Writer’s Commentary: Legendary Screen Writer Steven E. De Souza Discusses ‘Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle’ #6-#8

by Olly MacNamee

Best know as the screenwriter of the genre-defining films Die Hard and 48 HRS., as well as Commando, The Running Man, The Flintstones, Ricochet, Die Hard 2, and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of LifeSteven E. de Souza has also adapted numerous comic book properties for the screen, including Tales From the Crypt, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, and Judge Dredd. We’re delighted to welcome him here to fill us in on his long association with Sheena, along with an insider’s peek at his working process, and much more! 

[+++ WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead! Buy and read the books, then head back here for some awesome commentary! +++]

It’s been two decades since the late Paul Aratow asked me to reboot Will Eisner and S.M. “Jerry” Iger’s immortal Golden Age character Sheena for the 21st Century.  The rights holder to the character since the 1980s, Paul had first met me when we produced the 1987 TV movie of another Will Eisner creation, The Spirit. Unhappy with the choices dictated by the studio and director on the 1984 Sheena film, and even more so on the heels of the 2000 TV version, and aware I’d adapted other comics for film like Judge Dredd, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, and Tales From the Crypt, Paul reasoned I’d respond to Sheena.

He was more right than he knew: In the mid-1950s, television was awash in jungle series, and I was a devoted viewer of Ramar of the Jungle, Jungle Jim, The Adventures of Gunga Ram and, of course, Sheena.   

Then, suddenly, jungles vanished from the cathode ray tube, defoliated not by Agent Orange but by the stampede of 1960s TV Westerns. Thanks to the vagaries of regional syndication, Sheena had ended on a cliffhanger for “Philadelphia and the greater Delaware Valley”. Commiserating with a friend one day about this lack of closure, I was astonished when he casually mentioned his older brother had “a zillion Sheena comics.”

What? There was a comic? This was the first I’d heard that, and, while the “zillion” of Sheena and Jumbo back issues was more like dozens, I dove into them, beginning with the most irresistible one, which happened to be Sheena’s final Golden Age appearance, the 3-D issue.

At that time, the comics and television series a ‘tween could access were all monotonously wholesome, populated by gullible heroes who persisted in playing by Queensberry rules when their opponents lied, crimed, and cheated. Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and pre-baseball & museum Gene Autry, to a man, they never shot first — and then only shot the gun bloodlessly out of their  adversaries’ hands.

But the Sheena of the Golden Age comics I was binging on was so cold-blooded, it was awesome. She killed people! She left them behind for animals to devour! She was relentless. As a child, I marveled at her chilly practicality: Long before Han shot first, so did Sheena!  

As an adult, though, I realized that Sheena, who beat Wonder Woman to print by three years as the first female comic character with her own title, came with enough 1930s baggage to fill a steamer trunk: Colonialism, racism, and most of all, the white savior trope.   

On the upside, I was being offered a second opportunity for posthumous revenge on my friend Stan Lee’s mortal enemy, Doctor Frederick Wertham, the notorious psychiatrist whose 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent all but destroyed the comic book business. I’d already done one of Wertham’s most hated properties, Tales From the Crypt, and while Wertham is best remembered today for his verdict on Batman (“a wish dream of two homosexuals”), his opinion of “the man-hating comic book figure Sheena” was in the same vein: “torture, bloodshed and lust in an exotic setting.”

My mostly “R” rated movie career covered my bloodshed bona fides, but the exotic setting was the first thing that needed a reboot: In the 21st century, the idea of an unexplored section of entirely-explored Africa was preposterous. However, there are vast swathes of the Amazon jungle still unexplored, even containing tribes uncontacted by the outer world, so Sheena was transplanted to my go-to fictional South American country, Val Verde, which I’ve used in so many movies some have claimed the “Val Verde-verse” rivals the MCU.

Giving Sheena an indigenous mother took the curse off the white savior trope… now, she would be defending her own people and their land. Instead of being orphaned in Africa because her explorer father dropped dead from a witch doctor’s potion, I literally dropped her in the jungle via a plane crash.

Now, TV’s Arrow has told us that the amazing archery, combat, and survival skills billionaire playboy Oliver Queen brought to Central City were acquired out of Darwinian desperation when he was marooned — as an adult — for a paltry five years on a tropical island.  If so, imagine the skills Sheena could bring back to the big city after growing to adulthood in the much harsher Amazon jungle from the age of two!  

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, because now, three publishers later, with Dynamite’s great bench of talent, Sheena’s in the best hands and shape ever… and in the current run, I’m stepping back into penning one of our girl’s adventures from scratch for the first time since 2008. In it, a la Oliver Queen, I’m throwing Sheena headlong into family empire drama with the discovery that the plane crash that orphaned her also made her the heiress to Cardwell Industries — the same rapacious conglomerate that has been ravaging her rain forest and displacing its people, all in concert with Val Verde’s corrupt government!

