I grew up a Tarzan fan, which by definition means that I discovered him as a kid. A lot of people my age did. And while Edgar Rice Burroughs struggled to balance his own desire to write for grown-ups with his work’s extraordinary appeal to children, it’s undeniable that young people responded to the ape man. The jungle genre isn’t as popular today as it was in Tarzan’s prime though, so I’m curious if that’s still true. My son likes Tarzan, but he’s one kid. I thought it would be interesting to talk to Ron Marz about it.
Marz has been writing adventure comics for decades and a couple of his most recent projects are two, newspaper-style comic strips for EdgarRiceBurroughs.com. The Mucker – with artist Lee Moder – is based on Burroughs’ trilogy about a Chicago thug whose life is changed when he’s shipwrecked on a jungle island with an heiress. Marz’ new strip though is Korak the Killer – with veteran artist Rick Leonardi – about Tarzan’s son. Because Korak is about a younger ape man, I spoke with Marz about the character, the strip, and whether these kinds of stories have an enduring appeal for children.
Michael May: Ron, to start I want to talk about your background with the Tarzan characters. I know that you’re a big fan, so I’m wondering if you discovered those when you were a kid or when you were older? How did you get started?
Ron Marz: As a kid, at that magic age of ten or twelve. That’s my guess as to what it was. I discovered John Carter and Tarzan at about the same time and they both stuck. As did everything else in the Burroughs canon really. At that age, I just devoured the paperbacks one right after the other like chocolates from a Whitman’s sampler.
May: Did you have a preference between Tarzan and John Carter or did you like them both equally?
Marz: You know, I love them both dearly, but in different ways.
Obviously my first Tarzan exposure was the Johnny Weissmuller movies. I was five or six or whatever; watching those on Sunday mornings on cable TV. And then discovering that the Tarzan novels were not quite what the movies gave you. The novels were better, frankly, but also were much more fantastic with dinosaurs and lost cities and all of the fantasy elements. So I gravitated to that stuff very much and the John Carter stuff was even more fantastic.
They’re two characters that are in a lot of ways cut from the same cloth. They’re both noblemen; they’re both very much lords of the realm that they survey.
May: You mentioned the Weissmuller films. I want to talk about that just a little bit, because the jungle genre was so popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s, especially among kids. You even had those films going out of their way to appeal to kids, giving Tarzan this sidekick in Boy. Do you have any thoughts about how those stories or the jungle genre in general captured the imaginations of kids that way?
Marz: When those films were made – and even when I was a kid in the ‘70s – you didn’t have the exposure to nature films and the reality of the jungle that we have now. I can remember watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on Sunday nights as a kid, thinking that was just the coolest thing, because you got to see all the wildlife. And I’ve always been interested in animals and especially the African animals. So the Tarzan stuff scratches that itch for me.
May: So with the abundance of cool nature films – I mean, Disney’s doing one every year – where do you think the jungle genre stands today? Do you think it’s mostly nostalgic appeal to people our age who were kids during its heyday? Or is it still a viable genre for kids?
Marz: You know, I don’t know. I wrestle with that myself and I realize that the stuff I loved as a kid is not necessarily the stuff that kids now are going to love or feel the same way about when they discover it. But by the same token, Disney has a new nature movie opening this weekend, Bears, and my ten-year-old and thirteen-year-old now as of a few weeks ago are both dying to see it. Because they’re keen on that stuff just like I was as a kid. So I think there’s still interest in the natural world for kids who are exposed to it. We’ve certainly tried to expose our kids to nature and particularly to being responsible keepers of nature; especially animals.
So I think it’s there; I just don’t know how much of that pulp aspect of Tarzan appeals to kids today, because I don’t think they’re as exposed to it. And because also Africa was much more mysterious when these novels were being written. Now we know so much of the reality. Maybe we know a little too much of the reality.
Ultimately though, I think that as with anything the audience responds to a story that’s well told. Obviously that’s somewhat dependent on the zeitgeist and the genre in which you’re working, but I think that ultimately story trumps all and if you’re telling a good story you can get people interested in it.
