Tantor Trumpets - by Ken Webber
Allan Gross Interview
Originally appeared in
Burroughs Bulletin #43
Internet version copyright © 2001
All Rights Reserved.
For those who have not seen the strip recently, the United Features Syndicate (UFS) Tarzan newspaper strip currently uses reprints for the daily continuity, currently utilizing Bob Lubbers work from the 1950s. The only new material being produced is for the Sunday strip, usually broken up into 16 week story arcs. Since 1983 Gray Morrow has been the artist producing the strip, which has been the longest run of any artist on the strip. Don Kraar was Gray's writing partner on the strip until the spring of 1993. After that a number of writers did audition stories for the syndicate, and Allan Gross, a fellow Burroughs Bibliophile, was awarded the strip's writing chores. Gray Morrow was interviewed about his work on the strip in the New Series Burroughs Bulletin #1. Allan was interviewed in BB#19. Now that he has inherited the writing mantle, we felt it was timely to talk to Allan and take a fresh look at the strip.
BB: Congratulations, Allan. Share with us how you got the script writing job.
AG: I heard about the script writing job two summers ago, when the National Capitol Panthans( my local chapter of the Burroughs Bibliophiles) were hosting the 1998 Dum-Dum. Long time fan and artist Dave Hoover told me that it might be available. I hadn't followed the strip, but I wasn't too busy then so I decided to look into it. It was actually pretty easy from there on out. Timing is everything I suppose. I called Amy Lago, the editor up at United Media and she just happened to need a script. I sent her a few ideas. We settled on one and I went from there. I think it set the tone for the type of story I would try to do, focusing heavily on the characters.
BB: What writing background did you bring to the strip and what else are you working on now?
AG: In many ways my writing career started with ERB. Like most Burroughs Bibliophiles I loved ERB's writing and wanted to emulate it. So I began practicing writing by doing 'fan fiction'. And it was one of those stories that landed me my first professional gig. In a strange twist of fate, an advertisement that I ran in the BB was answered by Mark Wheatley, who at the time was writing the 'Tarzan the Warrior" comic book for Malibu. He happened to live near me in Baltimore and he and studio mate, Marc Hempel (who did the covers and inking for "Warrior") came by my house to buy some Burroughs books. We got to talking and I showed Mark what I had written. One thing led to another and Mark suggested I try my hand at a Tarzan comic.
I pitched a few ideas (with Mark's help) to the Semic International editor, Henning Kure, and he accepted them. I ended up writing two single issue stories for Semic and a partially completed seven part series. The first story was called Tarzan and the Two Graves. It dealt with Tarzan rescuing Kala's bones from an anthropologist. It was published only in foreign language editions. The second was Law of the Jungle which was an inner city story where Tarzan's necklace is stolen by gang members. That was an interesting story in that there was no dialog. The captions that tell the story are Rudyard Kipling's poem Law of the Jungle.
Unfortunately Semic stopped publishing before that or my seven part series, Tarzan Eternal were published. Tarzan Eternal was an amazing story that Henning, Mark and I worked out about Tarzan during the Mau-Mau revolution and how it changed Tarzan's life forever. Though it was never published, I hold out hope it can be revived and I used some of the themes for Dark Horse Comics' Tarzan and the Legion of Hate, which I wrote as a prequel to Tarzan Eternal. Even though a lot of the Semic work never was published, it was good experience and eventually led to writing Tarzan and the Legion of Hate and Tarzan Eternal for Dark Horse Comics. I've also co-written stories with Mark Wheatley for DC Comics and have done a couple of TV scripts for Henning Kure for an upcoming show called Troll Tales. However, my most satisfying work has been my self published comics series, Doctor Cyborg. That was culminated with the collected edition called The Clone Conspiracy. I've also written for the Insight Studios Group pulp homage, Titanic Tales where I collaborated on a story with artist and fellow ERB fan, Frank Cho. It was the science fiction story called 'Bride of the Beast Man'. I'll be starting up a new on-line series of Doctor Cyborg this summer as well as working on one called The Body with Mark Wheatley and Gray Morrow. There should eventually be a follow up to Titantic Tales. I try to stick with what interests me, which means working on characters I like and with creators I admire and respect.
