Friday, July 8, 2016

BLB: Tarzan The Mark of the Red Hyena

This time, I want to talk about Tarzan in The Mark of the Red Hyena, written by George S. Elrick and published in 1967. It is number 5 in the 1967 Big Little Book series. It follows Flipper and Lassie, but comes before Tom & Jerry and Popeye. Heady company, I know.

Big Little Books were a series of story-books published by Whitman Publishers from the 1920s thru the 1980s. The books I have are 250 pages but very compact, only 10 cm x 13 cm x 2 cm (approx 4 inches x 5 3/4 inches x 1 inch). There is text on one page and an illustration on the opposite. Although the writers were always credited, the artist never was. From 1967 thru the early 1970s such TV and Saturday cartoon luminaries as Dick Tracy, Bonanza, the Lone Ranger, Shazzan, Space Ghost, the Flintstones, and, yes, Aquaman, were featured. Eventually the TV series' stars fell by the way-side and were replaced with more appearances by perennial favorites like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Woody Woodpecker.

The Mark of the Red Hyena begins as Tarzan and his son, Korak, happen across a zebra, shot with a poisoned arrow and slowly dying. To put it out of its misery, Korak slits its throat. Father and son discuss the recent uptick in poaching. Tarzan's Waziri warriors are patrolling the game preserves, spearing or imprisoning all the poachers that they find, but that isn't enough to stop the killings. Tarzan angrily surmises that here must be a master plan by someone, because the animals are being killed so quickly, by an organized mob. He decides to send his son to King Thorak of the Forbidden Valley gorillas, to ask him to meet Tarzan in two days. Then Korak (real name, John Clayton, Jr aka "Jack") is to go back to their home and help Jane and their butler Jervis to prepare their guns so Tarzan can better arm his Waziri men. Tarzan knows trouble is looming.

Proud Papa watches as Korak jogs off on his mission. Then Tarzan notices in the distance a thin wisp of smoke he thinks might be a poachers' camp. He creeps up to it, surprising the group of men there and killing them. He also finds a bag of hyena paws, dyed red. He's not sure what to make of it all.

As Tarzan starts to leave, the Red Hyena calls his men over a walkie-talkie demanding a report. Tarzan listens to the voice of a cultured Englishman speaking in Bantu. He listens, hearing that two of his Waziri friends have been captured. Infuriated by the idea of so many animals being systematically killed and two of his men prisoners, Tarzan grabs the walkie-talkie and yells at Red Hyena to stop his activities immediately.

The Red Hyena laughs at him, doubting his true identity. The Red Hyena believes that Lord Greystoke and his family have returned to England, leaving no one to oppose him. Tarzan swears he is who he says he is, and that he will hunt the Red Hyena down and stop him. The Red Hyena laughs again. He boasts that he has a whole army of poachers working for him. He admits his plan is to kill all the animals in central Africa so that tourists will no longer come, drying up the tourism money so that all of the central African nations will fall into economic chaos. When that happens the Red Hyena will use all of the great veldt as grazing lands for his cattle, becoming ruler of the region. Tarzan is so angry when he hears this that he destroys the walkie-talkie with his bare hands.

At the camp-site of the Red Hyena, the Red Hyena is pleased to know that Tarzan is in-country after all. He cheerfully feeds his two pet hyenas bones. He wants to keep them hungry so that they will tear into his prisoners when given the chance. He has two prisoners, Waziri prisoners his men captured on a recent killing spree. He orders his men to continue to try to force-feed them porridge to try to fatten them up. He wants them to be less muscle and more fat when he feeds them to his pets. Then he orders another of his men to dye his pets red again, to keep up his image.

The Red Hyena enters his own tent and tosses off his bright blue burnoose. He is pretending to be an Arab Tuareg, but is really Charles Barton, a British subject. As he checks in with his large army, he laments that even with all of his accumulated power, none of his men understand how to play the card game Bridge. Focusing again on his plans, he gets on the radio and orders two groups of his men to head towards Tarzan's home in Uzizi. His orders are for them to burn and destroy everything, but to bring back Tarzan's wife, Jane, alive.

