The Mighty Ki-Gor, Tarzan’s Forgotten Rival

jungle-stories-spring-1945-smallIn graduate school one of my guilty pleasures was reading some pretty mindless escapist adventure. From the middle to the end of semesters things could get more than a little hectic, what with all the projects and research papers, and it was nice to be able to just pick up a story and be entertained for a while by my old friend Ki-Gor. But who’s Ki-Gor? A Tarzan clone? And how on Earth (and why?) did I get interested in reading about him?

Some years back, at Pulpcon, I was wandering around the dealer room with writer John C. Hocking and sword-and-sorcery scholar Morgan Holmes. I stopped to chuckle at a ridiculous-looking pulp cover on display at one of the booths. Jungle Stories was emblazoned upon the masthead. Below, a beautiful and clearly evil dark-haired woman loomed over a bronzed jungle-man bound to an altar. Morgan said, “That’s actually a pretty good story.”

Knowing that Morgan Holmes is better read on sword-and-sorcery (and any kind of heroic fiction, really) than anyone else in existence, his comment pulled me up short. And then Hocking chimed in as well. “Some of the Ki-Gors are pretty great stuff,” he told me, then added caveats, which I’ll detail in a moment.

I took the chance and picked up that 1950s issue of Jungle Stories. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d get, but what I didn’t expect was an action-packed adventure with glowing zombie-men who disintegrated into ash when slain, or the machinations of an ageless sorceress intent on… well, I don’t remember what she was intent on, really, but she wanted to conquer something, and she fell for Ki-Gor, hard, as scheming villainesses do. It was ridiculous and over-the-top and certainly not politically correct, but at the same time it was thrilling and firing on all cylinders. I had the inescapable sense while reading it that the writer had said to himself, “Well, if I’m being hired to write a cliched jungle adventure I’m going to make it the best cliched jungle adventure I possibly can.” And so he had. It was a blast, cliches and all.

I had stumbled outside of my genre comfort zone and discovered something fascinating. I had to find more Ki-Gor. Who was he, and what about these Jungle Stories? Were they all this much fun, with so many fantasy elements?

jungle-stories-winter-1951-smallIt goes without saying that without Tarzan, there would be no Ki-Gor. The blond-haired jungle-man was crafted to meet the tastes of a public with an insatiable appetite for the adventures of Burroughs’s hero. Ki-Gor was not the first Tarzan clone, but he seems to have sustained the longest known run of any of Burroughs’s imitators. This was partly because there was money behind Jungle Stories, the pulp that printed the adventures of Ki-Gor for close to 17 years, from 1938 to 1954. For most of that run, readers could head to their local newsstand once every quarter and find the mighty Ki-Gor emblazoned across the cover wrestling a giant snake or a lion or an angry native, while his gorgeous “flame-haired” wife posed nearby in a two-piece leopard-skin bikini (frequently bound and sometimes gagged, which has made the covers popular amongst another set of collectors).

Each issue of Jungle Stories opened with a Ki-Gor “novel” (meaning a piece that came in between 20 and 40 thousand words) followed by shorter stories of unrelated characters. Ki-Gor was the magazine’s real draw, and his escapades backed up the promise of the covers, for there were dangers aplenty to be overcome by the jungle lord. The prose was purple, the action relentless, and cliffhangers closed almost every section.

While on the surface Ki-Gor sounds very much like any other Tarzan-inspired pastiche, he often rose above his humble origins. Written as he was by a house name, the true authors of Ki-Gor’s chronicles are little known, which is why we can’t be sure why a number of them are so much better than they really deserve to be. Close to a third of Ki-Gor’s adventures stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. The prose is tighter, the characters deeper, the setting more vivid (and frequently more bizarre) than almost anything Burroughs ever cooked up for Tarzan. The best of them crackle with the kind of energy visitors to the old pulp mags expect and almost never find. The worst though, ye Gods. They can be stinkers.

