My first sight of Monja, the lovely (if romantically ill-fated) Mayan princess of the Valley of the Vanished, came on the cover of the 1972 comic Doc Savage #2, with art by Jim Steranko.
Of course the woman behind Doc is not named, but who else could it be? And it was certainly a dynamic first impression as a 14 year old reader, caught up in the fervor of being a Doc Savage fan.
Soon after I would read The Man of Bronze novel, and in time the other two novels in which Monja appears, The Golden Peril and They Died Twice. I’ve explored Monja as one of the women in Doc’s life in an article for The Bronze Gazette, so I won’t cover exactly the same ground here, but here are the pulp covers of those issues (with Monja herself appearing finally on They Died Twice).
Monja would also feature prominently in the Wild Adventures of Doc Savage novel The Valley of Eternity, with cover art by Joe DeVito.
In the Doc Savage film from 1975, Monja is played by Pamela Hensley, not as a Mayan princess, but as a modern woman named Mona Flores.
In the comics, Monja has appeared in series by Marvel, DC, Millennium and Dynamite Entertainment, and each version of her has differed wildly. Each author has taken her character in a unique direction. As a result there is no sense of continuity to Monja’s presence in the comics, but all of the appearances are fascinating in their own way.
Monja’s name — which is Spanish, not ancient Mayan — translates to “nun”, not a promising name for a character with a potentially romantic role. But it’s possible that in choosing it, Lester Dent may have been making reference to the Blanca Monja, or “White Nun” orchid. Interestingly, it was in 1933 at the National Conference of Flowers in Florida, that the blanca monja was suggested for the national flower of Guatemala (a center of ancient Mayan civilization). A year later it was indeed chosen as Guatemala’s national flower, symbolizing peace. Intriguing as well that the writers of the Doc Savage movie chose Flores as the surname for their version of Monja/Mona, given that its translation is “flowers”.
Or it may have come from references to the city of Chichen Itza, a Mayan ruin in the Yucatan, about which Herbert Thompson wrote a book called The People of the Serpent in 1932. It describes how, according to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote (ceremonial well) as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac (also the name of Monja’s father). On a side note, I have wondered if the character of Hubert Robertson — described as Clark Savage Sr.’s partner in discovering the Valley of the Vanished — was based on Herbert Thompson, as the names are similar (and Thompson was in the news in the late 20’s, early 30’s when he was accused by the Mexican government of taking sacred objects from archeological sites). In a final connection to Monja, one of the oldest structures in the “lost city” of Chichen Itza was called by the Spanish the Casa de las Monjas (“House of the Nuns”).
Back to the comics, her appearance in Doc Savage #2 (written by Steve Englehart, drawn by Ross Andru) is relatively brief. In a two-issue adaptation of the novel, there was not much room for character development. But it is faithful to her role in the original novel. After Doc engages in a vigorous fight with the heavies in the story, she appears silently at the side of her father, King Chaac…and Doc does not appear to even notice her. She remains silent on the sidelines in the next page as well.
As the story progresses, Monja finally gets the opportunity to show her bravery and spirit. When Doc needs a sample of water to try and isolate the poisonous “red death”, Monja volunteers. When Doc develops the cure, she is once again in the background, offering silent support.
And that is all we will see of Monja until the end, when she expresses her desire for Doc to stay in the Valley of the Vanished, but he gently rebuffs her. When he departs, there is a tear in her eye.
Monja would not appear again in any Marvel Doc Savage production. It would be over fifteen years later, when DC comics acquired the rights to the Doc Savage character, that we would see the rare Mayan orchid in the comics again.
to be continued…