May: Let’s dig into Korak a little bit. He’s the son of Tarzan, but he’s really different from Boy in the movies. Can you talk about those differences some? How and why was Korak created? What was the role he played in Burroughs’ Tarzan stories and how is that different from Boy?
Marz: Well, Boy was a politically correct fragment of that era. Tarzan and Jane weren’t actually married in the movies so they couldn’t have a kid. Egad! How would that ever be explained?
So in the films Boy was in a lot of ways comic relief and was a character you could place in danger to motivate Tarzan and move the plot forward.
The character from the novels is quite a bit different in that he’s an adult – or close to an adult – for most of the stories in which he appears. And you know, he’s known as Korak the Killer, so he’s not the, you know—
May: The plucky sidekick.
Marz: Yeah, he’s not the tousle-headed moppet that we’re familiar with from the films. Korak is an ass-kicker all on his own.
May: How is he different from his dad?
Marz: That’s something that we actually wrestle with in the strip. How is he different from his dad? There’s a certain similarity in terms of the overall look even though Korak is described as being bigger than Tarzan. If anything, he’s described as being an even more perfect physical specimen than Tarzan. So one of the things we wrestle with in the first storyline is how is he different from his father and can he live up to walking in his father’s shoes so to speak, even though obviously neither one of them wear shoes.
So some of the stuff that we’re trying to explore is the typical father/son stuff of this son trying to live up to his father’s reputation as well as get out from under his father’s shadow.
May: So does Tarzan – I don’t want you spoil anything if you’re not comfortable doing that – but is Tarzan a fairly major player in the strip? Or is he kind of background or a shadow or—?
Marz: He’s more of a background player, at least for a while, because we very much wanted to make sure that Korak could stand on his own as a character and as the protagonist of these strips without the shadow of Tarzan. I mean, in some ways we’re wrestling with the same questions in a creative sense that Korak is wrestling with within the strip.
May: So the shadow of Tarzan is obviously going to be there both for Korak and for you the creator and for me the reader without actually having to appear in the book at all, he’s just there. You know he’s there.
Marz: We made the choice that we couldn’t run away from that and just ignore it, but we couldn’t let it dominate the story either, because we’re not looking to tell stories about Tarzan Lite here.
May: How closely does the comic connect with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories? Are you just kind of taking those as a starting point and springing off completely in your own direction? Or are you going to reference things that actually happen in the books?
Marz: They fit in with the overall Tarzan chronology, but we’re definitely making stuff up. We’re not simply adapting existing stories. We wanted to let these stories stand on their own without being direct adaptations like we’re doing with The Mucker, which is the other strip I’m working on with Lee Moder.
So, yeah, all-new stories, but definitely fitting within the accepted Burroughs canon. And where we can we’re making at least subtle nods to some specifics from the books that hardcore Burroughs fans are going to get. And the people who aren’t as familiar with the original material won’t think anything differently.
May: You have Rick Leonardi drawing this thing, which is pretty amazing. Tell me about him. What does he bring to the strip?
Marz: Yeah, he’s pretty okay, huh?
May: Yeah, I want to gush on him in a minute, but I want to give you the chance to gush on him first.
Marz: Rick’s been a friend for years, we’ve worked together on a number of different things, and I think the world of him as a person and as an artist. Artistically, I just think he’s one of the best there is. There’s really nobody who does what he does. His style and his execution are pretty unique. There aren’t a bunch of Rick Leonardi clones out there, because frankly very few people have that level of drawing chops.
Originally, the plan was that Bart Sears was going to draw Korak. Bart – also being one of my best friends and a big fan of Burroughs and the genre in general – was going to do it and Bart did the initial ad piece that has this great shot of Korak against a full moon and really captures the sensibility in the image. But before we could really get into it, Bart’s schedule became too packed with other stuff, including The Protectors that we’re debuting at C2E2 with Athlitacomics, so we came to the decision – Bart and I were both in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for meetings for a different project – that we had to be realistic about his schedule and his ability to produce a strip every week.
