Don your loincloth, grab a vine, and let out a savage yell, because the one true Lord of the Jungle is back. It’s been over a hundred years since Tarzan swung through the pages of All-Story Magazine, which serialized author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Tarzan of the Apes in 1912, and now he’s returning to the big screen with this week’s release of Warner Bros.’ The Legend of Tarzan. It’s hardly the first time Tarzan has soared across the silver screen, and it probably won’t be the last, but today we’re going to talk about the character’s influence on a different medium: comics.
Tarzan, himself, has over eight decades of history in comic strips and comic books, but his reach has gone much further than his own stories. There have been countless Tarzan imitators in all media, but in comic strips and books, the character’s impact was particularly notable, inspiring numerous exotically abandoned orphans to shed their clothes and run wild. But not all of these characters were pale imitations. Many became unique and noteworthy characters in their own right, adding more depth and color to the “jungle adventure” genre that Tarzan was a forefather of.
So grab your spear and look out for those trees as we look back at Tarzan’s history in the medium as well as eight more of the comic jungle’s protectors, rulers, explorers and exiles that have moved past being simple ripoffs and imitators to become compelling characters with stories and fanbases all their own. Anyone we missed? As always, let us know in the comments.
Tarzan first appeared in comic form in January of 1929 — seventeen years after his prose premier — with an adaptation of Burroughs’ first novel, Tarzan of the Apes. Art for the strip was provided initially by Hal Foster, the man who would create his own enduring hero, Prince Valiant, a few years later. The strip enjoyed an impressive run, producing over four decades of daily strips, and nearly seven decades of Sundays.
It wasn’t until 1947’s Four Color Comics #134 from Dell Comics that Tarzan would get original comic book stories, and he received his own series the following year. Tarzan has since jumped from publisher to publisher (including both Marvel and DC), has been drawn by such comic legends as Russ Manning (Magnus, Robot Fighter), Joe Kubert (Sgt. Rock) and John Buscema (Conan the Barbarian), has teamed up with Batman and Superman, and has fought a Predator. Tarzan’s current publisher, Dark Horse Comics, is co-producing The Legend of Tarzan with Warner Bros through their movie and television division, Dark Horse Entertainment.
Not to be confused with the playground equipment of the same name, Jungle Jim was a comic strip created by writer Don Moore and artist Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, which was launched alongside Jungle Jim on the very same day, January 7, 1934. Both characters were created to directly compete with two very popular strips, Buck Rogers of the 25th Century and Tarzan. While Jim didn’t quite reach the levels of popularity that Flash did, he did enjoy a solid run of just over twenty years of Sunday comic strips.
Jungle Jim was a bit different than other Tarzan imitators in that it was set in Southeast Asia rather than Africa, where many of the stories in the “jungle” genre take place, and rather than being another loincloth-laden jungle dweller, Jim was more of a “great white hunter” archetype, although a benevolent one. Jim travelled from exotic island to exotic island, thwarting the plans of pirates and the schemes of slave traders, along with his native partner Kolu, before moving on to fighting the Japanese as World War II got underway. Jim never had much success in comic books, with a few short series in the late 1940s and '50s, but had a decent run in live action, with a 12-part movie serial, 16 feature movies, and a 26-episode television series. Unfortunately, Jungle Jim hasn’t been seen much in any medium after that impressive boom in popularity in the mid-1950s.
Deep in the heart of the jungles of the fictional sometimes-Asian-sometimes-east-African country of Bangalla, there is a cave, shaped like a skull, known as...the Skull Cave. It is home to a long lineage of men who have protected those jungles while wearing the legendary mantle of The Phantom.