Under different hands, all the characters fare differently, but none so much as Tembu George, Ki-Gor’s friend and chief of a tribe of Massai warriors. In the bad Ki-Gors he’s a humble former southerner with a step-and-fetch accent, eager to please. In the good Ki-Gors, Tembu George is noble, brave, resourceful, and simply way, WAY cooler than you’d think any black man would be in a 1950s magazine aimed at white men (he’s actually cooler than ANY fictional black hero I’m familiar with until we get much closer to the modern era). Ki-Gor is color-blind and willingly risks life and limb for Tembu George and his pygmy friend, N’Geeso, more times than you can count, and those two always reciprocate, for the three view each other as brothers. In that way, if none other, Ki-Gor was ahead of its time.

jungle-stories-summer-1948-smallApproximately 59 Ki-Gor novellas were published during the run of Jungle Stories. The number is inexact because later in its run Jungle Stories sometimes re-used covers (upon which a novella title was already emblazoned) and printed a new story using the same name. Sometimes Jungle Stories reprinted the original story, and sometimes it reprinted a different story while reprinting an unrelated cover. The circumstances have led to some confusion about the precise number of stories, and which story has which title. Despite that, it’s possible to safely make several generalizations.

The first three or four years of Ki-Gor, from 1938 to 1941, sound the most dated. Ki-Gor himself isn’t especially clever and the natives are embarrassingly non-pc. After the 13th issue, Ki-Gor began to take on an easy nobility of spirit and his loyal native friends started to demonstrate both independence of thought and real capability. By Ki-Gor’s sixth year of existence, and for many years thereafter, this portrayal became more the norm than the exception, until Jungle Stories lost steam and direction. Lesser Ki-Gors dropped into the mix more and more frequently, and Ki-Gor’s final years were less inventive — although the series ended on a high note.

In all, there are some 15 to 20 good Ki-Gors. Not good in a Proust sense, or good in a unique Tolkien or Jack Vance world-building sense, but good as grand pulp adventures. In them, one can find lost civilizations, evil queens, ancient temples and curses, noble friends, evil schemes, monsters from the dawn of time, mad scientists, telepathy, battles against overwhelming forces, supernatural menace, and above all action with a capital A. Hocking described the good ones as sounding a little like Robert E. Howard or Mickey Spillane writing a Tarzan story. They tend to recycle themes — Helene captured, a lost ancient civilization still existing in the jungle, Ki-Gor framed — but when they’re not read back to back, they’re loopy fun. THIS time, Ki-Gor must save his wife and native women from marauding cave men freed from an ancient valley! THIS time, Ki-Gor must stop a horde of vampiric flying squirrels, commanded by a beautiful telepathic Indian (no, I’m not kidding).

The “good” ones are enough fun that people like Hocking and Andy Beau and I slogged our way through a mountain of bad ones looking for more gold.

You don’t need to think a whole lot about these tales, which made them great for reading in the middle of my grad school studies. If a few days had gone by since I’d had time to read and I’d forgotten what page I was on, it didn’t matter. I’d discover Ki-Gor in the middle of a fight with a crocodile, or Tembu George in furious combat with his shovel-bladed Massai spear, and I’d sit back and enjoy.

Even a list of Ki-Gor titles is outrageous fun, but there’s nothing quite like the delicious purple of the blurbs that introduce each story. Here are a couple of samples. First, from “The Monkey Men of Loba-Gola” (which, incidentally, had NO monkey-men in it whatsoever):

Ki-Gor, White Lord of the Jungle, tracked a treachery spoor to the Forest of Treasure, challenging lovely, mad Zoanna and her evil Master. But a devil’s trap was waiting. Ki-Gor faced a battle no man might win… against Nihilla Ati, the Invisible Vampire of Death!

And how about this one, from “The Golden Claws of Raa:”

Sam Slater, cobra-eyed merchant of warrior-flesh; Mog, the gorilla with human blood on his dagger-like teeth– and Raa, white queen of the ape legions… these were Ki-Gor’s enemies in a battle that only the voodoo of Fate could decide!

They don’t write ’em like that anymore.

Anyway, here’s my list of the absolute best Ki-Gor stories, in no particular order:

The Silver Witch
The Beast-Gods of Atlantis
The Sword of Sheba
Lost Priestess of the Nile
The Monkey-Men of Loba-Gola
Huntress of the Hell-Pack
The Monsters of Voodoo Isle
The Golden Claws of Raa
Slave Brides for the Dawn-Men
Tigress of T’Wanbi
Blood Priestess of Vig N’Ga
Flame Priestess of Carthage
Warrior-Queen of Attila’s Lost Legion
Death Seeks for Congo Treasure
Stalkers of the Dawn-World
White Cannibal
The Golden Beast of Zuli Maen
Safari of the Serpent Slaves
Cobra Queen of the Congo Legions
Mad Monster of Mu-Ungu
Slave-Caverns of Molundu

When I published the original version of this article at Black Gate, John Hocking added some comments that are worth reprinting. He wrote:

While the worst Ki-Gors are poor enough to be painful to read, the best ones are so good as to make wading through the bad ones worthwhile.

