New Planet Of The Apes Comic Off To A BOOMing Start

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Covers, in order: Cover A, cover B, cover C, second printing, unpublished cover art

Comic books have gone hand in hand with science fiction since folks believed we’d be zipping around by now in flying cars, taking lunar vacations, dining on synthetic foods and having our automated homes cleaned by robot butlers. The comic medium offers a landscape for writers to expand upon the characters, settings and situations of filmic mythos, unconstrained by effects budgets, running times, actors’ salaries or Hollywood’s need to produce blockbusters abundant with spectacle but short on characterization.

Fans of Planet of the Apes know this well, as numerous publishers have produced spinoff tales over the past four decades. Opinions vary as to which series was the most worthy, though some titles (such as Marvel’s trippy 1970s magazine and Mr. Comics’ more recent Revolution on the Planet of the Apes miniseries) tend to fare better among reviewers than others (Malibu’s ’90s run, for instance, spanned almost twice as many issues as Marvel’s but has received harsher criticism, despite producing several excellent tales).

Now, BOOM! Studios is the latest publisher to enter the arena, with a monthly comic from writer Daryl Gregory and artist Carlos Magno, edited by Ian Brill. Set in the year 2680-some 1,300 years before George Taylor’s discovery of an ape-controlled future in the first Apes film, a decade after the Lawgiver epilog of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and more than 600 years after the time of Caesar-issue #1 launches a 12-issue story arc titled “The Long War.” Pending sales numbers, the series is expected to continue beyond that storyline as an ongoing monthly. For fans of Planet of the Apes, science fiction and comics, it’s an investment well worth making.

SYNOPSIS:
When the Lawgiver is gunned down by a masked, machine-gun-toting human assassin, his grieving granddaughter, Alaya, vows to find the culprit. To that end, she sends a representative to the human village of Southtown (or “Skintown”), to summon the local leader, Sullivan (“Sully”), to discuss the crime. Alaya visits Bardan, a gorilla scientist and the Lawgiver’s dearest friend, who has autopsied her grandfather. The murder weapon, he says, must be of human design. Sully rides out to the citystate of Mak to meet with Alaya. The human and chimp, both orphans, were raised by the Lawgiver as sisters, though their relationship is strained since Alaya no longer trusts mankind. Skintown is a shelter for radicals and war criminals, Alaya says, and she gives her adopted sister two days to find those responsible, or else the human village will be violently raided by the ape military.

THE GOOD:
There’s much to applaud in this premiere issue. Although little happens plot-wise (the issue basically sets the stage for the characters and the larger drama they will act out), it’s clear that novelist Daryl Gregory has a grand production planned. Many film elements are present, or tantalizingly hinted at: simian dominance (though humans and apes both occupy the societal ladder, the latter clearly hold the higher rung), mankind’s loss of speech (some humans, dubbed Silents, can no longer communicate verbally), religious mutants (a white-robed clergyman, Brother Kale, has a secret weapons cache in his mission and worships the Alpha-Omega Bomb) and the devastation of the land (industrialization in Mak is poisoning the forests, air and waters). What’s more, the Lawgiver’s murder and the presence of an ape-first coalition called Caesarists could, via simian revisionism, underscore the change from the Lawgiver’s tolerant persona exhibited in Battle to the decidedly anti-human teachings attributed to him in the first two films.

A great story demands strong characterization, and in that regard, Gregory excels. The uneasy rivalry between Sully, a human, and Alaya, a chimp, makes for fascinating reading. Both were raised by the Lawgiver, both were orphaned when their parents were slaughtered in a war known as the Eastern Campaigns, and both are strong leaders who care for the welfare of their respective peoples. But one single event-the death of the elderly ape whom they both called Grandfather-has damaged their sibling relationship, just as it has created an ape-human schism on a grander societal scale. Whether their sisterhood can survive this tragedy, or whether Alaya’s pain-fueled fury will drive too insurmountable a wedge between them, remains to be seen.

Even the minor characters fare well, offering a large cast of players who will hopefully get more screen time in future installments: Bako, Sully’s loyal assistant, who barely controls his anger over simian bigotry; Chaika, a Skintown Silent who communicates through written words and illustrations; Hulss, a stooped representative of the ape aristocracy; Narise, the leader of the Caesarists, who has deemed the Lawgiver and Alaya human-lovers; Vandy, an elderly human servant to the Lawgiver, whose condolences Alaya spurns out of grief-driven bigotry; Nix, a grey-haired gorilla warrior who may have killed Alaya’s parents; Casimir, a deformed, one-armed human laborer facing difficulty in finding work to feed his family; Brother Kale and the mysterious assassin whom he has armed; and particularly Bardan, the gorilla scientist.

