The jungle adventure genre just isn’t what it used to be.
Popularized by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and the work of Edgar Rich Burroughs in the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th century, and then given new life in pre-code Hollywood, tales of safaris into darkest Africa, noble wild people raised in the jungles and battles to the death with wild animals are very much a product of their times.
And, as such, the stories don’t lend themselves well to re-telling, at least not in a modern milieu. Africa—as well as most of the rest of the world—is no longer so dark. The acts of wrestling rhinos and slaying gorillas has lost its luster now that the great beasts are endangered. And let’s not even get into the casual racism of pop culture in the first few decades of the 20th century.
In short, popular imagination has transformed so much during the course of that century that we don’t regard the jungle in quite the same way we used to. It’s not longer a deadly, dangerous challenge awaiting to be explored, conquered and made use of; now it’s seen as a dwindling, fragile resource in need of respect and protection.
So if you’re going to do a jungle adventure story, you’re probably going to want to set it in the past, right?
Steven E. de Souza, the screenwriter who has been working with Devil’s Due Publishing to restore Golden Age heroine Sheena, Queen of the Jungle to comics shelves, didn’t go that route, which, frankly, surprised me.
I was even more surprised by the fact that it worked.
De Souza, who gets a standalone credit for “Sheena Reboot” on the title page of DDP’s just released Sheena, Queen of the Jungle Vol. 2: Dark Rising, moves the action from the jungles Africa to the rain forests of South America, which, are considerably “darker” than Africa is these days.
Sheena leads a double life as Rachel Carson, a civilized heiress in the city of Val Verde, and as the leopard print-rocking legendary jungle protector.
Her jodhpur-enthusiast Steve Trevor-type sidekick is now Bob Kellerman, an environmentalist/journalist, who shares Sheena’s respect for nature.
Rather than simply fighting the lost civilization or white intruder of the month as in the original comics, there is now an ongoing plot involving the circumstances by which Sheena ended up being orphaned and raised in the jungle, and some simmering sub-plots and and running gags.
The Dark Rising trade is actually two different stories. Before the titular miniseries is a one-shot entitled “Trail of The Mapinguari,” written by de Souza and featuring painted-looking art by Vincenc Villagrasan and Elizabeth John. The former is credited as “line artist,” the latter as “color artist;” I’m not sure exactly how the pair worked together, obviously, but the result is a rather painterly one that looks great on the jungle setting and the musculature of Sheena’s body (let’s not forget that cheesecake is an important part of Sheena comics).
The story involves the strange deaths of academics who have cataloged and explored a forbidden area of the forest, the manner of death suggesting they were killed by the Mapinguari, a real-life cryptid that legends say has backwards-facing feet and a second mouth in its belly, is invincible to all weapons and may have only one eye. Some cryptozoologists think it may be either South America’s Bigfoot, or perhaps a surviving species of giant sloth. (You may remember artist Aya Kakeda’s rather adorable version of the Mapinguari from Fantagraphics’ Beasts! Book 2).
Are the beasts really committing the gruesome killings, or is it some kind of Scooby-Doo situation or is there something even weirder going on? Bob, Rachel/Sheena’s bodyguard Martin Ransom, Sheena and a whole bunch of cannon fodder go to find out.
The rest of the book is devoted to Dark Rising, which de Souza co-writes with Todd Livingston. This is probably a more complete story, relying less on backstory and featuring a less equivocal ending, as well as a less nebulous, easy to grasp conflict: It’s Sheena and her pals (human and animal this time) vs. a bunch of cyborg Nazis who were marooned on the way to a secret base full of doomsday weapons for half a century.
De Souza’s old-school action movie experience is on full display here, with the narrative staying lighthearted enough to headfake into comedy every few pages before plunging along into action, Bob and Ransom bickering buddy cop style, a few big set pieces and the requisite hero-jumping-away-from-in-explosion scene (although here, Sheena fires herself out of a torpedo tube away from the explosion).
The art on this particular story is unfortunately pretty mishmash. Two artists and two colorist are credited—in addition to a third artist for a flashback scene—and while it’s not clear who does what, the style changes rather radically a few times throughout the story, all but falling apart at the end.
Rounding out the collection are all of the way-too-many variant covers which, as much as I hate to see varaints on new books, I have to admit do make for a nice pin-up gallery in the eventual collection. Amanda Conner, Joe Jusko, Tim Seely and Shawn McManus are among those that contributed covers.
Finally, there’s an entire Golden Age Sheena story, one that was reprinted in Golden Age Sheena Vol. 2, in which Sheena fights Amazons, Western thieves, a wild boar, a gorilla, a panther and a rhino—all in just 11 pages.
As awesome as rhino-riding may be—she uses the ears to steer, see—it would seem a little stomach-turning in 2009. I think Mapinguari and cyborg Nazis make for fine replacements for the animal adversaries of yesteryear though.