The character Tarzan (who was created in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs) was immensely popular during the 1930′s and 1940′s (and is still a cultural icon today); a dozen movies starring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as the jungle lord earned metric boatloads of money for MGM between 1932 and 1948. It’s therefore not the least bit surprising that comics featuring jungle tales were also big moneymakers during comics’ Golden Age, as comic publishers were never adverse to following a trend. Most of the major comic publishers of the era featured at least one jungle-themed book among their offerings.
Somewhere along the line some bright editor or artist realized that if a book which featured a king of the jungle sold pretty well, a comic featuring a scantily clad queen of the jungle should be positively dynamite. It didn’t take long for the new trend to spread like wildfire; numerous books sporting gorgeous women in fur bikinis on their covers popped up like mushrooms on newsstands seemingly overnight. Numerous “cookie cutter” nubile jungle princesses appeared in Golden Age comics; while some of the tales were more imaginative than others, the only thing really differentiating the characters was the quality of the art (and, arguably, the ability of the publishers to get more books on the stands through better distribution deals).
At least one of these “jungle girl” characters became a cultural icon, namely Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, still remembered today (even if some who invoke the name have no idea who they’re referring to); Sheena was the subject of a major theatrical release as late as 1984, with former Charlie’s Angels star Tanya Roberts in the title role. Other of these period jungle princesses are still well-known in “geek culture” circles; Nyoka pops up in a DC comic every now and again, and Fantomah is still fondly remembered as one of the most bizarre comic book series ever published. Some of the others, though, deservedly fell by the wayside: Jun-gal appeared in five issues of Blazing Comics (home of our old friend The Green Turtle), starring in stories which would appall even the most jaded of today’s readers and could possibly cause the skull of a typical “political correctness” devotee to explode just like the guy near the beginning of the movie Scanners.
In defense of the writers and artists who gave jungle stories “the ol’ college try” with limited success, it is admittedly a tough genre. The great Lee Falk managed to pull it off for decades with his classic newspaper strip The Phantom. Falk was a smart man and realized that jungle stories could become very trite and formulaic after a very short time, so he gave himself a couple of outs. The first was that the current Phantom was the latest in a long uninterrupted lineage which stretched back a few hundred years; when Falk began to feel that stories set in the modern day were becoming stale, he would go back in time to tell a “period” story of one of the earlier Phantoms. He also hit on an original formula which never got old: the present-day Phantom fights against mercenaries and other would-be exploiters of the riches of his island home Bangalla, just as the first Phantom fought against pirates in the days of high seas freebooting. While technically formulaic, Falk was able to use it successfully for decades and, now that Falk has passed on, his successors are still working it with great effect. (It’s hard to say for how long, as newspapers are rapidly becoming things of the past and comics are no longer considered a draw by editors. That latter point’s a real shame, as I once subscribed to the Baltimore Sun for several years solely for the privilege of reading The Phantom’s daily adventures.) Falk’s “formula” gave The Phantom a mission, one which allowed Falk a lot of leeway and helped the strip to never go stale.
That’s an important point, because when a jungle character lacks similar focus it’s easy for the writer to lapse into the very predictable and repetitive rut of “So-and-so fights a lion, So-and-so fights a snake, So-and-so fights an elephant, So-and-so fights a crocodile, So-and-so fights a cheetah, etc….”. Abundant and varied though jungle wildlife may be, you’ll run out of animals sooner or later and Jack Hanna will eventually stop taking your frantic phone calls. Some of the jungle comics quickly fell into this very rut; although a story seldom consisted solely of the hero or heroine fighting a dangerous animal, that trope was often used as the climax of the tale.
Of course, writers could always fall back on the old standby method of cribbing from the classics. Although H. Rider Haggard isn’t often numbered among the giants in the pantheon of English Literature, he was great at what he did: penning entertaining adventure stories which were set in far-off locales. Haggard was a terrific novelist and his work sometimes reached memorable heights of beauty. Haggard’s novel She, although not especially well-remembered today, was a breakout best-seller when first published in 1887 and has never been out of print during the century and a quarter since; it’s been depicted in film versions several times, most notably the 1965 Hammer film starring Ursula Andress in the title role. Haggard’s narrative presents a kingdom located in the African interior which is ruled by an essentially immortal Caucasian sorceress named Ayesha, also known as “She Who Must Be Obeyed”. Haggard’s novel was incredibly popular during the Victorian era and remained so through much of the twentieth century; its main trope, a white queen ruling an African tribe or kingdom, is one which was too good for comic book writers to resist, and that plot device wound up making regular appearances in Golden Age comics.
Which brings us to today’s tale, a far better than average foray into the “jungle queen” genre. Rulah, Jungle Goddess, made her debut in this story from the June 1947 issue (#7, to be precise) of Fox Features’ Zoot Comics and she rapidly became one of Fox’s most popular features. By issue #10 Rulah was appearing in three stories per issue of Zoot Comics, and the whole book was retitled Rulah, Jungle Goddess starting with issue #17. She was so popular that in late 1948 Fox’s editors copied themselves by launching a second “jungle girl” book called Tegra, Jungle Empress (quickly renamed Zegra, Jungle Empress for reasons which remain unclear), but this second book failed quickly. Rulah, on the other hand, made it to issue #27 in late 1949 before the book was canceled, and Rulah made a few sporadic appearances in anthology titles for some time afterward.
Unfortunately, Rulah’s adventures quickly fell into the same predictable narrative rut as most other jungle comics, but what really set this feature apart from many other “jungle girl” books is readily apparent in the pages below: the “good girl art” was first-rate. Her origin story (featured in this post) displayed not one but two scantily-clad women who are drawn quite nicely. The writing is also top-notch; some of Rulah’s asides (while airborne at the story’s start, just after the crash, and in the final panel) are a riot, and it’s a shame that her dialogue didn’t maintain the same snappy quality in later stories.
From 1947′s Zoot Comics #7 (and courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum), here’s the highly entertaining origin of Rulah, Jungle Goddess.
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.