I just received an advance copy of Dark Horse's TARZAN: THE JESSE MARSH YEARS, and it's a beauty.
Artist Jesse Marsh has influenced numerous cartoonists from both mainstream and alternative camps -- Alex Toth, Russ Manning, Walt Simonson, Los Bros Hernandez, Richard Corben, et cetera -- but to my knowledge, apart from a single cowboy story, none of his work has been reprinted since the 1960s. For over forty years, the only way to get ahold of Marsh comics was to hunt down the original issues -- at dozens or hundreds of dollars a pop. (I've managed to cobble together a collection of so-so condition Marshes at affordable prices, but that took years of thrifty searching.) Marsh is probably the best-kept secret of comics' Golden & Silver Ages. Hopefully, that's about to change with Dark Horse's new reprints.
This first volume is due out on the 25th. It's a handsomely designed, 255 page hardback, with an introduction by cartoonist Mario Hernandez, and it reprints Marsh's first couple of years' worth of Tarzan stories. The plan is to eventually reprint his entire 19 year run.
The book's coloring suffers somewhat from the fact that the pages were scanned from actual issues, which were originally colored for newsprint (a dingier but more forgiving format than the bright white of these archival pages). However, great care was taken to present the pages as crisply and beautifully as possible, as you can see from the comparison below:
The image at the left was scanned from the first printing of TARZAN #4. At the right is a scan of the cleaned-up version in the Dark Horse volume. I'm unfamiliar with Dark Horse's clean-up process, but I'm pretty sure it involves elves.
I've discussed Marsh on this blog previously (here and here and here), but I figure a few more words are in order on the occasion of his first serious reprinting, so here are some thoughts, along with a couple of more scans from the new volume. (Please excuse the shadows at the right in these scans; it's tough to scan from a thick hardbound edition.)
Here's an example of Marsh's unorthodox storytelling:
In most depictions of Tarzan, Tarzan constantly occupies center stage. He's at the center of most panels, and he's constantly "cheated out" to face the viewer, or is at least seen in profile. But in Marsh's work, Tarzan is frequently pushed into the background or off to the side; we often see him from behind, and his face is often obscured by shadows. Sometimes it's as though every other Tarzan artist was drawing Superman in a loincloth, while Marsh was drawing the Sandman.
In the fifth panel, see how the principle characters are virtually blotted out by the looming silhouettes of their captors. Notice also how the ledge looms up before Tarzan's impotent head in the final panel, blocking his view of his friends like a black tide. There's a sense of grim foreboding here that is uncommon to heroic comics of the period. Dangers were common, of course, but in Marsh's work they dominate the visual space in ways his contemporaries would never imagine.
As depicted here, Tarzan appears distant and helpless to save anyone. This matches the similarly grim narrative. Tarzan has come to rescue his friends, but he hasn't yet found a surefire escape route. He considers escaping through the gate, but is rebuffed. Then he anxiously hides when the guards arrive, and tells his female companion that he had "no chance" against them! Is he a weakling? No, he commonly triumphs against incredible odds. But Marsh and the writer, Gaylord DuBois, were comfortable with the fact that Tarzan is human: not the center of the universe, but a bit player in a vast, dark, and sometimes unconquerable world.
On this next page, from a different story in this volume, we get another look at these creators' grasp of Tarzan's humanity -- this time on a much warmer note:
Jane opens with a remark about Tarzan's human frailty, and his reliance on the knowledge of others (presumably his African neighbors). She tempers this in the next panel with a casual show of confidence in Tarzan's prowess. Tarzan then joins her with a clever entrance in the third panel. Note that Marsh doesn't overplay her surprise (although the cup dropping from her grasp is a fun touch). What's also remarkable about Tarzan's entrance is that, though it signals the death of the man-eating lion, nothing further is said about that. Tarzan's whimsical greeting here is perhaps the most innocuous victory roar of all time.
Notice, too, Tarzan's playful displays of affection: rubbing cheeks with Jane in panel 3, letting Boy climb his arm in panel 6, and holding hands with the pair at the table in panel 4. There's a friendly naturalism here that we don't expect of a comic book action hero. (Imagine Burne Hogarth's dour Tarzan rubbing cheeks with anyone!) The Tarzan of Marsh and DuBois is a down-to-earth hero. Not Superman or Batman, he's more like a fireman of the jungle.
As with the previous page, the linework here is simple and welcomes our attention. Unlike many jungle comics, the anatomy isn't shaded to death, or carved out with desperate precision, and the jungle foliage doesn't crowd the foreground. There's the occasional awkwardness (such as Boy's neck and Tarzan's misshapen head in panel 4), but touches of realism elsewhere make up for that (Tarzan's dipped shoulder and closed eyes in panel 3, Jane's relaxed fingers throughout, the tilt of her head, the way her slight squint evinces her grin in panel 5...). There are clear gaps in Marsh's knowledge of anatomy, but the knowledge he does have comes from a place foreign to comicdom: real life. And it's a meal for the eyes.
This volume retails at $50, which is prohibitive for many readers. Another downside is that these are Marsh's earliest efforts on TARZAN; his best work was years away. However, for 245 pages of restored material, in a shelf-friendly hardbound edition, in a marketplace that charges $40 for an equivalent amount of current, pamphlet-style comics, fifty bucks ain't bad... especially when you consider the cost and scarcity of the original TARZAN issues. Plus, it's an investment in the future of a fine effort to immortalize a worthy series. Whether the market will support this series remains to be seen, but I certainly hope it will.