In its own way, this is as much a shock to her system and world view as Tony Stark realizing the shrapnel that embedded in his heart was from Stark Industries. After all, she’s seen this company’s path of environmental and human destruction up close since childhood. She’s even met its de facto head, her own uncle, and experienced his cruelty, first hand. How then, to handle this sudden embrace of family — and why, in fact, is it even happening?

In Sheena #6, on page 1, we learned why: Someone in the family has to be on the Board or Directors, and her uncle is a wanted man… which makes his niece a wanted woman.

Pages 2-3:

This is the moment that Sheena — literally — bursts into the Concrete Jungle. Sheena has to step not only into the shoes of “Rachel Rivington Cardwell”, but into the family firm’s offices for the first time. She knows this is the heart of everything she hates… of everything she’s been literally fighting against her whole life, with spear and arrow and claw — a losing fight, against the machinery of a global juggernaut. How, then, to play this new hand, and win? Well, just like Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s Batman Begins, who deliberately drove his car into a Gotham City fountain, Sheena has decided the best first impression is one that unimpresses.  

Page 4:

Since they dragged her out of the rain forest, Cardwell, Inc. has dropped their raised-by-wolves scion off at at an elite Academy for the spoiled rich to both keep her out of the way and maybe just possibly teach her the rudiments of civilization. But Sheena has both the wits from the jungle and the AAA credit of the concrete one, and uses both to her advantage.

Page 5:

An environmental activist and gonzo journalist, Bob encountered both the Cardwell Co. and Sheena in the wild and has had quite enough of the former…and can’t get enough of the latter.  He knows if he’s drawn into one of Sheena’s schemes he’ll be close to death before it ends… on the other hand, he’ll be close to Sheena!

Pages 6- 10:

Alas, Sheena’s best attempt to play the clueless raised by wolves card on Cardwell’s head of Security Martin Ransome doesn’t play out as planned. But just because they cut his checks doesn’t mean Ransome totally trusts Cardwell Inc., so even though he’s not  invited to the party, Ransome’s planning to be along for the ride — even if it has to be as a stowaway.

Page 19-20:  

From Sheena’s very first Dynamite appearance in March, 2016 in her crossover with Tarzan, we’ve known that the ancient Lost City Sheena’s people zealously guard contains what some call magic and others call the remnants of Antedeluvian science. Whatever you call it, Sheena’s jungle contains millennia-old crumbling structures that harbor portals that span time and space.  One took Sheena to Tarzan’s Africa in the 1930s, and then both her and Tarzan to the far future… this one takes Sheena and her companions to…. well, who knows where, and when?

Sheena #7  Page 1 picked up right where we left off, with Sheena and company slowly awakening in the plane, which is — mostly — in one piece. But where is that piece? As far as their eyes can tell them, they’re somewhere in the South Pacific… but absent a calendar, with their electronics fried, when in the South Pacific?

Page 17:

They get that answer from an unexpected place — another castaway, who by his appearance has been stranded here long enough to be paranoid about the new arrivals… and maybe long enough to go a little crazy, because he tells them it’s 1945, and World War II is still raging! No one knows exactly what to make of his story, but Sheena knows one thing — reconnoitering this, ahem, Mysterious Island is the first step. 

Page 19-20:

And that first step is a doozy, because the Queen of the Jungle is about the make her first acquaintance with some of the first animals!

And this is where we come in on Sheena #8, on sale now:

Page 1: 

Reconnoitering their strange surroundings Sheena has discovered a single human settlement — and it’s about to be trampled by a dinosaur stampede triggered by a lava flow.  Her commitment to Pachamama — Mother Earth — drives her to find a solution that spares both men and beasts – but first she and her animal companions must avoid being stamped themselves.  

Pages 2-3:

I love this great two page spread where Jethro Morales inventively shows us our heroine’s “canopy run” through the tree tops.  Jet leaves us at the top of his game….

Pages 4-5:

… passing the ball to artist Ediano Silva, and he’s definitely got game, as he demonstrates beautifully in these pages where he brings the acting and emotion of the characters to life. As Sheena wrestles for a solution to save the village, back at the battered plane, Bob and Ransome are trying to get the mid-century craft flyable — along with the shipwrecked doctor who has told them they’re in the actual mid-twentieth century, where he only recently escaped a WWII Axis prison camp!  But timey-wimey theorizing is set aside for more pressing concerns: Where is Sheena? Dr. Visser warns darkly that the local tribe are cannibals, and worse.  With a working airplane, they could search for her. Fortunately, he can lend a hand and speed up repairs!

Or maybe… not so fortunately?

Continued in Sheena #8, on sale now.

Check out Dynamite’s video interview with Steven E. de Souza below:

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