Tarzan Helps Launch New Superhero Industry


In 1930, Tarzan went into a few newspapers and was being drawn by Max Naxon.  The Great Depression was now taking hold. Banks and companies were going bankrupt, Twenty million people were out of work. The government was trying to start massive works projects to give people jobs and income. Thousands were waiting in soup lines to stave off starvation. Hundreds of people were committing suicide after losing their jobs and fortunes. Many, right in front of Palenski & Young’s windows on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The art agency had virtually no business, and Hal Foster was forced to fish off Lake Michigan to feed his wife and two sons.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was not making the money he had hoped for by putting Tarzan into the Sunday papers. He was unhappy with Naxon’s depiction of Tarzan. So, he insisted that Hal Foster should take over.  Foster was in no position to refuse. The  $75.00 dollars per week he was paid, was divided between the three other artists at the Studio. Foster made major changes in the Tarzan page.

1. He took out the balloons with the dialogue. He felt it distracted the reader and blocked the art work. He put the sentences under the picture in the panel.

2. His drawings used a single light source, which created shadows and gave a three dimensional effect unheard of in the comics of that day. All other comics were flat, one dimensional, with no backgrounds.

3. Previously, black and white  ink pages were submitted to the printers who used their own judgement for the coloring. Foster, a highly trained artist, submitted a second copy that he colored himself. He asked the printers to come as close to his version as they could.

All these changes made the Tarzan page so different from any other Sunday comic page, that people started following his adventures every Sunday. Many were in the dinosaur fantasy area.

The drawings were superb, better than anything in the comics of that day. Tarzan became a Harry Potter like sensation. Circulation grew.  A new audience was being created.  Neebe was now able to sell advertisements in the comics sections. Editors in many papers saw income rising. Many newspapers were saved from bankruptcy. Editors demanded more and more super hero adventure stories. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Jungle Jim, Terry and the Pirates, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, the Lone Ranger, Steve Canyon, all followed. Later came Superman, Batman, Ironman, Captain American, the Avengers, 007 James Bond, the Hulk, and all the rest.

The next installment will tell you where to get more information about this era in art and commercial history. Books about Hal Foster at Amazon.com, and Fantagraphics Books, and short videos on youtube.

I came across a copy of two years of Tarzan pages by Hal Foster this year. While reading the pages, I actually could feel the impact it must have had on the readers in the 1930’s. I could see how it caused such a sensation. Perhaps you will too. If you can find a copy, you may be able to relive a great moment in art and commercial history.

Good Luck


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