Race & Comic-Books: Rima The Jungle Girl

By Special Correspondent Arturo R. García

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DC Comics has begun drumming up buzz for the “First Wave” world – an alternate universe populated by pulp characters like Doc Savage and The Spirit, and pulp incarnations of modern characters like Batman and the first Black Canary.

Monday, though, we got a first look at a potential wrong turn in the new line: creators Brian Azzarello and Rags Morales’ new take on Rima The Jungle Girl. From the notes posted above:

Rima has no trace of any European ancestry in her features – she is clearly native and supernaturally beautiful … and always mysterious.

Red flags much?

As it turns out, the character does indeed have its roots in pulp literature, specifically the novel Green Mansions: A Romance Of The Tropical Forest, where Rima – here a white, dark-haired teenage girl – is depicted as a sort-of Noble Lolita Savage: though only 17, the book’s narrator, Abel, falls in love with her because of her “pure” connection with nature – e.g., she can talk to birds. In the book, Rima is the sole survivor of her peaceful (of course!) tribe, which was allegedly based on the legend of a group of white-skinned people who lived in the South American wilderness. Her story ends when – spoiler alert! – she’s burned to death by another (presumably darker-skinned) tribe.

Rima1In the comic-book world, though, Rima would go on to live and have adventures, though by this point she was depicted as being an adult with lighter hair than in her prior incarnation. When she appeared in cartoon form in The All-New SuperFriends Hour in 1977, her hair was white, as pictured here.

Now, it’s certainly possible to do a “modern retro” take on characters from this school of literature. In an issue of Planetary, writer Warren Ellis introduced readers to Lord Blackstock, a Tarzan stand-in who met and fathered a child with Anaykah, an intellectual member of a local tribe. The key here is that Anaykah and her people were positioned in the story as equals to Blackstock and the protagonist, Planetary team member Elijah Snow, and not just because their kingdom was a “hidden paradise”: Anaykah tells Snow she and her tribe are well aware of Blackstock’s privileged attitude and of her intent to steer him from that in time. (It’s also worth noting, unfortunately, that there’s no mention or depiction of Anaykah’s child with Blackstock, Jakita Wagner, being bi-racial; she is clearly drawn as a white woman who only knows she was raised in Germany by a presumably white couple, in a riff on the origin of Superman.)

In light of the Anaykah story, Azzarello’s notes about Rima, while staying “true” to the character’s origins, veer too far in the direction of antiquated tropes:

She never speaks, but whistles as if she’s talking to birds – the siren of any story she’s in. She’s not a main character, but a catalyst that drags the real main characters along to their inevitable fates … what she does always leads to the protagonist of the story showing what he/she is really all about.

If I’m to read that right, she’s a MacGuffin in a loincloth. Is this really the kind of nostalgia DC should be reaching for?

P.S.: I’m well aware that the characterization of Black Canary noted above is fraught with its’ own potential complications. But let’s ask you, dear readers: would her story, as Azzarello notes in the sketch above, make more sense if the character were from “a Korean, Indian or Middle Eastern background?” (I’m just going to assume Latinos didn’t make it to New York in the First Wave world.)