Sunday, January 17, 2016


In the beginning, there was Sheena.

As a child, Sheena was orphaned when her explorer father died while trekking through equatorial Africa. She was adopted by a witch-doctor named Koba, who raised her in the ways of the jungle until she was virtually a part of it--its queen and its protector. She took on a mate in a hapless hunter named Bob--the usual gender roles reversed, she must rescue him from danger rather frequently--and the two shared many adventures, taking on threats to the peace of the jungle.

While there were jungle girls before Sheena, both in literature and on the screen, Sheena was the first to break into comic books, a creation of the legendary Will Eisner/Jerry Iger team. In much later years, the two disagreed on the details of her creation but both acknowledged the obvious, that she was conceived as a female Tarzan. Sheena is one of the first comic book superheroes of any gender. She predates the Batman. She predates Captain America. Her first appearance in the British publication Wags #1 in 1937 predated Superman's U.S. debut but Superman beat her U.S. debut by 5 months. Hers was one of the strips that spearheaded the entry into the comic field of prolific pulp publisher Fiction House, whose first book, Jumbo Comics #1, marked her first appearance in the U.S. She quickly became the cover feature and central attraction of Jumbo, where she continued for the whole of its 15-year, 167-issue run. In 1942, she achieved another milestone when the spinoff debut of "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" made her the first female hero to have an entire comic book devoted to her exploits and to have the book named after her--she beat Wonder Woman to that punch by four months. 

Sheena's success was explosive and the industry responded with the sincerest form of flattery. Soon, newsstands were bursting with Tiger Girl, Jann of the Jungle, Tiger Girl, Leopard Girl, Rulah, Jungle Goddess, Camilla, Wild Girl of the Congo, Cave Girl and on and on. Sheena may have inspired as many clones as Tarzan himself. This probably played a role in Sheena's undoing as well, as the market became super-saturated with these jungle-based heroines. As the 1940s became the '50s, growing public concern with sexy and violent content in comics led Sheena's publishers to try to tone down the strip, which also helped finish it off. In 1953 and '54, Fiction House left the comic field entirely, bringng down the curtain on the character's first incarnation.

You can't keep a jungle queen down though and a year after the demise of Fiction House, Sheena became one of the first comic book heroes to jump to the small screen (only three years after Superman). Pinup model Irish McCalla portrayed the character in a 26-episode tv series that ran from 1955-56. The series was somewhat hampered by an overly modest budget and the poor decision to--yes--ape Johnny Weissmuller's by-then-familiar dumb ape-man dialogue ("Me Sheena, you Jane") but it still proved incredibly popular. For reasons probably lost to time, its creators opted not to produce a second season. The existing eps ran in syndication for years.

Nearly three decades passed before Sheena returned to the screen, this time in an upbudget 1984 feature production starring the breathtaking Tanya Roberts. Gone was the ape-man-speak and Sheena was given the power to telepathically communicate with the beasts of the jungle. In spite of incredible locations, an obviously healthy budget and the perfect star, the flick was a disappointing failure, an inane, badly-written turd of epic proportions. 

Sheena returned to television in a syndicated series in 2000 starring former Baywatch beauty Gena Lee Nolin. This time, Sheena was given shape-shifting powers that allowed her to assume the form of animals. Alas, the series never really rose above an at-times-entertaining diversion. It lasted two seasons, 35 episodes.

Each of these adaptations have their strengths, particularly in the casting of Sheena--no misses there, and these ladies are a big part of why each of these adaptations developed a fan-base--but the weaknesses have always outweighed the strengths. The addition, in the feature and second series, of superpowers reeks of Standard Hollywood Idiot Thinking and a lack of confidence in Sheena's basic premise, which is unfortunate. While Sheena, Queen of the Jungle is and always has been a perfect property for the screen, the definitive screen Sheena has yet to appear. In this age of copious comic-to-screen adaptations but a drought of comic-heroine-to-screen adaptations, this needs to be corrected.



A NOTE: Yes, I know this is a very cursory look at all of this--probably the least substantive thing I've ever blogged here. I put it together last year for one of my Facebook groups as a means of introducing newbies to the character and just decided I'd put it up here. Sue me.

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