The Phantom comic strip debuted in 1936 and was written and drawn by the creator, Lee Falk, until he died in 1999, though the strip continues to be published with new writers and artists. The strip tells the story of the 21st in a line of Phantoms that date back to 1516, when pirates attacked the ship of Christopher Walker, killing him, and destroying the ship. Walker’s son, Christopher, Jr. washed up on the shore of Bangalla and was cared for by a native tribe. Walking along the beach some time after, Christopher found the body of his father’s killer being picked at by vultures, and taking the pirate’s skull in his hands, made the sacred vow that all his descendants would also make, devoting their lives “to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice in all their forms!”
Countless novels, comic books, and movie serials based on the character have been produced, and he was even given a feature film in 1996. In addition to being a cornerstone of the pulp adventure genre, The Phantom is also credited as the first character to wear the brightly colored, skin-tight suits that would become the trademark of the superhero genre.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: something goes wrong with their transportation, and a white couple and their young child are stranded in the Congo jungles, where the parents die and the child develops an uncanny knack for living with animals, grows up and becomes their protector. Yep, that’s the story of Tarz-I mean Ka-Zar! Initially created in 1936 for a short-lived series of pulp magazines, Ka-Zar was then published alongside the Human Torch and Namor, the Sub-Mariner in Marvel Comics #1 from Timely Comics before disappearing.
Flash-forward to 1965, and a character named Ka-Zar is again gracing the pages of comic books, but in the tenth issue of a strange new series called The X-Men, from the company that Timely became, Marvel Comics. And luckily, the second one is a lot more interesting: He fights dinosaurs.
Kevin Plunder is the second Ka-Zar, son of Lord Robert Plunder, the British noble and explorer that discovered the Savage Land, a preserved prehistoric jungle hidden away in Antarctica. As seems to be a common theme, Kevin’s father was slain, leaving him in the jungle to be raised by beasts, in this case a sabretooth tiger named Zabu, who would become the unwavering companion of Ka-Zar. Ka-Zar has teamed up with and fought Spider-Man, The Hulk, the X-Men and numerous other heroes in his attempts to protect the Savage Land’s delicate ecosystem from outside invaders.
SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE
If I were to ask you who the first female hero to have her own comic book series was, you’d probably guess Wonder Woman, but you’d be wrong! That honor goes to Sheena, who first appeared in 1937’s Wag Comics #1 before being given her own series, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, in 1942, preceding Wonder Woman #1 by a few months.
Created by creative duo of Will Eisner (the one they named the Eisner Awards after) and Jerry Iger, Sheena was the one of the first and certainly the most successful of a whole herd of comic book “jungle girl” characters roaming the treetops in leopard print bikinis that included Judy of the Jungle, Cave Girl, the unfortunately named White Princess of the Jungle, and Princess Pantha, to name a few. Her origin was standard jungle hero fare: her parents were killed on a safari and she was raised by an African tribe and then became Queen of the Jungle. Makes sense.
Sheena has had sporadic series over the years, and is currently being published by Dynamite Entertainment, most recently in a series called Lords of the Jungle that she co-stars in with Tarzan. She also had her own film in 1984, but it was a flop that’s remembered mostly for the zebra ridden by the titular character, which was actually just a horse painted like a zebra.
While most Tarzan imitators were content with simply being “of the apes,” DC’s Congo Bill character took it one step further. At first Congo Bill was just a thinly-veiled rip-off of Jungle Jim, but after almost twenty years of stories, he became an actual gorilla.
After debuting in More Fun Comics #56 in 1940, Bill enjoyed moderate success as a backup strip in Action Comics for several years, playing second fiddle — along with other rotating features like Zatara and Vigilante — to the book’s main attraction, Superman. He stayed on the book for quite a while, and even picked up a sidekick, Janu the Jungle Boy, along the way, but by 1959, the Silver Age of comics was kicking off and superheroes were back with a vengeance, and Bill had to change with the times. In Action Comics #248, Congo Bill was given a magic ring by a dying witch doctor that allowed the wearer to swap bodies with a mysterious golden gorilla that lived nearby. Soon, Bill was forced to try it out, and was regularly using his new power (and a cage to lock his gorilla-controlled body in) to fend off any who would threaten the jungle’s inhabitants. Now going by Congorilla, he was shuffled off to Adventure Comics for a few issues before fading into relative obscurity outside of a few guest appearances and a four issue miniseries in the early '90s. Oddly, Congorilla popped back up in Justice League: Cry for Justice in 2009, where it was revealed that his human body had died, leaving him stuck as a gorilla, and was then recruited for membership on the Justice League, where he remained until shortly before the New 52 reboot.
