Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Angola in the Comics#7: Tarzan in Luanda!

Hello and welcome back to an occasional feature on this blog entitled 'Angola in the Comics.' In this series I investigate appearances by the nation of Angola in comic books and determine how faithfully the country is represented. The assumption is that Angola will not be well-realized, so those instances where the comic book creators get particular details correct are always worth noting.

Every entry in my 'Angola in the Comics' series has been from the pages of old 'jungle adventure' comic books, which were once a very fertile genre in the comics (plus prose & film). The few appearances of Angola which I've discovered owe a lot to the simple wealth of 'jungle comics' out there; with creators constantly needing new plots, there were bound to be a few stories set in Angola just as a matter of statistics.

But up until now I haven't dealt with the king of the 'jungle adventure' genre, the fictional character who is basically responsible for the entire brand of storytelling. I'm speaking of course about Tarzan, but before I can get to his visit to Angola, first I have acknowledge the problem of Tarzan.


Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in a 1912 pulp magazine story 'Tarzan of the Apes,' Burroughs' character became so popular that the author put out a regular series of new prose adventures throughout his life, novels which continued to be republished after his death - along with works by new authors. Tarzan was adapted into radio, film, television and - significant to us - comic strips & comic books.

Although Tarzan was initially based in the jungles of the Congo, Burroughs sent the character to various locales around the globe (and beneath it, for that matter). Although Burroughs wrote vividly about Africa, he'd never been there; his Tarzan adventures were as much fantasy as anything else and were enjoyed by both children and adults. With success came a legion of imitators; everyone in the 'jungle adventure' genre - from Sheena to the Black Panther - owes a debt to Tarzan for popularizing the tropes they use.

The sheer amount of Tarzan product means you're probably familiar with some of the recycled tropes even if you haven't watched or read a Tarzan story. Frequently these stories concern the adventures of a Caucasian person who lives in the African jungle (if it is named, it is almost certainly the Congo) and is almost definitely an orphan. This hero has a strong connection to the African wildlife and can even 'speak' to them. They battle ferocious predators, cruel hunters (usually poachers), greedy treasure hunters and 'savage' natives (possibly cannibals). When they lack for adventure they need only trek a miles to the east to find a lost outpost of ancient Egypt or trek north to find a valley where dinosaurs still roam. Africans in these stories who are not the hero's enemies are considered friendly, simple folk, regarding the hero with a kind of fearful awe; they live in modest thatch huts with no sophisticated technology, yet their women are modest enough to cover their chests; they can be easily riled up by an evil chief, a scheming would-be chief or an evil witch doctor.

As the decades passed by, the Tarzan series remained moribund, frozen in amber; while Burroughs had permitted Tarzan to grow and change somewhat in his novels, the films kept a very rigid status quo. Of course, the real world's Africa wasn't standing still - even as independence began creeping across the continent in the 1950s, Tarzan hesitated to change with the times. By 1970, Tarzan had fallen from favour; with almost all of Africa independent there could no longer be any pretense of his adventures as anything other than fantasy. The films and comic strips dropped off and scholars began questioning many of the assumptions and implications dating back to Burroughs' first story. Tarzan became a tainted brand, even racist.

Small wonder then, that Tarzan material since 1970 has almost all been deliberately positioned as a 'period piece,' set in the 1910s when Africa was firmly in the grip of colonialism. Eventually, the Tarzan brand became comfortable enough to address the truth of what colonialism had been and to downplay Burroughs' racist views of white superiority. The 2016 motion picture The Legend of Tarzan even went to the trouble of pitting Tarzan against one of history's great real-life villains from the Congo (Leon Rom) and team-up Tarzan with a historical African-American hero who was also in the Congo (George Washington Williams).

Perhaps a contemporary-times take on Tarzan could also be made to work if one simply did the homework on what Africa is like today. A white man brought up by apes in the contemporary Congo would be quite a different character than who Burroughs imagined; it would be an interesting challenge to deconstruct Tarzan by contemporary standards - possibly not one which the Burroughs estate would be interested in getting into.

Anyway, let's get back to Angola.


