Page 2: The Origin of Sheena

In their essay, The Saga of Sheena, Bill Feret and Bill Black did a very nice job of laying out the fundamental elements that eventually culminated in the creation of Sheena.  They identify the works of H Rider Haggard as the seminal point of the story, in particular King Solomon's Mines, published in 1885.  The vast popularity of that tale planted the seed of curiosity about The Dark Continent in the minds of inhabitants of Western countries.  The following year he outdid himself by creating She, which featured the first ever manifestation of a "lost city goddess".  "From that time on," wrote Feret and Black, "every Jungle Queen/Goddess would be coloured by Haggard's eternal Ayesha, she who-must-be-obeyed."
The next step of the journey requires an examination of the other authors of this period working within the genre of fantastic adventure, or to be more precise, one in particular.  Jules Verne (1828-1905), A Merritt (1884-1943), and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) all stimulated and entertained the masses with fanciful tales of derring-do in exotic locales.  This band of geniuses were, however, all surpassed by the imaginative works of one individual - Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Tarzan of the Apes (1912), Burrough's third novel, introduced the concept of a white child raised by wild animals in an African jungle setting.  The sequel, The Return of Tarzan (1913), introduced Queen La of Opar, the High Priestess of the Flaming God, bedecked in barbaric jewels and gold, and wearing a leopard skin.  In a literary sense, La was directly descended from Haggard's Ayesha.  In 1918 Tarzan of the Apes was transferred to the silent cinema screen with Elmo Lincoln in the lead role as the ape-man.  This incident launched the popularity of the jungle movie genre and paved the way for jungle girls to populate the motion picture screen.
Over the next 20 years the popularity of exotic jungle girls in films continued to grow.  Two early silent serials were among the first to employ this concept - The Jungle Goddess (1922), starring Elinor Fieldin, and Lorraine of the Lions (1925), with Patsy Ruth Miller. Throughout the Twenties a string of Tarzan feature films and serials presenting the jungle lord and his mate, Jane, and sometimes the alluring Queen La of Opar, catered to the public's demand for jungle exotica.  Among these were The Adventures of Tarzan (1921), with Lillian Worth, Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927), starring Edna Murphy, and Tarzan the Tiger (1929), which featured the lovely Natalie Kingston.  The portrayal of a white goddess by Edwina Booth in Trader Horn (1931) also generated a lot of interest, partially because of her revealing attire, but mostly because it was an exciting, first-rate production filmed on location in Africa.  When Johnny Weissmuller burst onto the scene in 1932 as Tarzan the Ape Man the jungle genre was given a major shot in the arm, and it's sequel, Tarzan and His Mate (1934) gave the world one of the most memorable portrayals of a jungle girl to date.  Maureen O'Sullivan's scantily-clad Jane swung on vines, fought off animals alongside her savage lover, and presented a brave and athletic heroine that contrasted sharply with the docile, domesticated Jane of later films (right).  A small film released by Paramount Pictures in 1936 - The Jungle Princess - introduced the sarong-clad Dorothy Lamour to the world and her popularity launched an entire genre of jungle films in subsequent years.  The stage was now set for the arrival of Fiction House's female jungle heroine.  Her appearance would inspire scores of imitators and eventually lead to live action representations on television and in film (Black & Feret).

As mentioned on the Sheena Prehistory page, Jerry Iger (top left) and Will Eisner (bottom left) created Sheena for a black-and-white British tabloid called Wags, which first appeared in January 1937.  Their business, Universal Phoenix Features Syndicate, improved soon after and work came quickly to the new studio.  They contributed pages to Circus Comics and the Quality Comics Group, which included National Comics, featuring Wonder Boy.  In December 1937, Iger, who was the business-minded entrepreneur of the team, met with T. T. Scott, the editor-in-chief of Fiction House Publications, in an attempt to convince him that comic books were an up-and-coming moneymaking industry.  Since 1921 Fiction House had specialised exclusively in pulp magazines, and had a very successful business with a run of theme pulps - Air Stories, Fight Stories, Football Stories, Baseball Stories, Jungle Stories (below), Detective Classics and numerous other titles.  Iger obviously put up a persuasive argument, for Scott, who was renowned for being a stickler for detail, gave Iger the approval for a trial effort.

