Author Scott Tracy Griffin discusses his definitive Tarzan book and the ape man’s local ties at the Santa Monica History Museum
By Michael Aushenker
Scott Tracy Griffin’s fascination with Tarzan began when, at four years old, he spotted an image of the Lord of the Jungle on his older brother’s lunchbox.
Some four decades of fandom and serious academic research later, the Santa Monica author created 2012’s “Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration,” a comprehensive visual history of the iconic jungle hero that was authorized by creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’ estate.
On Sunday, Griffin — who has been a consultant and interview subject for Tarzan-related documentaries and segments on A&E, TNT and CBS — will lead “Tarzan and the Santa Monica Connection,” a presentation at the Santa Monica History Museum featuring vintage artwork and movie stills from his book and historic photos from the museum’s archives.
Shortly before his death in 2012, science fiction author Ray Bradbury declared Burroughs — also creator of John Carter of Mars — the most influential writer of the 20th Century. Such admiration makes sense considering Burroughs, a Chicago native, is often included with England’s H.G. Wells and France’s Jules Verne as one of the leading pioneers of the sci-fi genre.
“Burroughs’ early work pre-dated science fiction as we know it, but it certainly laid the foundation for that genre. Most of the early writers, and many of the modern, were influenced by Burroughs, either directly or indirectly,” Griffin said.
“Tarzan of the Apes,” the first of Burroughs’ 24 Tarzan novels, was first published in 1914 after he had serialized the character in magazines for two years.
The now familiar tale of the orphaned son of a British lord and lady raised by apes in Africa is that of “the very first superhero,” Robin Maxwell writes in her recent book “Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan.”
“He was the strongest man on Earth, could ‘fly’ through the jungle canopy and speak the languages of wild animals. Moreover, he possesses native intelligence and nobility of spirit and is every man’s fantasy, and every woman’s fantasy lover,” Maxwell explains.
Griffin, 49, said the creators of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Doc Savage and Superman as well “Star Wars” and “Avatar” have each acknowledged a debt to Burroughs.
In the 1938 debut of Superman, the Man of Steel — only later gifted with flight by movies and television — was “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” a quality resembling Burroughs’ 1911 creation John Carter, who, in the world of Barsoom (Burroughs-speak for “ Mars”), took fantastic leaps made possible by the planet’s weak gravity.
While the paperback editions of Burroughs’ thrilling cliffhanger Tarzan novels that featured cover illustrations by artist Neal Adams were what got Griffin hooked on the character as he was growing up in a small Mississippi town, other media augmented Tarzan’s legend for the world.
“I have Joe Kubert and DC Comics to thank for introducing me to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Tarzan of the Apes,’” said Michael Eury, editor-in-chief of the comics nostalgia magazine Back Issue! and a former DC Comics editor. “Prior to 1972, when [veteran comic book] writer-artist-editor Kubert so brilliantly adapted Tarzan to comics, the Ape Man I knew was the beefy, beef-headed Johnny Weissmuller movie version [as] Sunday-afternoon TV fare …or the buff, cool Ron Ely television version.”
In addition to Adams, Hal Foster, Rex Maxon, Burne Hogarth, Russ Manning, Frank Frazetta, R.G. Krenkel and Thomas Yeates are among the high-profile cartoonists and illustrators who have contributed to the Tarzan franchise through comic strips and books as well as illustrations for various editions of the novels.
“Mr. Burroughs’s books,” said Bill Hillman, founder of ERBzine.com, “were illustrated by artists who did a remarkable job of interpreting the author’s wonderfully imaginative characters and worlds.”
Griffin said he was pulled more deeply into Burroughs’ Tarzan character through DC Comics’ “Tarzan Family” and “Korak, Son of Tarzan” comic books as well as reprints of Manning’s comic strip. Marvel, Dark Horse and many other comic book publishers have also produced Tarzan titles over the decades.
“I like the character of Tarzan. I like the world of Barsoom,” said Griffin. “[Burroughs] was a natural-born raconteur.”
Griffin’s book has also received praise for his comprehensive examination of Burroughs’ greatest creation.
“Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration,” said Burroughs biographer and retired Pasadena City College philosophy professor Robert Zeuschner, “is the first table-top art book to collect the wide variety of Tarzan-related illustration art, from the earliest years in 1912 to contemporary times. Until now, there has never been a single source which could be used to examine the original pulp magazine art, the dust jacket covers for the early printings, the comic book covers and interior art, and the huge number of Tarzan movies made since the silent era.”
Although Burroughs famously lived in the San Fernando Valley community — Tarzana got its name after Burroughs sold off parcels of the 540-acre ranch that he had bought from former Los Angeles Times publisher Gen. Harrison Grey Otis — he did frequent Santa Monica.
Burroughs would mount his horse at Tarzana Ranch and ride south along Caballero Creek, up to Mulholland Drive, over Temescal Ridge and down the Backbone Trail (now the Will Rogers Trail) into Rustic Canyon and finally Santa Monica Beach.
“In those days, before decades of fire suppression efforts, the Santa Monica Mountains weren’t covered with thick brush, but were more open,” Griffin said.
Burroughs, who was friends with Will Rogers, likely also rode with Rogers on his ranch, now Will Rogers State Park, Griffin said.
Burroughs would also allude to Santa Monica in his work, including the location of Bowen Tyler’s shipyards in his novel “The Land That Time Forgot” and the route of Julian 20th in his post-apocalyptic “Red Hawk.”
A scout for D. W. Griffith had discovered Elmo Lincoln — the silver screen’s first Lord of the Jungle in 1918’s “Tarzan of the Apes” — on Muscle Beach, said Griffin, and the Santa Monica restaurant Snug Harbor is owned by Elmo Lincoln’s grandson, C.J. Lincoln.
Earlier this month, Tarzan and John Carter teamed up for the first time in “Lords of Mars No. 6,” released by Dynamite Entertainment, which currently publishes comics of Burroughs’ creations.
It’s a combination Burroughs never attempted.
“Burroughs debated a Tarzan/John Carter crossover,” Griffin said, “but ultimately decided he couldn’t do both characters justice in one novel.”
Hear Scott Tracy Griffin discuss “Tarzan and the Santa Monica Connection” at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Santa Monica History Museum, 1350 7th St., Santa Monica. Call (310) 395-2290 or visit santamonicahistory.org.