Return of the Queen: de Souza Talks "Sheena"

Twenty three years after Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the world to Tarzan -- the Ape-Man who would go onto become king of the jungle -- comic book legend Will Eisner and his partner S.M. Iger introduced a comic book character who would be crowned Queen of the Jungle -- Sheena. Now seventy years later, co-writers Steven E. de Souza and Robert Rodi and artist Matt Merhoff are reintroducing "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle" to comic fans in a mini-series from Devil's Due Publishing. CBR News spoke with de Souza about the book.

De Souza, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter and producer whose credits include such contemporary classics like "Die Hard" and "Commando," "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," and the "Knight Rider" and "Tales from the Crypt" TV series, first encountered Sheena as a precocious young reader in the pages of a special 3-D issue which, as it turns out, was Sheena's last Golden Age appearance. "At that time, the comics and television series a seven year old kid could access were all monotonously wholesome: Roy Rogers would never shoot an enemy unless he drew first, and then, of course, he only shot the gun out of the villain's hand," de Souza told CBR News. "But Sheena was so cold-blooded it was awesome. She killed people! She left them behind for animals to devour! She was relentless."

Sheena, along with another legendary Eisner creation "The Spirit," reentered de Souza's life in the late '80s through Paul Aratow, a producer who had obtained the rights to both characters, which lead to a "Spirit" TV movie/pilot that de Souza wrote and produced. "Paul had set the Sheena property up at Sony, but what Sony did with it sort of veered wildly from Paul's original intentions," de Souza explained. "So I said, 'We'll do 'The Spirit' right then.' And I think we did to a degree. Unfortunately, ABC was sold while we were in post production and the new owners just sort of dumped all the previous management's pilots in the summer. We got nice reviews but nobody saw it and now it lives on as a bootleg at comic cons.

"So, Paul said to me than if he ever got the opportunity to do 'Sheena' again he would call me. Over time an opportunity came and this was around the same time I had met Josh Blaylock from Devil's Due. He had come out to Hollywood to try and set up some projects based on their books and we really hit it off. It was perfect timing."

For the Devil's Due "Sheena" series, de Souza has mapped out the world and its inhabitants, while his co-writer and scripter, Robert Rodi has fleshed things out. "[Artist] Matt Merhoff has given us a wonderful look, and Robert has done a great job establishing a totally believable psychology for everyone - heroes and villains alike," de Souza said. "So, we're starting in our world, with relatable characters and motivations, and off that baseline we're going to catapult into some fantastic stuff that will be modern, but evoke the pulps."

When Sheena originally appeared, her world revolved around the jungles of Africa. De Souza chose the Amazon jungle setting for his modern day reintroduction of the character. "There are really no more unexplored regions of Africa, but there are actually unexplored areas of the Amazon," de Souza explained. "It's more mysterious."

In the DDP Sheena series, the specific area Sheena calls home is the fictional country of Val Verde. "It's something like Guyana, a country which encompasses lush Caribbean resorts popular with tourists, an unexplored mysterious rainforest, and a mix of Anglo, Spanish, African, Creole and indigenous cultures. This is a country of the imagination I've used in several films and TV programs, which I thought was my little inside baseball joke, but Eric Lichtenfield, the author of 'Actions Speak Louder,' recently sent me a Wikipedia page on it! Seriously, my Dad's family is from that part of the world and it's something I can write about with some familiarity."

Growing up in the verdant wilds of Val Verde, Sheena had to become tougher and slyer than the other creatures who called the jungle home. "I would say she's as cunning as any of the other animals and her 'colorful plumage' has fooled many a predator," de Souza stated. "She's spent some time in the concrete jungle and the rules are almost the same as those of the proper jungle, which are 'Godfather' rules. It's not personal, it's business and sometimes it's jungle business."