Meanwhile, Korak enters the Forbidden Valley and is taken by surprise by the gorillas there. They take his spear and carry him roughly to talk to their leader, Thorak. Korak tells them who he is, then relays his fathers request to meet with him. Thorak is in a foul mood because he has various group troubles on this mind (a young she-ape is in love with the wrong bull). However, he knows that Tarzan saved his life, so he agrees to meet with him. He allows Korak to sleep in their camp under the gorillas' protection, returning his spear as he sleeps.

At Tarzan's home, Jane is cleaning house as she awaits the return of her husband and son. Suddenly, a group of poachers working for the Red Hyena burst in. She struggles to get away from them, but their numbers overpower her. She is marked by a Red Hyena paw and then dragged away.

The next day, Tarzan arrives to find his home devastated: his cottage burned to the ground, and his overseer, Jervis, badly wounded. Jervis manages to tell Tarzan that Jane was kidnapped, not killed. Tarzan carries Jervis to Thorak's camp, where he asks the gorilla for a force of 150 bulls to help him attack Red Hyena at Lake Chad. Thorak doesn't want to commit to such an effort, but when Tarzan reminds him that he (Tarzan) saved Thorak's life from Numa the Lion, Thorak reluctantly agrees. Tarzan then sends Korak to the Waziri to gather them, as well.

After ten days of hard riding in a jeep, Jane is finally brought into the camp of the Red Hyena. He admits to her that he is really a British subject from Oxford. He wants to play Bridge with her, but when she tosses the cards in his face he angrily orders her placed in one of the cages instead. Then in an effort to intimidate Jane, the Red Hyena has his men throw one of the Waziri warriors to his hyenas, who rip the man apart.

Elsewhere, after three days of hard walking the gorillas heading towards the Red Hyena's camp are tired and want to return home. Butar, the toughest fighter of the group, refuses to go on, openly challenging Thorak. They fight. When Tarzan joins the fray on Thorak's side they defeat Butar, and shames the others into going on with the march.

Elsewhere, Korak has arrived at the home of the Waziri, and is met by Chu-La the Elder. Korak is concerned to see only the elderly, women, and children at the camp; suddenly five fierce warriors surround him. Chu-La reminds the warriors that Korak is Tarzan's son. He tells him to beat out a coded message on the "speaking drums," the largest drums in the village, to call in all of the warriors out in the jungle. Korak does, and is overjoyed when he hears his message getting picked up and passed on to other warriors in the distance.

At the Red Hyena camp, Jane refuses to eat any porridge, although she is extremely hungry. Two of the Red Hyena's men try to force-feed her, but she kicks the porridge so that it splatters all over the Red Hyena himself. Furious, he swears that she will die that very night, even though her famous husband is not present to witness the murder. Suddenly, a group of poachers enter camp with the news that Tarzan has been captured. Sure enough, Tarzan is brought before the Red Hyena. Tarzan mocks him and his porridge-stained robes. Red Hyena promises to murder both of them as soon as the sun sets. Tarzan signals to his wife that everything is fine, but she can't help being anxious about their situation. One hundred poachers swarm around Tarzan and tie him to a stake in the middle of the camp.

Nearby, Korak reviews the plan with Thorak and Korgo, chief of the Waziri. The first group of gorillas will climb the mud-wall surrounding the Red Hyena's camp, then other gorillas still on the outer perimeter will toss the Waziri up to them so that both groups can attack inside simultaneously. Korgo wants to make sure Thorak's apes will do what they are supposed to; Thorak is not pleased to be doubted. All of them await Tarzan's signal.

The Red Hyena's kept hyenas feel the tension in the camp and somehow know that they are going to feed soon. Tarzan, still tied up, watches as the Red Hyena has Jane dragged out of her cage towards his hyenas. The sentinels up on the mud-wall are fascinated by the drama, which is what Tarzan was hoping for. They are easy pickings by the first wave of gorillas who climb up the wall and then toss the guards over the side to their deaths.

