Interview with Jerry Iger - The History of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle
So much has been said about "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" that it's become almost impossible to separate fact from lore. Certainly Sheena ranks among the all-time great comic heroines, and will remain in high esteem as long as there are comic book aficionados and collectors.
Back in 1937,1 had been producing a lot of material under my own banner, "Universal Phoenix Features." In my shop were some wonderful artists, many of whom worked free-lance on an "as needed" basis. Included were such names as Mort Meskin and Will Eisner. In addition to supplying comic strip material around the U.S., I had a business relationship with Editors Press Service. EPS represented American syndicated services overseas, and was interested in the features I was publishing. At that time, I was supplying strips for a magazine called "Wags." This was a black and white tabloid that enjoyed a large European circulation, and was handled by EPS.
Eduardo Cardenas, who was in charge of the EPS publication (and who later became the Foreign Editor for Reader's Digest), called me in to plan some new features for Wags. He mentioned the popularity of "Tarzan," and asked me whether I could do a "knock-off" for his magazine. I replied that my shop was known for its original material, and that I didn't like the idea of doing a male jungle hero. "Why couldn'i we have a jungle heroine?" I asked Eduardo. He replied that it sounded OK to him, but what would I call it. Thinking back, it's strange to remember all the random ideas that used to go introducing new characters. For some reason, my mind wandered to early days in New York, when Jewish people were sometimes called "Sheenies" as an insult, and I piped up, "Why don't we call her 'Sheena'?" Eduardo didn't ask how I thought that one up, and I didnít offer to tell him, but the name had a nice ring to it, and it stuck. Once we had agreed that the new character's name would be "Sheena," Eduardo asked me to go back to my studio and bring him some sample drawings.
Arriving at the Universal Phoenix Features office, I looked through my roster of artists to see whom I'd pick to draw the prototype. I chose Mort Meskin to do the first drawings. Mort was one of the free-lance artists I relied on. He mostly did illustrations, and this project offered him his first opportunity to sign his name to a published work. Another free-lancer at that time was Will Eisner. Will was working for me doing "Hawk of the Seas" and "ZX-5." He also did sports drawings that I syndicated with my other materials throughout the U.S. (a good collection of these drawings is in the book "Heroes of Sport" which I published with my partner, Lee Caplin, in 1984 as a trade book under the Pacific Comics label). Some people have thought Will also had a role in the creation of "Sheena," but the closest Will got to Sheena was to do the art for a cover or two long after the character had been published by Wags. The artists who are best remembered as drawing Sheena are Robert Webb and Bob Powell. After Wags had been running the Sheena strips I approached them to buy back the printer's plates so I could publish them in the U.S. Editors Press Service agreed, so after the sale had been consummated I approached Thurman Scott at Fiction House. I convinced Thurman that we could reprint the tabloid-size plates as a giant comic book, just as we'd done at Wags. "But what can you do about getting us some color instead of those black and white drawings?" Thurman asked. I thought for a minute, and suggested using colored paper to get a color comic effect. Thurman loved the idea, and that's how "Jumbo" comics got started-the name reflecting those first 8 issues cut to tabloid size. In fact, the last big Jumbo issue came out at the same time as the New York World's Fair, and was a commemorative issue. After that, when the original Wags plates were used up, we re-edited the material and brought Jumbo to conventional comic book size (still called Jumbo!). Sheena still was just one of the strips.
Around 1940, Sheena first appeared as a lead feature in the meanwhile, Universal Phoenix Features had gone into a "holding pattern" because I had gone into a brief partnership with Will Eisner in mid-1938 only to buy him out in 1940 when Will was drafted into the Army to do military posters. (Will had become so accomplished-and so expensive!-as a free-lance artist, that the only way I could afford his services was to make him a partner.) After "Eisner & Iger, Ltd." was dissolved, I returned to publishing as "Phoenix Features." A few years later, Fiction House requested that I produce a Sheena Quarterly, and for the next 10 years or so, "Sheena" had her own comic. In 1953, there was a big to do about 3-fl comics. Thurman Scott called me to ask whether I could produce a 3-D "Sheena" to get in on the excitement. I said I could, even though I didn't have the slightest idea how! The first thing I did was to call a close friend of mine, Frank Little, for advice. Frank was a highly talented animator for Paul Terry ("Terry Tunes" and "Mighty Mouse"), and he assured me he would pitch in and help. So with Bob Webb to do the drawings, and Frank Little to do the color separations and yours truly to do the stories, we felt we had a dynamic team. Thurman Scott was keeping his fingers crossed that the Sheena 3-fl would be a smash hit and would pull Fiction House out of its financial slump. The Sheena "team" got all the materials together and Frank Little traveled up to Waterbury, Connecticut to Eastern Color Printing to do the separations. Great care was taken with the inking and printing, and the Sheena 3-fl was a masterpiece. The only disappointment was that Sheena alone couldn't reverse the fortunes of Fiction House, and the company soon went out of business. If memory serves me correctly, the Sheena 3-fl was Sheena's last comic book appearance until now. Our new venture, "The Caplin-Iger Company," is dedicated to presenting features from the "Iger Shop" in a historical context. It is my hope that relating my personal experiences in connection with the evolution of "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle," as well as other features, will increase the understanding and enjoyment of these golden-age creations for future generations of comic book collectors. - Jerry iger, 1985