Book Review: Ape-man - The Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to 100 Years of Tarzan / Author: Sean Egan / Publisher: Teleos Publishing / Release Date: August 30th
This excellent book traces the 100 year history of Tarzan from his first appearance in The All-Story magazine in 1912 to his latter-day incarnations in YA novels, video games and cartoons. It’s a tale of two halves, of 50 years of unstoppable world domination followed by 50 years of sharply shrinking influence, and Sean Egan gives us a front-row seat for the whole glorious, sorry saga.
The story starts with the books, and Egan writes about these – as about all other aspects of the Tarzan world – with a winning mixture of affection, cattiness and awe-inspiring erudition. It seems that almost from the moment he created the ape-man, Burroughs was at a loss as to what to do with him, or where to go next. However, that didn't stop him churning out – often wearily and under protest – 25 Tarzan titles during his lifetime. Egan summarizes each and every one of them with a vividness and humour which leaves you feeling as though you've read them yourself.
But it was cinema, particularly the Weissmuller era, which cemented Tarzan in the public imagination, and provided the icon with several key components – the vine-swinging, the yodel, the comic-relief chimp companion. Again, Egan takes the reader in almost fly-on-the-wall detail through each entry in the canon, some of which might look rather tame today but were full of peril for the cast as they found themselves being mauled by their furry co-stars. With his keen sense of the ridiculous, he's quick to note when the same footage of Tarzan wrestling a mechanical crocodile crops up repeatedly in different movies (even though the actor playing Tarzan has changed), and he has a sharp eye for fads and fashions in ape-man attire – the silent era favouring a rather feminine off-the-shoulder pelt, which was reduced to a skimpy loincloth in Weissmuller's reign, which in turn morphed into a more modest affair that came up above the navel once Tarzan made it onto TV.
To be enthralled by all of this, you don't have to be a committed ERBivore (as fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs have been known to call themselves.) The ape-man was at one time or another at the vanguard of radio, newspaper comic strips, comic books, colour TV, graphic novels and arcade games, among others, and so to read about him is to read about the changing face of 20th century media. It's also fascinating to learn about the rise and fall of a once mighty franchise. It's a shame that there are no illustrations, but hopefully the publishers will correct that and bring out an expanded edition once this book receives the acclaim it so richly deserves.