The First Super Hero

Tarzan was the first modern superhero -the first pop icon whose fame spread to every corner of the globe. That makes him the forefather of Superman, Batman, and Star Wars. “Before Tarzan,” writes one critic, “nobody understood just how big, how ubiquitous, how marketable a star could be.” Here is the inside story of how -and why Tarzan came to be.

edgar rice burroughs

In 1911, a paunchy, balding, 35-year-old named Edgar Rice Burroughs took a job selling pencil sharpeners. He wasn’t very good at it. Actually he didn’t seem to be very good at anything. Being denied admittance to West Point as a young man, he’d gone on to fail at a number of professions, including cow punching, gold mining, selling lightbulbs, running a news stand, advertising, and peddling quack medicine door-to-door.

While selling a “remedy” for alcoholism door-to-door, Burroughs had been responsible for reading magazines to make sure the company’s ads appeared as promised and were error-free. “After our advertisements were checked,” he recalled later, “I sometimes took the magazines home to read.” 

“There were several all-fiction publications among them,” Burroughs remembered, “and although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining, and probably more so, than any I read in those magazines. If people were paid for writing such rot as I read, I could write stories just as rotten.”

Coming up with story ideas was no problem; the troubled Burroughs had become an insomniac. To distract himself as he lay in bed each night, he had developed the habit of telling himself adventure stories featuring heroes whose lives were nothing like his own. “Most of the stories I wrote,” he later admitted, “were stories I told myself just before I went to sleep.”

Burroughs started work on his first story in July 1911, and by mid-August he’d completed a 43,000-word manuscript he called A Princess of Mars, about a Civil War veteran who falls into a trance in Arizona, wakes up on Mars, fights a war against the Martians, and then marries a Martian princess.

Burroughs was actually latching onto a popular topic of the early 1900s. In 1879, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli detected what he though were canals on the surface of Mars, and in 1906 another astronomer, Percival Lowell, wrote a book that proposed that the canals were irrigation ditches built by an advanced race of Martians. People were excited by the prospect of life on the Red Planet. Burroughs couldn’t afford typing paper. He had a wife and two babies to support and had just lost his job selling pencil sharpeners, so he wrote on the backs of old letterhead that he’d picked up at his brother’s stationery company.

Burroughs finished the story and sent the manuscript to Argosy magazine, and with a few changes, A Princess of Mars was accepted for serial publication in Argosy’s sister publication, the All-Story. Price: $400. “I shall never make a million dollars,” Burroughs wrote in his autobiography, “but if I do it cannot possibly give me the thrill that that four-hundred dollar check gave me.”

Thomas Newell Metcalf, managing editor at All-Story, invited Burroughs to submit another story, “a serial of the regular romantic type, something like, say, Ivanhoe.” Three weeks later, Burroughs turned in a short story called “The Outlaw of Torn,” a 13th-century tale about a fictitious son of England’s King Henry II. But Metcalf didn’t like it, so it was shelved.

In March 1912, Burroughs wrote back to Metcalf that he was already at work on his next tale.

“The story I am now on is of the scion of a noble English house of the present time who was born in tropical Africa where his parents died when he was about a year old. The infant was found and adopted by a huge she-ape, and was brought up among a band of fierce anthropods.

The mental development of this ape-man in spite of every handicap, of how he learned to read English without knowledge of the spoken language, of the way in which his inherent reasoning faculties lifted him above his savage jungle friends and enemies, of his meeting with a white girl, how he came at last to civilization and to his own makes fascinating writing and I think will prove interesting reading… The boy-child is called Tarzan, which is ape-talk for “white skin.””

Metcalf was impressed: “I think your idea for a new serial is cracker-jack and I shall be very anxious to have a look at it. You certainly have a most remarkable imagination of anybody whom I have run up against for some time.”


In May, Burroughs finished work on Tarzan of the Apes and sent it to Metcalf. “I did not think it was a good story,” Burroughs recalled, “and I doubted it would sell.” As he’d done so many times before, Burroughs was also beginning to doubt whether he really wanted to be a writer. “I was sort of ashamed of it as an occupation for a big, strong, healthy man,” he admitted later.

Metcalf disagreed with Burroughs’s appraisal of the story: Tarzan was very good, he wrote to Burroughs later that summer:

“If you will stop and realize how many thousands and thousands of stories an editor has to read, day in, day out, you will be impressed when we tell you that we read this yarn at one sitting and had the time of our young lives. It is the most exciting story we have seen in a blue moon, and about as original as they make ‘em.”

Neither Burroughs nor Metcalf had any idea just how good Tarzan of the Apes was until October, when the Tarzan issue hit the newsstands. Within just a few days, Tarzan letters began pouring into the All-Story offices praising the story …and begging for more.

Burroughs was just getting started as an author, but his years of business experience, though financially disastrous, had given him a surprising amount of business savvy.

