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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Comics Rainbow - Apes

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2017 seems to truly be the Age of the Ape.  Apes and Monkeys have always occupied a pretty unique place in the nerd culture pantheon.  They’re not like ninjas or zombies who defined an era before fading away into the collective nerd background noise, and they’re not like superheroes, which just sit atop the pop culture soil like permafrost.  Instead, apes tend to pop up sporadically as pop cultural touchstones that just stand as enduring monuments, like King Kong or Mighty Joe Young or the Planet of the Apes.  

The truth extends to comics as well as everything else, a medium that was once editorially mandated to feature a certain number of gorillas a month.  Given that love of ape characters the annals of comic history are flush with some fan favorites, underappreciated gems, and complete misfire ape characters and today I give you the full spectrum on all of them. 

Back in the late ‘60s things were changing for the comic market.  The superhero wave had transformed from fad to persistent media trend and established that layer of permafrost I mentioned earlier.  However, readers were getting older, and the same trends that had created the superhero were quickly fading off.  

Where once weird sci-fi stories and teen dramas had been the order of the day now there was a growing cry for horror, fantasy, and comedy.  DC and Marvel both had to work to fill this demand, and in DC’s case, it produced the Angel & the Ape, one of their most bizarre and least beloved concepts. 

Premiering in 1968, Angel & the Ape were a detective duo of Angel O’Day, a hot but not terribly smart woman, and Sam Simeon, a sentient ape who can speak and illustrates comic books.  The joke of the series was always that Angel kind of bumbled her way through a case while Sam did the heavy lifting, with Angel’s looks usually distracting those involved from the talking gorilla in the room.  

It’s a weird, dopey concept that informed a lot of ’60s genre comedy and not terribly far removed from a slightly older-skewing vision of Scooby Doo.  DC has revived the property a couple of times, once in 1991 as part of their broader universe and then again in 2001 under their mature readers Vertigo imprint.  Neither attempt has really stuck, and Angel and the Ape have been consigned to the dustbin of comics since then. 

Meet one of the most successful comic book characters you’ve never heard of.  Congorilla is one of those classic comic ideas that I absolutely live for, the kind of out there pulp idea that you only get in a medium that’s maintained continuity throughout its entire lifespan.  So back in the 1940s superheroes were a big popular trend but you still had a lot of adventure stories being published about cowboys, GIs, pirates, and safari explorers.  

One such character was Congo Bill, a rugged explorer in Africa that had about a 20-year life in comic strip form in Action Comics.  However, by 1959 superheroes were THE order of the day but DC wanted a way to keep Congo Bill around, enter Congorilla. 

The idea was that Congo Bill had come upon a mysterious ring that, when he touched it, allowed him to swap minds with a golden gorilla in the African jungle.  Eventually, Bill just traded places permanently and lived as a giant sentient talking ape in the African savannah.  It’s an incredibly weird but very endearing story, and even though Congorilla hasn’t really stuck around, he’s remained a real favorite for me.  

He even got a mini-series in 1992 like Angel and the Ape only his book was a lot darker and harsher, involving a betrayal by Janu the Jungle Boy, Bill’s one-time sidekick.  Strangely, Congorilla may actually have been more famous in his human form as there was a full Congo Bill movie serial filmed in 1948 and rereleased in 1957.  Sadly, Congorilla has never been adapted- mores’ the pity. 

We’ve moved now from the late ‘50s or early ‘70s into the mid-'60s with this entry.  Monsieur Mallah comes to us out of a series called the Doom Patrol, a bizarre and out-there bit of comics history all its own.  They were a team of misfits and mavericks tasked with fighting really weird and high concept threats while also defending a world that feared and hated them under the guidance of their wheelchair-bound leader.  

If that last part sounds familiar, keep in mind the Doom Patrol premiered only a few months before the original X-Men book, and there’s long been a comics rumor that they were the inspiration for Xavier’s first class of students.  In any event, their archenemy was a brain in a jar named The Brain.  But because he’s just an organ in a fancy case the Brain needed someone to carry him around and defend him, so he surgically altered a gorilla to be sentient and speak English to act as his right-hand ape. 

That’s a decent origin but I’ve never been able to get on board with Monsieur Mallah, mainly because the fresh stories where he fights the Doom Patrol are relatively rare.  More commonly Mallah and the Brain would fight the Teen Titans, and I know this is incredibly petty and unfair but I cannot stand the Teen Titans.  