Red Hyena drags Jane to Tarzan, taunting him that she is about to be killed. Tarzan calmly reminds him that he (Tarzan) threatened to kill Red Hyena personally. When Red Hyena laughs, Tarzan glares at him and says, "I never lie, you foolish man." Tarzan lets out his yell, the signal for his troops to attack. Chaos ensues. Tarzan breaks his leather tongs easily, then gently puts Jane, who has fainted, back in her cage for her own protection.

In moments the poachers and Red Hyena lie dead. Korak frees his mother, who is overjoyed to see him. Tarzan tells them that the Red Hyena stumbled into his pets himself, and was mauled to death. The three exhausted adventurers head home.

When I was growing up Tarzan was Johnny Weismuller. We had a "Tarzan Theatre" on Saturday afternoons on a local station (KPLR Channel 11, anyone?). Because he was in so many Tarzan films (twelve, I believe) his were the ones I kept seeing. Besides, he definitely had more screen presence than any of his successors....Gordon Scott? Lex Barker? Pshaw. Of course, by the mid-Seventies there was also the Ron Ely 1966-1968 TV series Tarzan in reruns. I liked that show, but I could tell that it wasn't "really" Tarzan....for one thing, there was no Jane!

As I said when I reviewed The Man From UNCLE entry in the series (here), as a kid my father would read these Big Little Books to me and my brother as bed-time stories. However, I'm not sure why we had this one. Neither my brother or I ever read any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books. The TV series was still on, which is why this book got made, I'm sure. But as to why we had a copy....? Maybe, at 39 cents a pop, our parents bought all of the ones they could find? Looking at the "Other Books Available" list in the back of the book, I see that we had the vast majority of them.... Maybe they hoped to nurture a love of books in their boys by giving us Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, Batman, Space Ghost.... and hoping something would stick?

This is my long way of saying that this is the one and only Tarzan book I have ever read. I'm not going to try to get into the complicated history of Tarzan but suffice it to say, to a kid weaned on Johnny Weismuller and Ron Ely, this book was weird. Here's Jane....I knew her, everyone knew her....but here was also a 16 year old son!? Okay, I had seen Tarzan Finds A Son (1939)  so I knew there was a "Boy," but here he's named Korak, and Tarzan has a real name, and Jane is his actual legal wife....and all sorts of things that were tossed out at the reader as if they were canon but didn't make a lick of sense to uneducated me.

So this book was never one of my favorites as a boy. It was OK, but I just didn't have the love of the characters I had for, say, the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

Flash forward many many moons, and I re-read it as an adult. I now know that Tarzan is really Lord Greystroke. I know that he really did marry Jane, and that John "Korak" is really their son. Knowing that much going into it, this story is not so bad. It's basically a straight suspense drama that boils down to: will Tarzan get to the lair of the Red Hyena before more bad things can happen to Jane? I think we all know the answer to that question.

The Red Hyena in the linchpin of this story, but unfortunately, he lacks something in the super villain department. His insistence on wanting to play Bridge, and his orders to fatten his victims up before feeding them to his pet hyenas....he reads more like a fop than a legitimate threat. He throws one of Tarzan's friends to his hyenas, yes, but that is about it. Other than that one act of cruelty, he's just rude and ordering other men to kill innocent zebras. Then when he is dispatched, it happens off page....he stumbles into his own pet hyenas. That's a disappointment. Not much to him, really.

And there is the odd fact that he calls himself "the Red Hyena" but actually wears blue robes. What is up with that? And why is he a British man pretending to be an Arab, anyway? I don't understand that part of the story at all. Maybe it has something to do with lingering colonialism? My real-world guess is that Whitman wanted a "super-hero" feel to the story, so the writer came up with this "secret identity" shtick.

The plot seems a bit simple (and as I re-read these Big Little Books, I can't help but think a tad derivative). We have a white guy pretending to be a "native," but playing several sides against each other to his own advantage. For some reason the poachers fear and obey him, but like I said, he never really does anything to warrant their devotion. He has a master plan that the hero promises to stop. In that regard, it resembles The Man From UNCLE story, already mentioned above.

