Review: Tarzan vs. Predator: At the Earth's Core trade paperback (Dark Horse Comics)

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

It’s a sad truth that the Dark Horse omnibuses, while extremely thorough, simply won’t be able to collect every single story that they would otherwise contain due to rights issues. One such overlooked story is Tarzan vs. Predator: At the Earth's Core. The rights to the Tarzan comic book license are complex due to difficulties with the public domain status of the novels as well as ownership by multiple publishers. In fact, Lord Greystoke has the unusual distinction of being in comics by Marvel and DC at different points. With Dark Horse expanding the Aliens vs. Predator franchise, I hope that they will take the chance to republish this trade paperback, because it’s truly excellent work.

This is a comic that already had me hooked by the title, but add Walter Simonson and Lee Weeks and the magic really begins. I usually wince when a trade has a prologue from an editor talking about how much the creative team loves the characters they’ve written and drawn; it comes across as trying to make an excuse in case the reader gets angry. But this is one case where the editor, Peet Janes, is dead-on about Simonson and Weeks being big fans of Tarzan and of one version in particular. This comic is effectively an original Edgar Rice Burroughs novel in graphic novel form.

If you’re not familiar with the many incarnations of Tarzan, there are major differences between Burroughs’s original character from “Tarzan of the Apes” and the common image of him primarily created by the Johnny Weissmuller films. The novel and Tarzan vs. Predator Tarzan speaks perfect English, works with a group of African bushmen, and leaps between trees rather than swinging on vines. He’s an English gentleman who reverts to his ape-like mind whenever trouble strikes; today we call it “Hulking out." It’s a far cry from the vine-swinger who can barely string a sentence together and hangs out with a chimpanzee. That’s not to say that the film and television incarnations have nothing of substance; the Tarzan yell is a pop culture icon, and to be totally honest, I kind of wanted Cheetah to show up here. It’s just that most modern projects, like the terrible film Greystoke, don’t take advantage of the original concept.

Oh, right, there are Predators in this comic too. They’re not a major focus since Yautja almost never have actual dialogue or character development; they’re a species of slasher movie villains and we love them for it. Their role could be replaced by an opposing tribe of natives or an invading white army if not for one key factor: they help connect the story to the Pellucidar novels, Burroughs’ series of novels about the Hollow Earth. Tarzan had previously crossed over with the Pellucidar characters in the novel Tarzan at the Earth’s Core; this comic serves as a direct sequel to that novel. This is a little alienating at first, but Simonson and Weeks recap the novel’s major events to get the reader up to speed.

This relative lack of crossover elements is one of the few weaknesses of Tarzan vs. Predator. Half of issue three is dedicated almost solely to Tarzan and David Innes, the uprooted king of Pellucidar, trying to find out why David’s friend went insane and overthrew him. I personally don’t mind this turn of events; the Pellucidar cast are quite intriguing, and the eventual reveal of the major villains comes as a neat surprise. But Predator fans coming into this comic solely for their favorite aliens are likely to be disappointed. There’s also a bit of a tease that the four-armed Barsoomian Martians from Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars are involved in the story. This is sadly not the case as the creepy green arm we see belongs to one of the Mahars, evil psychic pterodactyls who used to brutally rule Pellucidar until Innes overthrew them. (Pulp literature, everybody!)

The plot itself is also occasionally rickety, but mostly because Simonson is trying to directly channel Burroughs’s writing style. That’s why the main human villain is a bigoted and cowardly American ambassador; this type of evil white invader is a stock character in Tarzan stories. I do appreciate taking this stylistic approach since it makes the story unique amongst the various Predator crossovers. Lee Weeks is a key part of this with his very accurate rendering of the characters. While Johnny Weissmuller presented a skinnier Tarzan, Weeks draws him in a more accurate stockier form which conveys a life of living amongst apes. Pellucidar looks distinct from its modern day descendants, DC’s Skartaris and Marvel’s Savage Land, thanks to numerous abandoned castles from long-vanished civilizations. The dinosaurs are still around in case Tarzan needs to call them to squash some Predators (and yes, that does happen).

I really like how Weeks draws the Predators. He takes the huge, hulking route for them—more like the first Predator film rather than Predator 2. One interesting moment occurs midway through the novel when one of the Predators is unmasked ... only the reader doesn’t see it. It feels like a page had been cut since the real look of the Predator is well-known. It’s possible that Weeks had some trouble drawing the Yautja’s crab-face, and I don’t blame him if he couldn’t quite pull it off. Many have tried and just ended up creating an image that’s horrific for all the wrong reasons. This is one story where I’m glad Simonson didn’t draw it; I don’t think his style would be right for this kind of story.

While the Tarzan vs. Predator: At the Earth's Core trade is long out-of-print and hard to find in stores, it’s available new and used on Amazon for half-price. Unless Dark Horse announces a new version, I’d say grab an old copy as it’s a fun read and a good way to get into Tarzan.

Next week, I’ll look at another crossover with an even more unusual author. What happens when you pitch a story to Alan Moore using action figures?
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