Courageous, Intelligent, Steadfast, Imperialist

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Tarzan (a.k.a. John Clayton, Viscount of Greystoke) is the quintessential feral child (albeit with a stylish haircut). Tarzan is athletic, handsome, and tanned, with grey eyes and long black hair (a mod and rocker). He experiences civilization only to return to the wild as a hero to and protector of man and beast (and Jane). He is the prototypical survivalist cum environmentalist. That he is white, raised by giant apes in the African jungle, is an interesting literary conceit by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but the colonial implications make for a curious blend of noble savagery and white superiority. Is he the next hero of the Right or the Left? His fictional life is the stuff of paradox.

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan premiered as the novel Tarzan of the Apes (magazine publication 1912, book publication 1914), and subsequently in 25 sequels, several authorized books by other authors, and innumerable works in other media, both authorized and unauthorized. The film version of Tarzan as the noble savage (“Me Tarzan, You Jane”) with Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan (as Jane) were never my favorite films. Lex Barker (below) was better cast because, well, just because.

Granted, I don’t know much about the Tarzan history – in my comic books he didn’t hold a candle to kindred exemplars of strength and fortitude. The novels were extremely popular as was the strip when it appeared in 1929 by Harold Foster. But ultimately Tarzan (part two of my short rant on Tonto’s significance yesterday), was, for me, just one more caricature of insulting exploitation in the guise of heroism. Or maybe I’m just being what Bill Maher calls a snowflake. Either way . . . Me Steven, you. . . .whatever!

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →