Ladies in Leopard Skins

Of course, it all started with Tarzan. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Lord of the Jungle has inspired countless comic strips and comics books down through the years that have featured the talents of  Harold Foster, Burne Hogarth, Jesse Marsh, Archie Goodwin, and Russ Manning, to name just a few. Tarzan remains the definitive jungle adventure comic strip. The only significant competition the Ape-Man ever had in the panels was Jumbo Comics' Sheena.

Jumbo Comics was one of a number of collectible titles published by Fiction House, which, according to the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, was "The most perused, but least read, of Golden Age comics." Noted for provocative covers, drawn by top flight artists like Bob Lubbers, Nick Cardy, George Tuska, Lilly Renee, Matt Baker, and Graham Ingles, the line was well known for serving up some of the best of that era's "good-girl" art.

Fiction House, run by company president Thurman T. Scott, launched its first comic, the black and white Jumbo # 1 (valued at $16,500 in Near Mint) in 1938. It was the first of a line that would include Planet Comics, Fight, Jungle, Wings,and Rangers. All, of course, featuring covers that were little more than pin-ups --which was the point, of course.

 Sheena debuted in that first issue of Jumbo, written by William Thomas and illustrated by Mort Meskin, a  sadly neglected artist better appreciated by his peers than comics fans. The brainchild of Will (The Spirit) Eisner and Jerry Iger (who created the character in 1937 for the overseas Editors Press Service), the Jungle Queen's premiere in the United States was an immediate success. Born of two medical missionaries killed in a cave-in, their baby daughter Janet was raised by a local shaman. As the young girl grew to womanhood, she was taught how to communicate with the beasts by the shaman and taught fighting and survival skills by the tribe she was sworn to protect. Wearing her skimpy leopard-skin outfit, Sheena spent much of her time rescuing her hapless American boyfriend, Bob, from Nazis, hostile tribes, and the usual assortment of jungle crooks.

Sheena's stories in Jumbo at first consisted of a mere four pages. In the first eight issues her stories were just one among many. By issue #9, when Jumbo went full-color, she received star billing and was featured on the cover. By the #13 Sheena became the regular cover girl of that title. A combination of adventure, sex, and sadism, the Queen of the Jungle was well received by panting teenage boys everywhere. Sheena appeared in 167 issues of Jumbo Comics, as well as 18 issues of her own title (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, launched Spring, 1942).

Inasmuch as the comics field is often one-tenth innovation and nine-tenths imitation, a whole bevy of other bikini-clad jungle gals appeared. Camilla was one of Fiction House's own spin-offs (Jungle #1, January 1940) along with Tiger Girl (Fight #32, June 1944). Other publishers of that era produced at least fifteen jungle princesses, queens, and empresses. There were Nyoka, Kara, Vishnu, Pantha, Tegra, Jun Gal, Fantomah, Zegra, Lorna, Jann, Leopard Girl, Judy, Taanda, Saari, and Rulah. Of this crowd, Rulah of Victor Fox's All Top Comics is considered Sheena's chief competitor, if only for the excess violence and minimal leopard skin. Although comics great Lou Fine created some spectacular covers for Fox's comics, the publisher's policy of paying the cheapest rates in the field (and often reneging) resulted in some truly shoddy comics.

Jungle Girls and Sheena didn't fade away with the passing of the Golden Age. For one thing, Sheena gained a TV series in 1955, starring Irish McCalla. Tanya Roberts played the role in a 1984 feature length film. Sheena has been published by Blackthorne, Eclipse, Marvel, and (most recently) London Nights. Cavewoman, by Budd Root (Basement Comics, Caliber) seems to be a current favorite of the genre and has even inspired her own action figure, a 7" action figure issued by Rendition. To learn more about Mireim Cooper's adventures in the Jurassic, she can be found at the Cavewoman website, http://www.BasementComics.com/.

As I've mentioned in November's News Clicks, Sheena will be swinging through the jungle again, this time in a second syndicated TV series, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Starring Gena Lee (Baywatch) Nolin, the series debuts sometime next year (supposedly not only does Sheena communicate with the animals, but transforms into them as well!). If you'd like to see the original Sheena comics as they were published by Fiction House, a sampling of that line --as well as other Golden Age collectibles - has been reprinted by Bill Black's AC Comics.
 

--Steve Stiles