Kong: Skull Island is finally arriving this week (get your tickets here)! We're celebrating with a week of articles in honor of cinema's most famous ape.
On December 13, 1958, Gordo, a South American squirrel monkey, was placed inside a PGM-19 Jupiter rocket and launched into space from Cape Canaveral. The rocket traveled 1,500 miles at a height of 310 miles before landing in the South Atlantic Ocean. To say “land” is a pretty big lie. The capsule’s parachute never released, and Gordo crashed into the ocean at an insane speed. Gordo and the capsule were never found.
Around the same time, writer Otto Binder and artist Wayne Boring introduced the comic reading world to a giant chimpanzee with kryptonite vision. On the cover of Superman issue 127, we are told, with no room for leeway, that this ape is “Titano! More fantastic than King Kong!”
Binder, the 11th child of Austrian immigrants, loved science fiction from the start. He and his brother Earl wrote stories together, and by the time Otto was 19, they had their first sale, a story called “The First Martian” published in Amazing Stories. As the years passed, Otto worked on some of the biggest comic heroes around, including Fawcett’s Marvel Family. It was when he landed at DC Comics that Otto made his most important contribution to comics - The Legion of Superheroes.
Working on the Superman books let Otto play with his greatest loves; aliens and robots. Otto’s love for science fiction led to his interest in real science, though he didn’t mind mixing the two - Otto was an early supporter of the ancient alien theory and had even come up with his own concept that humans were a hybrid of aliens and Neanderthals. He dug weird science stuff is what I’m getting at.
Along with aliens and robots, Otto was a fan of animals. He co-created Krypto the Super Dog, Beppo the Super Monkey, and, of course, Titano. The origins of Titano are pretty much lost to the ages, but there are two bits in history that stand out as strong contenders for Otto’s inspiration.
From June 1948 to Gordo, NASA sent nine apes into space, killing most of them. An avid science nerd, it would be hard to imagine Otto didn’t know about this. Also an avid sci-fi nerd, it’s hard to imagine that Otto wasn’t a fan of King Kong (also, Kong is mentioned on the cover and all). Otto took these two things, the real life journeys of the apes, and the worldwide love of King Kong, and pushed them together, creating the tragic tale of Titano.
Titano started off as a regular chimp, living a regular chimp life. When the space program tossed the little guy into a rocket and blasted him off into space, they figured they were just doing their annual “send a monkey to space and watch it die” routine. Instead, Titano’s ship crossed through an exploding uranium meteor, dousing him in cosmic radiation (Could this be the same cosmic radiation that would give the Fantastic Four their powers? No. Fantastic Four is Marvel. You should know better). The radiation filled Titano’s cells with super energy, and shortly after returning to Earth, the ape grew to an enormous size!
Oh, and for some reason, it also gave him kryptonite vision. Not really clear on how that happened.
Suddenly huge, the confused Titano does what any ape would do, he goes on a rampage, starting with taking Lois Lane as his hostage/lover. Superman finds that he can’t do much to stop Titano, what with the kryptonite vision and all. The gang comes up with a plan to trap Titano in a giant cage, which works out pretty well right up to the moment when the army decides to electrocute Titano to death, something Lois really isn’t excited about. Superman, wanting to make Lois think he has feelings, claims that he could get rid of Titano without killing him if it weren’t for that pesky kryptonite vision, which is when Lois comes up with her plan.
A pair of giant lead glasses are made, and Lois tricks Titano into putting them on, blocking his kryptonite vision and letting Superman stop Titano without killing him. Clearly, Superman didn’t think he would actually be called out on his claim, so he has to think quick; the choice is made, and Superman sends Titano back in time.
Titano proved to be pretty popular with readers, and a year later, he came back, all due to Superman being a dummy. Hanging out one day, Supes decides to check in on Titano using his time viewer that lets him see the past. I suppose Supes didn’t read the time viewer manual because it also works as a teleporter and Titano gets snatched up and returned to current day. Titano goes on another rampage, finding Lois along the way. Superman tricks Titano back into the past by creating a trail of giant coconuts.
We next saw Titano in a Krypto the Super Dog story. Krypto, it seems, likes to hide his bones in the prehistoric era and he’s pretty sure Titano messed with one of them. All pissed off, Krypto goes back in time to confront Titano, but the two super animals end up becoming friends and fight off an alien invasion, saving the dinosaurs from the extraterrestrials. Otto didn’t write this one, but I bet he would like some of his ancient alien beliefs getting in there!
Tired of the usual Titano stories, Batman co-creator Bill Finger decided to introduce us to Bizarro Titano. In the Bizarro World, Bizarro Lois has become the worst wrestler of all time, but her losing streak is a serious problem for the reverse people of Bizarro World where losing is celebrated, but if you lose too often, you are a winner! I know… it doesn’t make sense, but that’s what Bizarro World was all about. Fearing that Bizarro Lois will be exiled from Bizarro World, Bizarro Superman creates Bizarro Titano to fight her. When Bizarro Titano runs out of the wrestling ring forfeiting the match, Lois is named the winner and is allowed to stay on Bizarro World because she has been disgraced.
Titano, and Bizarro Titano kept showing up from time to time, but when DC Comics wanted to shed it’s more goofy characters during Crisis on Infinite Earths, the poor chimp was wiped out of continuity. This being comics, where nothing ever dies, the concept came back pretty quickly.
The first post-Crisis Titano was a chimp who was experimented on by an evil scientist working for the US government. This time, instead of kryptonite vision, Titano was just supersized and super strong, making him easier for Superman to deal with, but it was Lois, who had a connection with Titano before he grew, who saved the day. With Titano calmed down, they try to reverse the process and return the chimp to his normal self. The experiment does make Titano a regular chimp, but it also weakens him. Titano dies in Lois’ arms, which is a real bummer.
Lois writes a story about Titano and his death titled “Tears for Titano” and for some insane reason, a pizza chain decides to make Titano the tortured and dead chimp into their mascot, this one being just a guy in a monkey suit. The Titano mascot is replaced by Jimmy Olson in his Turtle Boy costume. This pizza chain makes terrible decisions.
A third Titano (fourth if we count the mascot) was created by the Kryptonite Man. This one was closer to the original with the supersize and kryptonite vision. This time, it’s Jimmy who Titano takes a liking to, and the giant chimp is taken to S.T.A.R. Labs to be cared for while they try to find a safe way to reverse what the Kryptonite Man had done.
In the future, one million months into the future to be exact, there is a Titano who acts as the protector of the Gorilla Galaxy. This Titano is a direct descendant of Solovar, king of Gorilla City and good friend of Flash.
As with so many comic creators, Otto Binder’s life ended with a series of tragedies. In 1960, he invested every penny he had into a new magazine, Space World. It lasted 16 issues, bankrupting Otto and forcing him back to the work-for-hire life of comics. In 1967, his 14-year-old daughter Mary was killed when a driver jumped the curb and ran her down. After Mary’s death, Otto’s wife fell apart, suffering a nervous breakdown. Otto took to drinking, a pastime he continued until his death in 1974.
Chances are we’ll see Titano again sooner or later. The creators at DC love to play with the old ideas, sometimes building on them, sometimes messing them up (see the New 52 version of Titano who I refused to write about). Crazy ape stories are a staple of comics, and with so much renewed interest in Gorilla Grodd thanks to The Flash and Kong: Skull Island opening this weekend, I don’t see that going away anytime soon.
In the meantime, we fans of giant apes can take solace in the theater and hope that this new take on King Kong gives us all the giant ape action we can hope for.