Zara of the Jungle

First Appearance: Mystic Comics #2 (April 1940).
Golden Age Appearances: Mystic Comics #2-3.
Modern Appearances: None.
Years Active: 1940-?

"In the heart of the jungle, two savage tribes are engaged in a fierce battle. The casualties on both sides are many, and it appears the slaughter will continue until the last man falls."

Meanwhile, Captain Jeff Graves, "commissioner of the territory," discusses the war with his assistant (while wearing a pith helmet, of course--it's Africa--can't stress that enough, apparently). Graves insists that he must try to stop the war, saying that it's his duty (taking up the White Man's burden, I see). Graves ventures out into the jungle; when he's attacked by a lion, Graves guns the poor beast down. Graves makes it into a village, but finds only dead natives. More suspiciously, he finds a spent cartridge. While he's puzzling out the cartridge's presence, "an amazing figure leaps into view."

Yes, it's our headliner, Zara. True to form, she's wearing a leopard skin outfit. (Here's a Timely Golden Age Hero Fun Fact: did you know that panthers are the same thing as leopards, and that a black panther is just a leopard whose fur is black?) Also true to form is the amount of skin revealed by her outfit: her arms are bare, her thighs are exposed up to about two-three inches below her waist, and the leopard skin only loops over one shoulder, so that we get a maximum of collarbone and upper breast exposed, and even a hint of cleavage in one panel. For a non-Matt Baker-drawn GA comic, this was quite exceptional. (Matt Baker was the artist on Phantom Lady during PL's "headlight comics" phase, when her costume stayed on her in defiance of the laws of physics, and she showed an extreme amount of bare skin, as well as large breasts.) (Actually, Baker did Headlights PL only from 1947 onward, which would make Zara's 1941 outfit that much more exceptional. And to be fair to Baker, he was a pinup artist before he was handed Phantom Lady, so he was simply doing what he did best. And Baker was one of the first, if not the first, African-American comic book artists--no, George Krazy Kat Herriman doesn't count--so he deserves his place in history regardless of the breast fetishism he brought to PL.) (Actually, Fawcett's "Spy-Smasher" strip, in Whiz Comics, showed even more female flesh, but not as consistently as Zara did.)

Zara's also got a bow and quiver looped over her back. Captain Graves, understandably curious ("A white girl! Who are you?") asks about her background. Zara says, "My father tired of crime-ridden civilization - brought me here when I was a child. My mother had died. He reared me. He taught me to live in the wilderness with no help from anyone. Then just before he died, he said Zara, this jungle is your home. Never let c..ruelty or crime flourish in it." Zara then warns Graves to turn back, but Graves is a white man--he's not gonna let a silly girl tell him what to do--and so he presses on.

Naturally, the natives attack him, but he grabs a spear and fights them off. (Of course--why should three natives, who've been fighting in the jungle and using spears all their lives, be able to overcome one chunky, sweaty white guy who's used to hiding behind his phallic-substitute gun? He's white, after all!)

"Astounded by the white man who fights like a tiger - the natives flee in terror." To paraphrase Monty Python, a tiger? In Africa? That's it, I give up. Someone else review this strip. No, I don't care any more.

sound of walking feet

door slams

Oh, alright. But I'm reviewing this strip under protest.

Stupid dumb old racist exploiter Captain Graves follows the fleeing natives, but walks into a pit trap. Unfortunately, there are no wooden spikes at the bottom of the pit, and no fecal matter smeared on the tips of the spikes (that helps spread infection and disease, and kills the victim that much quicker). Captain Graves is tied up and taken to the leader of the natives, a white man named "Bwana Gombo." Gombo has caused the war between the tribes so that he and his "boys" can take over when they are weakened enough.

Gombo has Graves tied up and gives one of his "boys" a rifle, to shoot at Graves. Gombo says, "Take good aim, boy, strike the prisoner's heart. Now--fire!" (If we're lucky Ebola Zaire will spontaneously appear and wipe out everyone in this strip.)

