I am strongly invested in the Planet of the Apes franchise. Ever since I was a young boy, watching the original films syndicated out across a week of TV slots, I’ve been fascinated by the strange, topsy turvy world where apes rule men. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that the franchise doesn’t diminish over the years but only gets better; the weird political statements - ever changing, totally malleable - get more exciting every time I watch the movies. And each of the five films has a completely different flavor, a unique burst of imagination.
One of my problems with ancillary Planet of the Apes stories so far has been that they don’t show that burst of imagination. Too many Apes tie-in comics have been simply more of the same stories that pick a movie and imitate it. Not only is that boring, it’s not true to the spirit of the franchise.
Boom! Studio’s new comic, Planet of the Apes, is the best Apes-related tie-in property ever. And it's a thrilling scifi adventure in its own right. Writer Daryl Gregory has picked a unique era of Apes history - the immediate aftermath of the death of the Lawgiver - and is spinning a story with dramatic heft, emotional resonance, political subtext and just enough continuity fanwank to appease geeks like me.
For those unfamiliar: The Lawgiver is an orangutan who is sort of the Moses/Christ figure for the apes. He is NOT the ape who led his people to freedom - that would be Caesar, star of the fourth and fifth films (and the reboot) - but he is the ape who codified ape law and belief. By the time of the first film, the Lawgiver is a long-dead figure, a statue whose writings warn against allowing humans to roam free. But at the end of Battle for the Planet of the Apes the Lawgiver appears as an epilogue, preaching a message of tolerance and coexistence. Everything he says in this brief bit seems to contradict everything he’s quoted as saying in the first films.
The Planet of the Apes movies weren’t wildly concerned with continuity, just with being entertaining, and so there are plenty of holes like that in them. Some fans think that the difference between the Lawgiver of the Sacred Scrolls and the Lawgiver of Battle is based on the time travel events of Escape From The Planet of the Apes; the end of Battle is meant to show us that the future has been changed, and that there’s hope for Earth yet.
That’s not very Planet of the Apes though, is it? Gregory posits something more in line with our understanding of the evolution of scripture, that other hands monkeyed with The Lawgiver’s words in an attempt to gain political traction. It’s a simple, elegant solution that echoes everything we know about the changing nature of the New Testament and the way the continuing revelation of the Mormon faith works - ie, it’s a bunch of guys gaming the system, having God tell them what they need to hear.
The series opens with the assassination of The Lawgiver by a human; from there the already fraying relationships between humans and apes go right to hell. Humans live in a slum known as Skintown, while the apes live in a larger, industrialized city with a massive skyscraper in the center. It’s a much more advanced ape civilization than what we see in Planet of the Apes, and I suspect that Gregory is telling the story of its downfall.
Artist Carlos Magno seems to take some design cues from Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake; gone are the traditional color-coded ape outfit and in their place are sweeping gowns and ridged armor. Some of the ape faces even remind me of Rick Baker’s make-up work on that film. While these design choices troubled me a bit, it’s quickly apparent that the only real influence Burton has on this comic is visual. And you’d have to be a serious stickler to demand that the apes dress the same way for thousands of years; if anything the fact that the apes in the first two films dress like Caesar’s colony is now more evocative and indicates a farther fall.
Boom!’s book focuses on sisters - one ape, one human. They were both adopted daughters of The Lawgiver, who was trying to create human/ape harmony. In the wake of his death the human daughter finds herself leading the slowly revolting human population while the ape daughter discovers a penchant for fascism in her attempt to maintain peace and order. Over the course of the first three volumes the conflict comes to a head, aided by a mysterious holy man who worships a familiar missile-shaped icon...
Those first three volumes make for a fairly complete story, with an opening for future tales. If there’s any problem with Boom!’s book is that it’s too fast paced; Gregory creates a lot of characters and doesn’t have the time to fully flesh them out. There are a number of minor characters who seem interesting who just sort of fly through the story; the joy of a comic book story should be a pace that services the characters and the story. I’m not arguing for a decompressed version of this story, simply one that breathes a little bit more. And that’s a positive complaint: I like these characters so much that I want to spend more time with them, getting to know them.
Magno’s art is often terrific, but every now and again he falls into storytelling traps where a cool pose outweighs clarity of action. There’s a fight on board a blimp (seriously, it’s a very cool set piece) where I couldn’t quite tell what was happening to who, but usually he’s great at creating detailed panels that add depth to the world. He’s also excellent at differentiating the apes, no easy task, even in a live action Apes film.
By the end of the first arc I was completely hooked. Gregory has planted his flag squarely in a fascinating era of Apes history and is exploring it respectfully but without being a slave to pre-conceived notions of what an Apes story is... just like every one of the five canon Apes films. In fact Gregory seems to really understand that a good Apes story must have strong characters, an edge of nihilistic darkness, a political subtext that doesn’t overwhelm the adventure and a sense of unhinged imagination.
Boom! has also published an annual for the series, which continues expanding the Apes world in exciting ways, like looking at what happened to wild, non-captive apes. It’s exciting to dip back into the classic Apes world and find new things, but it’s also exciting to read these books simply as a bold science fiction adventure story. You don’t need to have in-depth knowledge of Planet of the Apes to read the comic, which feels very much its own thing. The connections are there, but Gregory has created such a unique moment in Apes history, beholden to no movie, that it could easily be a completely original work if people didn’t keep talking about The Lawgiver.
But if you are a fan of the original Planet of the Apes, this is the new sequel you have been hoping for since the series ended. This is the story that finally covers the years between Caesar and Dr. Zaius and does it with verve and imagination. We've seen stories set in this time period, but this is the best one yet. This is the real deal.
I’m excited to see where it goes next. Gregory and Magno have laid the groundwork for the next chapter of the saga, and it looks like they’re going epic. I'm on board, and you should be too.