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Thursday, August 09, 2007


What is it that's so damned appealing about hot chicks in makeshift animal-skin bikinis kicking ass in the jungle or at the beginning of time?

I think I just answered my own question: it's the undeniable allure of sex and violence happily gene-spliced and seasoned with the simple, primal excellence of untamed femaleness. Plus, in the hands of the right creator such a display can be glorious indeed. As a perfect example, the comic book cover seen above is actually a Frank Frazetta movie poster for LUANA (1968), an utter turd of a movie that is in no way as dynamic as Frazetta's illustration. In fact, one of the pre-Frazetta versions of the poster looked like this:

Honestly, which of these two gets your juices flowing? The only thing the second poster has going for it is the fun detail of some poor bastard getting devoured by a carnivorous plant in the background, and when you have a topless jungle girl on your movie's poster as the central thing your eye's suppsoed to be drawn to and you find a background gag more entertaining, that's a problem. But even Frazetta's mighty warrior-goddess couldn't prevent the flick from sucking like your mom during Fleet Week, so it's a moot point anyway.

Everybody knows Jane, mate to Tarzan — one of the coolest guys ever — and a gal who could more than handle the often hair-raising adventures she shared with her man, and I feel rather disrespectful for not thinking of her as a truly savage lady, no matter how game and scantily-clad she was in TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934).

The Jane of the movies is simply too cultured, classy and British for me ever to be able picture her tearing bloody chunks of ass-meat from a rhinoceros with her teeth, so I'm gonna focus on the semi-feral "wild" women that truly define the genre.

Jane Porter, too much of a lady to be a savage.

Probably the best-known example of the savage-chick archetype is Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a comics character who's been around so long my mom used to read bout her.

As you've probably gathered from that cover, Sheena was one badassed motherfucker; she's being attacked by a rampaging elephant while some asshole has a revolver stuffed in her face, and yet she's not taking that bullshit and is preparing to stuff her spear through her assailant's head. My kind of gal!

Co-created by comics legend Will (THE SPIRIT) Eisner and S.M. "Jerry" Eiger in 1937 — a year before the debut of Superman — Sheena was obviously Tarzan-influenced but skewed toward a young male audience, a group that hungrily devoured her adventures, simultaneously admiring her major league toughness and how hot she looked in her cheetah skin skivvies. She even had a not-so-great White hunter type for a companion named Bob, a mostly useless sumbitch if ever there was one who was always in need of rescue, but nobody who read this stuff gave a fuck about him; Sheena was the main attraction, and she handed down hardcore ass-whuppings to any modern-day slaver, witch doctor douchebag, tribal thug, high priestess with attitude, or errant animal dumb enough to piss her off, an impressive string of beat-downs that ran into the 1950's.

The creators of Sheena swiftly established a cover style that would practically jump off of the Golden Age newsstand and kick you in the face, much like the jungle queen herself, and those front cover come-ons promised (and more often than not delivered on) action and violence from a time when such things were casually accepted as part and parcel for kid's entertainment. I don't know about you, but these covers make me want to read each and every story depicted:

Bob, inevitably getting roasted for a cannibalistic feast, gets rescued by the jungle queen. He was so goddamned useless that I never got what Sheena saw in him. Maybe he was the only guy in the jungle who ate pussy? Many of my fellow "highly-rhythmic individuals" flat out refuse to engage in that bit of boudoir fun, and more's the pity for it.

Bob in a rare moment of non-uselessness, but he's still not cool enough to dive over the logo. Douchebag...

Not believing in taking any chances, Sheena would often make sure that her sharp-edged implement of destruction — knife, spear, arrow, mace, whatever — was ready to be deployed about five inches from her opponent's face. A great strategy for not missing!

Man, conservationists must have hated Sheena!

You can almost hear that lion screaming, "NOT THE FACE! FOR GOD'S SAKE, NOT THE FACE!!!"

How the hell did the guy miss her at a range of two feet? I guess they couldn't get away with depicting a boob-kebab.

Bloodshed on the cover! Now THAT'S some exciting shit!

It would seem the lesson to be learned from these covers is, "Don't give her no sass, or she'll kick yo' ass."

The character's popularity even carried over to TV where she was played by the hot and arrogant-looking Irish McCalla — a moniker that's akin to naming your shayna maideleh Jewess Weinberg — on a short-lived series.

Irish McCalla as Sheena... Yowza!!!

Sheena's next onscreen appearance came in the 1984 film bearing her name, starring former Charlie's Angel Tanya Roberts and putting film fans everywhere into a deep torpor despite Miss Roberts' considerable charms.

