HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Jungle Grrrl

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, the grandmother of all “jungle girls”, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle makes her way to the silver screen.

If you were to ask the common person on the street to name a female comic book hero, you’d probably get a lot of Wonder Womans, quite a few Supergirls and a number of Batgirls. You’d probably get a Storm, Invisible Girl, Spider-Woman or She-Hulk thrown in there before you’d have anybody name Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. But Sheena was once one of the most popular female comic book characters, and one that holds several notable records in the history of comic books.

Sheena was created in 1937 by Will Eisner (who would later go on to create The Spirit) and Jerry Iger for a British comic book called Wags. Inspired surely by the characters Rima, a jungle girl who debuted in W. H. Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Sheena shared both characters ability to communicate with the animals and Tarzan’s origin of being orphaned and stranded in the jungle, growing up learning to survive in that local. Sheena would make her stateside debut the next year in Jumbo Comics #1.

If we can count Sheena’s ability to communicate with animals as a superpower, then Sheena was the first superpowered female to appear in comics, predating Wonder Woman by about four years and fellow Fiction House jungle character Fantomah by about three years. Sheena also was the first female superhero to headline her own series. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1 had a cover date of Spring 1942, beating Wonder Woman #1 (Summer 1942) to newsstands by several months.

Sheena arrived on the small screen first, personified by Irish McCalla in 26 episodes of the 1955-1956 syndicated Sheena, Queen of the Jungle TV series, which came about when the producers, the Nassour Brothers, decided to morph their plans for a Sheena feature into the TV show. Three episodes of the series were re-cut and distributed to movie theaters as a feature film. However, it would be almost 30 years before an “original” Sheena film would hit theaters.

Producer Paul Aratow, on the advice of comic book artist Trina Robbins, first optioned Sheena for a film adaptation in 1974. At one point, the film came close to being made with Raquel Welch in the lead role. However, problems with preproduction, script issues and the project finding a studio delayed the film from being made for ten years. That’s when Columbia Pictures picked up the ball and produced Sheena.

The plot revolves around a coup in the government that Sheena (Tanya Roberts) becomes embroiled in. She uses her rapport with the jungle animals to save the people of her village from genocide, falling in love with an American TV reporter (Ted Wass) along the way. While, on paper, it sounds like an interesting plot, it wasn’t all that well executed. The film is indicative of the “camp over quality” approach to comic book films in the 1980s, as exemplified by this clip from towards the end of the film.

Man, those flamingoes are nasty, aren’t they?

The film was widely reviled by critics. It seems that the only critics that liked the film enjoyed it in the “it’s so bad it’s good” sense. The film was a major flop, with an estimated budget of near $25 million  and a gross of under $6 million. While the film was a flop, it didn’t necessarily damage the Sheena brand all that much. The character was later adapted into a TV series starring Gina Lee Nolan that ran from 2000 to 2002.

For more on the Sheena film, or Sheena in general, check out this Sheena fan site.  It’s fairly comprehensive.

Next up, I explain why the Red Sonja film gets an installment here and the Conan movies do not.

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About William Gatevackes 1936 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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