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Monday, February 13, 2017

Panel Vision - JLApe: Gorilla Warfare

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that apes on comics sell comics.  This is a fundamental cornerstone of comics going all the way back to the ‘50s.  It first emerged under one of the colossal giants of the medium Julius Schwartz, the man who served as editor of DC Comics during its Silver age through the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Schwartz claimed to have data showing a bump in sales of comics when a gorilla was featured on the cover, data that was so convincing it actually shaped all of DC’s output for a time.  

There were legitimately strict rules and limits on the whole idea of putting apes on comics, treating the phenomena as a finite resource to be carefully exploited to avoid oversaturation of the ape-based marketplace.  Given that those 2 decades have defined the shape of comics to this very day, apes on comics remains a popular tradition to this day.  With The Flash finally bringing Gorilla City to the small screen I figured now would be a perfect time to dive into the great legacy of apes on comics in possibly their finest moment: JLApe.

Flashback to 1999- It’s been 3 years since the end of the Dark Age of comics.  This was a period from about 1989 to 1996 wherein sales were artificially inflated by a boom of speculators who’d buy up big, flashy, event driven comics in the hope they’d increase in value later.  This, combined with a greater emphasis on catering to the out and proud adult comic scene, had more or less derailed the entire medium for half the decade, sending it crashing into ill-conceived and poorly executed event after event.  

Overall most comic historians agree that Marvel was worse about this than DC (as evidenced by events like Heroes Reborn, Clone Saga, and anything X-Men related,) which is also why Marvel’s bankruptcy in 1996 is used as the finish line for the Dark Age.  However, 1996 wasn’t simply the year Marvel hit bottom, it was also the year DC Comics reinvented itself. 

DC had suffered plenty of its own dumb decisions during the Dark Age, most notably the events Emerald Twilight and Zero Hour, in which Green Lantern Hal Jordan went evil and tried to restart time.  That, coupled with a disastrous new spin on the Justice League entitled Justice League Task Force are the two major failures of DC storytelling in the ‘90s.  

Most of the big events of the time like Knightfall or Death of Superman may not be great but they’re fondly remembered and have an undeniable charm about them in a lot of aspects- they’re cornerstones of their respective mythologies.  So, when DC decided to re-invent itself as the so-called “Original Universe” in 1996 their most profitable heroes were pretty much fine, the emphasis was o bringing everyone else up to speed. 

The core of this attempt was JLA, a new comic launched under the authorship of Grant Morrison, a then rising star who’d grow to be a major player in the modern comics scene.  The push of the new series was to revitalize the scale and creativity of the Silver Age of comics with a new sense of gravitas and myth that should befit heroes like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.  

As such, JLA became the first time the original 7 leaguers were reunited in an ongoing team book since about 1986- 2 decades.  JLA basically set the tone for the DCU going forward, it was the lynchpin whose influence spread outward, and one of the big ways it did that was through DC’s Annual Events. 

For the non-comic fans in my audience, an Annual is a special, extra-large comic issue published once every year for an ongoing series.  In the late ‘90s, DC decided to put this extra issue to work, creating a series of event comics that used the annuals as a crossover point.  

This way, the main story of say Aquaman could continue uninterrupted, but the publishers would still get to tie-in one of his issues the big event of the day.  It’s an ingenious and enjoyable way to handle crossovers, allowing new fans to a much easier entry point to a series without threatening to drive away already committed readers with event fatigue. 

That’s the case with JLApe, it was an event story that ran through the annuals of the big 7 Justice League members in 1999.  That’s actually a lot more unique than you’d think as this was one of the only times in DC history that Aquaman and Martian Manhunter had ongoing comics of their own.  The pitch for the event is incredibly straightforward, to the point you probably got just by looking at the cover image of this article. 

It opens with Gorilla City, a hidden African city full of sentient talking gorillas, petitioning the UN for citizenship.  Unfortunately, human terrorists kill their leader during the visit to the UN and new, more hostile forces take over the Gorilla City government.  They opt for flat out war with humanity and detonate several “gorilla bombs” at the UN, transforming everyone present into gorillas, including most of the Justice League, except for Batman who was a spoilsport. 

From there the story is pretty straightforward, each of the leaguers works to overcome their newfound ape status while also combating the villainous gorilla lieutenants of Gorilla Grodd, who was behind the whole scheme.  It’s a very classical take on a Justice League event, with the individuals heroes taking on unique threats keyed to their skills. 

They keep the gorilla bomb aspect in most of the spin-offs, with the ape forces attempting to mutate anyone they encounter into gorillas as well, it’s just the method and attack focus that changes.  For instance, Green Lantern goes after a gorilla city space station with Gorilla beam orbital laser while, in Aquaman, the ape forces try to transform all of Atlantis into amphibious gorillas. 

Curiously enough, Martian Manhunter ends up the real focal point of the series.  While the individual issues zero in on the specific character Manhunter is really at the core of opening JLA annual and it’s his annual that closes out the comic.  That’s mainly because he’s the best member of the team for dealing with their situation as a shape changer and a psychic.  A big plot point of the series is how much Manhunter has to psychically aid his teammates to keep them from going feral or allying with Gorilla City. 

It ultimately ends up working though, mainly because Manhunter’s the best choice to balance the finale’s blend of seriousness and comedy.  The whole event is very tongue in cheek about the whole gorilla thing though the final issue goes all out in the comedy, including a cameo by Detective Chimp and a glimpse of an Ape-ified version of NATO command.   Overall the fact JLApe doesn’t take itself too seriously is a massive step up from the grim, gritty, portentousness EXTREME fetishism that informed WAY too much of the ‘90s. 

In so many ways, I think JLApe sums up the best elements of the ‘90s and why I think this particular decade of comics is unfairly written off by modern fans.  It’s all very on the nose and obvious, both in the comedy and the content, but there’s a real charm in seeing exactly what’s expected.  A lot of it is very cartoony or would work better as a video game, the kind of story that’s a fun experience that you don’t want to hold up to extreme scrutiny. 

That’s part of why the Arkham games have pulled so heavily from ‘90s Batman stories like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth or No Man’s Land.  All the jokes and the big action set pieces like gorillas in space or Superman vs. a giant robot gorilla are incredibly corny and dumb and you see them coming a mile off but they’re commitment to that predictable, old fashioned, silliness makes all the difference.  It’s a lot like slipping on a banana peel- we all know the gag but it’s the delivery that makes the difference and JLApe, simply put, delivers.  

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