BB: Tell us about the stories that you have written for the 'Tarzan' strip up to now.
AG: They don't run with titles, but I have given them my own titles. Over the past year and a half, I have written five stories. They were:
Jane's Quest: 2/7/99-5/23/99
A mysterious illness fells Tarzan. Jane seeks out the Great Apes, La of Opar and a witch doctor in the hopes of curing what modern science cannot. An interesting side note is that this story originally dealt with Tarzan and Jane's longevity treatment wearing off. However, the syndicate decided they didn't want to explore this aspect of Tarzan. So I modified the ending to make their love itself (rather than the agent in Jane's blood) the cure. In the end, I liked the new ending more than the original, particularly the comparison of Tarzan as nature and Jane as civilization.
Tarzan and the New Atlantis: 5/30/99-9/12/99
After doing Jane's Quest, I wanted to do a more straightforward adventure. Tarzan begins a Pellucidarian journey through an Oparian portal to the hidden world. There he finds the ancestors of ancient Opar. Tarzan saves enslaved ape-like residents of this corner of Pellucidar from the ancient Oparians and restores balance to the community by showing them how to use the technology they had long forgotten to do their work instead of the slaves.
The Face in the Swamp: 9/19/99-1/2/00
In this story, I wanted explore the moment in Tarzan of the Apes where the young Tarzan saves himself from Sabor by diving into the pond. His young ape friend is killed but Tarzan survives and learns to swim. The story revolves around a Gorbus, one of the albino humanoids in Pellucidar who have distant memories of being murderers on the surface world. Tarzan saves a Gorbus who is trying to escape from the tribe. Unlike most of the Gorbus who were "true" murderers, this Gorbus committed suicide. He blamed himself for the deaths of women and children when he took up life boat space following the torpedoing of the Lusitania. Through Tarzan's story of his childhood and Tarzan's heroic actions, the Gorbus learns he can redeem himself and sacrifices himself to save Tarzan.
The Roof of the World: 1/9/00-4/23/00
This is a story that had been in my head since I read Tarzan at the Earth's Core. What if Tarzan had mentioned the surface world to the Horibs? So I just assumed he did. As Tarzan continues his present travels in Pellucidar he comes across just such a Horib. This Horib was so inspired by Tarzan's description of the surface world that he led the tribe to search Pellucidar to find a way to the surface. Finally, they found a tunnel and the Horibs are excavating it to try to reach "The Roof of the World". They capture Tarzan while they are slaughtering Thags for meat for the journey. Tarzan willingly acts as a guide so that he can get back home, but when Tarzan learns that there is another surface world captive (a woman named Moxie) in the party his plans change. In order to save her, Tarzan escapes and is forced to return to Pellucidar. I enjoyed writing this story, particularly the scene where Tarzan and the Horib leader fight. Tarzan stops the ceiling from caving in long enough for the Horib to save its young and in return the Horib helps Tarzan. They gain mutual respect and we also see the similarities in their sense of adventure. The stinger at the end of the story occurs when Tarzan and Moxie don't see the nearby Iron Mole which created the tunnel. Instead they go off to search for another way home.
Flight From Pellucidar: 4/30/00-8/13/00
It was now time to wrap up the Pellucidar saga. The final segment was a more traditional Tarzan story. I wanted to do some humor and character bits. As Moxie and Tarzan make their way to Moxie's plane (near the Southern polar entrance) Tarzan continually amazes Moxie. She can't believe what he manages with handmade weapons, his ability to communicate with the animals and his amazing resolve. They fly her plane out into the ice and Tarzan must reach the Antarctic base on foot. This results in a near death experience (with Kala's memory) driving him on. When they are rescued, the once skeptical Moxie is now Tarzan's biggest fan, as if she had known all along he could do it. In the end, Tarzan, the self-reliant survivalist, only wants one thing - a phone so he can call Jane and check in.
BB: How does writing for the weekly strip differ than writing for comics?