TUROK, SON OF STONE
While the fluctuating portrayal of his setting is perhaps stretching the definition of “jungle” a tad, Turok is worthy of inclusion for numerous reasons. He has elements of Tarzan in the types of adventures he had, solving problems with the local wildlife and native tribes, but he stood apart because the wildlife were dinosaurs, and he was a native, himself.
Debuting in Four Color Comics in 1954 before getting his own title in 1956, Turok, Son of Stone, Turok was one of the few adventure stories of the era to feature a protagonist that wasn’t of European descent, as Turok was a Native American from before the arrival of Columbus in the New World. While out hunting, Turok and his companion Andar found themselves trapped in a valley that populated by dinosaurs, where they were forced to fight for survival against all manner of prehistoric beasts and cavemen.
Turok enjoyed a long run at publishers Dell and then Gold Key that lasted until the early eighties, and was then picked up by Valiant, whose 1993 series, Turok, Dinosaur Hunter, drastically changed the premise to Turok discovering a pocket dimension where time stood still that was filled with intelligent “bionosaurs” and aliens, among other nonsense. Turok was also the star of a successful videogame franchise that released five games between 1997 and 2002, and the first game in a reboot of the series was released in 2008.
Not all great jungle heroes started out that way. Ray Palmer, a.k.a The Atom made a career of proving that when it comes to superheroics, size doesn’t matter, and for a short time beginning in 1983, he did the same for jungle adventuring.
Written by Jan Strnad with art by the Atom’s co-creator, Gil Kane, 1983’s Sword of the Atom #1 saw the size-changing hero make a drastic departure from his normal stories. The story begins with Ray catching his wife Jean cheating on him, so he immediately takes off for South America to hunt for more of the white dwarf star material that gave him his abilities. However, his plane crashes in the jungles of Brazil, and the Atom’s suit is damaged in the process, leaving him stuck being six inches tall. Luckily, he stumbles upon a hidden city called Morlaidh populated by yellow aliens that are just his size. Over the course of the four issue miniseries and trio of specials, the Atom becomes the people’s protector, acting as something of a cross between Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian (who Kane had drawn for Marvel a few years earlier) and fending off all kinds of deadly wildlife in ways that only the pint-size hero can. Obviously, the Atom eventually returned to normal size, but Sword of the Atom remains one of the character’s most beloved stories, and was even homaged in the costume the Atom wore during the Blackest Night event.
SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL
Remember when I said that Sheena spawned a lot of imitators? One of the most well-known didn’t come out until several decades later. By far the youngest character on this list, Sheena debuted in Shanna the She-Devil #1 in 1972, as part of an initiative targeted at female readers that also saw Marvel publish new series for Night Nurse and The Cat, who’d later become Tigra.
Shanna O’Hara’s story takes a bit of a different trajectory than the typical jungle hero. She was born in Africa to a miner who accidentally shot and killed Shanna’s mother while hunting a leopard, traumatizing Shanna and inspiring her hatred of guns. Instead of then letting animals raise her, she moved to the U.S. and became a world class athlete and studied zoology, landing her a job at the Central Park Zoo taking care of, among other animals, a leopard, who was then shot by a guard. Shanna is tasked with taking the leopard’s cubs back to Africa, where she stays to protect them. Shanna’s series was short lived, but she had a number of guest-star roles in other Marvel books, and eventually moved to the Savage Land, where she met and married Ka-Zar.