Young people in twentieth-century Italy were very fond of comic books, and one of the most popular of all was the great ape-man Tarzan. Like many other early fantasy heroes, this one originally came from the United States. Before, during and immediately after World War II, Italian publishers were unable to obtain American comics for either financial or political reasons, so many editors decided to try their hands at creating Italian versions of the great king of the jungle. High sales figures showed that they were on to something, and versions of Tarzan proliferated on the newsstands. But if there was a king of the jungle, why couldn’t there be a queen? Thus in April of 1948 Italians got their first look at a new comic book featuring a leggy and busty monarch of the rainforest named La Pantera Bionda [The Blond Panther]. Throughout its brief run (around two years) the comic book enjoyed huge success; it is said that the book regularly sold over 100,000 copies in a country that was wracked by postwar shortages and widespread poverty. A major reason for its runaway success was the Panther’s extremely brief costume—a leopard skin top and tiny loincloth. Clad in this sexy, bikini-like costume she swings through the trees of Borneo with the agility of Tarzan, but she is also a skilled horsewoman, expert archer and a vicious combatant who fights with the feline determination of her namesake. The Blond Panther was clearly based on other similar jungle queens starting with H. Rider Haggard’s mysterious queen Ayesha in She (1886), but similar white monarchs had long been staples of the American pulp and comic-book market. The first and most famous of these was Sheena which first appeared in 1937, but American readers in the 1940s had enjoyed many other jungle princesses from Nyoka and Taanda to Pantha and Zoot who used the same basic formula: a gorgeous white woman who confronts tropical dangers wearing an outfit that could have been supplied by a very small leopard indeed. The first jungle queen in Europe was the French comic Durga-Rani which appeared in 1946. She was a spectacularly beautiful Indian princess who is the last daughter of a secret race of mystics with superhuman powers; this strip was written by René Thévenin with masterful artwork by Pellos (René Pellarin). Italians were not immune to the charms of white jungle queens, and a few had been created over the years by artists and writers on the peninsula. Loana Principessa della Giungla [Loana, Princess of the Jungle] began publication in 1948 and La Tigre Bianca [The White Tiger] first appeared in book form in 1950. Neither of these featured much nudity or spunky heroines who challenged male authority, so they did not exert much influence on la Pantera Bionda. Nor did they attract a large readership, but they undoubtedly paved the way for her acceptance by the comic-book buying public. In the first issues readers learned that he jungle superwoman was raised by a Chinese woman, and that her only companion is a chimpanzee named Tao (what an African primate was doing in Borneo was not explained). Later she is joined by her boyfriend, a handsome American explorer named Fred—this was almost certainly disappointing news to her adolescent male readers. The mysterious white girl rules her jungle realm with love and care, and the natives venerate her as a living goddess. The beautiful Blond Panther has many adventures in the jungles where she fights such foes as Japanese troops who refuse to surrender, foreign slavers, savage native cults and other evil-doers. All the while the glamourous pale princess of the jungle manages to preserve her perfectly coiffed blond tresses, sculpted nails and flawless makeup. She is a pinup princess in a primeval wilderness—as beautiful as she is unrealistic. No one seemed to care how silly the concept was; they were probably more intrigued by her dazzling thighs, ample breasts and bare midriff. The comic-buying public was complicit in the jungle girl’s spontaneous but unmistakable exhibitionism. La Pantera has a gorgeous body that has been honed to perfection by years of swinging on lianas, swimming in rivers and chasing both human and animal antagonists. As one rapt commentator has written, “For a gymnasium the Blond Panther has the jungles of Borneo, and here she learns acrobatics, during the performance of which readers are naturally allowed a good look at her thighs and gluteal region.” For those who were too young or too clueless to appreciate the Panther’s physical attributes, she was always involved in a series of cracking good adventure stories with plenty of action, violence and exotic locales. Readers at every level of