What the good ones have going for them is a little hard to explain to someone who isn’t a pulp fan. They aren’t classy or clever, and they are emphatically not original.

At their pinnacle what they have is a blazing enthusiasm for formula so intense that you could be forgiven for imagining the unknown author leaping up wild-eyed from his smoking typewriter, flailing his arms and leaping around his garrett in a frenzy of unleashed prose composition.

Jungle Stories collectors have generally agreed that “Stalkers of the Dawn World” is the best Ki-Gor novel, and although there are others I like as much, this may be the best example of what I’m trying to get at here.

“Stalkers of the Dawn World” is your basic “Jungle Man Rescues Lost Safari in a Valley of Dinosaurs” story. You could probably parse out the whole plot in a few moments even if your entire experience with jungle pulp storytelling was drawn from watching a couple Tarzan movies. Doesn’t matter.

The novel is written in a virtual typhoon of the most outrageously purple prose. Simple descriptions of the jungle attain ecstatic heights while actual scenes of action (including the inevitable climactic showdown between Ki-Gor and a T. Rex) go so far over the top as to qualify as some kind of controlled substance in prose form.

Obviously, this is the kind of thing that people who like that kind of thing are really going to like. A real high point for latter day pulp sensationalism.

In short, the good Ki-Gor’s actually sound like what you think outrageous pulp fiction really should have been like (and almost never was, in truth, because that kind of pacing and action writing is hard to pull off). They’re surprisingly fun. I enjoyed the good ones enough that I actually kept hold of them, thinking I might re-read them some day.

You’ll probably have an easier time finding Ki-Gor than I did and won’t have to haunt pulp magazine conventions to do so, providing you’re patient for just a little longer. There are a series of reprints courtesy of High Adventure, and, for the completists, Altus Press is compiling the entire run. They’re currently up to volume 2, and I understand that other volumes are nearly ready for print. While Volume 3 ought to be the start of the ones I find most enjoyable, it must be said that some readers seem to enjoy them right from the beginning.

21 Comments on “The Mighty Ki-Gor, Tarzan’s Forgotten Rival

  1. Oh, man, these look like a lot of fun. Sometimes I’m really tempted to reread the Tarzan books, but reading some Ki-Gor might be a good substitute. It’s strictly a nostalgia urge that I can’t 100% defend, but I’ll humbly stand by.

    • They ARE a lot of fun. At first they were a guilty pleasure, and my wife still shakes her head at me when I mention Ki-Gor, but what can I say? I refuse to be guilty about it. They excel at delivering what pulp is supposed to do. Most pulp falls woefully short of the expectations one gets by looking at those lurid old covers. The best Ki-Gors actually deliver.

    • Why would you defend it? You like what you like. You read what you read. I write scifi and fantasy, but one of my favorite guilty pleasures is well-written Power Rangers fan-fiction. Like the author said, he read them as light reading when college term got to be be a drag. There’s something to be said for that. Escapist adventure is just as valuable as serious fiction- sometimes more so.

  2. Pingback: Friday Top Ten #1 - Steven M. Long

  3. Adventure House has reprinted some of the best Ki-Gor novels in issues of HIGH ADVENTURE. Go to to check it out.

  4. I just discovered Ki-Gor. One thing i noticed, while by no means PC, the novels are less racist than other jungle pulp stories. I read all of the “Sheena” pulp stories and found them full of attitudes straight out of the 1930’s and 1940’s, an occasional “noble savage” the rest either stereotypes or worse. Sheena was an interesting character, but no publisher, at the time, was going to allow a writer to explore her sexual dimensions. In all of her stories she gets naked exactly twice and engages in no more than chaste kissing. Come on! She’s a jungle woman in a leopard bikini!
    Ki-Gor, by contrast is allowed to appreciate female beauty. His mate, Helene is menaced on a regular basis. In “The Seven Silver Skulls of L’Gonda” the bad guy has his men begin cutting off Helene’s clothing. She loses her top to the knife, but Ki-Gor comes to the rescue before she loses her leopard skin panties. Reading carefully it appears that the author made and oversight. Apparently, at no point does Ki-Gor’s wife ever retrieve her animal skin bra!
    As a fan of pulp literature, I find these little moments radiant jewels in what is often a long slog through the fiction of the era. Ki-Gor is a lot more readable today, than say the contemporary space operas largely written for the same audience.
    Thank you for your interesting and informative profile of Trazan’s coolest knockoff.

