sunday Tarzans from this period that will match the quality of the Prince Valiant set coming out of Fantagraphics because all the proofs and much of the original art was lost to fire in the 1950s. Every reproduction of these strips must rely on newspaper pages printed in the 30s. It is important to remember that the matrices for the art and color separations were prepared by the syndicate’s own engravers, but it is possible that some of the supplied mats could have been damaged either when making them or when they went through the mail. Also, many newspapers only printed in three colors on some sides of the sheet so, to get a collection that is full color on every page is quite an accomplishment. These pages are not the same pages that were used in the NBM books, however. Any side-by-side comparison of the two sets shows variations in the strength of the color and the cleanness of line. One curious page I’ve found is the September 25, 1932 page, “Through the Cavern’s Mouth,” which switches the red and yellow plates. This might not be quite so noticeable if Tarzan weren’t suddenly sporting a magenta loincloth. There are a few other pages where the line work seems too heavy, likely due to inking issues on the source material. Overall, I’d say that Michael Kelleher, who worked on the Marvel Masterworks collections and is credited here as “Digital Retoucher” has done a good job considering what it’s likely he was given to work with. In fact, he has managed to maintain the integrity of the original Ben-Day color tones, which are an essential part of the original pages.

Could this collection have been better? Maybe. It completely depends on the quality of the source material. Going through every collection in the US just to pull the best pages would be a task that could never be justified by sales potential. Dropping out all the color and then re-coloring by computer would make a cleaner presentation, but the original feel of the actual pages would be lost. Comparisons to tear sheets in my own collection show the color quality to be very close, but I have a few sheets from the mid-30s, apparently printed by rotogravure, where the color is dense and bright compared to the same page from another newspaper. I’m actually very pleased with this volume and look forward to the next one. I only wish that Dark Horse would provide a colophon giving credit to the source collection.

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Since most of the reviews of this book at Amazon.com seem to complain about the reproductions of the original pages and the roughness of the color. I’d like to go a little deeper into how these early pages were produced and what was involved in creating the color separations for Sunday comics in 1931. As an addendum to this review, “Tarzan the Sunday Comics, Part Two”, I’ll go into the function of the newspaper feature syndicates and the Ben-Day process. See you in a week and I hope you’ll leave a comment on this post below.


2 thoughts on “Hal Foster Brings the Jungle Lord to Life”

  1. You say Evanier is wrong by saying that Nebe approached J. Allen St. John to do the daily Tarzan, then went to Foster as second choice. This is what Brian Kane says, too, in his biography of Foster. What’s your evidence? Elsewhere, I agree that Foster was a master realistic illustrator, but he could stumble. He did in the 6th panel of his 12th page (12/13) when he shows Tarzan swinging from vines while holding a spear in one hand. How does he grab the next vine then? Even the master can nod. Best, Bob

    1. Hi Bob, Thanks for stopping by.

      My information comes from Robert R. Barrett’s incredibly detailed book on the Tarzan comic strip, “Tarzan of the Funnies” (2002, Mad Kings Publishing). One of the great things about this book is that Barrett had access to a lot of correspondence in the ERB, Inc. files, including letters back and forth between ERB and the people at Metropolitan News Service and United Features Syndicate (UFS). On page 23 he quotes a letter from Ed to Monte Bourjaily, general manager of UFS, on December 31, 1931, saying that he had gotten a letter from J. Allen St. John asking if he could take over the Tarzan daily and referring to work that he had done for The New York Herald “way back when.” This was during the time when there was a lot of back-and-forth between ERB and the syndicate about the weakness of Rex Maxon’s art and the possibility of replacing him.

      Barrett brings up the fact that a number of comic strip historians had said that St. John was Joe Neebe’s first choice to illustrate the dailies but that St. John turned him down. Bourjaily wrote to Neebe about Ed’s letter and St. John’s enquiry, and Neebe replied to the effect that he didn’t think an illustrator as used to working in a studio as St. John was would be able to handle the deadlines of a daily strip for newspapers. He also said that he had nothing against St. John, but would prefer that if Maxon was to be let go he would like to see Frank Hoban (who had been doing great dry brush work on the illustrations for Burroughs’ stories over at The Blue Book) get a chance at the strip. He had been approached by Hoban about that very thing.

      Barrett finishes up this anecdote with, “It is interesting that Neebe makes no mention of any previous meeting he might have had with St. John about illustrating Tarzan of the Apes, nor do his comments indicate that he ever considered St. John. It would appear rather obvious that if St. John had been contacted and refused the commission, Neebe would certainly have mentioned it in this letter to Bourjaily!”

      All this makes perfect sense to me and it’s hard to argue with so much direct evidence as a letter. I don’t know where the other story comes from, but I certainly think this one is worth putting out there for everyone who hasn’t read Barrett’s book.

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