Thursday, May 14, 2009

Even Tarzan's dreams are totally bad-ass

This is the cover of Tarzan #214, a 1972 DC comic written and illustrated by Joe Kubert, containing the story "The Nightmare!" It is, like the rest of Joe Kubert's Tarzan comics of the 1970s, what comics critics often refer to as "awesome." In fact, it's so awesome, that we should take a closer look at it together, in order to appreciate that awesomeness. If you can't find our own copy of the single issue, you can always try to hunt down a volume of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan: The Joe Kubert Years Vol. 1, which reprints it (If you live in the Columbus area, you can try the Grandview Heights Public Library, which is where I found this copy.)

Tarzan is skulking about the tree tops with his knife unsheathed, so hungry he could eat a horse, or its African equivalent (a zebra). Swinging from vines and putting various jungle beasts in submission holds burns a lot of calories, you see.

He spies "a young wappi" below him—wappi either being a rare type of jungle deer I've never heard of or simply the ape word for deer—and pounced at the little, gangly, helpless, big-eyed, big eyelash-ed source of calories, but Tarzan deems it too skinny and too young (And too cute, I bet, although he doesn't say so). After giving the poor beast a heart attack, he lets it go, bidding it to go back to it's "kalu," when he catches a whiff of cooking meat from the village of the Gomangani, a nearby tribe with a name that sounds like a genre of Japanese comics.

Tarzan hangs around in the treetops outside their village, as they celebrate the recent kill of a sick water buffalo with their poison arrows by eating and drinking themselves into a stupor.

Once they've all passed out, Tarzan creeps into their village and sticks his hand into their cooking pot:

Tarzan is at once repelled...and sickened by the taste! For the first time, the ape-man is eating cooked meat! It disgusts him...but--he is hungry! And...he eats!

Kubert's Tarzan is one of the many old comic books which is even better when it's read out loud.

Tarzan climbs to the very top of a tree with the meat, and struggles through some more before ultimately giving up on it:
Hmm, the meat smells bad and it feels as if it is trying to eat its way out of his stomach. You know, I think it might have spoiled. Tarzan is no sissy though, and decides to lay down and digest that meat with all his might.

He drifts off to sleep, only to awake to the sound of a roar. It's "Numa," ape-speak for lion, although this lion differs from others in that a) it is huge and b) it is made of stone.

Tarzan would be a bit worried about such a lion, were he not confident that lions can't climb trees. But no does he sooner think to himself that he's safe up in the tree than this happens:
It's like the old say, out of Numa's mouth, into the giant, blue vulture's talon.

The vulture squeezes Tarzan's belly to a pulp, flying higher and higher, as the Jungle King whips out his long tooth an starts a-stabbing. The monster bird drops him, but rather than being broken to pieces on the jungle floor, he finds himself back in the tree where he first laid down to sleep:

Again he closes his eyes, and when next he opens them, he sees an even freakier beast:

After that freak out, Tarzan heads to his father's cabin, and staggers around, putting everything together and realizing that the food that made a pain in his belly was also making him see things that weren't real.

Mystery solved, he lays on the jungle floor to sleep again, next time waking to see a huge, snow white gorilla standing on its hind legs, baring its fangs at him, and glowering at him with pink eyes.

Fool Tarzan three times, shame on you, but fool Tarzan a fourth time, and shame on him. He's not freaking out about this hallucination. " real! Soon-- he will disappear... and... I will awaken in the tree... alone!"

Tarzan tries to ignore the monster ape, even after it whacks him across the jungle with a huge log. But once it wraps its arms around Tarzan and starts crushing him, the ape-man begins to realize that maybe this monster isn't a hallucination.

So over the course of two pages, Tarzan bites the ape's arm, he tries throttling it, he slips behind it and puts it in one of the chokeholds he uses on his animal foes, hanging on even as the gorilla starts smashing Tarzan between its own back and a nearby tree trunk. Eventually it sinks to the jungle floor dead, and Tarzan, show-off that he is, puts a foot on its chest, beats his own hairless chest and "gives vent to the kill-cry of the bull ape!"

This is the last story in this particular volume, and, throughout the collection I've seen Tarzan execute plenty of acts of amazing physical prowess, from wrestling a rhinoceros to punching out a giant gorilla which he was fighting on the roof of a speeding airplane, but I think this battle was his most impressive. I've been horribly nauseous before, I've had the flu, and I've had food poisonings of various types before, and, in such cases, walking to and from the bathroom seemed to great a task for me, and it took all my might simply to raise myself up from the bathroom floor where I slept fitfully to the rim of the toilet bowl to vomit.

But Tarzan, in that same state, managed to kill an over-sized gorilla with his bare hands.

When he realizes that the white ape isn't going to disappear, even after dying, he rubs his eyes and begins to question reality:

"Then...Perhaps everything else is not real! The trees...the sky...the clouds... all false!"

Heady stuff! This is the most existential jungle action story I've ever read!

Finally, Tarzan comes to grips with the difficulty of knowing reality given man's limited perceptions, and swears off Gomangani cooking in favor of vaguely drawn jungle fruits:

So what is the moral of the story? That sometimes things are not what they appear? That you shouldn't steal food, because it might end up being spoiled and making you freak the hell out? That if you're hungry and catch a fawn you should go ahead and kill and eat it, no matter how cute it is?

Personally, I found it to be an eloquent reminder that being vegetarian is good lifestyle choice. You never know when a piece of meat might make you imagine you're being attacked by stone lions, giant blue vultures and snake men.

1 comment:

Hdefined said...

"It is, like the rest of Joe Kubert's Tarzan comics of the 1970s, what comics critics often refer to as "awesome." In fact, it's so awesome, that we should take a closer look at it together, in order to appreciate that awesomeness."

Caleb, your reviews and posts are unique and interesting enough that you don't have to pretend to be Chris Sims.