SHEENA: THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES OF THE JUNGLE QUEEN By James Buck and Joe Musgrave (2012, Altus Press)
I’m a big fan of Sheena. As stated before, I love the idea of a jungle girl. I don’t care what nationality she is, but the concept of a free and independent woman swinging through the rain forest, queen of all she surveys, is breath-taking. And I realize an actual feral woman would, in all reality, be closer to the psycho cannibal of Jack Ketchum’s Off Season. But we can all dream. And in the 1930’s, a few men did. They came up with the pulp hero, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.
Sheena was created as a comic book character in 1938. There seems to be some argument as to who came up with the name. I prefer artist Will Eisner’s story as to how he’d always been a big fan of Haggard’s She novel and took it from there. Sheena would go on to star in her own comic book in the 1940’s and eventually get a TV show in the 1950’s. There is also the 1984 movie with Tanya Roberts. It’s not as bad as I had been led to believe before watching it. The Ramones even turned her into a punk rocker.
In 1951, Sheena managed to get her own pulp magazine. It lasted all of one issue, but she was resurrected for other magazines a few years later. It’s from these few magazines the novellas are taken which make up the collection. You may have noticed the publisher didn’t use the word Sheena in the title, but I fixed that for the review. I’m guessing copyright issues played a role.
The first story in the collection, “The Slave Brand of Sleman Bin Al”i, has Sheena intervening to save her adopted tribe, the Abamas, from both the machinations of Arab slavers and Portuguese exploiters. In the middle of the action, we find her love interest, Rick, trying to save both himself and her. It’s a good tale, the equal to what the pulpsters were cranking out in the 1930’s.We don’t get too much on Sheena’s background, other than her parents were missionaries, so the Africans regard her as belonging to the “tribe of God”.
The very first paragraph goes a long way to set the mood:
“SHEENA stepped out of the pool. She shook out the wet veil of her golden hair and stood, statuesque, her bronzed beauty glowing in a shaft of amber sunlight. The warm ray caressed her, and swiftly drank the moisture from the shimmering veil. Then she flashed across the little clearing to the hut which stood on stilts, five feet above the crawling earth. Quickly she shrugged into leopard skin, and then came to stand in the doorway of the hut, looking out across the pool.”
Be still heart!
In the next tale, “Sargasso of Lost Safari”,Sheena is forced to deal with sinister hunters and rebellious spirit men. A prince of the Abama people seeks her out to stop a cabal of shamans who are trying to overthrow the hereditary tribal rule. At the same time, two white hunters, Ferdinand Lavic and Countess Narcissa, are trying to discover the lost valley of the elephants. Once again, it’s up to Sheena to save everyone from certain death.
The third story, “Killer’s Kraal”, is the best one in the book. We learn how Sheena fits into the tribal scheme of things in Africa: She’s regarded as the Mateyenda, or Queen Mother. While her love interest Rick Thorne is busy helping the Abama people transport a shipment of ivory to the coast, a pretender to the throne of the ancient warrior king Yama Galagi rises to power. He tries to use Sheena as a pawn in his attempt to seize control of the other tribes, but the jungle queen thwarts him too.
Some of the best writing in the book is in this third story:
“For an instant she stood irresolute, and then went flashing across the terrace to the drum. An instant later its great voice boomed out her nadan. The effect upon the Abamas was like magic. They saw their golden Mateyenda, knew her danger, and heard the Galagi’s drum speak her commands. They answered her call with the Abama war-cry, and then charged the steps. The Black Shields broke under the fury of their onslaught, and the Abamas came roaring up the stairway in a black wave, driving all before them. Neda and her son stood directly in the path of the now panic-stricken Black Shields, and when the tide of battle swept on across the terrace, it left their trampled and broken bodies in its wake.”
The final story, “Sword of Gimshai”, is the weakest in the collection. Sheena intervenes to save a safari from enemy tribes once again. But the characters are weak and forgettable. It’s also painfully racist with the Africans running in fear every time they encounter a gun.
Sheena the jungle queen is an icon of popular culture. Most of the stories in this collection show why. I’ve even encountered women who were named Sheena by their parents.