Friday, November 10, 2017

Guest Post | The Jungle Cover Triangle

By GW Thomas

Looking at copies of Jumbo Tales I was first struck by how lush these covers were (and who could refuse buying them?), but secondly how each followed a formula of construction I like to call the Triangle. There is some variation, but the most popular examples feature three main focal points set in a triangle. These included the star hero or heroine, a threat (an animal or villain attacking), and a victim to be saved. The artist could vary which was largest in the picture but all three had to appear within that triangle. This got me looking back. When did this start? Did all jungle-themed comics have this cover formula?

I started with the oldest comics, the Tarzan newspaper strip that began in 1929 (the Ape Man actually came late to comic books in 1947). Typically, especially during the film cover era, these were not "triangular" but usually a double image, Tarzan striking a pose with a weapon or object in his hand. The publicity stills of Lex Barker or Gordon Scott were easily produced and promoted the film's main asset, the actor. The later covers were paintings and required more animals and fantastic villains to be featured in them.

But when Real Adventures Publishing entered the scene in 1938 with their general audience comic, Jumbo Comics, they didn't know that within their second year every cover would be a jungle cover, as their character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle rose to prominence in their stable of characters. By #18 (August 1940), the superhero covers were gone and the jungle would be featured on every issue until #159 in May 1952. That's 141 issues over 12 years! But that's just Jumbo Comics. Their sister magazine Jungle Comics, featuring Kaanga, would run 163 issues from January 1946 to Summer 1954. And then there was Kaanga, 20 issues on his own from Spring 1949-Summer 1954, with every cover a jungle triangle.

The triangle had become the norm. Whether it was Rulah, Zoot Comics, Zegra, Jungle Lil, Jo-Jo, White Princess of the Jungle, or Yarmak in Australia, they all used the same formula. The one exception was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a solo comic that for 18 issues ran from Winter 1942 to Winter 1952-3. The Sheena covers sometimes returned to the Tarzan-style double image, with Sheena holding a weapon. Her star had risen high enough she could stand with the Ape Man.

One variation of the triangle is what I call the Square. This works the same as the Triangle, but the artist sneaks in a fourth figure, usually a second animal, such as two hyenas rather than one, or a mount upon which the hero/heroine rides, such as an elephant or zebra. The Square came along in later years as the cover artists must have been quite bored by the typical cover of Sheena throwing herself from a tree limb to intervene with an evil hunter or tribesman.

Where did the Jungle Triangle come from? Was Jumbo Comics #15 (the first full Sheena cover in May 1940) the first to use it? Not at all. I got to thinking about the very first Tarzan illustration of them all, Clinton Pettee's cover for Tarzan of the Apes (All-Story, October 1912). There was the triangle! Tarzan straddling a lion, about to plunge his knife into its side, while on the ground, John Clayton lies, the intended victim.

And of course, the jungle pulps later became jungle comics, as companies like Real Adventures phased out or doubled up their pulps - like Jungle Stories - with comics. These too had covers and what do you know... the Triangle! Clinton Pettee started it, the pulps and comics continued it, and even Frank Frazetta, the master painter, used it in 1952 for his Thun'da comics, which he abandoned when the strip dropped the caveman and dinosaurs angle. Frazetta returned to it in the 1960s when he came to paint his Tarzan covers like Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. The fierce lion attacking Jane is about to get a surprise as Tarzan comes to the rescue.

Later jungle comics such as Shanna the She-Devil and Ka-Zar did not use this formula as often (what would be so old-fashioned by the 1970s), but rather the typical Marvel-style cover. DC's Tarzan and Korak under Joe Kubert harkened back more to the old days, but Kubert adds a sizzle to the old formula that makes it his own. The most modern jungle girl covers by Dave Stevens or Frank Cho look more like publicity stills to a Sheena movie or pin-up art. The triangle lives on but only in subtle ways.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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