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Sheena, Queen of the Jungle

Entry updated 13 June 2022. Tagged: Character, Comics, Film, Publication, TV.

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1. US Comic strip created by Will Eisner, S M "Jerry" Iger (using the pseudonym W Morgan Thomas) and possibly Mort Meskin, who was the artist for the early issues. Though American in origin, the strip actually debuted in the UK magazine Wags #46 (January 1938); stateside, Sheena first appeared in Jumbo Comics #1 (September 1938) and continued in every issue including its last, #167 in March 1953. The comic book series Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (18 issues, 1942-1952) was the first to be titled after a female character. Issues usually had three Sheena comic stories; some also had a prose story and a factual article on the jungle; later issues would include non-Sheena tales. Sheena also appeared in Ka'a'nga #16 (Summer 1952) and the one-off 3-D Sheena, Jungle Queen (1953).

The first jungle girl was Rima the Jungle Girl, who could talk to animals (see Superpowers) and catch arrows, from W H Hudson's novel Green Mansions (1904) – predating Tarzan by eight years. However, Rima was more a tragic figure: Sheena was basically a blonde, female Tarzan, though her name reflects the influence of H Rider Haggard's She: A History of Adventure (2 October 1886-8 January 1887 The Graphic), with its jungle queen Ayesha (see also She). Her backstory and original name would change over the years, but in Jumbo Comics #1 and #2 a witch doctor tells how the explorer Cardweel Rivington had befriended him: not wanting Cardweel to go, he "brewed a curse on him" which unintentionally proved fatal; so, "to retain my power over my people", the witch doctor made the explorer's young daughter Sheena a "goddess". He also explains that Sheena's subjects are descended from a group of Genghis Khan's warriors who roamed south-west after reaching Samarkand, eventually arriving in Africa to find this hidden valley: here they conquered and interbred with the locals.

Sheena is strong, athletic and based in the Congo. Our heroine is accompanied by a pet chimpanzee called Chim and a boyfriend called Bob Reynolds – Jumbo Comics covers often feature him captured and about to be rescued by Sheena. Many adventures lack genre elements, but those that do include maidens being sacrificed to a Tyrannosaurus (see Dinosaurs) that dwells at the bottom of a lake; Underground civilizations; underground Lost Worlds with sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths; pygmies with a potion reducing animals to dwarf size (see Miniaturization); Vampires; enormous spiders (see Monsters); cursed idols; a dragon (see Supernatural Creatures);and a Moloch-worshipping tribe. In one story men arrive with a suit that can burst into flames (see Inventions) – the inner lining is refrigerated to keep the wearer cool, though how the zebra they ride survives is unexplained. Sheena often fought both giant apes and Nazis (see World War Two), and one story combines the two: during World War One German scientists developed a formula to create five-ton "super apes", planning to create an army of 5,000 – but had to flee. During World War Two one of them returns – now a Nazi – but is now searching for a valuable Cro-Magnon skull: a Super Ape does briefly appear, but is anti-climactically shot (the plot here reflects how the stories often seem hastily written). Inevitably, the stories contain considerable racism (see Race in SF), reflecting the attitudes of their era.

Sheena's success inspired imitators, including Marga the Panther Woman (first appearance 1940); Blanda the Jungle Queen (1940); Zara of the Jungle (1940); Tira, Strange White Goddess of Wabizi (1940); Medda, the Queen of the Elephants (1940); the Australia/New Zealand creation Kazanda, Wild Girl of the Forbidden Kingdom (1944); Jun-Gal (1944); Tiger Girl (1944); Kara Jungle Princess (1944) – with many more appearing well into the 1950s. Bikinis were usually involved. Others such as Camilla, Queen of the Lost Empire and Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle, started out rather differently, but ended up as Sheena clones. [SP]

2. US Pulp Magazine. One issue, Spring 1951, published by Glen Kel Co; no editor named.

Sheena – a sort of female Tarzan – was one of the few characters to make the transition from Comics to pulp magazines rather than vice versa, having first appeared in Wags (UK) and Jumbo Comics (USA) in 1938 (see 1 above). The solitary issue of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle contained three Sheena stories by James Anson Buck. The character was also featured in the pulp magazine Jungle Stories. For a recent collected editions of the comics published in 2014, see under further reading below. [MJE/FHP]

3. US tv series (1955-1956). Nassour Studios, Inc. Based on the Comics character created by Will Eisner and S M "Jerry" Iger. Produced by Edward Nassour. Directors included Carl K Hittleman, Arthur Pierson. Writers included Eisner, Frank Gruber, Terence Maples. Cast includes Chris Drake, Irish McCalla and Neal the Chimp (as Chim). Syndicated. 26 28-minute episodes, some now believed to be lost. Black and white.

