Various (writers/artists), Mitch Maglio and Craig Yoe (editors), Dr. Sheena Howard (introduction)
February 12 2019
Imagine an archetypal comic hero, and you will likely picture some combination of spandex, a cape, external underpants, and a nifty set of superpowers. But for past generations, this would not necessarily have been the case. There was a time when a muscle-bound hero of the comics may well have come not with a primary-coloured suit, but an animal skin; not a backdrop of city skyscrapers, but a collection of vines; and not a teenage sidekick, but a faithful chimpanzee.
Jungle-based stories in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels were a core subgenre of adventure comics during the Golden Age. More than that, they were among the first: the comic-strip incarnation of Tarzan predates the exploits of Superman and Batman. Likewise, Wonder Woman—widely considered the first female superhero—arrived on the scene four years after the comic studio of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger created Sheena, Queen of the Jungle in 1937.
Her shapely figure squeezed into an improbable leopard skin swimsuit, Sheena’s sex appeal helped to make her a hit and something of a trendsetter. Publishers that would previously have contented themselves with imitating Tarzan began creating rivals to Sheena, and before long newsstands were playing host to the likes of Fiction House’s Camilla, Avon’s Taanda, and Nedor’s Judy of the Jungle. It is this body of work that is celebrated by the new hardback collection Jungle Girls, edited by Mitch Maglio and Craig Yoe.
Jungle Girls reprints fourteen Golden Age stories, each showcasing a different heroine. Join Sheena as she thwarts a monkey-suited villain masquerading as a supernatural being; watch Rulah, Jungle Goddess, save the native population from an erupting volcano; and see Cave Girl prevent a crew of skull-masked submariners from raiding a village for gold and ivory. Elsewhere, Tangi has stumbled across an ancient Egyptian city improbably buried in sub-Saharan Africa, while Fantomah, Daughter of the Pharaohs, is locked in a power struggle with an evil queen. The stories are hardly sophisticated, but they retain a distinct kitschy charm even a half-century down the line.
Most of the book’s heroines are—for all intents and purposes—the same character, albeit with an assortment of hairstyles and costumes. The supporting casts likewise tend to overlap, although they do show a degree of variety. For instance, the protagonists have slightly different relationships with the animal characters around them. Sheena has a pet chimpanzee named Chim; other jungle girls are able to communicate with animals, calling for the aid of elephants, lions, and other formidable allies when necessary. Judy of the Jungle makes it her practice to save not only people from predators, but also herbivores, killing a lion so that a deer may live. (“Thus die the evil prowlers of the jungle!”)
The protagonists often have male sidekicks. Sometimes these are jungle warriors, like the heroines: Taanda the White Princess has a boy sidekick in the Mowgli-esque Koru; Tangi co-stars alongside the Tarzan-like Kala; and Princess Pantha gets both varieties in the beefy Rango and his adopted son Hiku. More frequently, though, the male leads are cast as emissaries of Western civilisation, like Cave Girl’s archaeologist partner Luke Hardin or Judy of the Jungle’s trigger-happy chum Pistol Roberts. These generic characters are even more interchangeable than the jungle girls, almost invariably sporting blue trousers, white shirts, and fair hair. Their main purpose is to be kidnapped and rescued, no matter how much this may harm their machismo. (“A guy just hates to admit a woman got the best of him … even if it is a Sheena!”)
While Africa is the default setting for the stories, a few are set elsewhere: Tiger Girl and Tygra reside in India, Princess Pantha’s exploits are set in Hawaii, and Kazanda presides over a lost continent with a South Seas flavour. The indigenous tribes people are, by and large, portrayed as simple-minded dupes regularly led astray by wrongdoers, sometimes witch-doctors, other times unscrupulous white interlopers.
These jungle heroines are not envoys of European imperialism, as in H. Rider Haggard’s novels, but nor are they exactly the noble savages of the sort celebrated by Edgar Rice Burroughs. They are something rather more surreal: gorgeous young ladies who spend their lives in the jungle while maintaining immaculate hair, neatly-applied make-up, freshly waxed legs, and animal-skin outfits that confirm precisely to contemporary swimwear. Just as superhero comics require us to accept that radiation grants reality-bending powers and a pair of glasses make an infallible disguise, jungle girl comics require us to accept that the protection of Africa should naturally fall upon a bunch of white bikini models. And, indeed, the popularity of the genre shows that readers had no trouble playing along with this curious daydream.
One likely reason for the later decline of the jungle comic as a genre is that it became absorbed into the more overtly fantastical genre of sword and sorcery, Tarzan and Sheena handing their loincloths to Conan and Red Sonja. We can perhaps see an early glimmer of this in Howard Larsen’s “Malu the Slave Girl,” from the first issue of the dubiously-conceived Slave Girl Comics. Ostensibly set in 2000 BCE, the story depicts an ahistorical never-never land not unlike Conan’s Hyborian age, mixing iconography relating to ancient Rome and the Arabian Nights. The main character is a princess who has been captured and forced to serve in a harem. Her escape takes her to a Roman-style arena, where she tangles with lions. There are no jungles to be seen, but “Malu the Slave Girl” nonetheless covers much the same territory to the jungle girl genre, dealing as it does with a scantily-clad heroine who gets menaced by African fauna.
Jungle Girls is not an “artist’s edition” featuring remastered linework, but rather a book that presents the stories much as they would have appeared to a comic-reader of the period, the blurred inks and rudimentary colouring merely adding to the pulpy charm. The more accomplished illustrators, such as Matt Baker, turn in some sumptuous jungle fantasylands (Baker, an African-American, is also notable for his comparatively dignified portrayals of the black characters). Also standing out is Frank Frazetta. Although his lineart for “Judy of the Jungle” inevitably lacks the polish of his legendary oil paintings, its cartoonish distortion has plenty of character. The other artists’ work is variable in quality, with George Appel’s crude work on “Fantomah” being at a completely different end of the spectrum to Baker and Frazetta.
Included alongside the fourteen strips are a cover gallery and a series of written pieces that place the comics in a wider context. Dr. Sheena C. Howard, author of Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation, provides an introduction where she celebrates the strong women of jungle comics while acknowledging the genre’s obvious shortcomings. Co-editor Mitch Maglio delves into the history of jungle comics in general and Sheena in particular, as well as profiling some of the artists showcased in the book.
In all, Jungle Girls is a worthy celebration of the genre. It is very much a warts-and-all retrospective: even leaving aside the questionable social attitudes, these are some very repetitive stories. But they were popular in their day, and it is interesting to see a collection that captures both the highs and lows, making it clear why the jungle girl genre fell out of fashion and why it found favour with readers in the first place.