OLD NEWS: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
A Comic Book Publishing Company Stillborn
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 2004
THE COMIC BOOKS
TARZAN'S TRAVAILSEerie #79, November 1976
You gotta believe me, folks, but I was honestly planning to bring you good news for a change.
I was gonna tell you all about this brand new comic-book publishing house anchored by Edgar Rice Burroughs characters such as Tarzan and John Carter of Mars and Korak. I was gonna tell you about how this company was really committed to intelligently presenting ERB's creations, not just using them to shore up a sagging corporate image not worth buttressing. I was gonna tell you how this company had the foresight and good sense to hire Mark Evanier as managing editor. I was even planning to tell you about all the artwork by Russ Manning, Dan Spiegle, Doug Wildey, Alex Nino and Pat Boyette that this company had planned to publish. Then the business of cmic books got in the way and my best-laid plans wet the way of so many sets of best-laid plans.
As many of you know, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., the company which controls the fate of all of ERB's materials, recently decided National Periodical Publications should no longer continue to produce comic-book adaptations of the late author's characters. According to a reliable source in the company, ERB, Inc. was displeased with National's stories and artwork on Burroughs characters and disappointed that the company had not lived up to an apparently unwritten agreement to promote the lesser-known Pellucidar and John Carter features. ERB, Inc. subsequently chose not to renew NPP's contract when it expired earlier this year.
Led by ERB, Inc. president Robert Hodes, the company planned to start their own comic-books publishing company in the United States to write, draw, publish and disseminate the further adventures of Tarzan, Korak, et al. The plan was ingenious, too. Since ERB, Inc. was already producing material for sale to foreign publishers who hold the rights of Burroughs' characters, Hodes calculated the overseas sales would underwrite American editorial costs, thus making a normally tricky decision to form a comic-book publishing company somewhat less risky.
Hodes then proceeded to hire Evanier, a long-time comic-book fan, comic-book and television writer and generally upright gentleman. Evanier contacted the aforementioned artists as well as writers such as Bill Rotsler, Don Glut and himself, to begin producing ERB stories. Although Evanier, a 24-year-old native Californian, had not been officially appointed managing editor of the ERB Comic-Book Division until April, production on the new material began at the beginning of 1976.
At the same time, Hodes also began making the necessary production decisions needed to start a new publishing venture. He reportedly mapped out an acceptable scenarior with both World Color Press, the nation's largest comic-book printer, and PDC, a large magazine distribution company which also handless Warren comics. Although no contracts were signed, everything seemed to be in good order.
Then the hassles came. The foreign publishers, who have the option to produce entirely new material for their market or purchase it from ERB, Inc., weren't as receptive to the Evanier-produced material as had been hoped. Although it seems unlikely that they were displeased with the quality of the work–they had been unimpressed with National's material including Joe Kubert's Tarzan–they just weren't buying.
Nevertheless, Hodes pressed on and Evanier and cohorts continued to produce material, backlogging it for future use.
About this time, however, the corporate roof fell in, too. Marion Burroughs, chairman of ERB, Inc., chose this time to end her reigh as absentee boss. While it is unclear why she stepped in when she did, it was quickly apparent that she was now interested in how her company was being run. One of her first decisions was to suspend production of all ERB material and at least temporality shelf the new company project. As result, as of this is written in late July, Tarzan and the other ERB characters are not being produced, have no contract with any American publisher after National's November releases, and apparently will not anchor a new publishing company in the immediate future.
As for the future of ERB material it seems reasonable to assume that Tarzan and the other characters will eventually get back into print somehow. ERB, Inc. could turn to Marvel and license them. Marvel would probably be interested, since it produced sample Tarzan strips in 1972 when the contract went from Gold Key to National. Or ERB, Inc. could license Gold Key again, resuming an association with Western Publishing which dates back to 1939 and Western's old Dell line. It would even renegotiate with National since NPP president Sol Harrison has let it be known he would be amenable to publishing stories produced by ERB, Inc. rather than his own staff. On the long-shot list, Charlton might be interested, but ERB, Inc. has never quite forgotten that the Derby, Conn. Company produced several unauthorized Tarzan adaptations in the 1960s.
