Superheroes Catch Jungle Fever!
We're living in the open
All alone like Tarzan Boy.
Hide and seek
We play along while rushing 'cross the forest
Monkey business on a sunny afternoon.
—Tarzan Boy, by 80’s one-hit wonder Baltimora
Ever since Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes burst onto the scene in 1912, the world’s jungles have been overrun by a virtual stampede of loincloth and leopard skin wearing imitators. Their roll call is a nearly endless list of exotic sounding, two-syllable names like Bomba, Tom-Tom, Kaanga, Ramar, Sheena, Nyoka, Lorna, Rulah, Wambi, Zago, and Zegra.
However, an altogether different branch of the comic book Jungle Genre included a number of costumed superheroes that either made the jungle their home, or (for whatever reason) had temporarily defected from civilization and “gone native”.
Among the costumed heroes who enjoyed the jungle’s “home field advantage” was Leopard Girl. Wearing an outfit similar to that of Wildcat, the Cheetah, and the modern Catwoman, Leopard Girl shared Jungle Action #2 (1954) with a couple of generic members of the Loincloth Brigade and the gorilla hero “Man-oo the Mighty”. In a tough spot, she could utter the “cry of the leopard” and summon a group of real leopards to her aid (or a “leap” of leopards if you want to get technical).
Nearly twenty years later, Marvel revived the Jungle Action title. Its fifth issue kicked off an outstanding series of stories featuring the Black Panther, comics’ first black superhero. As King T’Challa of the advanced African nation of Wakanda, the Black Panther fought threats at home in his jungle kingdom and abroad as a member of both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four.
Another of the jungle’s most famous costumed superheroes is arguably the first costumed superhero period. Created by Lee Falk, The Phantom made his newspaper comic strip debut in February of 1936 (a strip that’s still running, by the way), more than two years before Superman popped onto the scene in Action Comics #1. Known as the immortal “Ghost Who Walks” to the natives of the fictional African country of Bangalla, he’s actually one of a long family line of Phantoms, each son taking over for his fallen father.
Not every jungle superhero could be as cool as the Black Panther or the Phantom. Take B’Wana Beast for example. Making his wonky debut in Showcase #66 (1967), Mike Maxwell used a magic helmet and elixir to gain the power of fusing any two animals into a single creature (or chimera), which would then obey his mental commands. When he wasn’t fusing animals together, he hung out with a gorilla sidekick named D’juba in a secret headquarters atop Mount Kilimanjaro. Which...on second thought, actually is kinda cool!
Moving beyond the jungle’s native heroes were the visiting “city slicker” superheroes whose adventures sometimes took them to the planet’s steamiest, most exotic locales. In X-Men #10 (1965), the young mutants are the first superheroes to visit the jungles of the Savage Land. As Marvel’s ultimate “exotic locale”, the Savage Land is a tropical realm hidden beneath the ice of Antarctica and home to Ka-Zar, a Tarzan knock-off who (despite what the cover blurb says) was actually RE-introduced in this story. Ka-Zar was published over twenty years earlier by Marvel predecessor Timely Comics, and before that he was a hero of adventure pulp magazines.
Kazar meets yet another member of the New York superhero scene in Amazing Spider-Man #103 (1971), as a Daily Bugle expedition finds publisher J. Jonah Jameson, photographer Peter Parker and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy braving the dangers of the Savage Land!
In Wonder Woman #110 (1959), the Amazon Princess braves the “Bridge of Crocodiles” to save a Jungle Princess. The Jungle Princess then turns out to be an alien princess, whom Wonder Woman then turns her over to emissaries from the girl's home planet.
Abandoning the superhero scene for life as a tiny Conan-like alpha-male, Ray Palmer defends a jungle society of tiny, yellow-skinned aliens in the Sword of the Atom mini-series (1983).
In a pair of "alternate reality" stories, Superman himself becomes a jungle-dwelling superhero. First, in Superboy #183 (1972), baby Kal-El lands in Africa and is raised by a community of kindly apes...who later grows up to becoming Karkan, the Mighty Lord of the Jungle!
Next, in the Superman/Tarzan: Sons of the Jungle mini-series (2001), Kal-El is once again a Tarzan-like figure, while Tarzan (a.k.a. John Greystoke) is stuck in England, feeling like something's missing from his life. You guessed it...by the end of the story, both men end up switching places as Greystoke assumes his "destined" role as Lord of the Jungle and Kal-El relocates to England with Lois Lane.
As usual, the weirdness of Superman's world rubs off on his supporting cast. In Jimmy Olsen #10 (1956), Superman's Pal experiences the usual Silver Age sequence of unfortunate events and finds himself a reluctant jungle boy, later struck mute and imprisoned in a cage!
Years later, Jimmy returns to the jungle, this time the object of Bruna the Sacred Ape's affection! Naturally, a needlessly convoluted plan is hatched to rescue Jimmy, which involved Superman dressing up as a witch doctor and performing comics' first (and only) human-ape marriage ceremony....making the cover of Jimmy Olsen #98 (1966) an eternal source of campy insanity.
Continuing the jungle weirdness was Lois Lane #124 (1972), as "The Hunters" bewitch Superman with a magical junga root, which also appears to turn Lois Lane into a stab-happy jungle woman.
My favorite of the jungle superhero covers has to be Batman #72 (1952). I could go on and on about Batman getting shipwrecked on an island with a criminal gang named "The Sinister Eight", but really...a cover like this just says it all, doesn't it?
By the way…when a young Bruce Wayne first dedicated his life to fighting crime, did he have any idea that it would one day involve bare-legged panther wrestling while wearing nothing but a mask and a fur toga?
Nah. Probably not.