THE GREAT ERB REVIVAL
Copyright © 2000
It's hard to imagine it today, but 40 years ago Edgar Rice Burroughs was considered a children's writer. Only a handful of his books were in print, eight or nine Tarzan titles, and they were published as a matched, cheap ($1.00 apiece) set of hardcovers by Grosset & Dunlap. The only place you could find them was in the Juvenile or Young Adult section of your local bookstore.
Mars? Venus? Pellucidar? If you were born after 1940, there was an excellent chance you didn't know they existed. Yes, ERB Inc. reprinted the Mars and Venus books, but their distribution was dreadful. For example, in Chicago, where I grew up — the second-biggest city in America — only one establishment, Carson Pirie Scott (a department store, not a bookstore) carried the ERB reprints.
All that was soon to change.
I still remember the first of the Ace reprints -- it was half of The Moon Maid (Ace specialized in splitting any ERB book that was, well, splittable) with a cover by Roy Krenkel.
Science fiction by Mr. Tarzan? Science fiction that wasn't set on Barsoom or Amtor?
I bought it. So did thousands of others.
And pretty soon we began to realize the full extent of ERB's vast imagination — Africa, Mars, Venus, Pellucidar, the Moon, Poloda, Caspak, the Niocine, the Apache books, the cowboy books. And we discovered two brilliant artists who came to be associated with him in the 1960s as J. Allen St. John had been in the 1920s and 1930s -- Frank Frazetta and Roy G. Krenkel.
And just about the time Burroughs fans thought things couldn't get any better, especially after that long drought when so much of his work was out of print, presumably forever...why, Dick Lupoff took over the editorship of Canaveral Press. Not only did they print hardcovers of known titles, but they began bringing out brand-new titles as well.
Then ERB, Inc. got into the act itself, bringing out I Am A Barbarian.
With this plethora of Burroughs titles, of course fandom began getting organized. The Burroughs Bibliophiles were formed at the 1962 Worldcon in Chicago, and Vern Coriell resurrected the Burroughs Bulletin. Pete Ogden was publishing ERBania, and then Camille Cazedessus brought out ERB-dom and Paul Allen followed with The Barsoomian.
New artists started getting noticed. Jeff Jones was probably the best of them, but there was Larry Ivie, and Neal MacDonald, and Bob Barrett, and a host of others.
In 1965, the Burroughs fans, declining to follow the Worldcon across the ocean to England, held their first independent Dum-Dum in Chicago. It was a smashing success.
By 1966, the Burroughs Wave was riding high. ERB-dom became the first (and only) Burroughs fanzine to win the Best Fanzine Hugo. The Barsoom novels were nominated for Best All-Time Series (along with Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, Heinlein's Future History, Doc Smith's Lensman series, and the eventual winner, Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.) Frank Frazetta picked up the Hugo as Best Pro Artist (an award Roy Krenkel had won three years earlier).
New titles were appearing all the time. Tarzan and the Madman. "The Wizard of Venus." Tarzan and the Castaways. "Savage Pellucidar". I Am A Barbarian. A two-in-one hardcover of the Tarzan Twins books, which had been prohibitively expensive for a third of a century. Word came that they'd uncovered Marcia of the Doorstep. Irwin Porges was working on his massive ERB biography. The Burroughs family hired Bob Hodes to run the corporation, and soon Hodes had Tarzan and John Carter back in the comic books, and plans were afoot for the movie that eventually became Greystoke.
And then, not overnight, not so fast that anyone noticed it, the wave was gone. Oh, the Burroughs books remained in print for the most part, and before too long George McWhorter began a new and beautiful incarnation of the Burroughs Bulletin, and the Dum-Dums continued, and Disney made a mint on its animated Tarzan movie -- but that first flush of excitement was gone.
The Dum-Dums haven't been held in conjunction with the Worldcon for twenty years now, and that's probably fitting, since neither seems to have any great interest in the other. Burroughs, who once couldn't get onto the shelves of some public libraries, is now so respected that two years ago I wrote an introduction to the University of Nebraska's reprint of The Land That Time Forgot.
ERB and his work are on dozens of web pages. Colleges now concede his importance to the field of science fiction. Major movie studios have renewed interest in Tarzan. Disney will be coming out with a John Carter film before too long. ERB is here to stay this time.
But there will never again be the excitement and the sense of discovery his work generated in the 1960s. He's better known, better respected, more widely read now, his fandom's better organized, his reputation has been rebuilt -- but I wish you could have been around then, when the world was just finding him again.
It was really something.