Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Superman vs. Tarzan

So there's the Crash Test Dummies' Song:

Tarzan wasn't a ladies' man
He'd just come along and scoop 'em up under his arm
Like that, quick as a cat in the jungle
But Clark Kent, now there was a real gent
He would not be caught sittin' around in no
Junglescape, dumb as an ape doing nothing
[chorus]Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him
Hey Bob, Supe had a straight job
Even though he could have smashed through any bank
In the United States, he had the strength, but he would not
Folks said his family were all dead
Their planet crumbled but Superman, he forced himself
To carry on, forget Krypton, and keep going
Tarzan was king of the jungle and Lord over all the apes
But he could hardly string together four words: "I Tarzan, You Jane."
Sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes
I'll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back
On man, join Tarzan in the forest
But he stayed in the city, and kept on changing clothes
In dirty old phonebooths till his work was through
And nothing to do but go on home

And there's Superman/Tarzan: Sons of the Jungle.

That's not a whole lot to work with, I suppose. But there's something to be learned from the comparison between the two characters. Let's start with the obvious:
The began in the early twentieth century.
They're both orphans.
They're raised by adoptive parents.
They wear distinctive outfits.
They're far and away superior to everyone around them.
They rescue people.

I recently read Tarzan of the Apes, the first Tarzan novel that Burroughs wrote. I liked it a lot. I was surprised, since the other Burroughs books I've read have been disappointing. But in this book, he doesn't shy away from the difficulties of the character. And he makes Tarzan learning to read by himself pretty acceptable. He gives Tarzan a real moral dilemma at the end, and then resolves it in exactly the way you wouldn't expect a pulp novel from the '30's to resolve itself. I imagine that the rest of the novels in the Tarzan series have to undo Tarzan's decision to give up Jane and his title as Lord Greystoke, but reading that first one is quite a surprise.

I was also surprised by how superhuman Burroughs makes Tarzan. He's clearly past the potential of even the most physically capable human being. Burroughs acknowledges, though, that even Tarzan is no match for the strngth of the creatures of the African jungle. He has to outsmart them, and this even proves to be an important realization for Tarzan when Western Civilization finds him. He has to come to terms with his humanity.

Isn't that what Superman had to do as well? Is that what the show Smallville was all about for a while? (this is a sincerely asked question. I stopped watching a while ago because of my work schedule) But Superman isn't human. I return again and again to a characterization of the two most important comic book heroes, made by Josh Walgenbach during an interview I conducted with him last year. He said,

"Batman is a man trying to be a god. Superman is a god trying to be a man."

I come back to that again and again. It seems apt.

Sons of the Jungle

It's not so much a good comic as it is interesting. The overall point, possibly not intended by the writer Chuck Dixon, is that we have a destiny, so to speak. It may be written in our dna. It's certainly not a product of our environment. the story begins as in Burrough's first Tarzan novel, with a mutiny that would strand Tarzan's parents (Tarzan is already conceived at this point) on the coast of Africa, far from human settlement. In the novel, the baby is born and the parents subsequently die. The boy is raised by apes (on a side note, I was at first disappointed that Burroughs seemed to have no concept of actualy ape anatomy or behavior; then I realized that he had invented a new species--the apes that raise Tarzan are neither gorilla nor chimpanzee; he calls them anthropoids), etc...

In this comic--a joint effort by Dark Horse and DC--Superman's ship flies across the sky to crash just inside the tree line as Tarzan's mother prays for their salvation. The mutineers see it as a sign to spare the couple, and Tarzan grows up with back in England. He's morose and unhappy. Though he still exhibits the same superiority of physique and intellect that allowed him to survive in the jungle, he hates his life and begins exploring. He makes his way to the jungle where he finds happiness. He journeys with Jane and a reported from Metropolis named Lois Lane. They're on an expedition to find a lost roman colony. I can only imagine that this is a plot from one of the other Tarzan novels (Tarzan and the Lost Empire seems to be a prime candidate).

Superman, on the other hand, grows up among the apes. He's out of place, rejected by both the apes and the few humans he finds. He's confused about his Kryptonian heritage, thinking that all humans are Kryptonians. That's an easy mistake, I suppose.

Anyway, he meets up with Lois and Jane and Greystoke and Greystoke stays and Superman goes back to Metropolis. They each find where they're "supposed" to be.

Crash Test Dummies
This was a bit of a surprise. I hadn't realized that "Superman's Song" begins with most of the first verse about Tarzan, which is why I started thinking about it in the first place.

This song plays more on the "mythological" conceptions of the characters than on actual stories. That's what makes it interesting. Tarzan is the inarticulate brute who starred in the movies. Superman is lonely and unique, not one of several revenants of Krypton, which at the moment in the comics include an entire city that has been saved and placed on a planet near earth. maybe I'm just getting the "lonely" characterization from the tone of the song. It's a funeral dirge (which I thought even before i saw the video).
Note what the song opposes about the characters. Tarzan wasn't a ladies' man, but Kent (notably not Superman at this point) was a real gent. More than just rhyme scheme, this reveals a lot about the conception of the characters. It sets the civilized Kent against the jungle-dwelling Tarzan. However, in Burroughs' novel, Tarzan comments on the lack of civilization among all the humans he meets, thinking that they are no better than the apes and lions he's had to fight for most of his life. When given the chance, he reveals himself as more civilized than the highest levels of western society. And he can still kill lions with nothing more than a knife and a length of rope. He's the master of two worlds. Nonetheless, the inarticulate Tarzan dominates the popular imagination. The movies win out over the books every time. And yet those who adapt books into movies say that nothing they can do will alter the book one bit. Right.

The most interesting thing is that the song removes the "destiny" aspect from Superman. It makes his story all about the choices he makes. He chooses not to rob banks, not to turn his back on humanity. That's what makes the character great, and what is removed in the reading of the character as christ that permeates the current interpretations (stemming, I think from the 1978 movie).
In the end, the afterword to the comic series reveals Burroughs' distaste for Superman. He thinks its a silly character, and he would never put Tarzan in the city as editors asked him to do. But the characters aren't all that different. Tarzan is even once referred to as 'superman.' in the first novel (how in the world did I not write down that page number?).
Yep, I'm about out for today. Here's a picture by Frank Frazetta:

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