Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > CR Reviews

Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years Vol. 1
posted April 6, 2009


Creators: Gaylord Dubois, Jesse Marsh, Robert B. Thompson
Publishing Information: Dark Horse, hardcover, 256 pages, 2008, $49.95
Ordering Numbers: 9781595822383 (ISBN13)

That Dark Horse is publishing fancy edition of Jesse Marsh's legendary 150-plus issue run on Tarzan seems less like another jewel in this remarkable era of comics reprints and more like piling on. I never expected to see it. As a younger man I might have complained that this is priced out of most people's hands at $50. These days I think Tarzan comics are clearly more of a special taste than was the case a half-century ago. I like this stuff where it is: for enthusiasts of the character and of a lovely kind of comics art both inspired by classic adventure comic strips and standing ready to influence adventure comic books to come.

imageThis is the very early material, and as it's not the cream of the eventual crop one may forgive a reader for standing around getting one's bearings at the expense of diving into the stories themselves. I like the production; I think the book is mostly well shot. Although some purists may prefer the way that the older comics' paper held the ink and muted some of the colors, I like how a lot of the pages and panels pop here. The single-color backgrounds feel almost like an effect for emphasis than a series of signals to read past those moments with more speed in order to get to somewhere your eye settles more naturally. If I didn't know better, I might think that they were doing it on purpose to put on more explicit display Marsh's art. If the stories aren't better comics for that change, the difference makes for a fun way to constantly have your attention called to what is most remarkable about them.

The classic appeal of Tarzan as it's often unpacked for cultural studies class is that of the unadorned white man conquering the unexplored and dangerous African content through force of will and application of physical skill, that underneath the suit of every Englishman was a specimen who could flat-out deal. These stately comics blow past some of the obvious problems that could arise. Even early on in Marsh's run script writers Thompson and Dubois portray a variety of subtly-shifting motivations among its series of civilizations. This is ably supported by Marsh's lovely and realistic depictions of animal life and types of landscape in which Tarzan definitely lives rather than rules over. While some of the physical encounters are among the most memorable sequences here as in other versions of the Tarzan legend, you get a massive dollop of the Jungle Lord working through situations just by being present and an honorable, local, square-jawed parson type in the sometimes unruly lives of his animal and human neighbors. From what I remember from my own intermittent reading of the comics, Marsh's art will soon become lovely in a way that transcends the straight-ahead, gentle adventure stories we get in volume one, but it's not unpleasant watching that stage be set via the sturdy application of old-school craft.