Devil’s Due Publishing has recently been publishing new comics featuring Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a sort of lady Tarzan from the Golden Age of comics, following the series of miniseries model popular with a lot of non-Marvel, non-DC genre comics.
I haven’t read any of these, as they haven’t really done much to visually distinguish themselves from the pack of current jungle girl comics on the stands, like Cavewoman, Dynamite’s Jungle Girl, and Marvel’s recent Shanna the She-Devil comics.
I am extremely glad Devil’s Due is making Sheena comics though, if only because it gave them a reason to start collecting and re-publishing the golden goddess of the jungle’s original adventures. The latest, Best of Golden Age Sheena Vol. 2, hit shelves this week, and it makes for another great example of what a wonderful time it is to be a comics reader, for the reprints alone.
While Sheena hasn’t had the staying power Wonder Woman, coming and going from comics while the amazing Amazon’s been ever-present since her creation, she was the very first comic book heroine with a title of her own, beating Wonder Woman #1 to the newsstands by a matter of months.
She was basically just a female Tarzan, a sort of blonde Jane-and-Tarzan-in-one character, prefigured in prose by Rima from W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, but jungle hero family trees are all pretty tangled, as Steven E. de Souza points out in his introduction to the volume: Sure, Sheena’s just a female Tarzan, but then, Tarzan’s just a white Mowgli.
De Souza, by the way, is a pretty constant presence throughout the book. In addition to the introduction, he was one of the four people credited with selecting the stories included, and he provides annotations at the end, which are mostly jokes about what a sissy Sheena’s jodhpured boyfriend Bob is and whether her many bouts with tentacled monsters make her a pioneer in the tentacle sex field (In these nine stories, she battles a rare African river octopus, a rare African river giant squid and something called an “octosaur fish”). De Souza is apparently a fan; a screenwriter with Die Hard, 48 Hours, Hudson Hawk, Street Fighter and Judge Dredd (for which I will never forgive him!) to his name , de Souza co-wrote DDP’s first modern Sheena miniseries.
My simmering resentment over 1995’s Judge Dredd aside, he’s a welcome presence here, as this is an all-around great package for a comic reprint series. In addition to the introduction and annotations, it also includes reprints of several vintage ads from the period (the stories collected range from 1941-1950), including the ones Dr. Fredric Wertham referred to as “arsenal ads,” advertising weaponry to children, plus a trio of prose Sheena stories of the day and, most welcome of all, a six-page Sky Girl story and a one-page prose introduction to the feature and its artist, Matt Baker, one of the first black men to work in comics, who drew what some consider to be the first graphic novel, 1950’s It Rhymes With Lust.
The Sky Girl feature is included because Sky Girl was a back-up strip in the original Sheena comics, but it’s nice to see the ink spent on Baker. Not only was he a gifted creator and an incredibly interesting figure—he’s one of the many Golden Age comics artists I’d like to read a biography of, if there are any biographers in the reading audience—but it works a little toward counterbalancing some of the, um, unenlightened portrayal of people of color throughout the earlier stories (The African natives here don’t fare any better than those in early Tarzan movies).
Not that the two have anything to do with one another directly, but, after sitting through some negative fifty-year-old stereotypes, it’s nice to see a little piece about a genius African-American artist, and an example of that genius at work.
So, Sky Girl? She’s Virgina Maguire, a man-hungry waitress who works at a restaurant by an airport, and speaks almost exclusively in puns and jokes. In this six-page story, she encounters a handsome shiek—“The harem-scarem type!”-who orders “Coffe, woman. No sugar, no talk,” and then drags her off (by the hair!) to his plane. She spends the next five pages bending and crawling around suggestively and, ultimately, must choose between losing her dress, which is pinned by knives to the inside of a pilotless plane, or her life, and chooses to ditch her duds and land the plane in her undergarments.
Yeah, it’s silly and exploitive, but it’s also from 1947 and, here’s the key, it’s really well drawn. I’d be infinitely more comfortable with all the attempts at sexy poses in super-comics today if the artists could actually draw the female form a tenth as well as Baker could.
But the main feature is, of course, Sheena, who stars in nine different adventures here, the credits of which read “ W. Morgan Thomas,” but which is the work of the Will Eisner and S.M. Iger studio (who did what exactly should be of interest to experts; Eisner, Baker and Bob Powell are among those who contributing something or other to the stories.
These stories are all pretty generic jungle-adventure ones, something that isn’t as bad in a twelve-page story in a collection as it is stretched across a four-to-six-page comics series.
Sheena, her mostly useless boyfriend and her much more useful Cheeta-like chimpanzee friend/pet Chim battle white river pirates, miners and treasure hunters seeking to exploit the land, plus Nazis, gorillas, lions, crocodiles, Bat-Men, lost tribes, treasure hunters, Amazons and far more animals with tentacles than I thought dwelled in Africa.
The artwork varies from story to story, as the artists change, but its universally quite strong, and bursting with the nervous, angry energy of so many comics of the era, particularly in the opening stories, where the page lay-outs feature panel-shapes that change constantly, giving the pages a jig-saw-like looks, with the white gutters between the panels cutting through the page like lightning bolts.
It’s strange to see the DDP’s current dead-eyed, emaciated Sheena in an ad for a modern collection at the end of the book, after reading so many stories featuring the wild-eyed, powerful Golden Age Sheena beating up lions and using dead leopards as missile weapons. This Sheena looks ready to swing out of the comic and fight her way down the new comics racks, breaking the necks of any rival jungle girls or superheroes foolish enough to get in her way.