Know Thy History: Sheena, Queen of the Jungle
On the eve of the world’s biggest nerd prom, it’s fun to speculate the alternate paths that comics could have taken. Superheroes have been the big game for, oh, forever, but what if it were not always thus? In Watchmen, Alan Moore envisioned a world that had, instead, embraced pirate comics… which isn’t as ridiculous a scenario as it sounds at first.
But … what if the comic industry were dominated by stories of attractive blonde ladies swinging through jungle vines wearing skimpy animal-print bikinis?
A year before Superman founded the superhero genre in Action Comics #1, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, carved her own sexy, sexy niche in the pages of Wags, a British tabloid. Sheena would arrive on American shores a year later, three months after Superman’s debut. She was such a successful character that she inspired a whole slew of imitators with names like Tiger Girl, Camilla, Lorna the Jungle Girl, Tegra and Zegra… and, later in the 1970’s, Marvel’s not very imaginatively named Shanna the She-Devil. Truly they must be jungle goddesses if they can survive the harsh African jungles while maintaining fabulous hair, impeccable make-up, and impossibly pale complexion! They were also all, for the most part, fairly Scandinavian in complexion, which makes you wonder how all these jungle goddesses managed to avoid getting horribly sunburned.
While debuting in Great Britain, Sheena was the creation of the American Eisner-Iger Studios. While several sites seem to attribute Sheena’s creation to Will Eisner (the dude what the Eisner Awards were named after), Jerry Iger recalls things differently: “Some people have thought Will also had a role in the creation of ‘Sheena,’ but the closest Will got to Sheena was to do the art for a cover or two long after the character had been published by Wags. The artists who are best remembered as drawing Sheena are Robert Webb and Bob Powell.”
Iger also takes credit for coming up with Sheena’s name, calling it a twist to “Sheenie,” an insult directed to Jewish people.
So, who was Sheena? Well… she was a female version of Tarzan. Obviously. She even has a very similar origin story. She arrived in Africa with her dad, Cardwell Rivington (or, um, some missionaries in later retcons). She’s then raised by a witch doctor named Koba… or, in yet another retcon, a witchwoman named N’bid Ela. In restrospect, Sheena’s origins aren’t that different from Superman’s, only instead of Smallville she spends her life amongst an African tribe. She grows up to be the beautiful and athletic Jungle Queen, who protect her tribe from violent neighboring tribes, foreign conmen, and the random animal on a rampage.
Did she just powerlift one cheetah to hurl it at another cheetah? Oh yes she did! Now you know where she got the material for her sassy junglewear.
Sheena would debut in America in issue one of Jumbo Comics… and, surprisingly, not in the first issue of the more aptly titled Jungle Comics. I’m guessing it was because she didn’t want to share magazine space with this loser.
With Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1, which debuted in the Spring of 1942, Sheena became the first female character to get her own title. It featured a doozy of a villain: a bored Parisian socialite who wanted to go to Africa for adventure. Mind you, she got her own title in 1942. When WWII was in full swing. Which is even mentioned in the friggin’ comic.
That right… WWII, boring as hell.
Another great highlight in Sheena’s adventures had her dressing up like a crocodile to beat up the villain, a dude with candlesticks on his head.
Totally fair play, though. We find out in the next story that there are villains who terrorize locals by dressing up as lions. Africa was clearly full of light fursuit play. Wait … why did the villagers assume they were being attacked by lions and not actors from a Julie Taymor Broadway production?
Being the late ’30’s-early ’40’s, Sheena could not be romantically involved with any of the locals, since that would be quite shocking for its time. Instead, she ran around Africa with a loser named Bob Reynolds. (He’s referred to as her “handsome consort” in the comics, which is about as demeaning as “boy wonder.”) You would think that perhaps Bob was included for what I imagine were predominantly male readers as the dashing hero, and Sheena would be the damsel in distress. But no. In a pretty nifty role reversal, Bob was a total tool who always needed rescuing.
To be fair about that last one, he is getting whipped by Hitler. But that doesn’t change the fact that Sheena’s own pet monkey was a more reliable partner than Bob.
Sheena must’ve realized this, too, since later she’s seen running around with the less useless Rick Thorne. (Though, really, that was probably just another retcon… proving that Sheena really was no different than her male counterparts in the superhero world.)
Now, granted, the racial politics of Sheena is a little embarrassing these days. Let’s address the elephant in the room: this is comic about a beautiful Caucasian goddess revered by primitive brown people. However, racial caricatures were a problem for most comics of its era. And Sheena handles non-Caucasian characters better than most, making both villains and heroes alike seem like normal people. You know, normal people who see a hot air balloon and start screaming about sky bubbles.
The sexy jungle goddess trend eventually died out (unless you count Jill of the Jungle… and I do). Sheena, though, has never completely disappeared from public view. She became something of a sex symbol of her era, especially when pin-up star Irish McCalla played the title role in the 1950’s TV series.
Most notorious was a movie in 1984 starring former Charlie’s Angel and future Bond girl Tanya Roberts, which garnered several award nominations. Unfortunately, those awards were Razzies. But hey: Worst Screenplay, Worst Musical Score, Worst Actress, Worst Director, and Worst Picture? I’m pretty sure someone in Bizzaroland was impressed. Somehow, it never snagged a special award for Worst Special Effect, since the movie is probably best known for painting a horse to look like a zebra… something that’s still being chatted up in bad movie guidebooks to this day.
There was even a TV series in 2000, where Sheena gained the powers of transforming into animals and a humanoid creature called Darak’Na. Edgy! Sheena even made her glorious return to the comic pages this year, which proves that leopard print boy shorts are forever.
(Comic panels care of Digital Comics Museum)