Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Jungle Adventures Volume 3
Reprinting Lorna, the Jungle Girl #13-16 (May-Nov 55), Jungle Tales #5-7 (May-Sep 55) and Jungle Action #4-6 (Apr-Aug 55)
Writers and artists: Various
Marvel Comics, $74.99, color, 280 pages
The novelty has worn off these reprints of Tarzan knock-offs from the '50s, and for the first time with this series, I got restless and bored.
I hasten to add that it's not because of the the art. Most of it is passable, and some of it is rather good. Long-time fans will especially enjoy picking out early John Romita and Don Heck, and the occasional Joe Maneely contribution is always a gem. Other familiar names include Bob Brown, Vince Colletta and Syd Shores.
What turned me off was the writing, a huge chunk of which was done by Don Rico. Rico was a one-trick pony, with both Lorna the Jungle Girl and Jann of the Jungle in fruitless romantic pursuit of the no-nonsense leading man, who would have none of it. Both hunter Greg Knight (Lorna) and photographer Pat (Jann) would say "The jungle is no place for a girl!" so often it makes one wonder if they knew each other and exchanged notes. Also, their inability to accept the idea that Lorna and Jann were far more capable in the jungle than they were, despite being saved from certain death by the pair over and over, makes one wonder if they aren't just misogynist, but actually mentally impaired. Further, their adamant resistance to the romantic advances of gorgeous, scantily-clad women makes one wonder if they weren't gay, as well.
Rico plays the exact same card in the "Jungle Boy" strip in Jungle Action, with a father-and-son team where the dad constantly asserts, "The jungle is no place for a boy!" Again, Dad stubbornly holds to this opinion despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, to the point where one seriously begins to wonder about his sanity. Seriously, in all three strips -- Lorna, Jann and Jungle Boy -- this one-note story structure gets old fast.
Elsewhere, other tropes abound, resulting in repetitive, unpleasant, often irritating stories. One such is the anthropomorphizing of animals, to where they don't act at all like animals. In story after story they are depicted making moral judgments, refraining from killing, acting in unison or in assigned roles (predator and prey alike) during a crisis, and so forth. These sins are especially evident -- often the crux of the story -- in "The Unknown Jungle," "Man-oo the Mighty" and the text pieces. Hardly a word of these stories are plausible to anyone who has ever owned a dog, much less visited a zoo.
Another trope is the Red Menace. Whenever a story revolves around a Communist spy, it will inevitably A) make no sense, and B) make you want to smack the jingoism out of the mouths of the lead characters. And the spies (whose plans, as I mentioned, would never make a lick of sense) were invariably the most unutterably evil people on earth, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Again, this sort of one-note treatment is boring.
And finally, I wince every time a huge amount of animals are killed, given our current world and the many species on the brink of extinction. This is especially egregious in the ridiculous "Leopard Girl" strip. Not only is Leopard Girl laugh-out-loud funny in her goofy leopard pyjamas, but twice in this one volume her efforts to re-establish her primacy among the leopards results in mass death for entire packs of leopards. The Comics Code may have kept the blood off camera, but the dialogue left me wondering how many leopards could possibly be left in that corner of Africa.
There is one shining note, story-wise: "Waku, Prince of the Bantu." It's not Shakespeare, but here is that rare jungle strip that stars an actual, black jungle native. Waku and his tribe speak in the child-like pidgin English common to all black Africans in Atlas' jungle books, which infantilizes the Bantu to a degree. But at least here is a black native man who is in charge, who is not cowardly or superstitious, who is fair-minded and intelligent, and and who functions well in his native environment. Needless to say, that never happens in the strips headlined by white hunters or jungle girls, where the local black people are, for all intents and purposes, children in need of guidance.
I'm sure all of these flaws were in evidence in the first two volumes of Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Jungle Adventure, but I was still finding my footing in this unfamiliar genre while reading those. Now that I know all the names and faces -- and can tell Lorna apart from Jann, for example -- I'm looking for some genuine entertainment. And, alas, these 60-year-old stories, chock-full of racism, ethnocentrism and random impossibilities aren't doing the trick.
I hate ending on such a negative note, so I'll point out that the foreword indicates a changing of the guard in Atlas' jungle books that will first be in evidence in the next volume. For example, Jann of the Jungle will take over Jungle Tales in its entirety (presumably sending "Waku," "Unknown Jungle" and "Cliff Mason, White Hunter" to comics limbo), and there are changes afoot for Jungle Action as well. Perhaps some of my disappointments will be addressed by those changes.
The first five words of your review pretty much sum it up: “The novelty has worn off.” I agree with your other points as well (except about the text features which I cannot bring myself to read). Have you read The Unauthorized Tarzan yet? (Charlton’s adaptation of Jungle Tales of Tarzan which they mistakenly thought had fallen into the public domain.) There is an assessment of Jesse Marsh’s art in the introduction which you might appreciate. This is the series which led Gold Key to replace Jesse Marsh with Russ Manning.