Friday, March 6, 2009

Ape-Quest '09: "Quest for the Planet of the Apes" Edition!

You know what I love? Comic books. But not in a weird, creepy way that would sap my self-respect, lead to possible blindness and cause the comic book's icky destruction. I'm talking the wholesome, American kind of love of a mother for her child, a boy for his dog, a baseball player for his steroid needle. And there are few comic books I love more than Marvel's old b & w Curtis Planet of the Apes magazines, especially the ones with artwork by that most beloved Apes artist of all, Alfredo Alcala.

Actually, the more than adequate Rico Rival drew part one of the story we're about to dissect. However, the beyond awesome Alcala did draw part two. We'll be getting to him in the next installment.

I own a ton of these crazy magazines. Oh the glories of discovering EBay and finding out I could own again the oversized, phantasmagorical stories that frequently caused me to sleep with the light on as a child. I bought them (about 15 or so, including multiples of #1) back in the late 90s before Timothy Burton's brain-dead reimagining and the comics grading services drove the prices sky high, like ol' Colonel Taylor's arrow-shaped spaceship. I'm still waiting for them to pass through a Hasslein Curve and re-emerge into normal space at a price point I can afford.

I'll just forget #29. That one suffered from limited distribution and due to the laws of scarcity commands obscene prices these days. However, if you want to send one to me because you're a nice person, just email me for my address. I do accept gifts. I do indeed!

Anyway, once again, Rico Rival drew this. At some point in the 70s, American comics editors looked to the Philippines and discovered the Filipino comic artists had created some sort of time-space vortex with their pencils and subsequently were capable of drawing entire books in a matter of moments, coalescing them out of nowhere like a scene from Koyaanisquatsi, if Godfrey Reggio turned his time-lapse camera on funny books. Guys like Rival, Alcala, Nestor Redondo and others regularly cruised past the Kirby Barrier, laughing all the while. All they were lacking was Philip Glass to provide the soundtrack.

And Doug Moench wrote the script. Moench wrote all the Marvel Apes stories, and if you ask me, he exceeded his mandate. To Kurtzian levels. He went to mad in the jungle and Marvel should've sent Archie Goodwin upriver on a steamboat to bring him back and be held accountable. His methods were unsound. Imagine being an 8-year-old and expecting Roddy McDowall in an ape mask and instead getting buckskin-clad mountain-man type chimps fighting giant, mutated frogs, disembodied brains that talked like 30s gangsters, magical future hippies, an all-gorilla branch of the Ku Klux Klan and city-ships plying dead seas, their banks of oars manned by human slaves. Kids were mentally scarred for life reading these unholy things.

Oh, I kid Moench. I kid because I love. Doug Moench brilliantly took the basic Apes premise and expanded it in ways startling and lurid, occasionally, downright ridiculous. The latter is best exemplified by the bionic apes Moench introduced as sales flagged and the magazine slowly died. Yeah, that's not nearly as ludicrous as the story about the guy who's so obsessed with rescuing Taylor he hypnotizes himself into the future and ends up becoming a knight on a special island where apes and humans have recreated Camelot...

The Sir Thomas Malory Camelot, not the JFK one. Although it'd be really cool to see chimps in gray suits with razor-thin ties discussing what to do about the Cubans erecting missile launchers and Soviet ships bringing in the nuclear missiles for them to vaporize anti-Casto hotspot Miami.

When Moench wasn't alternately frightening children (me) into wetting their (my) pants or inverting Mark Twain, he was adapting the 20th Century Fox film series. He managed to serialize all 5 films, but the most interesting oddity has to be Quest for the Planet of the Apes, where he takes characters from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes and provides an interim tale that fills in some of the story gaps between the movies. Even if some of his ideas were a little oddball and outside of the film series' continuity. Let's take a look at the splash page...

Ho hum. Just another boring day of abusing the elderly, loin cloth-wearing human denizens of Ape City. That's General Aldo- that most vicious of ape soldiers- played in the movies by Sheriff Lobo himself, classic character actor/heavy Claude Akins. Aldo took leadership classes taught by Naomi Campbell at the Leona Helmsley Institute for Labor Management Theory. Graduated at the top of his class.