In January 1951, writer Dick Van Buren and artist Bob Lubbers had only been working on the Tarzan daily newspaper strip for half a year when they told a storyline set in Angola. It begins with a single line from a story fans have called "The Plaque" when a steamship bound for England explodes while said to be approaching 'the port of Luanda,' which is, of course, Angola's capital.

This leads to a lengthy arc where Tarzan searches for survivors of the ship and traces one of them into an underground kingdom of the 'swamp men,' reptilian men led by a beautiful woman (lost kingdoms of ugly men ruled by beautiful women were also a common trope in adventure fiction of the time). Tarzan finally escapes the underground kingdom and brings his English friend to Luanda, which is where Tarzan is at the start of the story fans call 'Senor Lazar.' Notably, Luanda is called a port of 'Portuguese West Africa,' not Angola. Portugal wasn't even a member of the United Nations at the time of this comic; in fact, this same year, Angola was officially declared a 'province' of Portugal, one of the means the country employed to try and hold on to Angola, even as other colonial powers were girding themselves to let their colonies go free.

Wandering Luanda, Tarzan saves a woman from being mugged, which draws the attention of Señor Lazar, a powerful plantation owner. Observing Tarzan had murdered the woman's mugger he has Tarzan arrested. To avoid standing trial for murder, Lazar cuts a deal: he wants Tarzan to capture an American whom the authorities haven't been able to arrest.

As Tarzan heads to the American's location, he passes 'Fazenda Lazar,' so props must be given to Van Buren & Lubbers for getting some correct Portuguese (but a subtraction for when they use 'gracias,' which is Spanish). Further, it's a coffee plantation, which was indeed a major crop in Angola of the time. The American turns out to be named Holt and is running a coffee plantation in competition against Lazar, which is the real reason Lazar has pit Tarzan against him. Using his sway with the authorities, Lazar is trying to tax Holt out of business. Failure to pay the taxes is the crime Holt is guilty of.

At Holt's plantation, Tarzan meets José, the butler. José has a plan to raise 1,000 escudos (props for the correct currency): by winning a bullfight in the 'Plaza de Toros.' So, props for the use of bullfighting (which was a sport in Luanda in those days) but minus for again using Spanish. Confusing Portuguese and Spanish is a frequent problem I've noticed in popular culture of the 1930s-50s, such as in the motion picture Macao.

Tarzan returns to Luanda and tells Lazar he's going to be a matador so that he can win the bullfight and its bounty of 1,000 escudos so that Holt's taxes will be paid. Naturally, even though Tarzan is not a trained bullfighter he wins the match and claims the money. The woman Tarzan rescued at the start of the story - Lucia - comes to work for Holt as a secretary on the plantation.

Having apparently nothing better to do, Tarzan hangs out on the plantation as the new foreman and we finally see a few African faces among the plantation workers. Of course, Tarzan gets them to work for Holt without pay initially, so there's still something problematical about all of this. One night a panther attacks the laborers but Tarzan kills it and surmises Lazar unleashed the animal. Mere moments later, Lazar sends a mob of men with torches to assault Holt's plantation. Holt saves Lucia from a fire the mob start while Tarzan fends off the attackers and puts out the blaze.

Lazar now challenges Tarzan to a duel to the death (a fat cigar-smoking man versus the lord of the jungle? gee, whoever will win?). Tarzan accepts, even though the duel will be fought with Lazar's gun against Tarzan's bow. Although Lazar fires two shots, one of them wrecking Tarzan's bow, Tarzan throws his knife into Lazar's neck, killing him. Thus ends the problem of Lazar. Holt and Lucia decide to get married. Tarzan heads back into the jungle.

  • +1 estrela for the correct use of Luanda as a port and reasonably developed city
  • +1 estrela for using a leopard (though panther might not be quite correct)
  • +1 estrela for the correct currency, escudos
  • +2 estrelas for correctly placing bullfighting and coffee in Angola
  • +1 estrela for a few correct uses of Portuguese
  • -1 estrela for inserting Spanish the rest of the time

TOTAL SCORE: Cinco estrelas!

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