Congo Bill performs before an appreciative but disappointed audience. Artist: Ed Smalle.

CONGO BILL

Medium: Comic Books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1940
Creators: Whitney Ellsworth (writer) and George Papp (artist)
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When modern-style comic books started, in the mid-1930s, they relied almost exclusively on reprints of newspaper comics. But they continued to draw from newspaper comics even after …

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… original material became the norm, as quite a few comic book features were direct copies of those being offered by newspaper syndicates. DC Comics' Congo Bill, for example, was almost exactly like King Features' Jungle Jim, which writer Don Moore and artist Alex Raymond had created in 1934. Bill and Jim dressed alike, with jodhpurs and pith helmets, and operated in similar environments. Jim's jungle was in Southeast Asia and Bill's in Africa, but as sources of danger and adventure they were very similar.

Congo Bill's first appearance was in More Fun Comics #56 (June, 1940). Like other DC titles of the time, More Fun was being taken over by superheroesThe Spectre was its ongoing star, and he'd been joined in the previous issue by Doctor Fate. But there was still plenty of room in the back pages for other genres, such as crime (Radio Squad, no relation), war (Lt. Bob Neal), and of course, jungle adventure like this one. Nobody knows for sure who wrote Bill's first adventure, but it's likely to have been editor Whitney Ellsworth. The artist was George Papp, who later illustrated Green Arrow and Superboy.

Ellsworth and Papp didn't stay with Bill very long — he was handled by a variety of creative personnel over the years. His berth in More Fun Comics didn't last long either. As of the following June, he switched places with Clip Carson, who had formerly appeared in Action Comics, where Superman was the star. Congo Bill's regular series started in Action Comics #37, and stayed there for many years with only one one modification — in #191 (April, 1954), he picked up with Janu the Jungle Boy, who had been living in the wild since the death of his father, a jungle guide, and from then on Janu was Bill's sidekick. In the meantime, Bill had even made it onto the cover on one occasion. In #52 (September, 1943), Superman shared that position with the title's lesser stars, Americommando, Zatara the Magician, Vigilante and of course, Congo Bill.

He also made it into the movies. On October 28, 1949, Columbia Pictures (Blackhawk, Bruce Gentry) released the first of a 15-chapter serial with him as the title character. (It went in the other direction, too — DC licensed Columbia's cartoon characters, mainly The Fox & the Crow.) Bill was played by Don McGuire, who has no other toon connection unless you count having once appeared in a Joe Palooka movie.

Congo Bill had a comic book of his own for seven issues, September 1954 through September, 1955. But by that time, the jungle adventure genre was beginning to seem passé. Bill had the longest-running series in Action Comics other than that of Superman himself, but eventually, he had to change with the times. In the 228th issue (May, 1957), he encountered a rare golden gorilla, which seemed much smarter than most of its species. In #248 (January, 1959), he met that gorilla again, and it became a regular part of the series.

It seems the gorilla wore a ring, a duplicate of which was worn by a tribal witch doctor, Chief Kawolo. When Kawolo rubbed the ring, his mind would enter the gorilla's body for one hour, and vice versa. Just before he died, Kawolo gave the ring to Bill, who used it to become part of the resurgent superhero genre. When danger threatened, Bill would put himself in a cage, get Janu to tie him up, or in some other way render himself incapable of harming himself, then enter the body of the beast, dubbed Congorilla.

Congorilla didn't catch on, and was soon left behind — or as "behind" as any DC character ever gets left, at any rate. In 1977, he made an appearance with The Justice League of America, and he's since turned up on rare occasions in other DC comics. In 1992, he got a four-issue mini-series from Vertigo, DC's imprint for more mature readers. And Congo Bill himself, without having to share billing with an ape, had a Vertigo mini-series in 1999.

But with jungles themselves almost a thing of the past, jungle adventurers like Congo Bill aren't likely to make it as ongoing series stars set in the modern world.

— DDM

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Text ©2004-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © DC Comics.