To Aldo, the problem isn't so much the quality of the humans' labor as it is the speed at which they work:

You want it done fast, or do you want it done right? Aldo prefers fast. Maybe if Aldo relied on a younger labor pool, things would get done to his satisfaction. But in a world where nuclear weapons have erased most of modern civilization, able-bodied employees are difficult to find. And also proper business attire. Unless this is Casual Friday. Very Casual Friday. Things have degenerated from slobs who think it's funny to wear Hawaiian shirts to creaky old bastards in soiled diapers.

Luckily for Grandpa Loincloth (of the South Bend Loincloths), upper management drops by to check on progress:

Moench was working from the original scripts, rather than from the films themselves. According to the film version of Battle, Governor Breck was long since dead, killed during WWIII. So Don Murray was spared the indignity of having to grow a grizzled beard and wearing a loin cloth to recreate his villainous role. The original MacDonald also vanished, replaced by his brother, also called MacDonald. Both MacDonalds were interchangeably sympathetic to the apes' plight. This is the first one:

I also have to point out that in Battle, the humans didn't wear leather diapers. They actually wore normal clothing, kind of a mix of Land's End and Outdoor Outfitters. Khakis, earth tones, but recognizably modern in a 1970s kinda way. Not even the homespun stuff they wore in the Apes TV series. In Rico Rival's imaginative take, they're outfitted by Botany 5000BC. Rae Dawn Chong flashed less skin in Quest for Fire.

It's not a 1970s comic without tons of navel-gazing characterization expressed in some awkward, on-the-nose dialogue that sounds like nothing a human being or talking ape would ever say:

Oh, come on! "So I noticed, dear, from all your tossing and turning -- but did you have to light a candle to stress the point?" At this point in the story, Lisa had only been speaking for a couple of years or so. Evidently, she learned how to do this from watching episodes of Dragnet 1967. I think she would've referenced Caesar's cow mouth and whore's heart, but really it's Moench's call. I'm sure he steeped himself in Apes lore, watching the films endlessly until he internalized Lisa's personality and motivations so much so that in his imagination he actually became her while writing this moment, and I'm totally full of shit.

"I almost wish I'd never even led that revolt!" Here Caesar shows his emo side, moaning his discontent to his wife the way a generation of kids on an alternate earth would someday whine in frighteningly narcissistic and solipsistic video blogs on YouTube. Yeah, your people would've been much better off staying under humanity's yoke. Remember when Governor Breck's assistant Kolp strapped you to the torture table and electrocuted you? You were pretty cocky then, weren't you, Caesar? Ready to shake the earth, eh?

"I almost wish I'd never even met you!" "I almost wish I'd never even loaned Brad the keys to my car!" "I almost wish I'd never even drank that last beer and driven over the neighbor's dog!"

As you can no doubt guess, someone tries to blame the humans for firebombing Caesar's tree house. Humans get blamed for everything. Who polluted the earth? Humans. Who initiated the thermonuclear war that destroyed civilization? Humans. Who produced the film Patch Adams? Humans.

Here Moench sets up the Caesar-Aldo rivalry Roddy McDowall and Claude Akins would so ably limn in the movie. Aldo thinks a warlike gorilla should be the boss; Caesar thinks a mopey, insomniac, finger-pointing chimp would do a better job. Thankfully, we here in America have a representational democracy and never have to worry about the lesser of two evils being foisted on us by events beyond our control.

Aldo's solution is for both apes to test themselves:

A veritable quest. A literal quest. Hence the story's title. There's nothing for master politician Caesar to do but pose heroically and pretend it was his idea all along:

Here's where things become epic. The cool thing about comics is, there's no need to budget for special effects or locations. It's just as cheap to draw Caesar on location in a destroyed metropolis that stretches from irradiated horizon to irradiated horizon as it is to stick him on the old Fox Ranch in front of some shabby treehouses. Moench could've typed, "Caesar builds a rocketship shaped like a mechanical spider and makes a speech via television from his magical toy store on the dark side of the moon," and Rival would've drawn it exactly as described at virtually no cost whatsoever to Marvel. So when Moench calls for a scene were Caesar surveys the collossal wreck of humanity's aspirations, Rival rises to the challenge with a huge panoramic panel:

Yeah... uh... nevermind that in the film Battle, set years after this, Caesar would disavow all knowledge of these ruins and his first glimpse of them there is just as shocking to him as shown on this page.

