Reposted from my now-defunct comics blog.
The show has been wildly popular.
Its organizers cogitate, with Gallic élan, on Tarzan’s proto-environmentalism; his philosophical roots in Rousseau and the 19th-century nudist movement; his literary antecedents in Kipling and H. M. Stanley; and his mythological reliance on the stories of Hercules and Romulus and Remus. The exhibition also makes hay about the first words Tarzan uttered not in ape grunts but the language of civilized men:
“Mais oui,” the young Lord Greystoke said.
And of course there is also the sex angle. “One can expound as much as one likes in scientific speeches about his mythical and universal nature, but one always gets back to the fact that Tarzan is a half-naked guy saving white-skinned young women, lost in the jungle and wearing their party dresses, from the claws of vicious gorillas,” noted Libération, the newspaper, in its review of the exhibition. “It’s all about torrid eroticism.”
— “Tarzan Show Sets Parisians Aflutter“
I got excited when I saw this NY Times story about an exhibition of old Tarzan comics and film clips at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, and then sad when I realized how few comic strips the article reproduced. The slideshow does feature some great old film posters and wacky stills.
Apparently, the show itself isn’t too great, at least in terms of presentation:
The show is a mess, truth be told. It has wonderful drawings from bygone comic artists like Burne Hogarth and Hal Foster, and it means to use Tarzan to help dissect how Western pop culture has (mis)interpreted the non-Western “other.” But it’s displayed in cramped galleries at a museum whose theatrical, heart of darkness installation of non-European cultures as diverse and unrelated as Inuit and Cameroonians — in meandering ill-lighted spaces connoting primitive, spooky peoples — is of a piece with the antediluvian ethos of the original Tarzan.
The article itself, however, at least uses this as an entry point into talking about racism in both the comic strip itself and the historical context out of which it was born:
The highborn “killer of beasts and many black men,” as Tarzan unfortunately described himself in “Tarzan of the Apes,” was conceived just before World War I by Burroughs, a former gold miner and cowboy, in a climate of American expansionism, late colonialism and institutionalized racism.
Before he died in 1950 Burroughs published about two dozen Tarzan potboilers, his fictional character becoming an increasingly fantastical figure, speaking a dozen languages while battling the teensy Minunians and dinosaurs. An easygoing guy with a fondness for golf who settled in what came to be called, thanks to him, Tarzana, Calif., Burroughs never bothered to set foot in Africa, which is why Tarzan also faced off against Asian tigers and killed lions by wrestling them into a full nelson.
Wikipedia has a little more on the topic here (though it may make you headdesk — I’m not responsible for any injuries).