The first issue of Jumbo Comics appeared in September 1938 (see cover image above).  It consisted entirely of reprinted Wags stories for Iger had managed to secure the printing plates of the Wags stories from Editors Press Service, it's publisher (see Sheena Prehistory page).  It was in black-and-white on pink-tinted, oversized 10.5 inch x 14.5 inch (26.5 cm x 37 cm) stock.  The stories it contained were an odd mixture that included Hawk of the Seas, Wilton of the West, Peter Pupp, Spencer Steel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and spy ZX-5.  Feret and Black report that it also contained "a not terribly impressive, not too-well drawn, nor especially sexy or dynamic blonde named Sheena, Queen of the Jungle."  Despite these deficiencies, she was a truly historic creation, for she was the first female hero to enter the world of the comics.

There is some confusion about who actually created the character and who was responsible for devising the name.  Eisner said that he created Sheena as a female version of Tarzan and that the name was inspired by Haggard's 1886 book, She.  Iger also claimed that he alone created Sheena and that the name was derived from the anti-Semitic slur, "sheenie".  It is readily apparent to comic historians that Will Eisner was the partner blessed with an abundance of imaginative and artistically creative talent.  Black and Feret point out that Iger's early work for Famous Funnies, like Bobby, highlights his lack of talent as both an artist and writer (see Sheena Prehistory page).  Considering Iger's sleazy and obstructive behaviour when Paul Aratow was first attempting to launch a Sheena feature film in the mid-Seventies, it seems highly likely that he may have been the type of person to claim the credit for another's creative efforts (see Sheena 1984 - Page 1: The Concept).

The first manifestation of Sheena was somewhat different from the heroic protective female she would eventually become.  In Jumbo Comics No. 1 Sheena was the brutal ruler of a fierce tribe and was far more suggestive of Haggard's Ayesha.  Feret and Black pointed out that it took some time before her "demeanor, attire, accouterments and figure would evolve into the most beautiful, sexiest and realistic heroine the comics had ever known."  It took a few issues for her to reach the status of Queen of the comic scene, a position she would hold for years.  Sheena eventually became the star and front-runner for all the other titles of the comics division of Fiction House and she epitomised the pinup-style, good girl art that the company was best know for (Feret and Black).

A sample of the Sheena strip from Jumbo Comics No. 1:

Fiction House conceived it's own mythology for their new creation.  She was said to be the beautiful, golden-haired daughter of the explorer, Cardwell Rivington, who accompanied her father on a trip to the jungle of Africa.  Rivington was a talented linguist who became friends with Koba, the witch doctor of one of the tribes he encountered.  As the friendship between these two men from different worlds developed they managed to learn each others native tongue with remarkable skill.  When Rivington eventually decided to leave Koba abhorred the idea of losing his beloved white brother so intensely that he utilised his knowledge of magic to prevent him from leaving.  Koba concocted a potion that would render Rivington unable to leave the village, but the libation was far too strong and it killed the unfortunate explorer.  Koba was stricken with remorse for his misguided actions and he resolved to compensate his dead friend by making his daughter the queen of the tribe.  With the passage of time the girl developed in many unique ways.  Her knowledge of the jungle and its animal inhabitants expanded immensely, her strength and agility surpassed that of all other the warriors in the village, her judgment became majestic and noble, her courage strengthened and deepened and her beauty surpassed all expectations.  Sheena truly had become the Queen of the Jungle (Black and Feret). 

Click on the image below to view a complete set of Jumbo and Jungle Comics covers, and example of other Fiction House titles:

• Essay, The Saga of Sheena, by Bill Feret & Bill Black, in The Comic Book Jungle, by Bill Black, Paragon Publications, Mar 99
TV's Original Sheena - Irish McCalla, by Bill Black and Bill Feret, Paragon Publications, 1992


• The cover of the first issue of Jumbo Comics is from a CD-Rom of comic covers in my private collection
• The vidcap of Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane in Tarzan and His Mate is from the The Tarzan Collection DVD, Warner Brothers 2004
• The photo of Jerry Iger is from The Iger Comics Kingdom by Jay Edward Disbrow, Blackthorne Publishing 1985
• The photo of Will Eisner was pilfered from an eBay auction item
• The cover of the Winter 1939 issue of Jungle Stories was pilfered from an eBay auction item
• The sample of the first ever Sheena story is from the 1985 Blackthorne Publishing replica of Jumbo Comics No. 1 (tinted by me)
• The montage of Fiction House covers was created from a CD-ROM of comic covers in my private collection

SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2006 Paul Wickham