No joke, that movie was so fucking boring that I was about to fall asleep until we got a full-frontal nude scene of the jungle queen bathing beneath a waterfall, the first and only time I can recall such an artistic statement in a PG-13 movie. But other than that one oasis of nekkidness, the film had nothing to offer since politcal correctness had neutered much of what made Sheena fun in the first place, instead replacing the bashing of natives and animals with Sheena having the ability to telepathically communicate with critters and ride a zebra. A stultifying commercial dud that just laid there like a dead cat, the flick pretty much relegated the jungle queen to the days of yore, only to see her pitifully resurface in the 2000 television revival starring a piece of wood, er, Gena Lee Nolin. The less said about that, the better.

Having been no more than a twinkle in my parents' eyes when Sheena was decimating the indigenous life-forms of Africa in the comics, my own initial taste of the whole savage-chick thing came when a five-year-old Bunche begged to see WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970), one of those flicks about prehistoric folks who appear to have invented razors, hairspray, and makeup along with the wheel.

It's pretty standard for the genre, especially since it's post-ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) and minus the benefit of Raquel Welch in her iconic fur bikini or Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation; it's a fairly dull "story" — written by J.G. Ballard, believe it or not! — in which monosyllabic cave-dwellers who look like Californian surfers grunt and gesture at each other until foam rubber dinosaurs show up to eat them and then all hell breaks loose.

The tale's protagonist was a bikini-clad, occasionally spear-wielding cave-woman named Sanna and played by Victoria Vetri, PLAYBOY's Playmate of the Year for 1968, but being a five-year-old I didn't give a shit about some dumb old girl, even though she'd somehow managed to tame a gigantic carnivorous lizard to the point where it was pretty much her pet dog. I was there for the unfriendly dinosaurs, man! (Although I have to admit that Sanna's charms did make me feel kind of strange "down there," in a good way...) It was many years later that I realized why my dad enjoyed the film so much and my mom seemed so pissed off afterwards. Every woman in the film looked like this:

That's Victoria in the middle, and she struck the perfect balance between pretty surfer-chickness and spear-chucking sexiness. It should also be noted that she was the California-raised offspring of two off-the-boat Eye-Talians, one from Rome and the other from Sicily, and maybe sparked my lifelong appreciation of the Babes from the Boot. Oh, and just to add to the outright geekery of this article, Vetri also played, uncredited, the briefly-glimpsed human form of Isis the cat in the original series STAR TREK episode "Assignment: Earth."

I dunno, I like her better in the animal skin.

But let's face it, it's cheaper to crank out savage-chick stuff in comic books than on film, so good ol' Marvel Comics came to the rescue with a book that virtually defines the term "bald-faced ripoff," 1972's SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL.

Shanna was basically an updated Sheena — thankfully minus Bob — with the ground-breaking innovation of making her a redhead, whose comics adventures offered mediocre stories and art bolstered by bait-and-switch covers that belied the paltry "entertainment" found once you opened the mag. The only novel thing about Shanna was that her leopard togs were the skin of an animal she raised and loved, and when that leopard was killed Shanna wore her pelt so her cubs would have an easier time accepting some crazy redhead as their mom.

Fun Jim Steranko covers notwithstanding, the overwhelming blandness of the interior art was not enough to keep the book going and Shanna was swiftly relegated to guest appearances with the equally yawn-inducing Ka-Zar, himself a tepid Tarzan wannabe.

Is the 'gator howling in pain...or boredom?

After Shanna the she-savage genre floundered for quite some time, and the original Sheena returned in a couple of reprints in the 1980's, one of which was graced with a stunning Dave Stevens cover.

Yeah, yeah, I know there's at least one other Stevens illo of the character, but I like this one best. So there.

Then, when all hope for the genre was almost lost, there came Budd Root's CAVEWOMAN, a terrific take on the babes 'n' beasts adventure yarn and one of the most entertaining comics series I have ever had the pleasure to read. No bullshit, if I had the gazillion samoleons needed to faithfully and entertainingly translate a comics series to the big screen, CAVEWOMAN would be my first choice (followed immediately by STRONTIUM DOG, but that's a subject for another post).

The lovely Meriem Cooper, aka "Cavewoman." Beautiful, busty, and a total badass.

Creator Budd Root is a guy after my own heart who obviously relishes KING KONG (1933) — my all-time favorite movie — primitive adventure in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, dinosaur throwdowns, and gravity-stricken hot chicks in animal couture, in this case the remnants of the heroine's childhood blanket.

Unlike her predecessors, Meriam Cooper — an in-joke name for us KONG geeks — is about as sunny and sweet as they come, no small feat after surviving on her own since the age of eight in an incredibly dangerous prehistoric environment where virtually every living thing wants to devour her. Y'see, Meriem's genius grandfather took her with him on what turned out to be a one-way trip to the distant past, and when he died she went feral with a vengeance, fortuitously gifted with superhuman strength, stamina and resistance to injury as a side-effect of the time displacement process. Then, when Cavewoman's about nineteen, her hometown of Marshville is also transported back to the carnivore-infested jungle she calls home and the townies don't stand a chance in hell without her. Becoming their cheerful de facto leader, Meriem fights to protect a townfull of hapless time-castaways from the slavering jaws of dinosaurs and the myriad perils of a prehistoric existence.