AG: The main difference is the format. A strip needs to be a self contained and yet continuous. In the Sunday format, you have somewhere in the neighborhood of six to eight panels to tell your story. Unfortunately, most papers don't run the first two panels (to save space) so these are usually reserved for a review of what happened last week or some nonessential embellishment of the story. I have to remember that most readers will not have the advantage of seeing these panels. So, I'm usually left with four to six panels to make an interesting strip with a dramatic punch line and a set up for the next week. I have written all of my stories in sixteen week segments. By the way, currently, the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts is the only paper that runs the full strip (about 80% of the time). I should add that we owe them a debt of gratitude for doing this and that they are willing to send the paper or comics section to fans who want to subscribe.
BB: Talk about Gray Morrow and you. You mentioned other projects you're working on together?
AG: Working with Gray has really been the highlight of the project. I knew very little about him or his career when I started. Not only have we now collaborated on a eighty weeks worth of Tarzan stories, but this summer we are working on producing an on-line Internet strip called The Body. It was created by Mark Wheatley. Gray is doing the art and Mark and I are co-writing it. It is a perfect strip for Gray, mixing in science fiction and beautiful women, two of his renowned specialties. And Gray is turning out some absolutely marvelous work. Anyone who is interested can see it our web site: www.insightstudiosgroup.com Fans can also sign up to have the strips emailed to them everyday for free. Or just come back to the part of our web site we are calling "Sunny Fundays." It is our version of "what the comics page should be". For now it is featuring The Body, my Doctor Cyborg strip, Mark Wheatley's Frankenstein Mobster and Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows (including his uncensored strips that don't make the newspapers). And it also looks like Gray and Insight Studios will collaborate on several other projects planned for next summer. One will be a collection of his work. If any Burroughs fans have any nice original paintings that Gray has done and would like to see them in the book, they should contact us at the studio (email@example.com).
BB: When you took on the strip what did you want to bring to it?
AG: I think that the one thing I really wanted to bring to the strip was more in depth characterization. The stories shouldn't be heroic stories where one can substitute any hero. It should be a story about Tarzan and specific issues or situations that make it truly a Tarzan story. I don't mean the fact that he can climb trees or talk to apes. I mean the very essence of what Tarzan is about. This is where a lot of the movies, TV shows, etc. really miss the mark. While I walked a fine line of trying to always provide a good action story, I also tried to add a thought provoking level to each story. This included themes like the relationship of Tarzan and Jane, the fascinating aspects of Tarzan's childhood, Tarzan's dual animal/human persona, etc. It is similar to what I tried to do in my comic books for Dark Horse.
BB: I like that strong approach toward characterization. I also have found the humor that you inject into the strip to be very natural and fitting. What kind of feedback have you received?
AG: Thanks. I have made an effort to make it humorous at times. It's important that the strip is fun to read if we're going to reach a large and varied audience again. Unfortunately, there hasn't been too much feedback from the strip. This is understandable since the strip is not in many papers. Some of the Internet web sites have posted my address and I've gotten positive comments this way on all of my Tarzan work. The Internet is great for that. It's nice to be able to chat with fans efficiently. I hope that after this article I will get more from those who did not know how to contact me. My personal email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
BB: Is there any way to get Tarzan in our local paper?
AG: I began to put together promotional material to attempt to make papers aware that Tarzan lives and all the good reasons why it should be in their papers. However, it is not easy. Even if a newspaper features editor wished to put Tarzan in the paper it usually requires bumping another strip and that can be a difficult and delicate situation. Also, as an employee of UFS I am in a strange position and don't feel right taking an active role in such an effort. It should really come from the Burroughs Bibliophiles or a grass roots effort from the fans. They should definitely try, but realize that there may be roadblocks. For example, it doesn't help that only new Sunday material is being produced. But it's a Catch-22 since it's just no profitable at this point to produce a daily strip. I suppose that in the not so distant future the logistics could change. The Internet is going to change the way papers operate. If there truly is an interest in Tarzan (outside of what Disney offers) it would actually become apparent, since statistics on web page visits are easily measured. If the interest isn't there, then there's nothing that can be done. While UFS certainly would like to expand its base, Tarzan isn't a big seller I could see why they can't put all of their resources into promoting it. Given the small circulation, it's been great that they've even been willing to keep it going.
BB: Can you explain why Lee Falk's The Phantom, the other jungle strip is in over 450 papers and Tarzan is in only a hundred or so, and just a dozen in the USA?
AG: It's a good question. There's probably a lot of answers. Perhaps Burroughs' fans were not vocal enough when Tarzan was disappearing. It's also possible that a factor was that Tarzan was not the image they wanted to portray. There has always been that question of Tarzan as a "racist image". Most papers are very sensitive to PC concerns as you can see from the demographics of the current strips. Anyone who knows my work, knows that I have striven to address that question when I wrote "Tarzan and the Legion of Hate" for Dark Horse. The story showed that Tarzan is not a racist, though there may be a "racist image" associated with him. I felt it was a very powerful story and got very positive feedback for the way I handled it. It really is up to fans to contact their papers. They do take that seriously.
BB: What would you have them tell their papers?
AG: Here is a little blurb I wrote up on "The Tarzan Tradition in the Newspaper." I suggest they copy this or write something similar and send it off to their local paper. There are also resources on the Internet that will allow some industrious fan (or fans better yet) to get a list of all the major papers and bulk mail them. One is at www.mediainfo.com.
Dear Features Editor:
Tarzan is arguably the most identifiable character of twentieth century fiction, achieving the elite status of a modern day myth. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs have been translated into nearly every language and his books have sold hundreds of millions of copies. New editions continue to be published today. There have been more than sixty major motion pictures, hundreds of television shows, myriad comic books and an uncountable number of toys and Tarzan-related merchandise. Tarzan comic strips have been serialized in newspapers from 1929 to the present!
Tarzan's longevity and continued profitability have been proven by Disney's latest movie version and its decision to keep making Tarzan films. Disney has gobbled up nearly every Tarzan license for its franchise and continues to bring new Tarzan items to the marketplace for this generation's fans. Even without these recent inductees, there would still be millions of Tarzan supporters across the country eager to read a Tarzan strip. As a member of the Burroughs Bibliophiles, I speak for thousands of highly active fans in dozens of fan clubs worldwide dedicated to promoting the work of the great American author Edgar Rice Burroughs. We are devoting our efforts toward letting everyone know that a modern day high quality Tarzan strip is being produced and distributed by United Media. This comic strip contains new stories in the Tarzan tradition but with modern relevance. In this day and age, it is more important than ever that a positive role model be presented to our kids - and to all adventure hungry readers who are still young at heart. Put Tarzan in your paper and make a difference in the world!
BB: Has the Disney Tarzan movie had any spillover on your efforts?
AG: For some reason, it does not appear that Disney has taken much of an interest in the Tarzan strip. It's unfortunate in some ways, because as I've learned from my experiences with the Burroughs Bibliophiles, many of the long time fans first were introduced to Tarzan through the newspaper strip. And there might be more papers interested if they were to use the Disney Tarzan character in the strip. However, that might not be what the hardcore fans would want. With only some minor changes we're able to do the "true" Tarzan. Certainly I prefer it that way. Then again I became a fan from the reruns of the Weismuller movies and still was able to appreciate the books.
BB: What is in store for the future for you?
AG: UFS is still planning to use other writers as well and after this stint with Tarzan in Pellucidar there will at least be a story or two by some of the previous ones. I'll miss it for the moment, but I'm pretty busy with The Body and Doctor Cyborg right now so a breather isn't the worst thing in the world. However, when they contact me I'll be raring to go again. I even have outlines for a couple stories ready that I think are my best yet. And they will bring in characters from ERB's other series in a way I think everyone will really enjoy. I know that Gray really wants to work with me and hopes that we'll be able to continue on as the regular Tarzan writer. Of course we will still be teaming up on The Body. I encourage anyone who feels strongly about having me as the Tarzan writer to contact UFS (www.unitedmedia.com) and let them know you enjoyed my work and how much you appreciate their effort to continue producing a quality product. Whatever happens, I feel fortunate to have been part of the Tarzan newspaper tradition. As time and energy permit I will try to continue on as a Tarzan writer in one fashion or another. I like to think that (like Philip Jose Farmer) I will get my chance to do an authorized Tarzan novel one day. I have several ideas brewing for such an undertaking. In the meantime, I wait with the patience of our favorite ape-man.