Words and Pictures: Planet of the Apes and Elephantmen

Two comics based on an identical science fictional trope: humanoid animals walking, talking and fighting. Both pretty good, but doing radically different things with that basic idea.

Planet of the Apes, Vol 1: The Long War

written by Daryl Gregory, art by Carlos Magno, published by Boom! Studios

This new ongoing series is written by the (rather talented) speculative fiction author Daryl Gregory and drawn by Carlos Magno. I figured it might be worth a try, the whole apes-as-overlords thing being one of the most fun ideas in science fiction. Honestly, if you don’t get a little buzz out of gorillas riding horses and brandishing guns as they herd humans around … well, I don’t know if I can help you.

The story’s set 1300 years before Charlton Heston’s unscheduled arrival in the 1968 movie. Ape society is at its steampunky zenith, with humans making up a somewhat rebellious underclass. Things turn ugly when the Lawgiver, an ape champion of species equality, is mown down by a human assassin wielding lost ancient technology (specifically, a machine gun).

What follows is an entertaining, if not yet especially surprising, yarn as ape and human authorities hunt the assassin and the simmering pot of ape-human relations boils over. (Actually, one surprising thing, which you rarely see in any kind of fiction: the leading female human protagonist is heavily pregnant. Intriguing.)

The mystery of the assassin’s identity won’t puzzle readers for long, but it’s not really supposed to. This is less of a ‘Whodunnit?’ and more of a ‘Let’s get this revolution started!’ thing. It’s traditional, straightforward comics story-telling; a long form linear narrative, adeptly paced and splendidly illustrated (some gorgeous ape imagery here). Early days, but there’s enough potential to persuade me back for at least one more volume, to see how things develop.

Elephantmen, Vol 1-3: Wounded Animals, Fatal Diseases, Dangerous Liaisons

written by Richard Starkings (and others), art by Moritat (and others), published by Image

Ah, Elephantmen. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways … Actually, let me not. No time for that. I could also list quite a few things about it that I’m not so keen on, yet they oddly don’t put more than a minor dent in my affection for it.

Elephantmen is the creation of its main writer Richard Starkings, ably assisted by quite a few artists, some of whom – such as Ladrönn and especially Moritat – have gloriously atmospheric styles. It’s tough to summarise, but here goes: noirish science fiction set in a future where animal-human hybrid super-soldiers were created to fight a global war. After the war, these redundant military creations – the elephantmen – were given a home in the USA, where they became policemen, detectives, night club owners, tycoons etc.

Where PotA is all about linear narrative, Elephantmen is episodic, sometimes almost impressionistic, as it builds up a mosaic vision of the world and the characters that inhabit it. Where PotA sticks firmly to its sf remit, with a fantasy vibe in the background, Elephantmen flings genres around like confetti at a disorderly wedding. It rattles enthusiastically and effectively through military sf, noir detective, comedy, pulpy sf horror and others.

Sometimes it does very satisfying, fun things that would be difficult to replicate in any medium other than comics. For example: a savage, silent fight between a hippoman and crocodileman is captioned with apposite biblical quotations about Leviathan and Behemoth.

There are some promising ongoing plots ticking over in the margins of Elephantmen’s pulpy, pyrotechnic world-building, but it has to be said the glacial pace at which they advance is one of my reservations about the series. This is, to put it mildly, not the comic for anyone impatient for resolution. Recommended, for those who are not.

Now for two slightly tangential thoughts about these comics.

Thought the first: one of the unrepeatable strengths of the 1968 Planet of the Apes movie is the naive outsider motif. This is a familiar character in speculative fiction: the neophyte whose discovery of the rules and shape of an unfamiliar world or culture serves to introduce the reader to it all. Charlton Heston’s character splendidly fills the role in that first movie.

There is no equivalent to Charlton Heston in the new PotA comic. It’s not a technique that really works (or is needed) more than once, but Gregory’s telling a different kind of story anyway. Elephantmen, by contrast, does use a distantish relative of that outsider character, which you might call the innocent observer(s).

Much of the work done in building up a sense of the elephantmen and their history for the reader is done through the eyes of female characters, who are innocent in a specific way: they are unburdened by negative preconceptions about the elephantmen. They are able to see these hulking hybrids as more than killing machines, and to – literally, at times – hear their stories.

Thought the second: SF is famously adept at talking about real world issues by rendering them in speculative terms. These comics, like the original Apes movie, have ideas about social, racial and economic divides lurking in their DNA. In one, animals are the oppressors, in the other the oppressed (or, more accurately, the misused), but in neither is it that simple. Shades of grey appeal to me, so this is A Good Thing.

Perhaps the most compelling character in Elephantmen is Obadiah Horn, a rhinoman who has ruthlessly climbed the corporate ladder. Cruel and cold-hearted, but also oddly vulnerable and self-aware. It’s an appealing portrait, as are many others in the series.

In Planet of the Apes one of the most striking characters is, apparently, villainous: Nix, a savage gorilla warlord. But unless I’m misreading things I detect hints that, while in no way pleasant, he’s not quite the simple, unrestrained monster the reader might initially be led to believe.

So, there you are. Two comics doing their own things with a classic sf trope, and doing it with care. Hooray.