Gorillas have almost unilaterally been portrayed as soldiers and warriors in nearly every incarnation of Planet of the Apes lore, aside from a few exceptions in the Marvel and Malibu runs, so Bardan, described as playing “many roles, librarian, archeologist, physician, detective,” could emerge as one of the better creations of the BOOM! line. He provides the issue’s humor, trailing off on tangents while speaking, and claiming, in regard to mankind’s past fixation with guns, that “500 years ago, every human owned one. On his sixteenth birthday, a boy would be given an automobile and an assault rifle.” This style of humor fits nicely with both the films and the TV series, in which tongue-in-cheek observations of human society and behavior abound.

THE NOT-QUITE-AS-GOOD:
There’s always a downside, and in the case of BOOM!’s POTA series, the main problem is the artwork. Though visually striking, and clearly the work of a skilled illustrator, the interior aesthetic seems a bit off for a Planet of the Apes story. I realize the creators purposely presented something new and unique, and that’s laudable, but it’s difficult to reconcile Alaya’s elaborate, theatrical garb, the Renaissance attire of Mak’s inhabitants, or the presence of dirigible airships with the primitive, agrarian ape society seen on film. Granted, neither Skintown nor Mak are Ape City, and this is an era separated from the films by many centuries, so certain allowances can be made for the difference in appearance, but the effect is still jarring. (On the plus side, the humans’ garments fit well with how the human peasants dressed on the TV series, and the dirigibles are at least in keeping with similar airships appearing in the Marvel run.)

The bigger problem lies in how chimpanzees are drawn, particularly Alaya. The chimps sport extremely human-like facial features, especially with regard to eyes and noses, yet gorillas and orangutans resemble their film counterparts. Compounding the issue, Alaya wears a low-cut dress showing that she lacks any hair on her neck, shoulders and chest. Evolved or not, she is still a chimpanzee, and should thus have a body covered in hair; unfortunately, with all due respect to the talented Carlos Magno, the lack of body hair makes her come off as a masculine human female with sideburns. The way she’s drawn, Alaya more resembles Rick Baker’s makeup design from Tim Burton’s 2001 Apes remake than she does the classic John Chambers look for the original films-she’s far more Ari than she is Zira, and that’s not likely to sit well with fans. It’s a questionable art choice, and I can only hope that will change in future issues.

Moreover, “The Long War” contains several plot elements we’ve already seen. Marvel’s “Terror on the Planet of the Apes” involved an attempted murder of the Lawgiver, while “Future History Chronicles” opened with a human assassin killing a politician to spark a war; Mr. Comics’ Revolution on the Planet of the Apes showed how ape society changed for the worse following the assassination of a pro-peace Lawgiver; and Malibu introduced an anti-human faction called the Aldonites, analogous to the Caesarists. (Curiously, the Caesarists were named in honor of Caesar, while the Aldonites followed the teachings of Caesar’s enemy, Aldo, yet both groups espoused the same simian-centric stance.) Story similarities are far less of an issue than the art problems, however, as Gregory clearly knows how to forge a solid tale.

That said, the multiple-cover gimmick is overused in comics, intended to make über-fans purchase several copies of the same issue. Issue #1 was printed with four cover variants (plus a fifth design announced but unused). At a hefty price of $3.99, that equates to a whopping $16 for fans determined to track down every alternate cover for issue #1. Granted, it’s not a problem specific to BOOM! or Planet of the Apes, but it could be annoying for completist fans on a limited budget.

THE UNEXPECTEDLY COOL:
Nix, the gorilla butcher, is said to have “burned Delphi to the ground.” In 1974, Power Records released a POTA audio adventure titled Mountain of the Delphi, set in the ruins of former Philadelphia. It’s unknown if Gregory plans to elaborate on Nix’s attack on Delphi, or if the allusion to the Power Records tale is intentional-but if he does choose to tie the two stories together in a future issue, that would provide a wonderful Easter egg for Apes fans (an Easter ape, if you will).

THE BOTTOM LINE:
Despite art snafus, BOOM! Studios and Daryl Gregory are off to a strong start story-wise, and I’m excited to see what’s to come. The greatest obstacle this series could face, however, has nothing to do with quality, but rather the historic unlikelihood of POTA comics achieving long-term success. Gold Key adapted only the second film; Marvel’s run, though well-received, ran for only 29 issues; Malibu offered only 24 monthly issues, plus several miniseries and one-shots; Argentine publisher Editorial Mo.Pa.Sa. produced only seven issues based on the TV series; Brown Watson published only three hardcover annuals containing comic strips; Dark Horse’s title was prematurely cut short after only nine issues, due to the failure of Burton’s film; and Mr. Comics released only a single miniseries before dropping the license.

Each of these publishers’ work was enjoyable, yet none lasted for more than a few years-some far less. Will BOOM! succeed in finding a proper audience and outlive its predecessors? Hopefully, comic book readers will embrace it as fully as it deserves, as it’s been far too long since there’s been an ongoing Apes comic in stores, and I’d like to continue enjoying this one for years to come. My advice, paraphrasing Doctor Zaius: Look for it, Taylor-you may like what you find.

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