sophistication seemed to be satisfied, and all was right with the Panther. But alas, as in many another Eden, there lurked an insidious serpent of discord, and it came in the form of a perennial foe of sexy ladies and unfettered freedom of expression: the Catholic Church. The poor jungle maiden found herself condemned by the Church; the comic book “occupied the top spot on the list of children’s publications posted in every parish of Rome warning of books that good Catholics were advised not to read.” The publishers of the Blond Panther were subsequently dragged into court and charged by moralists with being traducers of youth who outraged the common sense of decency. The church was joined in their lawsuit by a number of rival publishers who were jealous of the great and swift success of A.R.C.’s jungle girl. The outcome was that after forty issues of romping about the forest in skimpy attire, La Pantera Bionda was forced to suspend publication. In order to return to the newsstands of Italy, the publisher had to accept a compromise: the heroine was legally required to don more clothing. Those pages of the magazine that were already set for publication had to be swiftly (and, as it turned out, rather clumsily) redrawn. The Panther’s clothing steadily began to cover more and more of her luscious body. Her little loincloth was eventually stretched to cover her below the knees, and her titillating bra expanded to conceal her shoulders and torso. In one of the final episodes La Pantera discovers a trunk full of European clothing, and she eagerly dons more modest and conventional attire; she is even forced to cover her bare feet with shoes lest her bare toes might provoke lustful thoughts in her young male readers. Not surprisingly, the more clothing she wore, the less popular she became.
Forcing the character to cover up was, as one contemporary Italian comic-book historian noted, “a triumph of bigotry, a ‘violence’ that totally weakened the glamourous effect that La Pantera evoked.” On 10 June 1950 after 108 issues, the publisher Pasquale Giurleo was forced to give up. Sales of the Panther had plummeted, and he had grown tired of all the legal attacks, so the Italian jungle queen ceased publication. In the final issue the heroine sanctified her long association with Fred by finally marrying him. The regularization of the comic book was now complete, and moralistic pettiness had won its battle. According to one authority, it was not so much La Pantera’s nudity that had dismayed and frightened the authorities, it was her total liberation and her inability of accept a subordinate role when dealing with the opposite sex. Clearly the independent, fearless and dynamic Pantera Bionda had come a long way from the faithful girlfriends and subservient matrons of comic books in the Fascist era. She was, according to journalist Franco Fossati, “a feminist avant la lettre.” The idea that girls might be fighters who were not beholden to men for their protection was a disturbing thought for many traditionalist males, and this attitude was not limited to Italy. The Panther and similar works on both sides of the Atlantic were accused of exciting violent and independent emotions in their young readers. Despite the presence of her boyfriend, Fred, the Blond Panther certainly does not need the protection of a man; even so, she finds it useful and decorative to have a male admirer hanging around her.” The Blond Panther’s case demonstrates clearly that Italy’s postwar hopes for a free and liberated press had been dashed on the rocks of religious and social conservatism. The troubles that La Pantera Bionda endured were actually part of a worldwide movement intended to suppress “immorality” in all public utterances, but especially in comic books. Many Americans are aware of the problems that this sort of literature aroused in 1954 after Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocents began to sway parents and politicians to condemn comic books. Few understand that the war against comics was often an international conflict, and The Blond Panther represented one of the earliest salvos in this confrontation. As a direct result of the problems encountered with the authorities, in 1950—the same year that the Panther ceased publication—a new organization was formed that attempt to police the Italian comic-book industry. This was UISPER, the Unione Italiana Stampa Periodica Educativa per Ragazzi [Italian Union of Educational Periodicals for Children], a watchdog group that issued guaranteed that a comic book was either “good” (i.e. it reflected conservative, Catholic values) or “bad” (which parents were encouraged to avoid). At the same