I’m starting my look at how to ‘rejuvenate’ various pop-culture/genre characters with Tarzan, because his is the most obvious, and I’d be very astonished if someone hadn’t done this already.
The thing about Tarzan is, if you just look at the character, it’s almost impossible for anyone today to write him as a hero. Here you’ve got a member of the white aristocracy, living in Africa, having chosen to ‘return to nature’ and ‘strip off the thin veneer of civilisation’. There’s a very patronising imperialist… not even subtext, as much as surtext here.
So I propose we go with it all the way.
John Clayton III, Viscount Greystoke, returned to Britain in the 1970s after being discovered by the Porter family – his own father, a minor colonial administrator in a small African colony, had died during the armed insurgency that had brought about the colony’s independence, and everybody had assumed the boy had died along with them. His claims that his father had been killed by a giant ape were dismissed as a combination of the racism common to his class and his imperfect understanding of English – he was clearly confusing the words ‘gorilla’ and ‘guerilla’.
Along with his wife, the young Clayton became something of a mascot for the Clermont Set – the group of billionaire right-wing aristocrats that included James Goldsmith (whose son is now environmental advisor to the Conservative party) and his brother Teddy (co-founder of the Green Party), murderer Lord Lucan, asset-stripper Jim Slater, and John Aspinall (the owner of a zoo where the keepers are encouraged to socialise with the animals, resulting in a ludicrous number of keeper deaths a year, who called for the death of the majority of the human race in order to save the planet, and who tried to engineer a fascist coup in Britain around this time).
While most of the Clermont Set were absurd, repulsive figures who pontificated about the environment from a position of grotesque privilege, Clayton was different. He had known real hardship, having had to fend for himself from an incredibly early age. He was lean and muscular, unlike his corpulent mentors, and also very charming, and he was simultaneously principled and trusting of his new friends.
And he shared one important characteristic with them – because of his upbringing, when he’d not known a single other human being from the ages of one to sixteen, he had absolutely no regard for human life. So he became a fervent supporter of their ‘law of the jungle’ philosophy – a very dangerous mix of right-wing libertarianism, environmental fundamentalism and fascism. So he moved back to the jungle to become an eco-warrior. In a very literal sense.
Tarzan has committed to protecting the animals from the ‘savages’ who are running the country he grew up in, and he has absolutely no compunction about killing people to do this. He will protect those who still live tribally, in a rather patronising manner, but even those are fair game if they hunt protected species. He is charming, handsome, and *utterly* self-controlled, knowing exactly what every muscle in his body is doing at any moment, and exactly what’s going on around him – skills he had to pick up to survive in a wild environment – so looking permanently relaxed except when he leaps into action.
But most of the time, Tarzan is doing ‘the right thing’, but for what most people would consider utterly wrong reasons. He’s perfectly willing to lay down his life to protect animals, and will go to huge lengths to save the rainforest he grew up in, but there’s not an ounce of compassion or empathy in him. He does it just because he thinks it’s the right thing to do, without even really understanding what ‘right thing to do’ means.
This means that for most purposes, we can still tell normal ‘Tarzan jungle adventures’ as before – bad thing happens, Tarzan swings down on creeper, saves the day, job done. And you start the series with this kind of story – the background is only drip-fed in slowly over the course of the series, as you begin to realise what kind of person Tarzan really is.
The problem with this, of course, is that it damages the character for others. And this is why Jane is an important character.
Jane, when she married Tarzan, was a rather dizzy socialite, well-meaning but utterly uninformed about the world outside a small circle of the super-rich. When they moved to England, she never particularly liked her husband’s new friends, more just because they seemed personally unpleasant than for any other reason, but as they spent most of their time together in an exclusively masculine environment, she didn’t particularly mind it. She agreed to move back to Africa with her husband, partly because you do what your husband does, partly because she’d always liked animals, and partly because it sounded like quite a fun lark to spend a couple of years living like ‘a primitive’.
But after being dropped into a situation she could never have imagined, Jane discovers she actually *cares* about this stuff. She actually cares about animals, nursing them back to health. She actually worries about the morality of interfering with tribal cultures, but also of denying those people the benefits that come with western civilisation. In short, she grows up. And she starts to become horrified at what her husband actually is.
So the second ‘arc’ of stories is simply Jane trying to connect Tarzan’s (usually) correct actions to correct thoughts, trying to turn his real love for her into compassion for other people. Partly, this is done by gathering a group of assistants for him, who he cares about first because they’re essential to ‘the mission’, but as time goes on this becomes a more general real affection. These characters can also function to help generate adventures, and should come from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible (a minor government official who feeds Tarzan information, a doctor who helps treat his injuries, a criminal who’s on the run and hiding out in the area of the jungle where Tarzan lives, and so on).
She succeeds, and over the course of a year or two we essentially see him grow up, and turn into a fully mature human being, who remains in the jungle because he cares, rather than because it’s the right thing to do.
Touchstone characters – at the start, B’Wana Beast, Rorshach, James Bond, Frank Miller Batman. By the end, Tom Strong, Robin Hood, Grant Morrison Batman.