She was a woman of strength and courage, and the first heroic woman to have a comic book in her own name.
Sheena, “Queen of the Jungle,” debuted in the British magazine Wags #1 in 1937, the creation of comic book pioneers Will Eisner and S. M. “Jerry” Iger. As the story goes, Sheena originally arrived in Africa with her father, Cardwell Rivington (or, in later renditions, her missionary parents), who, soon orphaned, lost and alone, was raised by a witch doctor, spending her life among an African tribe where she learned about the ways of the jungle. She developed almost super-human strength, became skilled in a host of weapons, and discovered the power to communicate with the animals. She protected the jungle and its inhabitants from a host of invaders and villains.
Sheena would debut in America in issue one of Jumbo Comics in 1938 – the same year that Superman appeared in Action Comics #1 – as one of a series of comics that appeared in the magazine. With Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1, which debuted in the spring of 1942, Sheena became the first female character to get her own title, beating Wonder Woman #1, which came out in the summer the same year.
Creator Will Eisner has been quoted as saying that her name was inspired by H. Rider Haggard’s novel She, first serialized in The Graphic magazine from October 1886 to January 1887. That story is a first-person narrative that follows the journey of Horace Holly and his ward Leo Vincey to a lost kingdom in the African interior. There they encounter a primitive race of natives and a mysterious white queen named Ayesha who reigns as the all-powerful “She”, or “She-who-must-be-obeyed.”
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle was proficient in hand-to-hand combat — her weapons included spears, bows and knives– and gained the advantage in surprise attacks. She was an extremely strong, agile, and athletic woman, having been taught to survive the uncompromising ways of the jungle from an early age. And, like Wonder Woman, she appeared in comic form in America at a time when women had become a critical part of national industry – and were proving themselves as competent at the task as their male counterparts.
During World War II, when the men shipped out to war, it was left to the women to do their jobs, to trade in spatulas for jackhammers, to build the boat, planes, tanks, Jeeps, guns and ammunition, parachutes and all the other pieces of what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called America’s “arsenal of democracy,” all the things that the men fighting overseas depended on to survive. And the government helped the working women, by paying for day care centers, by creating training programs, by doing whatever they could to help Rosie the riveter get up and hammering in no time flat.
Wonder Woman would play on women’s ability to compete with and complement men in the time of war. Her Amazonian origin in ancient Greece was described as the escape from a world where men had kept women in chains, until they revolted and broke free. The new women, thus liberated and strengthened by supporting themselves on Paradise Island, developed enormous physical and mental attributes. It was, in a sense, a chronicling of the great movement in America in the growth of the power of women.
Wonder Woman made her debut in All-Star Comics at the end of 1941 and on the cover of a new comic book, Sensation Comics, at the beginning of 1942. She wore a golden tiara, a red bustier, a star-spangled short skirt and knee-high, red leather boots – a form-fitting outfit akin to Sheena’s slinky leopard-skin outfits. Wonder Woman had left Paradise to fight fascism with feminism, in, as their creators declared, “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women!”
In March 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature put Sensation Comics on its blacklist of “Publications Disapproved for Youth” for one reason: “Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed.”
But once the war was over, the men were rewarded for their heroic efforts on behalf of freedom, while the women were ignored for theirs. The men got a slew of benefits, like college tuitions, home loans, health care and – perhaps most importantly – their jobs back. Women were demoted or fired, sent back into the kitchen, their training programs destroyed, their day care centers demolished. Their place was in the home, imprisoned again. Where else could they go? All the exits had been sealed – and women shut off. “Anonymous,” Virginia Woolf once said sadly, “was a woman.”
Sheena’s run as a separate comic title ended in 1953, at the very time that women were being forced out of the factories and the offices, back into the home. Fiction House, originally a pulp magazine publisher, would run prose stories of its star heroine in the latter-day pulp Stories of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (Spring 1951) and Jungle Stories vol. 5, #11 (Spring 1954). But her run would be essentially over until her reappearance in the 1980s.
Even into the early 1960s the old way of thinking in male-female relationships predominated, that, in America, men were much more important to society than women, that they were stronger and smarter and therefore should be treated better, with a greater shot at a good education and more job opportunities and higher pay – because they were the breadwinners. Many thought that whatever work a woman did – whether in the home or out – was always secondary to the man’s work, that he did the important jobs in the world — and whatever he did was important.
But then, in the late 1960s, the “women’s liberation movement” would emerge, culminating in 1972, when the Supreme Court would rule unconstitutional separate hiring practices for men and women. Stan Lee, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, looking to capitalize on the movement, would respond with a trio of comics aimed at the female audience, including Shanna the She-Devil, Night Nurse and Claws of the Cat. Shanna was essentially a retelling of the Sheena tale that lasted only four issues. Night Nurse, which as well saw only four issues, was the tale of Linda Carter – in a strange coincidence the name of the actress who played Wonder Woman in the TV series – who was the daughter of a doctor in Allentown, New York who meets and falls in love with a wealthy businessman. However, he forces her to choose between marrying him or continuing her career as a nurse. She makes her decision and tearfully watches him walk away. Soon, Linda demonstrates that her skills are not limited to nursing practice, as she performs detective work to help expose an incompetent surgeon and also prevents a hitman from murdering one of her patients. At some point after the conclusion of the original Night Nurse series, Carter reappears, rescued by a superhero and afterward began to pay the superhuman community back by ministering to heroes’ health, often pro bono for those without any means of payment, such as Spider-Man.. Despite the strides made by the woman’s movement, Linda was forced again into a role of subservience.
Claws of the Cat was the story of Dr. Joanne Tumulo, who underwent experimental treatments, only to emerge with superhuman physical and mental capabilities. She donned a cat costume and, for four short issues, fought a diabolical businessman who sought to seize the treatments for nefarious purposes. Rather than let himself be touched by the Cat’s raking claws, he committed suicide.
Many see in Sheena an objectification of women. They argue that her popularity is attributable to her voluptuous form and skimpy outfits. Yet Sheena is a strong and capable character, not beholden to a man to help her escape from perilous situations. In fact, in stark contrast to Sheena’s commanding presence is her “mate” – not boyfriend – Bob Reynolds, largely inept and serving as the typical “damsel in distress” role whom Sheena has to rescue time and again.
The series showed that women could be strong and courageous leaders, and paved the way for other female lead titles where women were more than a just a love interest.