I’ve never liked solo teen superheroes, and the Titans are the bunch I just can’t break through to, this is also key to why I’ve never been on board with Deathstroke.  Maybe sometime in the future, Mallah will get more interesting antagonists who aren’t baby versions of the real heroes or whiny teens in bright colors, but for now, that’s the best he can usually manage. 

One of the first superheroes to break through and start the genre’s second popular phase in the ‘60s was the Flash.  Flash broke large in the mid-'50s first off, and that’s always really covered his core stories and identity.  So much of the Flash mythos exists as a hodgepodge of B-Movie weird science and adventure pulp storytelling, and there is no better example of that than Gorilla City and its King Solovar.  

Created in 1959 by John Broome and Carmine Infantino, Gorilla City is a secret hidden city in Africa of super intelligent talking gorillas.  The city has produced a number of notable members in its time, with Solovar as its King most often and Gorilla Grodd as its greatest threat but we’ll get to him. 

The reason I’d argue Solovar is the best Gorilla character is of how much he and Gorilla City are played completely straight and realistic.  Most of the others characters exist to be weird and silly and maybe a little stupid, usually popping up for a fun beat down or a light distraction.  Solovar is an established, significant part of the DC Universe, primarily filling a role similar to Black Panther.  

He’s the head of a massively technologically advanced African nation and a gifted telepath in his own right.  I mean, Solovar has addressed the UN, there’s a Gorilla embassy in Washington DC, it’s such an incredibly goofy idea that they take so seriously it can’t help but be amazing. 

So, back in the mid-'50s Marvel was in a proto-stage.  They were still throwing stuff at the wall to see what worked and a lot of it ended up a blend of adventure pulp and weird science much like the Flash.  That’s where the Gorilla-Man comes in.  Rumored to be an ape with the mind of a man that wandered the African wilderness, it was said that if you killed the Gorilla-Man, you would take its place and live forever as an ape person.  

However, for soldier of fortune Ken Hale that sounded like a pretty good deal as he was terrified of dying.  So he tracked down the Gorilla-Man, killed it, and took its place.  Now weird proto-Marvel characters from the ‘50s were a dime a dozen, but Gorilla-Man got lucky when he showed up in an issue of Marvel’s What If? Series that asked, “what if the Avengers had fought evil in the 1950s?”

The ‘50s Avengers were a team of bizarre oddities from Marvel’s earliest days like Gorilla-Man and the issue proved shockingly popular.  As such, the team assembled there has always had a place in the Marvel universe, popping back up time and again throughout Marvel history.  Most recently, they were the inspiration for the Agents of Atlas, a team of superheroes who pretended to be super villains to better take down the bad guys.  

As such Gorilla-Man’s never really gotten his due from most people but he remains an absolute favorite of mine as I was a big fan of the Agents of Atlas.  To me, he’s everything Monsieur Mallah should’ve been- fun and exciting and with a talent for high power ordinance.  He’s basically like if you put Rocket Raccoon and the Beast in a blender.

One of the genres from comics in the ‘50s I haven’t really touched on yet is children’s adventure stories.  These are less cowboys and pirates and more about kids fighting monsters or cartoon characters or, most commonly, talking/intelligent animals.  The biggest name in this genre at the time was Rex, the Wonder Dog, whose so popular I’m pretty sure his title is still a thing buried in our collective pop cultural unconscious.  Given that this was comics in the ‘50s, Rex was eventually saddled with a roster of fellow talking animals, chief among them being the Detective Chimp- an intelligent Chimp who could speak and solve mysteries. 

Detective Chimp seems like exactly the character I should like but have never really gravitated towards, mainly because people seem unsure of how precisely to handle him.  His ‘50s appearances are mostly lost to modernity, with most of his time in comics spent in the 2000s book Shadowpact, about a ragtag team of mystical superheroes.  He’s sort of the grouchy old man of the group, a former drunk who’s gotten back on the wagon.  He’s pretty fun in this form, but the format of a superhero comic doesn’t really allow for a lot of detective work, the one thing that’s his claim to fame.  

He also appeared on Batman: The Brave and the Bold as an upper crust English type detective, sort of a Sherlock Chimp if you will.  Neither version really stuck and he’s ended up a casualty of the New 52 relaunch as a result.  Maybe eventually someone will figure out a way to make Detective Chimp compelling or at the very least give him a comic that just focuses on having a talking ape do the whole “brilliant jerk” thing from all those cable shows. 

