A Princess of Mars put Edgar Rice Burroughs on the map, but it was the second story he published in 1912, Tarzan of the Apes, that solidified him has an adventure story writer. Tarzan was also serialized in the All-Story, then later published as a novel in 1914. It was a smash, and Burroughs would go on to write over twenty novels in the series. 1918 would see the first two silent movie adaptations of the character, and Tarzan movies would appear in every single decade since up to now. (It makes sense. For Tarzan all you need is a muscular guy on a jungle set instead of the special effects bonanza that is Barsoom)
The story begins with an Englishman, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, sent to Africa in the 1880s to investigate claims of abuse of black natives by another European colonial power. Accompanied by his wife, Alice, the humanitarian mission never begins, since a mutiny on their ship leads to the couple being marooned on the western coast of Africa. Eking out a living, they give birth to a son, but tragedy takes both parents away. As fate would have it, the baby, also named John, would be adopted by Kala, a she-ape of the tribe who's chief, Kerchak, killed the elder Greystoke. They're not gorillas. The book makes it clear that they're more of a missing link species that has developed its own rudimentary language.
Named Tarzan by his adopted tribe, the boy grows up to become an apex predator. Weaker than the apes, but stronger than any normal man, Tarzan's greatest weapon is his clever mind and the eventual discovery of his parents' beach hut, where he slowly begins to learn using tools and even teaches himself to read English.
A tribe of cannibals, driven deeper into the jungle by colonialist firepower, settle near the area and one of their hunters kills Kala. Tarzan avenges her and begins to raid their village from time to time for supplies and pranks, as they think he's some kind of jungle spirit.
As he grows to maturity, another group of explorers is marooned at the same beach. A professor Archimedes Q. Porter has led an expedition to discover lost gold, succeeded, and the crew turned pirate on him and his family. Among the marooned are Jane Porter, the professor's lovely daughter, and William Cecil Clayton, Tarzan's cousin and heir to the Greystoke estate. Stunned at seeing other people that look like him, Tarzan's attraction to Jane draws him away from his simple jungle life and into the affairs of mankind.
There is a LOT going on under what is, on the surface, a straightforward tale of jungle adventure. The beginning taps into the same vein of classic adventure stories like The Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Captains Courageous. As Tarzan grows, Burroughs frequently meditates on nature vs nurture themes, and how even removed from any human contact or experience, Tarzan's human qualities set him apart from everything around him. He is the noble savage; clear of mind and decisive, clever but needlessly cruel, a peak physical specimen, uncorrupted by the needless complications of civilization.
As for the topic of race, Tarzan's antagonism toward the cannibal tribe comes from a personal place: they killed his adopted mother. Esmeralda, Jane's black servant, frequently falls into “Lawdy lawdy” stereotypes, but she's also one of the few who understands the danger of the situation. Professor Porter and his colleague Samuel T. Philander are even worse stereotypes: the bumbling academics who are too stupid and oblivious to function in real danger. The two of them wander off into the jungle one night, get hopelessly lost, and argue about the merits of Moorish civilization while a lion patiently follows them around until Tarzan rescues them. Its played for laughs, but hammers home their uselessness.
William Clayton isn't a bad man, but he's something of a fop and a soft fellow who wilts when real pressure arises. Civilization has made him weak. The only people, white or black, who aren't treated as weak or villainous are Tarzan, his dead parents, Jane Porter, and Lieutenant D'Arnot, a French officer who shows up later in the book to help Tarzan enter into Western Civilization.
Action sequences remain a highlight of Burroughs' style, with a believable escalation from Tarzan killing a gorilla with a rusty knife at the age of 10 to driving a car and swinging around Wisconsin in the middle of a forest fire. That happens, and the road to how Tarzan gets from point a to point b is a roaring good time, and it ends on one hell of a cliffhanger.
If it were just a solid action-adventure story, it would be worth it, but Burroughs works in some deep thinking as well that adds another dimension to the story.
That glorious Neal Adams cover art from the 70s deserves its own showcase. Wowza.