Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Michael Moorcock: Found in Translation

A few years ago I had the good fortune to work with Michael Moorcock and Jerry Ordway on a Tom Strong story. While it’s always a pleasure to have Jerry draw any comic, it was a special treat to have Michael write it. His stories really hit me as a teenager, especially Behold The Man, which I read at just the right age for it to make a lasting impression.

Michael and I enjoyed several friendly chats during the course of our working relationship, mostly about old comics. On one such occasion he told me a wonderful story of his unofficial stint as writer of the Tarzan newspaper strip, and how he entered into a creative partnership with the likes of Hal Foster and Burne Hogarth--the catch being it was a full 10-20 odd years after those strips initially saw print.

I sent Michael an e-mail recently asking if he would mind recounting that tale again for me so I could share it on this blog. He graciously agreed and forwarded a fine remembrance of the events that would lead to this most unusual collaboration, the details of which begin here:

In the mid-to-late 1950s I was working on Tarzan Adventures in the UK. The magazine was fronted every week by a Tarzan strip reprinted from both daily and Sunday newspaper strips bought from, as I recall, Universal Features Syndicate. I was a great fan of both Foster's and Hogarth's Tarzan but absolutely hated Rex Maxon's, so I did everything I could not to buy Maxon-drawn strips. Eventually the time came when we ran out of available Hogarth (we'd never run Foster for some reason) material and I begged the syndicate for some older Foster or Hogarth material. None was available. The plates from which we worked had been destroyed in an incendiary attack during World War 2.

Wasn't there ANYTHING we could use, I asked the Syndicate chief in London. He was sorry, he said, but the only plates still known to exist were in Spanish. My publisher shrugged his shoulders. "Well, that's that," he told me. "It's got to be Maxon or nothing." I was desperate not to use Maxon. I was seventeen years old and at that time had only been to France for a few weeks and never traveled anywhere else, nor spoken any other language, but desperation made me come up with a lie. "Oh, I speak Spanish," I told him, "It would be nothing for me to take those plates and translate them into English." He was surprised, but agreed, and the plates were duly delivered.

I didn't speak a single word of Spanish and would have been hard put in those days to tell you what 'Hola!' meant. So all I had to work with were the strips themselves and make a guess at what the Spanish meant. I also had to work very quickly, since we were on a weekly schedule. For the fun of it, I also decided to use the names of friends in the science fiction community, which is how you can easily tell which strips are by me and which by the original writer--my story lines, of course, are also subtly different, but they also carry characters like the evil Benford twins (Greg and Jim Benford were then teenagers living with their military dad in Germany), Ken Bulmer, Lars Helander, Ron Bennett and various other well-known UK SF writers and fanzine fans of the day.

Tarzan as originally published

I ran these 'translations' for as long as the Spanish plates kept coming--essentially covering the period where Foster was reaching the end of his work on Tarzan and Hogarth was taking over. Eventually, I left the magazine and the new editor (an octogenarian who had been my assistant and strongly disapproved of most of my policies, which was to run text sword and sorcery stories and new ERB-type strips by Jim Cawthorn) had no such preferences. As I recall, I was delivering one of the last of my 'translations' after I had gone to work for Fleetway and to my surprise saw Cawthorn artwork in the guy's wastepaper basket. Tugging it out, I saw that a couple of my fantasy stories were still attached to the artwork. The new editor told me that 'healthy boys' didn't want that kind of trash. Out went Rakhir, Warrior Priest of Phum and in came 'Jock the Engine Driver' (or some such). Maxon returned. A few months later, to mixed emotions, I heard that the magazine's circulation had slumped and Tarzan was axed. Clearly, not enough healthy boys to support it.

Tarzan as scripted by Michael Moorcock

I think there are examples comparing the original text and my text still available in the image vault of my website, Moorcock's Miscellany. My Spanish hasn't improved a great deal since then but I'm still available for translation work in any language you choose--so long as the artist is Foster, Hogarth or some other artist I admire. And if you don't mind your own name turning up somewhere in the story.

Michael Moorcock

Michael is right; the above comparisons were taken from his fine website, which you can visit by clicking here. And if anyone happens to have copies of the reworked versions I would love to see scans of them.

60 comments:

Drew said...

Priceless! Somehow it appeals to me greatly that the creator of Elric and Jerry Cornelius would improvise the written portion, working solely from the art, and that sales would slump immediately after his departure.
Thanks for the story, gents!
Drew

Tobey said...

Wow, you learn something new every day.

I love reading anything by Moorcock because he has such a fantastic imagination.

Great story!

Mathieu Doublet said...

Another very interesting story.
Thanks Scott !

Mathieu Doublet said...

Another very interesting story.
Thanks Scott !

Mark said...

Mike is a prince among men.

Rick Klaw said...

If I recall the story properly, Mike was only 15 at the time. Certainly no more than 17.

Adrian Harper said...

Great article, boy does Mike dislike Rex Maxon. Does Rex owe Mike money or something?

Scott Dunbier said...

Well, it's pretty hard to compete with Foster and Hogarth. Although, actually, my favorite Tarzan is by Joe Kubert.

multiverse said...

Hi Scott,

I'm Reinart der Fuchs the webmaster over at multiverse.org which is Mr. Moorcock's website. We'd be honoured if you would stop by to share your thoughts on that collaboration. Many of us enjoyed The Barbary Rose. Great work!

Cheers,
RdF

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