Thanks to a pack of recent reprints, we are free to take a peek at some of the women of the early days of comics, from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.
You'd think that would be salacious, given the moral uproar over comics in the 1940s and early 1950s, which resulted in Senate subcommittee hearings and the puritanical Comic Book Code. But what's been reprinted recently wouldn't raise an eyebrow in a convent.
Take the first successful female star in comics: Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Debuting in 1938 (three years before Wonder Woman) and lasting until 1953, this female Tarzan launched an entire genre. The comic-book stands of the '40s and '50s were crowded with women in furry bikinis, from virtually every publisher: Nyoka, the Jungle Girl; Rulah, Jungle Goddess; Zegra, Jungle Empress; Camilla, Wild Girl of the Congo; Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle; Marga the Panther Woman; Lorna the Jungle Girl; Judy of the Jungle; Jann of the Jungle; Princess Pantha; Tygra of the Flame People; Tiger Girl; Cave Girl; the inevitable Jun-Gal, and more.
But ruling above all was Sheena, who starred in all 137 issues of Fiction House's Jumbo Comics and 18 issues of her own title. Different folks claim credit for her creation, but the likeliest story is that she was created by the legendary Will Eisner (The Spirit) at the Eisner-Iger shop that wrote, drew and packaged the first issue of Jumbo. Eisner says he drew elements from the H. Rider Haggard novel "She" (including the name), and it rings true.
Not many Sheena stories have been reprinted over the years, so most people know her from the short-lived 1950s TV show (starring Irish McCalla) or the 1984 movie (starring Tanya Roberts). But fortunately for jungle-queen fans and scholars, English publisher PS Artbooks has just reprinted Sheena's eponymous title (1942-52) in three volumes.
Since PS Artbooks didn't reprint Sheena's Jumbo stories, this collection doesn't include the Jungle Queen's origin. Instead, this collection gives us the fully formed Sheena, in a series of relatively repetitious stories that don't vary much from formula.
So, yes, reading these stories at a sitting can be dull. But there are some fun bits. For example, for no evident reason, Sheena and the natives speak in a stilted, almost formal language. "Pah! It is not so easy to capture the Jungle Queen," snorts Sheena, as she decks an evildoer in issue No. 8. "Taste my wrath, jungle scum!" And "Hark!" says a native scout. "A boomstick sounds from yonder glen!"
More entertaining, but less well-known, is Cave Girl, whose every appearance has been reprinted in a hardback by Kitchen Sink, "Bob Powell's Complete Cave Girl" ($24.99). Cave Girl came along a little late for the prime jungle-girl era (1952) and lasted only a couple of years. Nor was she particularly well-written, as sometimes she could talk to all animals, and sometimes she couldn't. But what Cave Girl had going for her was the artwork of Bob Powell, one of the best at the time.
Even more obscure, but far more entertaining than both Sheena and Cave Girl, is a heroine from Canada: "Nelvana of the Northern Lights" (IDW, $39.99).
Nelvana came about due to import restrictions during World War II, when luxury goods such as comic books from the U.S. were barred. That opened a window for writer/artist Adrian Dingle to launch his superhero creation, which ran in Triumph Comics from 1941-47. Nelvana, and her father, the sky-god Hodiak (her mother was a mortal), were entirely invented by Dingle, albeit inspired by stories about the Inuit people of Canada's far north. Being a demigod gave Nelvana an enviable host of superpowers, from almost instantaneous traveling via the Aurora Borealis, turning invisible, throwing heat rays and many more. In her first adventure she was accompanied by her equally superpowered brother, who could not appear before mortals due to a curse, and would therefore transform into a large dog when among the Inuit.
The appeal of this strip was its creativity. Nelvana also entered the radio world to fight the Ether Men, became secret agent Alana North and explored the strange world of Glacia, in an adventure straight out of Flash Gordon.