I’ve been on a bit of a Golden Age comics kick lately, so I decided to take a look at Fiction House’s Jungle Comics. This is a series that ran for 163 issues from 1940 to 1954 and sums up a genre that was once very popular. There are a number of possible reasons why the jungle adventure comic eventually fell out of favour: one is the decline of empire and, with it, the concept of Africa as merely an exotic playground for adventurers; another is the rise of censorship, not particularly healthy for a genre so filled with violence and bikinis (notably, Jungle Comics ended the same year that the Comics Code was launched); still another is the rise of sword and sorcery as a rival genre, with Conan ultimately ageing better than Tarzan.
Whatever the causes of its downfall, this is a genre that once flourished – and Jungle Comics #1 is a snapshot of when it was hale and hearty. Let’s slash away at the vines and see what treasures we find within…
Kaänga, by “Alex Boon” (Alex Blum)
The cover star of Jungle Comics is Kaänga, “mysterious white man of the jungle”. He’s a transparent Tarzan imitation – the main deviation from that character is that, instead of apes, he was brought up by a tribe of “ape men” who resemble big-eared microsephalics. As derivative as he may have been, Kaänga was popular enough to get his own comic series.
White Panther, by Taylor Martin
His name’s White Panther the Winged Phantom, and let’s be honest, he bears a distinct resemblance to another comic hero who has “the” and “Phantom” in his name (although his selling point of being “swifter than any man on Earth” evokes a different character). The strip depicts White Panther and his elderly father as the last survivors of “a tribe” located an African jungle country; he has the ability to see into the future, which he uses to save travellers from robbers and cannibals. White Panther didn’t make it into the second issue of Jungle Comics – he was instead replaced with another distinctly Phantom-like character named Red Panther. Both White and Red Panthers are credited to Taylor Martin; given the disparity in drawing styles, I suspect that this is a house name.
Tabu: Wizard of the Jungle, by “Harry Fletcher” (Fletcher Hanks)
This was drawn by the infamous Fletcher Hanks, and true to form it’s all rather bizarre. At first glance Tabu is just another Tarzan knockoff, but he has a supernatural twist: a witch doctor granted him a sixth sense. In practical terms, this means that he has as many superpowers as Hanks feels like giving him: we are told that Tabu has the speed of an antelope, the agility of a monkey and the stealth of a panther and even the flight of an eagle; and when the jungle is visited by a band of slavers, the hero uses control over the animals, plants and even rocks to fight them off. In the finale, Tabu shows off his shapeshifting powers by changing first into a gorilla, then into a deadly plant. As a reward, the witch-doctor gives him yet another ability: the power to communicate with invisible spirits. Tabu would appear in later issues, but not drawn by Fletcher Hanks (he was too busy drawing Fantomah) so his exploits were less gleefully bonkers.
Camilla: Queen of the Lost Empire, by “Caw” (C. A. Winter)
This story posits the that a tribe of Norsemen went to Africa during the crusades, found the secret of eternal life, and since then have maintained a secret empire apparently consisting of a single city. Ruling this lost land is Camilla, a mash-up of Brunhilda and H. Rider Haggard’s She, who performs a daily sacrifice to Thor. Although the story ends with Camilla dead and her city destroyed, this didn’t stop her from becoming a regular character in Jungle Comics, eventually evolving from villain to hero.
Captain Thunder and the Congo Lancers by “Art Peters” (Arthur Peddy)
In this story, Captain Terry Thunder leads a band of soldiers in an attack on a fortress being used as a hideout by a ring of slavers. There’s not much to say about this one, truth be told. Captain Thunder would appear in later issues, and his exploits became a little more sophisticated; the comic also introduced a hero named Roy Lance, who was for all intents and purposes the same character.
Wambi the Jungle Boy, by Henry Kiefer (uncredited)
Here we have a strip that appears to be influenced by both Kipling’s Jungle Book and the 1937 film Elephant Boy – the young hero definitely resembles that film’s star, Sabu. With the aid of his animal friends, Wambi brings an end to a native rebellion in Africa. The careless mashing-together of India and Africa is typical of the comic – it’s already had three strips showing tigers as part of Africa’s fauna. Like Kaänga, Wambi later got his own comic.
White Hunters of the African Safari, by George Slim
Starring the dim-witted ex-cons Buck, Rex and Slim – who, as far as I can tell, were never re-used – this story appears to have been intended as light-hearted relief, but turns out to be quite a nasty piece of work. Cog, the protagonists’ employer, brutally whips his native bearers for walking too slowly; when the Africans rebel, they are cast as the story’s villains, “bloodthirsty blacks… ready to commit any barbarous outrage”. The story ends with Buck, Rex and Slim getting into a comical Three Stooges-style punch-up over the female character, only to find out that she’s already married. Wuh-wuh-wuuuuuuhh.
Simba, King of the Beasts, by W. M. Allison
This is the most experimental story in the issue, a Kiplingesque tale of animal life told through narrative captions rather than dialogue. Simba is the king of the jungle, but he faces a challenge from a younger rival Slita, although Simba is ultimately successful, he realises that he is too old to ruler. Simba became a regular character although his later stories were more conventional, with speaking parts given to human characters.
Drums of the Leopard Men, by Richard Briefer
The villain of this self-contained tale is Zan Marzov, a man identifiable by his disfigured face and natty shrunken-head pendant. Marzov’s persona trauma (“his mind twisted, as the result of an attack upon him by a ferocious leopard”) has led him to gather together a band of African natives who, under his supervision, attack villagers while clad in leopard-skins. It falls upon the pipe-smoking hero Buck Barton to deal with Marzov, eventually taking out the villain with a well-placed grenade. Placing considerable emphasis on the clawed corpses of the leopard-men’s victims, this is the most gruesome of the stories in Jungle Comics #1; we shouldn’t be too surprised, as artist Dick Briefer is best known for his Frankenstein comic.
So, that’s Jungle Comics #1. It’d be hard to argue that the comic stands up to close inspection, with formulaic stories, hit-or-miss artwork and racial sensitivity simply not on the table (an entire anthology set in Africa, and nobody thought to use a black person as a hero – H. Rider Haggard’s portrayal of Umslopogaas seems positively progressive all of a sudden).
But I have to hand it to the crew behind the comic: there’s a surprising amount of variety on offer here. Yes, the characters, are largely knockoffs, but they’re at least a mixed range of knockoffs – a Tarzan clone is different from a Phantom clone is different from a She clone. And when the comic uses multiple characters drawn from the same spring, it still finds room for distinctions. Kaänga and Tabu are both Tarzan derivatives, but the latter is a shapeshifting super-Tarzan. George Slim and Dick Briefer each turn in quashing-the-native-rebellion stories, but the former makes his a knockabout comedy while the latter plumps for macabre horror.
It’s a line-up that turned out to be a success with readers, too. Most of the protagonists introduced in Jungle Comics #1 were still appearing in the comic a decade later.