So we came to the conclusion that Bart was going to have to bow out and I guess maybe even the next day, getting back from Florida, I happened to be talking to Rick on the phone about a different gig and I said, “Hey, by the way, Bart’s ducking out of Korak for schedule reasons. Do you have any interest in drawing that?” And really not thinking that Rick would have time to do it. But he said, “Yeah, I’ll do that!”
So there was not a huge plan here, I just happened to call my buddy and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” I had written the first month of strips already, so we literally got off the phone, I sent him the strips, and he started the next day.
May: So did you have to make any kind of changes going from thinking it was going to be Bart to now it’s going to be Rick? Or was that not really a problem?
Marz: Not really. I mean, Bart and Rick are both so terrific and actually both pretty individual. They’re both classic draftsmen, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve worked with both of them enough to know the kind of stuff that they can do, so I sent the strips to Rick and he was fine with them as they were. And I said, “Look, if you want to change something, go ahead,” but he literally jumped in the next day and just started turning out these absolutely stunning, graceful, Sunday pages.
May: Yeah, they’re beautiful, the one’s that I’ve seen so far and the ones you’ve given me some sneak peeks of. In fact, the one that you just sent me, it reminded me about one of the things I love about Rick’s work. I remember the first time I came across his stuff, I think it was Spider-Man 2099 and the world that he built for Spider-Man to inhabit in that was amazing. I was reminded of that looking at that big temple/lost city that you showed me in one of the upcoming strips.
Marz: Yeah, that’s strip number 5, I think.
May: And also the thing about Spider-Man 2099, one of the things I liked about that was the energy that he gave Spidey as he’s swinging around the city and I can just imagine what a great asset that’s going to be with somebody who’s swinging through the jungle.
Marz: Everything that Rick does is so graceful and fluid. I think Rick can draw anything. We’ve worked on outer space projects and period projects and contemporary projects. That said, the kind of stuff we’re going to do in Korak is so up his alley. I’m thrilled with what the stuff looks like.
May: Korak is part of a wide range of Edgar Rice Burroughs comics on EdgarRiceBurroughs.com and I’ve read a bunch of them and they’re all really great, but would it be undiplomatic to ask if you have any special favorites of the other ones that are out there?
Marz: I heard The Mucker’s really good.
I absolutely adore what Roy Thomas and Tom Grindberg are doing on the new adventures of Tarzan strip, because Tom’s work is so perfectly suited to the Tarzan stuff. It’s got such a Frazetta meets Neal Adams kind of feel. It’s just perfect for Tarzan. It looks lovely. My favorite of the strips on the Burroughs site is the one by Roy and Tom, because it has such a classic look and feel to it.
May: To wrap up, is there anything else about Korak that you want to mention or that you want people to know about it?
Marz: We should mention the colorist, who is Neeraj Menon and also doing the color on The Mucker. He’s a guy in India and just does amazing work. Rick Leonardi is pretty picky about his color and he just loves what Neeraj is doing. He’s brought a wonderful feel and palette to the strip and I couldn’t be happier with the way the whole thing’s turning out.
The other thing to mention is that readers might recognize a certain lost city within the Korak strip.
May: What’s it like working with Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.?
Marz: The strips are all generated by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., but there’s not really a lot of editorial oversight or anything like that. They just kind of let us do our thing and trust us to play nice with these icons that Burroughs created. And obviously everyone who’s involved with these things is really doing it out of love for the characters.
I actually got introduced to Jim Sullos at Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. by Joe Jusko, who is a friend. Obviously Joe is a huge Burroughs fan as well and he introduced us at San Diego a couple of years ago and Jim and I just stayed in touch and this is what came out of it.
Frankly, the coolest thing is to scratch a childhood itch and feel like in some way I’m giving back something to Burroughs, who was so inspirational for me to end up doing what I’m doing. If somebody out there discovers the Burroughs material through any of these strips, I feel like my efforts have been worthwhile.
Korak the Killer, The Mucker, and Thomas and Grindberg’s Tarzan are available with seven other, Burroughs-inspired comic strips on EdgarRiceBurroughs.com. Each strip is updated weekly and there are free samples of all ten. After the samples, subscribers can read the rest for $1.99/month.