Sheena's jungle upbringing has also made her physically tough. In the first three issues of this new series the Queen of the Jungle has proven she's faster and stronger than many of her enemies. "We'll discover that she's had a very interesting education both physical and metaphysical, but I wouldn't describe her as superhuman," de Souza remarked. "Everything we're going to see her do has been documented as being done by highly trained people."

She may have spent her youth in the Amazon, but Sheena isn't completely ignorant in the ways of the modern world. Unlike many jungle themed characters, Sheena never spoke "Pidgin English". "Historically she sort of spoke English as a second language," de Souza explained. "There was one strange issue where she spoke total American English, but otherwise it's been like she learned another language first. When I write for Sheena, I just write as if I were writing for Arnold Schwarzenegger again."

However, Sheena's command of the English language doesn't mean she's familiar with or mastered all the trapping of the modern world. "There is legitimate fun to be had from her fish-out-of-water experiences in 'civilization.' There's definitely some cognitive dissonance: In certain situations she can be as clueless as Borat -- or, just maybe, we're meant to think that."

If Sheena is feigning her naiveté with certain aspects of civilization, it's almost certain she's doing it to lull her many enemies into a false sense of security. "Sheena has kind of a 'frenemy' relationship with Martin Ransome, the head of security for Cardwell Industries, this all-powerful transplanted American company," de Souza stated. "He's a very important character, but the main adversary of the book is Laura Jeffries, the current president and heir apparent to Cardwell. She's been groomed for two decades so she has a lot at stake both emotionally and financially -- and Sheena threatens all that just by existing."

At the end of "Sheena" #3, readers caught a fleeting glimpse of a mysterious new enemy, a man with a spider tattoo on his hand who had no compunctions about slitting another man's throat to reach his objective. "We'll be seeing more of him," de Souza said. "With Raze it's also just business and not personal. Like the jungle, his is a food chain world with a lot of conflicting relationships. Just because two people both want to kill Sheena doesn't make them friends with each other."

Sheena isn't without friends of her own. In the first three issues she's been able to rely on the help of her jungle friends like Pete the Macaw, Yagua the panther and Chim the monkey. Her trust of environmental activist Bob Kellerman is also growing as he assists her more and more. "In his own mind Bob is the Hunter S. Thompson of environmental reporting and activism," de Souza remarked. "I think he's got a lot to be modest about, but he's really going to find out what he's made of through his interactions with Sheena."

The remaining two chapters of DDP's first "Sheena" mini-series will place Sheena and her friends in some precarious situations. "There are a lot more twists and turns ahead," de Souza explained. "You'll be introduced to a key character in Sheena's upbringing and you'll see the tip of the iceberg on some very big mysteries that are going to keep us very busy for many issues."

Devil's Due is already planning future mini-series and specials for Sheena to come after their initial mini-series wraps including "Sheena: Trail of the Mapungari," a 40-page one-shot which de Souza is penning on his own that will be in stores in March. "My editor, Mike O'Sullivan, has been running me through Comics 101 on a grueling pace," de Souza said. "After four issues he's finally trained me to call it a 'panel' instead of a 'frame.'"

In addition to the one-shot, Sheena fans can also look forward to "The Golden Sheena: Best of the Queen of the Jungle," a full-color anthology collection of some of Sheena's best Golden Age adventures. "Every weekend now Devil's Due's West Coast exec, Stephen Christy, Paul Aratow and I have been getting together for a read-athon," de Souza explained. "We read all these issues and grade them on our secret Sheena-o-meter. We're collecting ten of those stories in a special trade paperback."

With "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle," not only has de Souza gotten a chance to revive a classic comic character, but he's also been able to strike back a little at one of the most reviled figures in Comics' history. "What's particularly delightful for me is that with 'Sheena' for DDP and 'Tales from the Crypt' for HBO, I have now been lucky enough to have worked on two of the titles that Dr. Fredric Wertham attacked in his 1954 book 'Seduction of the Innocent,' which of course led to the Comics Code, the death of the Golden Age, and the invention of Aunt Harriet to de-gay Wayne Manor."

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