Comic Cards Project: Day 45 • Congo Bill and Janu

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Congo Bill is probably a surprising choice to illustrate for these cards, even to the most devoted comic fans. Although moderately popular in his heyday, today he’s nearly forgotten. Plus, it’s almost impossible to draw a fully-clothed grown man next to a nearly naked boy without it looking inappropriate. However, Bill has an interesting history.

His long-running adventure series debuted in 1940, detailing his escapades as an investigator for Worldwide Insurance Company in the jungles of Africa. An unusual (if not baffling) premise for sure, but I guess it worked. Columbia Pictures released a 15-chapter Congo Bill film serial in 1948.

In spite of this, his comic series was never a huge success, running consistently as a secondary feature in the back of comics headlined by bigger names. In 1954 Congo Bill acquired a sidekick, Janu the Jungle Boy (who called him “Master”), and shortly after that, his own comic that lasted for only 7 issues (drawn by future Aquaman artist Nick Cardy).

In 1959, with the popularity of superheroes on the rise, some changes were made in an attempt to raise Congo Bill’s appeal. A dying witchdoctor gave Bill a ring that would temporarily swap his mind with that of a rare golden gorilla. When necessary, this transformation afforded Bill the use of the powerful primate’s body. Unfortunately, the monkey’s consciousness was also transferred into Bill’s body in the process, which could be quite embarrassing and required Bill to be restrained until the transformation was reversed.

That’s a superpower that sounds like it was dreamed up on a drunken dare by a writer with an impending deadline. The resulting stories often showed Janu tying Bill to a tree while the ape performed tasks that baffled the other characters. “How is that gorilla flying a plane???” The series, now called “Congorilla”, was kitschy comics at their finest.

Congo Bill appeared monthly in his own stories for over 2 decades, even crossing paths with Superman and Jimmy Olsen a couple of times, but it all abruptly came to an end in 1961. And for better or worse, Bill, Janu, and Congorilla have been virtually ignored for the past 50 years.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Next: The Elongated Man! Seriously, that’s his name.

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