  5. Love the blog post! I knew next to nothing about Ki-gor except he existed. Not surprised that Hocking had read a bunch. (miss ya man!)

    • Hey Storn — glad you could be introduced to the mighty Ki-Gor! It’s good stuff.

  6. I completely forgot about Ki-Gor! I don’t think I have ever read any of his stories, though. I loved Tarzan and as a kid looked down on any character trying to copy him. I’ve grownup since then and my sense of appreciation for pulpy writers and their stories has grown exponentially. Awesome article, thanks.

    • Thanks, Woelf! I loved the good Ki-Gor stories way more than I ever expected…

  7. I just finished “Cobra Queen of the Congo Legions” like most Ki-Gor tales, the title has very little to do with the story. In this case, the main antagonists are a slimy Arab who believes he was wronged by Ki-Gor, bent on revenge, and the last queen of the Egyptians!
    What I might love best about these tales is Helene, Ki-Gor’s mate. Though Ki-Gor is a Tarzan rip-off, Helene is no Jane. She is an equal partner in the adventures, Helene is menaced as much or more than Ki-Gor himself and the various writers who worked under the house name of John Peter Drummond, were not shy about extolling Helen’s charms.

    “The leopard-skin halter was bright yellow and black against her body, and she shrugged it free of her rounded supple breasts, hung it on the stub of a broken twig. Then she loosed the thongs that held the spotted breech-clout to her slender waist, slid it down he slender legs, stepped free. She hung the clout atop the halter, then stood nude in the sunshine. She was slender and smooth and supple as she stood there in the bright sunlight; she was a titian-haired goddess standing there in the radiance of her sun-God.”

    Now THAT is entertainment! originally published in Spring 1944 I’m sure the G.I.’s stranded European foxholes or Pacific beaches appreciated this bit of fan service. Not that I’m counting or anything, but Helene ends up nude three times in this story, including an off-stage stripping by the villainous bad guy. What I’m trying to say is that the guys behind the John Peter Drummond pseudonym knew EXACTLY what they were doing.

  8. Some day I’m going to pick up or bring up online some JUNGLE STORIES, and appreciate the pointers here and from James Reasoner…I’m particularly a big fan of what Jerome Bixby did with PLANET STORIES, JUNGLE STORIES’s stablemate, starting in 1949-50, and he was the new editor of JS at the same time…I wonder if he did anything more interesting with the Earth-bound magazine as well (though I’m getting the drift that Ki-Gor and Helene stories might’ve been a bit more tired by then).

    • Bixby seemed to have been involved in some good things, although I don’t know enough about him to know the extent of that involvement. I do hope that you keep our lists in mind while you go digging for Ki-Gor gold, because there are some really terrible ones and reading one of those first might put you off trying any others…

  9. My review of the Ki-Gor story, “Caravan of Terror” Ki-Gor and Helene investigate a series of mysterious disappearances, including Tembu George’s beautiful wife only to end up, like her, in hands of renegade Arab slave traders!

    “And then the watching Arabs caught their first glimpse of Helene. She walked disdainfully, despite her dreadful tiredness, and her hair was a flaming red-gold crown atop her golden slenderness. She saw the greedy eyes that touched her body, and there was a shrinking distaste in her gaze that drove the onlookers back like a scourge.
    Abu drywashed his skinny hands, his tongue touching dry lips.
    “Five purses Ali he said in a whisper. “Five purses for the white woman with hair like living flame.””