Preceding Wonder Woman in comics by four years in the UK and three years in the US, Sheena is believed to be the first female action heroine in comics. She was one of the first in the 1950s to make the transition to Television, played by magazine cover and pin-up star Irish McCalla. This version of the character was more faithful to the comic than later ones, with Sheena as a kind of female Tarzan who has grown up in the jungle and is now its protector. She defends the animals and jungle resources from assorted villains including treasure hunters, poachers, and occasionally more exotic criminal types. Sheena is able to communicate with the animals via Telepathy, although here she mainly relies on knives and spears to carry the day. Often captured, she is usually able to free herself without help; when all else fails, wildlife agent Bob Rayburn (Drake) is on hand to assist her. McCalla herself was quite athletic, and performed her own stunts until a vine gave way resulting in a broken left arm. Her Sheena probably remains the best despite the limitations of early television and McCalla's minor acting abilities. In the new century the series was rebooted as Sheena (2000-2002): see 5 below. [GSt]

4. Sheena. Film (1984; vt Sheena, Queen of the Jungle). Colgems Productions, Ltd/Columbia Pictures. Produced by Paul Aratow. Directed by John Gullermin. Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr and David Newman from a story by Leslie Stevens and Newman. Based on the Comics character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (see 1 above) created by Will Eisner and S M "Jerry" Iger. Cast includes Clifton Jones, Elizabeth of Toro, Tanya Roberts, Donovan Scott, Trevor Thomas, Ted Wass and France Zabda. 117 minutes. Colour.

Young Janet Ames/Sheena (Roberts) is orphaned at the age of about six when her parents die in a cave-in exploring a cavern in the fictitious African kingdom of Tigora, after finding soil with incredible healing properties. The child's discovery by the Zambuli people seems to fulfil a legend that a "golden Goddess" from the mountain would become their and the jungle's protector. Janet is adopted by Shaman (Elizabeth of Toro) and named Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Raising her to young adulthood, Shaman teaches Sheena how to communicate with animals by Telepathy; she also becomes expert with the bow and arrow, and in general jungle lore.

Meanwhile in the Tigoran capital, King Jabalani (Jones) is assassinated by his younger brother, Prince Otwani (Thomas); Shaman is framed for this by Otwani and Countess Zanda (Zabda), who conspire to seize the throne and exploit Zambuli titanium deposits. US sportscaster-journalist Vic Casey (Wass) and his cameraman Fletcher (Scott) accidentally film the real murder, but before they can use this evidence Sheena arrives with animal friends – including an elephant – and breaks Shaman out of prison. Following them into the jungle, the journalists are mistaken for additional enemies and captured by Sheena. Shaman dies of a bullet wound inflicted during the escape; Sheena now organizes a defence against Otwani's mercenaries while Vic captures a military truck. She leads her Zambuli to easy victory and pursues the fleeing Otwani on her zebra, only to be nearly run over by him. Vic saves her, receiving serious burns; Sheena heals him with her parents' miraculous soil. Though they have fallen in love, Vic decides that Sheena (and the soil) should remain hidden for her own protection; a deeply saddened Sheena watches his and Fletcher's aeroplane fly away.

Sheena, the only feature film to date about this Tarzan-like female character, was released between two Television series: Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (1955-1956) and Sheena (2000-2002), 3 above and 5 below respectively. The film was roundly derided and, though arguably somewhat better than its detractors claimed, was a major box office failure. Perhaps owing to his collaborators' influence, Semple's screenplay is less campy than his work for Batman (1966-1968). [GSt/DRL]

5. Sheena. US tv series (2000-2002). Columbia TriStar Television/Sony Pictures Entertainment. Created by Douglas Schwartz. Directors included Scott Paulin, Joe Cassar, Carl Weathers. Writers included Steven L Sears, Babs Greyhosky, Bill Taub. Cast includes Margo Muaro, John Allen Nelson (Matt Cutter) and Gena Lee Nolin. 35 50-minute episodes. Colour.

This was the second US Television series based on the Comics character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (see 1 above) created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger in the 1930s and most conveniently described as a female Tarzan. The twenty-first-century version presents Sheena (Nolin) as the daughter of archaeologists who had died in an accident in a fictional African nation when she was roughly six years old. While reared to some degree by various jungle animals, she also had local sorceress Kali (Muaro) as a kind of foster parent. This incarnation of Sheena is considerably less innocent than her 1950s counterpart and possesses more dramatic supernatural abilities, primarily being able to Shapeshift into virtually any jungle creature, including deadly predators and the fear-inspiring mythical "Darak'na". It should be noted that Sheena killed almost as frequently in her human form, and was not above having Sex when expedient to help her defeat opponents. Sheena speaks perfect English here – as was not the case in previous versions – but still possesses her Telepathic ability to communicate with animals. For the most part she faces routine criminals and sometimes hostile military forces. Initially popular, the series declined steadily in the ratings; it was cancelled at the midpoint of the second season. [GSt]

further reading

  • Sheena Queen of the Jungle: Volume 1 (Hornsea, East Yorkshire: PS Publishing, 2014) [graph: collects issues #1-#4 of the Sheena, Queen of the Jungle comic: illus/various: in the publisher's Roy Thomas Presents series: hb/Joe Doolin]
  • Sheena Queen of the Jungle: Volume 2 (Hornsea, East Yorkshire: PS Publishing, 2014) [graph: collects issues #5-#10 of the Sheena, Queen of the Jungle comic: illus/various: in the publisher's Roy Thomas Presents series: hb/Jack Kamen]
  • Sheena Queen of the Jungle: Volume 3 (Hornsea, East Yorkshire: PS Publishing, 2014) [graph: collects issues #11-#18 of the Sheena, Queen of the Jungle comic: illus/various: in the publisher's Roy Thomas Presents series: hb/Maurice Whitman]

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