The Lure of Africa
I thought, as I was watching it, "They never told us about this in Jon of the Kalahari."
Jon of the Kalahari, as I'm sure few will remember, was a (mostly forgettable) feature that ran in the back pages of Gold Key Comics' Korak, Son of Tarzan. (In those days, postal regulations required that magazines have more than one feature.) Unlike the Tarzan stories, which were set in a timeless Burroughsian landscape, Jon's adventures took place in a more or less contemporary Africa. They were moderately educational, informing readers about bushmen and the Namib, as viewed through the adventures of Jon and his native sidekick, T'Kou. The most memorable thing about them was the Jesse Marsh art.
If they had gone into methods of cooking warthog butt, I might have found them more compelling.
Though interested enough in bushmen and their ways, it was the more fantastic realms of Burroughs that had the more persistent and pernicious influence on my childhood. I probably came to Tarzan first through the comics (read to me by my father), then the movies, then (when I had learned to read myself) the books. So my boyhood visions of Africa were infused with a heady mixture of warring tribes, greedy white adventurers, Tuareg slavers with their trusty Tower muskets ("thundersticks"), lost civilizations, dimwitted colonial officers, ferocious bull apes ("Kreegah!"), the noble savage, and Tarzan's Ape-English Dictionary.
The comics were relatively enlightened on racial matters. Sure, the hero and his family were white, but there were also any number of intelligent African supporting characters, beginning with the wise Waziri chief, Muviro. When I finally came to the books, Burroughs' racial attitudes stood out by contrast. ("I think Edgar Rice Burroughs is a racist!" I remember chirping to my bemused mother, age seven or so, when coming across a particularly malevolent passage--- and these were the cleaned-up versions I was reading, rewritten in the 1940s to remove the far more offensive stereotypes of the original texts.)
Racist or not, I ate up Burroughs with a spoon. I suppose if I read them now, I'd find them a disappointing mashup of Rider Haggard, The Jungle Book, and English pukka-sahib India adventures, but in the latter half of my first decade, I was ready for Tarzan. As my elders did their best to instill in me the values of civilization, the appeal of the boy raised in the jungle by apes was obvious.
It helped that I was familiar with the wilderness. Though I lived in a small city (Duluth), there was a forest literally in our back yard, and another one across the road in front. Occasionally we would see deer or moose. My relatives all lived in the country, which (as they lived in northern Minnesota) means that they lived in isolated steadings in a large, dark, wild wood. (Revisiting the area a few years ago after decades away, I was genuinely struck by how isolated everyone was.)
So picture young Walter Jon of the Mesabi trying to knap a spear point out of granite. (For flint you go to Michigan) The result was not sharp, but it was at least spearpoint-shaped, and I bound it with twine into a poplar haft and set forth into the woods for adventure. I got pretty good at chucking that spear. In the woods I had a tree house, just like Tarzan of the Movies. I set snares for rabbits, and caught a number of them, but I was not ready for the adventure of butchering and the carcases were left to rot in the woods.
The second feature in the back of the Tarzan comics was another influence. Brothers of the Spear featured two sworn brothers, the black Natongo and the white Dan-El, who were respectively the exiled princes of two kingdoms, Tungelu and Aba-Zulu, the latter of which seemed to be one of those lost white African civilizations that Tarzan was always stumbling across. Brothers of the Spear was the first comic I know of where the black guy got equal billing with his white cohort--- and both wore neat, short dreadlocks, by the way. By the time I encountered them, Dan-El and Natongo had become kings of their homelands and married the equally beautiful Tavane and Zulena, but continued to have adventures together, fighting Arab slavers and wily native chieftains. (For all the racial equality displayed by the Tarzan titles, the only consistent villains were Arabs and Tuaregs.)
All this got mashed together in my overheated juvenile brain. Poplar spear in hand, I vanquished Tuaregs, rescued the occasional princess, repelled assaults on my African kingdom (which seemed to have a rather Toltec architecture, come to think of it), and defeated deranged Nazi scientists (well, if you're going to have lost civilizations, why not lost anti-civilizations?).
I wrote several of these adventures in what I called "novels," and which I illustrated in crayon. Neither Kipling nor Russ Manning would have been threatened by my abilities. Fortunately none of these efforts have survived to disappoint any hypothetical biographer searching for evidence of precocious talent.
This unreal Africa, defended by my granite-tipped spear, continues to occupy an odd little corner of my memory, a lost civilization in its own right. As no one but I ever lived there, I remain its solitary prince, stalking the vine-covered walls of its ruined city, waiting for discovery by the outside world.