As I was reading the story, I became curious about what might have been edited out. A zebra's throat is slit on page two, for crying out loud, so I immediately anticipated some gore and violence. When Tarzan comes across the first camp of poachers, the writer says that they are all killed (thrown roughly against the surrounding trees). Yet later, there is a whole chapter about the gorillas tired of walking?! What is the point of this side-story other than to pad the length of the overall story? I guess we do get a minimal amount of gorilla-on-gorilla action, but barely a page's worth. Likewise, as Korak leads his two groups to the Red Hyena, we get a summary of the attack strategy before the attack begins, then once it begins we get the actual maneuvers detailed, again. Once was fine, thanks!

What we don't get is how Tarzan comes to be captured, and the final battle between Good and Evil. Tarzan simply shows up in the Red Hyena's camp, shocking all of us. It would have been nice to be shown how he staged that... and there would have been a bit more action, too. When we finally get to the climax it is almost not talked about at all. When Tarzan lets loose his yell, we get this very illustrative passage: "....the terrible Waziri heaved a shower of spears from the top of the surrounding wall, skewering poachers and pinning them to the ground." Yes, that is how it reads. Picture that, if you will! Spears in feet....arms....torsos? Ouch! Then we have the "anthropoids" throw themselves into the milling crowd. And that is that! We get literally one more sentence: "in a moment it was all over." No description of the bad guys getting their heads ripped from their bodies, or their faces pummeled, or what have you. I'm not sure how gorillas kill men, because the story doesn't tell me. I'm not sure how the Waziri got their revenge (knives? more spears?) because the story doesn't tell me that, either. I'm sure that the editor(s) thought that where this level of violence was concerned less was more, but after 100 plus pages of suspense, a few pages of actual action would have been nice. And I guess everyone should be lucky that nobody carried a gun....?

Speaking of length, there seems to be a real chronological problem with this story. The poachers working for the Red Hyena kidnap Jane and then arrive at his camp TEN DAYS LATER?!? That's a hell of a ride. Meanwhile, the gorillas from the forbidden valley are trekking for more than three days...? I can't believe gorillas walking are faster than a jeep driving. Tarzan gets from wherever he was back to his home in one day, and Korak meets up with them at the Red Hyena camp with the Waziri warriors without having spent too much time waiting....?

Geographically, the only "real" place is Lake Chad, which is located in Central Africa, between current Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Tarzan's home in "Uzizi" is the same name as a range in South Africa; probably not the same place.

I don't want to make it sound like I didn't like the book, though. I did enjoy how the author switched from Tarzan, to Korak, to the Red Hyena constantly, balancing the "screen time" and notching up the suspense. Jane, for her bit part, comes across as a strong, semi-independent woman. Not necessarily a damsel in distress, except that she was overpowered by a dozen men. No shame in that.

The art for this book supports the story competently. There seems to be a real effort to use a multi-colored palette to color the backgrounds, and sometimes the scenes really do pop. Unfortunately, too many of the illustrations skimp on the backgrounds. Look again at the illustrations I chose to include in this review: some have fine jungle backgrounds of trees, bushes, and grass, while others have absolutely nothing. It's a shame, because you know that in the real jungle there would always be something to look at in the backgrounds.  As an amateur artist myself, illustrations like the one of the Red Hyena feeding his pets just make me sad.

I do like how all of the supporting characters in this story are Black. I don't remember a whole lot of Black characters on TV or in movies as a kid (the Weismuller Tarzan films had almost none) so it is nice to read this and see that the Chief, the elders, the warriors...all are strong, proud, Black men. The poachers are your typical "ninny" characters, but they are the henchmen. They aren't supposed to have any personality. And I already noticed that I didn't understand why they followed the Red Hyena anyway.

So if you like Tarzan as a character, I can recommend this book to you. You might be able to find it an antique malls or at used bookstores. Just don't spend too much money on it or you may be disappointed. You can currently find it at for under $10. I have ordered from them before and not been disappointed.

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