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Pulp Culture
Sheena proves it's
not easy being queen

January 14, 1999
By Franklin Harris

Bringing comic-book characters to the screen is always a tricky proposition, one that ends in failure more often than in success. But that doesn't stop Hollywood producers from trying.

The latest rumor buzzing in Hollywood, according to Broadcasting and Cable magazine, is that former "Baywatch" star Gena Lee Nolan is in the running for the lead in a TV revival of "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle."

The many faces of Sheena

Courtesy Photos
Sheena is one of the most-often-revived of Golden Age comics heroines. Her past incarnations include, from left, the Fiction House original, Irish McCalla, Tanya Roberts and the London Night revival. Gena Lee Nolan, right, may be in Sheena's future.

Now, because fanboys everywhere are no doubt in a state of sweaty anticipation at the prospect of seeing even more of Ms. Nolan wearing almost nothing, I'll pause to allow them to collect themselves.

Ready? O.K.

If it comes to pass, the Nolan "Sheena" will be only the latest attempt to revive probably the most-often-revived character in comics.

Created in 1937 by S.M. Iger and comics legend Will Eisner ("The Spirit"), Sheena first appeared in an overseas comic strip. Soon, however, she made her way to America and became the star feature in Fiction House's "Jumbo Comics," which ran for 167 issues between 1938 and 1953. From '42 to '53, Sheena also starred in 18 issues of "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle."

Sheena was the first, and most popular, of a wave of female Tarzan knock-offs. Others appeared in such titles as "Jungle Comics" and "Rulah, Jungle Goddess."

The formula was simple: Take a shapely, blond-haired and blue-eyed woman, dress her in a leopard-skin bikini and drop her in the middle of an African jungle populated by ferocious animals, hostile natives and devious fortune hunters.

As you might guess, Sheena and her clones were rather popular with adolescent boys.

While other jungle heroines were busy getting themselves tied up so that their boyfriends could rescue them -- thus giving rise to the sub-genre of good-girl bondage art -- Sheena was a can-do girl. If anyone was going to do any rescuing, it was going to be her.

It was a good thing, too. If Sheena had spent all of her time tied to trees (or locked in cages, or chained to alters, or whatever else the other "good girls" were doing), she wouldn't have been able to rescue her boyfriend, Bob, who had his own habit of getting tied up by the bad guys.

But, with the '50s came the Comics Code, which, in the name of ending juvenile delinquency, banned comics such as "Jumbo Comics."

Although her comic book was gone, Sheena wasn't finished yet. In 1955, Sheena leaped into television.

"Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" ran for 26 half-hour episodes in '55 and '56. The syndicated series starred pin-up girl Irish McCalla as Sheena.

Although it lasted only a season, the TV series developed enough of a cult following to remain alive on video. (Tapes can be purchased through most video retailers.) And Ms. McCalla, after appearing in a few B-movies, went on to a successful career as a painter.

Then, all was quiet on the Sheena front until a bad thing happened.

In 1984, Sheena returned. This time it was to the big screen.

"Sheena" starred former Charlie's Angel (during the forgettable final season) Tanya Roberts, and it made every mistake possible.

The producers of the Sheena movie tried to make their heroine politically correct, as if there could ever be anything P.C. about a blond-haired, blue-eyed Queen of the Jungle.

Of course, they failed miserably.

"Sheena" was a critical and commercial flop, and Ms. Roberts earned a dreaded Razzie nomination for Worst Actress.

Unlike McCalla, Roberts went on to sleazier things, most notably a career in made-for-video thrillers. She went from Queen of the Jungle to the Queen of Gratuitous Nudity, a title she held until Shannon Tweed dethroned her.

(Tanya can now be seen in a supporting role on Fox's "That '70s Show.")

The movie could have been the end for Sheena, but recently she returned to comics.

Well, sort of.

London Night, a comics publisher best known for its gritty "bad girl" comics, recently obtained the publishing rights to Sheena, although only a few issues have resulted so far.

Unfortunately, the London Night Sheena is still P.C. She also has been changed from a blonde to a redhead, and her adventures take place in South America instead of Africa.

Worst of all, London Night has changed Sheena's wardrobe. Instead of leopard skins, the new Sheena wears leather. (Of course, anyone who has ever read a London Night comic knows the publisher's dress code for females: wear leather or nothing at all.)

London Night's Sheena is Sheena in Name Only. Anyone who wants to read the real Sheena's adventures will have to shell out for her Golden Age comics.

Sheena's situation isn't likely to improve unless the Gena Lee Nolan project comes to fruition.

At least, with Nolan in the role, we know Sheena will be a blonde again.

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