When the $400 check for his first story, A Princess of Mars, arrived from All-Story magazine in 1911, he noticed that the words “For All Rights” were typed on it. As far as Burroughs was concerned, he’d only sold the magazine the right to publish his story in their magazine -and for that matter, only once. “What other rights are there?” he wrote back before cashing the check (which would have implied that he accepted All-Story’s terms and was indeed signing over “all rights” to the story). Few authors -let alone first-time authors with an unbroken, 15-year string of business and career failures- had the sense to ask that question.

All-Story could not publish A Princess of Mars without Burroughs’s consent, and after a flurry of correspondence, the magazine finally gave in. It sent Burroughs a letter agreeing that he would retain all rights to his characters and story after they published it once.

Refusing to cash that check until he’d won back the rights to his story, and then doing it again when he sold his first Tarzan story a few months later, were probably the most important business decisions of his entire career. They would earn him millions of dollars in the years to come. “Had Burroughs’s innate genius not guided him at this crucial stage,” Gabe Essie writes in Tarzan of the Movies, “he would have had nothing to sell to film in later years.”

In 1913, Burroughs made another smart move: he registered the name Tarzan as a trademark.

Burroughs understood that the real money from Tarzan was in books, not magazines. Magazines disappeared from the newsstands after only a month or two; but books might stay on the shelves for years. Now, armed with a pile of fan letters and strong sales of the Tarzan issue of All-Story magazine, he pitched Tarzan of the Apes to book publishers. 

They weren’t interested. Every publisher Burroughs contacted turned him down, so he put the idea aside and signed up with a newspaper syndicator to publish his stories in newspaper serial form instead. It was a huge success, and convinced A.C. McClurg and Co., one of the publishers that had originally turned Burroughs down, to publish Tarzan of the Apes after all. 

In the years to come, that very first Tarzan novel would sell more than three million copies, earning a fortune for both Edgar Rice Burroughs and his publisher. But it was only the beginning: In his lifetime, Burroughs would write 66 more novels, 26 of them Tarzan novels; and by the time he died in 1950, he’d sold more than 36 million books in 31 different languages all over the world.  This made him the most successful author of the first half of the 20th century.

Burroughs was also a pioneer in the art of marketing a character in every possible medium. After succeeding in magazines, newspapers, hardcover books (paperbacks had not been invented yet), and movies, in 1932 Burroughs formed a radio division of his corporation. He created a 364-episode “Tarzan” radio serial that was sold to radio stations all over the country. Burroughs’s son-in-law, Jack Pierce and his daughter Joan Burroughs Pierce, provided the voices of Tarzan and Jane.

In creating the “Tarzan” radio show, Burroughs actually “introduced the pre-recorded radio show,” Essoe writes. “Up to this time, all radio programs had been aired live. Tarzan’s pioneering success in this field prompted a major trend toward ‘canned’ broadcasts.”

tarzan comics

The following year, Burroughs signed a deal with United Features Syndicate to create and distribute a “Tarzan” comic strip to newspapers. At its peak in 1942, the strip appeared in 141 daily papers and 156 Sunday papers all over the world. Then in 1936, Burroughs took those same newspaper strips and relaunched them as comic books.

Meanwhile, as Tarzan conquered one mass medium after another, Burroughs was busy licensing his hero’s name and image to several hundred different manufacturers. They flooded the nations with hundreds of Tarzan products, including sweatshirts, wristwatches, masks and “chest wigs,” candy, peanuts, bubblegum, trading cards, rubber toys, leg garters, bathing suits; and even Tarzan brand coffee, bread, and gasoline. In Japan, Tarzan fitness magazine told people how to stay in shape just like Tarzan. 

Perhaps the most interesting use of the Tarzan name was in 1928, when Burroughs subdivided the Southern california ranch estate he’d bought nine years earlier and began selling off parcels. On July 9, 1928, the U.S. Postal Service granted the former ranch its own post office and official recognition as a town, giving it the same name Burroughs had bestowed upon it when he bought the property in 1919: Tarzana.

Before Edgar Rice Burroughs came along, no one had ever tried to market a fictional character this way. For that matter, in creating so many different competing forms of the same character, Burroughs had done precisely the opposite of what the brightest business and marketing minds of his day would have recommended. Not just the inventor of one of the most enduring fictional characters of the 20th century, he was also the inventor of an entirely new way of doing business, John Taliaferro write in Tarzan Forever:

“Though marketing experts and syndication agents warned that Tarzan on the radio would compete with Tarzan in the comics or that serial motion pictures would steal audiences from feature motion pictures, Burroughs was convinced that the total would exceed the sum of its parts. As he saw it, there was no such thing as overkill, and well before Walt Disney ever hawked his first mouse ears or Ninja Turtle “action figures” became film stars, Burroughs was already a grand master of a concept that would one day be known as multimedia…”

In short order, Tarzan became a superhero, the first pop icon to attain global saturation. As such he was the forefather of Superman and more recent real-life marvels such as Michael Jordan. Before Tarzan, nobody understood just how big, how ubiquitous, how marketable a star could be.

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