Making this article, there was one name that jumped right to the top spot without even needing to think about it- Grodd.  I’m not exactly sure how prominent Gorilla Grodd is in the popular consciousness, but in comic books, he’s one of the premiere supervillains of the DC universe.  Flash villains overall a weirdly mixed bag, with quite a few characters that persisted only because of their unique abilities, but Gorilla Grodd towers above all the rest. 

Introduced in 1959, Grodd has appeared in countless comics and adaptations, fighting various superheroes well beyond his original archenemy of the Flash.  He’s a psychic ape from a whole city of super-intelligent gorillas that’s wormed his way into the heart of comic book fans the world over.  

I think that really comes down to the fact Grodd is one of the most perfect super villain concepts.  He’s most similar to Dr. Doom in his conception in that he’s a villain with a little of everything and a lot of egomania and bombast.  Like Doom, he’s one of the only bad guys who will refer to himself in the third person, which is not an easy feat to pull off.  More than that, he’s a science bad guy and dictator from a hidden city, which matches him up with 2 of Dr. Doom’s vaunted titles.  

Admittedly, Grodd doesn’t do magic but his psychic powers are basically magic and even then, being a gorilla makes up for a lot in that regard.  He’s just such a blast to have around because he’s so many ideas crammed together like they just wouldn’t say no in this pitch meeting and got the best super villain as a result.

Gorilla Grodd may be the most popular ape in the comic pantheon, but if they have a king, it is most certainly Titano.  Created in 1959, an excellent year for apes in comics, Titano was an ordinary chimp that we launched into space because that’s just what we did back then.  However, poor Titano’s ship went through a strange radiation cloud and when he returned he grew to massive, King Kong esc proportions and gained the power to fire Kryptonite lasers from his eyes.  Despite only appearing in 2 Superman stories before 1986 Titano has become a kind of unofficial mascot of the Silver Age of comics.  A lot of that is owed to a more recent attempt to re-embrace the Silver Age of comics after fans spent decades trying to erase it from memory.  

That endeavor ended up damaging the career importance of Otto Binder, one of the most important comic authors of all time.  Though Binder didn’t technically create Superman, almost everything we think of about the man of steel or his mythos comes from this guy.  He created Brainiac, Supergirl, Krypto, the bottle city of Kandor, Bizarro, and Titano.  

As such, re-embracing Binder’s legacy has made Titano a lot more of a celebrity, though it doesn’t hurt that apes on comics have always sold comics, so Titano has always managed to return for any new DC continuity.  It seems like only a matter of time before he makes his way into Supergirl as well. 

One of the big reasons Marvel doesn’t have as many ape characters in its roster as DC is that DC actually had an editorial mandate about putting apes in their comics.  Marvel still had some apes in their backlog, however, mostly coming from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when the Marvel universe was really finding itself.  

However, most Marvel stuff from that era as faded away with time, the fact Gorilla-Man persisted at all was an incredibly lucky accident.  The one other exception to this is the Super-Apes, the henchmen of Fantastic Four foe and villainous Russian the Red Ghost. 

Introduced in 1963 the Red Ghost was a Soviet super scientist and astronaut with the power to phase through solid matter.  He fought the Fantastic Four on several occasions as part of the ongoing clash between most Marvel heroes and global communism, though in this case that battle was relegated to outer space.  

The Super-Apes were initially the Red Ghost’s support crew in his space vessel when all four of them were exposed to cosmic rays, and their lives were changed forever in the most fantastic way.  The Super-Gorilla, named Mikhlo, gained super strength, the baboon Igor could shapeshift, and Peotr the Orangutan was able to control gravity. 

So basically this was a team of 1 Soviet Cosmonaut and 3 Apeonauts who underwent the Fantastic Four’s origin and now work for the Russians against America.  It’s a completely gonzo, go for broke, style of idea that doesn’t make any sense but is absolutely great.  I especially love that the each of the Apes is a different breed rather than just all being chimps or gorillas.  

That makes Igor and Peotr unique on this list as they’re the only examples of a baboon or orangutan with super powers in comics, unless you count Congorilla as he may be part orangutan.  All of the apes also got enhanced intelligence as well and became Red Ghost’s lab assistants in earnest afterward.  So yeah, soviet super ape scientists- that seems like a good place to end things, I don’t think we’re going to top that. 

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