Of course, Zara kills the gun-wielding native with an arrow, then frees Jeff Graves with another one. Gombo is about to gun down Graves when Zara leaps from the trees and grabs the gun. Gombo draws a pistol, but Graves punches him out. Graves turns Gombo over to a native chief, and the adventure ends.

In the next issue, Graves stops some faux-Arabs' slave trade. Zara saves Graves from a python, from a slaver patrol, and from being marched into slavery. Zara is not seen in any more issues after Mystic Comics #3.

As with so many of Timely's second- and third-tier heroes, the interesting aspects of Zara lie not so much in the art or writing as in the effluvia of the strip, and what the strip says about America in 1942.

The first thing that leaps out at me is that Zara is yet another example of the Savage White Man. This phenomenon was first pointed out by the historian Richard Slotkin, in his trilogy on the American frontier. The Savage White Man (Slotkin has a catchier phrase for this, which I, alas, can't remember; I'll just refer to this cultural archetype as the SWM) is the White Man--and he is always white--who goes native in a "savage," non-civilized location; the SWM joins a "savage," non-White culture, and becomes a better exemplar of that culture, and better at that culture's habits and feats, than members of the culture themselves.

Put simply, the SWM is James Fennimore Cooper's Hawkeye, who becomes a better Mohican than Chingachgook himself. The SWM is Ka-Zar, who becomes a better savage of the Savage Land than the Fall People or anyone else in the Land. The SWM is Tarzan (mostly), who is raised by apes and becomes king of the jungle, and John Carter, who becomes a better Martian than the Martians themselves. There are dozens of examples of the SWM in American popular culture.

The SWM, as Slotkin showed, is an integral part of American culture, a true archetype. He goes as far back as the Revolutionary years, although J.F.Cooper was really the first to crystallize all his various qualities. The SWM recurs in any number of genres, and is still appearing in various cultural texts today.

Zara is a SWM. Oddly, though, she is a SWF, which is a decided aberration as far as the SWM archetype is concerned. Traditionally the SWM was a male, and in 99% of the cases still is. Of course, there's a reason that Zara is a woman (besides the random confluence of genes, I mean).

That reason is named Sheena. Sheena, queen of the jungle, debuted back in 1938, in a foreign tabloid called Wags, and then later in Jumbo comics here in the States. By the end of 1939 Sheena was the star of the book, and an extremely popular, and long-lasting, character; she got her own comic book in the spring of 1942 and got her own tv show in 1955.

Sheena was the first of the comic book jungle girls, and the undisputed heavyweight of that sub-genre. (It didn't hurt that her original artist was the immortal Mort Meskin and that many of her early scripts were done by a fellow named Will Eisner, of whom you might have heard.) Given her popularity, it's hardly surprising that Timely decided to float a Sheena knock-off of their own; after all, they'd already used the Tarzan model in 1939 to make Ka-Zar, so why not make a Timely version of Sheena?

Zara's (extremely) brief career is evidence of the wisdom of that decision. Whoever the Zara creative team was, they lacked Meskin's artistic brilliance, the cinematic quality of his panels, and his genius with facial expressions. Zara's writer lacked the genius of Eisner, as well.

Interestingly, though, Zara's artist seemed to have the ability to draw non-stereotypical Africans. He or they just didn't make use of that ability. The first panel in which Africans appear has them with non-stereotypical faces; they look like they could be real Africans. But in the second panel, and in every panel thereafter, they become racist caricatures--big lips, popping eyes, etc. It's almost as if the artist realized after the first panel that he had to pander to the bigotry of the audience. While the background scenery is only average, and doesn't give a real feel for the jungle, and the natives' paraphernalia is faux-African, the natives' facial features, for one panel, rose above the level of stereotype. And Zara at least had the potential to rise above the restrictions of the genre. But neither art nor writing did that.

Which leaves Zara as a mere curiosity, today. And that's as it should be.

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