time many Germans were looking at comics and attempting to banish all offensive material from their pages; there was a Schmutz-und-Schund [Dirt and Filth] campaign that strove to eliminate all smut from juvenile literature. In the 1960s, a Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien [Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons] was created by the government, and their first targets were comic books featuring (among other crimes) women who showed a bit too much décolleté. The French were usually more concerned with excessive violence when they instituted la Commission de surveillance et de contrôle des publications destinées à l’enfance et à l’adolescence [The Commission of oversight and control of publications for children and teens] in 1949. This governmental body wanted to outlaw any publication that glorified “banditry, lying, stealing, laziness, cowardice, hatred or any acts of crime.” In its attack on human weaknesses, many French critics included moral turpitude in their campaign, and as soon as the comic was translated and published, they had The Blond Panther in their sights. La Panthère blonde provoked these moral watchdogs by the aggressive sexuality that she displayed “in a general atmosphere of brutality . . . sadism, and sexual perversion.” They portrayed the Panther as a kind of jungle dominatrix, describing her (erroneously, as it happened) as “booted and armed with a whip,” claiming that “she engages in acts of violence that yield nothing to her masculine colleagues.” The Panther, they warned horrified parents, brought “eroticism to the cradle.” One fact is clear from a closer examination of the Blond Panther: she might have had the curvaceous figure of a Loren or Lollabrigida, but from her actions she was as sexually chaste as Mother Teresa. Of course it is impossible to divorce the images from the text, but all the lasciviousness that critics railed against is firmly lodged in the mind of the reader not in the actions of the heroines. The Blond Panther is thus the precursor of a type of woman who did not fully emerge until the 1960s; she is a proto-feminist who (as one scholar explained) “was capable of consciously exhibiting her own body not so much to seduce as to provoke and to pursue her own goals by using force if necessary.” She might have been merely a character in a silly and shallow comic book aimed at an audience of horny adolescent boys and angry teenage girls, but La Pantera Bionda marked the start of new era when people of both genders began to examine their roles and to question whether they might need to make a few adjustments in their thinking.

1Tarzanide, or Tarzan-inspired characters, had long been popular with Italian audiences. The most famous of these were Yorga, il dominatore della giungla (1945-50) and Roal, il Tarzan del mare (1947-48).
2 Although this circulation figure is found in many places, I have not been able to verify it or find the source, so it should be taken cum grano salis. Italy’s total population at this time was around 45 million.
3 G. Della Corte, I fumetti (Milan: Mondadori, 1961), 155-56. Quoted in Rossella Laterza, Marisa Vinella, Le donne di carta: Personaggi femminili nella storia del fumetto, (Bari: Dedalo, 1980), 138.
4 V. Alessandrelli, “Pantera Bionda,” in Eureka, IX/5, May 1975, quoted in Donne di carta, 138.
5 “Curve pericolose: La storia della Pantera Bionda”
6 F. Fossati, I fumetti in 100 personaggi, (Milan: Longanesi, 1977), 108. Quoted in Donne di carta, 139.
7 Carlo Castelli, Psicologia del fumetto, (Rimini-Firenze, Guaraldi, 1975), 273.
8 Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 100.
9 Richard Ivan Jobs, Riding the New Wave: Youth and the Rejuvenation of France after the Second World War, (Stanford University Press, 2007), 243. La Pantera Bionda never wore boots and rarely, if ever, resorted to snapping whips. By comparing the jungle woman to her male adversaries, the author lets slip his real concern: the Panther confronts traditional gender roles and is thus “unnatural.”
10 Sara Zanatta, “Corpi di donna: oggetti o soggetti?” in Le donne del fumetto, L’altra metà dei comics italiani: temi, autrici, personaggi al femminile (Latina: Tunué, 2009), 60.


David Chapman

was born in San Diego, California in 1948. He is the author of thirteen books on the history of physical culture, gender, film and sport history. In 1994 he published Sandow the Magnificent, a biography of the early bodybuilder Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). His book on female strength, Venus with Biceps (2011) was the first comprehensive history of muscular women ever published. In more recent years he... >>