If I were a Burroughs fan, I would be terribly worried, though. Tarzan, and to a lesser extent, Korak and the other characters are too valuable in terms of corporate prestige, potential comic-book sales and other dollar-oriented fringes to be out of the comic market for too long.
It's just that I had so wanted to be the bearer of glad tidings just this once.
Tell it like it is...there was a time when we Baby Boomers thought ERB would always be large and in charge. Particularly in the comic books arena. For years we had enjoyed Tarzan in comics through Dell and later, Gold Key. Then things began to change.
In the column to the right is an article written by Joe Brancatelli, which originally appeared as a feature in Warren Magazine's EERIE #79 (1976). My column is commentary on his column and my memories of those years
Way back when (late 1960s, early 1970s) the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs was a sudden gold mine of big bucks for paperback book publishing companies. Ace Science Fiction brought out a dozen or so titles in the early 1960s which prompted Ballantine books to bring out other titles. Next thing we knew there was a blizzard of long forgotten titles by Edgar Rice Burroughs being rushed into print. And we loved it!
Almost as rapidly was a belated response by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. to regain control of the works of ERB. Copyrights were reaffirmed and renewed and, after a series of conferences and a few court challenges, ERB, Inc. came out on top and began to manage the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs in a new decade--which included the characters of ERB as found in comic books.
In those years the paperbacks was the initial bread and butter for ERB, Inc., but other markets required a re-affirmation of a previous long time association with comic books. The Gold Key license was renewed and enjoyed a long period of success in sales and productivity, but when a highwater mark occurred and sales began to slump ERB, Inc.'s association with Western began to sag. Meanwhile, the newspaper syndication of Tarzan ebbed and flowed, with the flow generally being an ebb during the 1970s.
At the beginning of the seventh decade of the Twentieth Century National Periodicals (DC Comics) was granted license to the characters of Edgar Rice Burroughs and once again new tales of Tarzan and Korak (the bread and butter of ERB in comicdom) were being produced. Along side the top characters were new stories and adaptations of David Innes, Carson Napier, and John Carter illustrated by giants in comic book art for the era. Unfortunately, the issues looked really good visually but were handicapped in some cases by sad or absurb scripts.
Personal Aside: I doggedly bought many of these issues. Each month I groaned at yet another castration or abomination of ERB's works and values. By the time magic and other supernatural forces became routine fodder for ERB character struggles I quit buying...
ERB, Inc. eventually pulled the plug on DC and granted licence to Marvel, creators of Fantastic Four, etc. Sadly, this was not a happy marriage of talent. Marvel took the characters of ERB into directions which did not fit "canon." In other words, the characters were taken even further astray than the scripts of the DC comics. Ultimately, as a result, there was a period of time when there were no ERB characters in comic book print.
The Brancatelli article at right reveals what we as readers already knew: Burroughs would not have been happy with the iterations produced. The article also reveals there were other forces at work. Why Marion Burroughs exercised her power at that time at ERB, Inc. is not fully chronicled, but the effect of her presence is known: slow-down, re-think, do-different. The result was sufficent to put ERB in comics down for a number of years. Hindsight indicates the decisions made put the big kibosh on ERB characters in comics and, to a nearly equal extent, in the movies.
To be fair, corporations are entities with a life of their own. Sometimes guided by those at the top, sometimes guided by market pressure, sometimes not guided at all. Why the potential ERB, Inc. Comic-Book Divison failed to occur is one of those might-have-been stories. What might have been?
In recent years, ERB, Inc. has begun a re-development of ERB characters in comic books. Dark Horse Comics has produced a fair number of issues, including the graphic novel Tarzan, The Lost Adventure which was inspired by the Tarzan manuscript fragment found in the company safe many years after the death of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story was completed by Joe Lansdale. From that beginning Tarzan was taken on a number of adventures by the Dark Horse crew such as the Paris of the Phantom of the Opera, Mars and Venus, and Predator (the movie critter).
Where the future of ERB characters in comic books might go is anyone's guess at this time. I may not be a future buyer since comic books aren't quite as much fun for me as they used to be, but I do hope Tarzan and friends enjoy many years in the graphic illustration genre. After all, many readers of the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs first "discover" this great American author after reading the pages of vibrantly colored pages in comic books.