    Will Ki-Gor free himself from the yoke of slavery? Will Helene be ravished by the odious Arab who tries to lay claim to her? The answer to these questions is never really in doubt. The fun is in reading the tale and cheering the heroes on. Pulp fiction at its finest. Early in the narrative, Helene goes skinny dipping with Ki-Gor. Her spectacular nudity is (for the time) quite well described. Since this story was first published in 1942, I’m sure every G.L who read this in his foxhole in Europe or the Pacific, missing the girl at home, definitely appreciated that fanservice!

  10. l have read one original Ki-Gor adventure myself and enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the comic version is less than ideal, with Ki-Gor becoming Ka’a’nga and Tembu George being replaced by Broot, a character inspired by the title character of the film THE EMPEROR JONES. Ka’a’nga’s mate was named Ann, not Annette.

  11. My review of “Stalkers of the Dawn World” from Winter 1943 issues of Jungle Stories One of the main attraCTIONS OF THE kI-Gor stories is Helene his “flame haired” mate. A hell of a lot sexier than Tarzan’s Jane., Helene is a fully-fledged member of the team and one phenomenally sexy woman. Here is how she is introduced,

    “Her skin was a golden tan against the tawny yellow and black of her leopard-skin breech-clout and halter. She shrugged one arm free of the halter strap, then slipped the halter from her firm rounded breasts, tossed it aside. Her fingers loosed the strings at her waist, and she slid the clout down her slender legs, stepped out of its confines, stood free in the soft breeze.” Hot stuff indeed for 1943!

    The tale told this time is, “Stalkers Of The Dawn World”, in which Ki-Gor and his companions journey to rescue a small band of survivors from an aviation crash, trapped on a mountaintop, where they are prey to a gorilla-like mad man, a horde of disgusting Neanderthals, and rampaging dinosaurs! Pulp fiction at its finest, Ki-Gor’s adventures are not politically correct and take place in an Africa that does not exist anywhere except in fantasy, yet they are profoundly entertaining tales. Will Ki-Gor save the day? Will Helene’s halter top be torn off by a dinosaur? Will the downed unfortunates be rescued? The answer is never in doubt when it comes to Ki-Gor, the point is the excitement and adventure. This is one of the better Ki-Gor adventures, a great place to start if the character is unfamiliar to you, or a great notch on your reading belt for those who are Ki-Gor completists or just fans of vintage pulp literature. Highly recommended. .

    • Great review, James. Is there an easy way to get ahold of the story these days? It was the hardest to find for a very long time.

      • Action house offers a reprint edition of the Winter 1943 issue of Jungle Tales. That is where i found it. An Amazon search should turn it up.

  12. You forgot to mention that Ki-Gor was the basis for Ka’a’nga, Fiction House’s great comic book jungle hero. Tembu George didn’t fare as well in the comics – he was replaced by Broot, aka Brutus Jones, an American gangster who had fled to Africa and become a tribal chief who fell in battle against the jungle lord.

  13. My Review of “Huntress of The Hell Pack” from the Summer 1945 issue of Jungle Stories. The best of the Tarzan knockoffs, Ki-Gor lives in a fantasy Africa with Helene, his beautiful flame-haired wife, who spends all of her time in a minuscule leopard skin halter and tiny shorts, as well as Timbu George, a Masai warrior, and N’gesso, a pygmy chieftain. Together and apart, they stumble into one adventure after another. In this tale, “Huntress of the Hell-Pack” Timbu George’s Masai are menaced by the twin threats of Nyag, a medicine man terrified of losing power and his allies, six beautiful topless Arab girls, their leader the Flame Queen, and their prowling pride of man-eating lions! Her is how the flame Queen is introduced:

    “She was like nothing he had imagined. There was no evil in the delicately chiseled, faintly exotic face, and her lips, full and red, parted in a quizzical half-smile, a friendly questioning smile. And her halo of ash-blonde hair, her deep violet eyes accentuated the look of girlish purity, of half-shy youth.
    She wore a robe as dazzling white as filtered sunlight, and the clinging garment was drawn closely about her curved body, hugging the swing of her hips with every movement, rustling faintly as her long legs brushed its softness.” WHEW!

    Don’t worry, she will be stripping out of that tight gown before too long in an attempt to hold Ki-Gor’s attention. Will the jungle lord defeat the forces marshaled against him? Will Helene be imperiled? Will things look very dark indeed for our hero? The answer to those questions are never in doubt, the fun is the journey, the bravado and the spectacle, all of which this Ki-Gor tale provides in abundance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.