Another thing Rival could do the film series couldn't match is give his apes actual facial expressions. McDowall and his original co-star Kim "Zira" Hunter discovered that, in order to create the illusion of ape faces rather than masks, they had to contort their own faces almost constantly and overplay their emotions. This kept the masks in motion. And they did a wonderful job under the constraints of relatively primitive prosthetics. Rival, unhandicapped by make-up technologies, gives his apes wild eyes and wide, screaming mouths.

He's also free to give them subtler expressions, such as the second panel here where Aldo looks dopey:

Aldo finds an armory, conveniently labeled "Armory," (although I doubt he can read) and decides to take a proactive stance vis-a-vis the question of Ape City leadership:

Startled, Caesar scampers away. Here's a panel with a mysterious, poignant character note:

Aldo repeats himself. The lonely gorilla, with his clumsy, powerful body, talks to himself like a small child. Actually, repetition was a hallmark of his speech-making style in Battle: "We need guns! Guns mean power! We need guns! Guns mean power!" And so on and so forth. Aldo believes if you take a simple, strong idea and create a catchy aphorism for it, it will catch on fire!

Caesar manages to make it back to Ape City. When he realizes he's empty-handed, he tries to come up with some half-assed rhetoric: "I didn't find anything materially useful... but I do have this lesson for you. It goes a little like thi-"

Fortunately for everyone, Aldo arrives with his cart load of rifles. He's like the NRA Santa Claus, and shuts up verbose gasbag Caesar just as the chimp is about to begin spewing a lot of empty promises about "change" and "hope" and "the future:"

The future belongs to Aldo, baby! Bring on the guns! Up with apes, down with people! I believe gorillas are our future/Give them lots of guns and let them lead the way/Show them all the beauty they possess insiiiiide...

Oops... I mean- Hi, Governor Breck! So nice of you to join us! Go humans! Woo! Humanity rocks!

If you're a Planet of the Apes maniac (like me), you'll understand quite quickly Quest is essentially a distaff rewrite of Battle for the Planet of the Apes. It hits a lot of the same story beats- Aldo hates humans, Caesar and Aldo have an uneasy relationship, Caesar visits a destroyed city, the humans attack with guns, Caesar and Aldo climb a tree and fight each other. When it's not rehashing the movie, it adequately foreshadows certain events as you'll see in our next fabulous Quest deconstruction. It also fills a certain hunger I have- the hunger to read original stories featuring the film characters.

We've had a few Apes and Apes-related series through the years, most recently devoted to that atrocious Burton... thing. But what I really want- indeed, what the world as a whole demands- are new comics directly tied into the original movies and their concepts and characters. I want more Cornelius and Zira, more General Ursus and Dr. Zaius. More Breck, Mendez, Alma and their fun-loving band of goggles-wearing mutants. There are so many areas of the Apes' world that haven't been explored. The Curtis magazine gave us a taste... I want a feast!

Failing that, I'd settle for someone doing an "Essential" style reprint of this material. Moench's original serial, Terror on the Planet of the Apes, has ample weirdness to recommend it for reprinting...

Malibu/Adventure tried back in the 90s. They produced some original sequel storylines and put out a few issues reprinting Terror before panicking and going apeshit with a lot of stupid ideas like time-travelling black ops soldiers landing in the future to try to kill as many apes as possible. Yuck. That's one that Doug Moench would've crumpled up and tossed in the trash. And don't get me started on the horrors of Ape Nation, where some geniuses meshed Apes with the Alien Nation film and TV series:

"You got your jalapeno peppers in my chocolate!"

"No, you got your chocolate on my jalapeno peppers!"

I don't know who owns the rights to this material now. But I'd like to suggest I do. Dark Horse has reprinted Marvel's old Savage Sword of Conan B&W material now... why not some of this Apes stuff? It's just too insane not to be seen!


Adrian Cruden said...

Well here was an unexpected treat! I got the UK version of the Marvel comics every week when I was a kid and today for some reason I remembered "Quest" and idly googled it. You article was a welcome surprise - so thank you and if you haven't already, I hope you do the concluding segement. I'll certainly tune in.

best wishes
Adrian Cruden

Joel Bryan said...

Thanks, Adrian! Glad you enjoyed it! You guys in the UK were lucky to get more Apes comics than we got here. Even if they were Killraven stories with cut-and-paste jobs!

I haven't written the second installment, but I've got a few days off coming up and you've inspired me... sooo...