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Old Turkish comic heroes make return to bookshelves

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 12/30/2010 12:00:00 AM | EMRAH GÜLER

An infallible and timeless Turkish comic book hero meets new generations in a new publication. The Hunnic warrior Tarkan, under the service of Attila the Hun, fights Vikings, Romans and giant dragons

With Turkish nationalism on the rise among young people in the last decade we have seen TV and cinema unabashedly cashing in on the sensitivities of a significant portion of the country. It was inevitable that the plethora of Turkish historic comic books of the ’60s and ’70s with larger-than-life heroes would hit the shelves again nearly a half-century later.

The popular comic book heroes of the period, referred to as Heroes with Swords, were inspired by motifs from the histories of Turks as well as by Islam. Although the heroes and the worlds they lived in were rarely accurate in their depiction, three of the 50 or so popular comics of the day proved to be more careful about their historic backgrounds. Karaoğlan (Kebir, in its French editions) took place in 12th- and 13th-century Central Asia during the reign of Genghis Khan. Malkoçoğlu took place during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II.

The third of these proved to be more timeless, with its historical background going back to the 4th-century Hunnic Empire. The classic adventures of cartoonist Sezgin Burak’s Tarkan is now being published once again, more than four decades.

The hero Tarkan is a Hunnic warrior, serving for Attila the Hun. The origin of the story goes like this: Born as the son of a Hunnic warlord in the Caucasus Mountains, Tarkan’s parents are slaughtered when he is an infant. He is then raised by gray wolves. He grows up to be a solitary warrior, his only companion a wolf, called simply Kurt, the Turkish word for wolf.

What makes the Tarkan comics more timeless is their unique blend of historical accuracy and their mythic and fantastic nature. Burak conceived the idea for the character when he was working for the art agency Studio D’Ami in Italy in the mid-60s. He had earlier created the comic character El Cougar and had drawn for the comic Colosso.

[HH] Historic accuracy vs fantastic worlds

Burak’s research of Italian history made him realize the crucial role of the Hunnic Empire and Attila the Hun in their history. His research into the Huns, coupled with the fact that official Turkish history considers Huns to be the ancestors of modern Turks, helped in the conception of Tarkan. Burak’s fascination is most evident in the depiction of the origin of his hero when he is suckled and cared for by a she-wolf, quite similar to what happened to Romulus and Remus, the mythical twin founders of Rome. But the wolf is a crucial mythical figure in many ancient Turkic legends, some going as far as saying that the Turks have descended from wolves; in many others the gray wolf is seen as a savior and a guide to Turks.

Burak did thorough research in Italy, which would later be reflected in the background details of the Tarkan comics, in the cities, dwellings, clothes and accessories of the period. That said, most of the adventures of Tarkan would be over-the-top, where he would fight giant man-eating dragons, sorcerers and Cyclops and look after the sword in the stone with magical powers. The occasional sado-erotic imagery where Tarkan would be tied and tortured by half-naked sexy women with whips was a sight for sore eyes for many of the male readers.

Most of the adventures of Tarkan were set in northern, northwestern and middle Europe, with Vikings and Romans being some of the enemies. While Tarkan called himself a “Hunnic Turk,” the word “Turk” was not to be used for another two centuries after the period he lived in.

The first Tarkan strip was published in the daily Hürriyet in 1967. It ran for nine years. In 1970, the adventures of Tarkan were published separately as a weekly comic book. The comic’s popularity led to a string of films from 1969 to 1973 starring Kartal Tibet as Tarkan in all but two. The first of these films was directed by veteran director Tunç Başaran and was a faithful adaptation of the very first Tarkan adventure, “Mars’ın Kılıcı” (The Sword of Mars). Now, a whole new generation of Turks will delight in a new hero who will defeat anyone from Vikings to dragons.

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