CAVEWOMAN is a kickass roller coaster of a comics series, the bulk of which has been collected into two volumes and Root is at work on what will be book three, "The Pangaean Sea." The one drawback to all of this is Root's notoriously slow production rate; the first issue of the current series came out in 2000, and to date there have been only nine more since, so it's anyone's guess when the whole story will be finished. Instead of focusing on the main event it seems that Root is content to release endless more or less unrelated CAVEWOMAN pinup books filled with nudie and cheesecake stuff by himself and other artists, some of whom quite frankly suck out loud, so unless Budd himself is handling the creative chores I'd advise you to wait for the next actual chapter in Meriem's saga.

Bud Root peers into my daydreaming imagination...

Actually, I should amend the previous statement: unless Budd Root or Frank "Monkeyboy" Cho is handling the creative chores I'd advise you to wait for the next actual chapter in Meriem's saga. Cho's one of the best cartoonists currently working, and he's on the same page as Root's sensibilty, only with considerably greater illustrative skills (no insult to Root, but dat's da fact, Jack!). When Cho has lent his talents to Root's character the results have been a delight to the eye, allowing Monkeyboy's passion for beautiful women and dinosaurs to run rampant within the Frazetta school of imagery.

Cho's obviously in his element with this stuff, so it came as little shock when he presented the world with a revamped SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL written and drawn by himself for Marvel. The funny thing is that his revamp gives us a superhuman female ass-kicker stuck in a prehistoric setting who must protect a bunch of people who are less well-equipped to handle hungry lizards than her Amazonian self...Yeah, it's CAVEWOMAN time again, only the critters live on a remote "lost world" type of island, Shanna's eugenics edge stems from her being a lab-grown Nazi uber-mensch (frau?) experiment, and while Cho can draw like nobody's business, his scripting can't hold a candle to Root's charming characterizations, his characters instead displaying personalities he must have hoped would be evident in the artwork.

Frank Cho's SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL #1 (2005)

Originally intended as part of Marvel's MAX line for "mature" (yeah, right) readers so he could get away with drawing acres of nekkid flesh, the series was toned down at the last minute and Cho had to add a few details here and there to obscure Shanna's boobs and buttsteak.

Frank Cho, autographing a lookalike Shanna-fan's toothsome posterior. It's good to be the king...

Which brings me, in an extremely roundabout way, to the most recent Shanna series, SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL: SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, on sale now. (I initially started this post as a review of the new Shanna book, but it just kind of grew like Topsy.)

Having been somewhat disappointed by the previous series — the lugubrious pace of the writing, not the art — I didn't expect much from this, but since my buddy Jimmy Palmiotti co-wrote it I decided to give it a chance. Jimmy'll be the first person to tell you that I don't love everything he writes — an impossiblity because the guy writes so much stuff that I'm not even sure if he's not writing this very post! — but he and co-scripter Justin Gray have cranked things up to "11" with artist Khari Evans delineating the mayhem.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST opens with a group of contemporary pirates hijacking a crime-lord's party liner and making off with his ill-gained cash just before a giant Lovecraftian tentacled wiggly erupts from the ocean floor, dragging the vessel and all those aboard to a watery grave (or more likely the critter's empty stomach). Hauling ass to safety on the nearest island, the pirates find themselves marooned on the savage paradise that the new Shanna calls home, and they must not only avoid getting their assholes eaten out by thousands of sharp-toothed nasties, they must also seek a way off the goddamned place or else their piratical efforts will have been all for naught. To say nothing of the extremely pissed off crime-lord who wasn't aboard the boat when is got Krakened and is now on his way to Monster Island with a literal army of heavily-armed badasses...

The first issue is action all the way and moves at a highly entertaing and fast clip, hardly slowing down for any sort of character depth, but we have all the info we need on the cast, and Evans thankfully realizes that this is an adventure book and not just an excuse to depict Shanna's monster lungwarts sloshing about in every panel. It's all about the savagery, and I'm happy as hell to see it all unfold with such gusto. All I wanna know is if Shanna's gonna take a shine to the leader of the pirates — a strapping Black dude who's no slouch in the badass department himself — and show the brutha what a wild woman can do when she's not planting a machete through a raptor's cranium. I guess I'll just have to wait and see.


Harry Candelario said...

I read your blog almost everyday, this has got to be the best one EVER!! I can't wait for the movie.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear that the new Shanna series rocks. I hated the Cho one (cool dinosaurs and a busty chick do not an entertaining comic book make!), and agree with you dead-on about the shitty Cavewoman-ripoff writing. "Holy buckets," indeed! Maybe this series will be worth my time and money.

BTW, I couldn't help but think of this wikipedia entry as a companion to your essay: