Tuesday, July 18, 2017

It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!

Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes.
Written by Tim Seeley & David Walker, with art by Fernando Dagnino & Sandra Molina.
Comic Book Review by Kerey McKenna.

Like a lot of moviegoers this past weekend, I went bananas for War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment of the rebooted Planet of the Apes series starring Andy Serkis as the leader of a tribe of sentient apes destined to take over the world and eclipse mankind.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this series of movies, the first installment being a sci-fi “mad science gone wrong” thriller and “animal revenge” porn and the last two installments a riff on post-apocalyptic survivalism, but with the narrative weight placed with non-humans as the ragtag group of survivors.

To honor the series I was going to review La Planète des Singes (Planet of the Monkeys), the French novel that inspired the original 1968 and 1970 Charlton Heston films, but...well that would just be a film to book comparison and I don’t think there is anything in the book that wasn’t done in those movies or even the Tim Burton-helmed remake.

But do you know who hasn’t made it into any of the Planet of the Apes movies?...TARZAN!

Yeah, Tarzan! If apes rule the planet...could Tarzan do one better and rule the apes?

This is one of those bonkers inter-continuity mash-ups that happen when comic book rights fall into the same publishing house and the writers and artists feel compelled to make their new toys play together.

I say “mash-up,” rather than “crossover,” because to me, a crossover is a rather straightforward side effect of a shared universe—like when two or more Marvel superhero vigilantes meet each other in NYC—or narratives with enough shared ground they might as well exist in the same universe—like when NBC’s police procedural Law & Order, based in NYC, found itself tangled up in a case leading to Baltimore, the jurisdiction of Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Mash-up implies you are taking characters, settings, and/or genres that don’t seem like a natural fit, banging them together, and seeing what you get. Take for example the most recent King Kong movie, Kong: Skull Island, which took a giant monster movie and mashed it up with a Vietnam movie…and it worked!

But that’s a different ape and a different jungle. Getting back to Tarzan and Planet of the Apes...

Planet of the Apes posits that chimpanzees and the other non-human great apes might one day develop into their own society of urban dwelling intellectuals while humans revert to a feral state. Tarzan posits that a human removed from civilization would have to be feral and have to survive by wits as well as brawn, but the result would be something more than animal but different than “A Man.”

So how do we get Tarzan and the Apes together to settle the matter?

The jumping off point is the moment in the classic apes series when Charlton Heston’s character blows up the earth with a leftover doomsday weapon that was hidden Beneath the Planet of the Apes. That was Heston the actor using his clout in an attempt to ensure that there wouldn’t be any more of these silly movies. But the studio wanted more so they did the time warp and we got Escape from the Planet of the Apes. I will let the movie's original trailer speak for itself:

In our comic, instead of time traveling back to 1970’s America, two talking chimpanzees from the first movie, Cornelius and Zira, crash land their spaceship in Nineteenth Century Africa...arriving just in time to raise a human foundling child, Tarzan, as an adoptive brother to their own child Caesar.

While they’re in nurture mode, the chimpanzees from the future go about spreading their knowledge to the native apes: how to speak English, how to build really awesome tree forts. But the ascending apes soon come into conflict with colonialist invaders who want to capture them to use as slave labor. So we get some really awesome action scenes of Tarzan and Caesar fighting off great white hunters and slavers.

To embed Caesar and Tarzan in this war reveals parallels between the Tarzan narrative and the Planet narrative that go deeper than “they both have apes”. Both deal with the nature of “savagery” and “civilization,” and how little distance actually lies between the two. Our dual protagonists, Caesar and Tarzan, are both amalgams of savagery and civility. Their foes meanwhile, the human invaders, commit savage atrocities in the name of spreading “Civilization” to the wilderness.

Then things get really bizarre: the book embraces two of the strangest ideas of their respective franchises, the time travel of the Planet of the Apes movies and the Hollow Earth of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulp novels. Any continuing ruminations and capacities for savagery or nobility in apes and humans are continually eclipsed by ever more outlandish sci-fi pulp action set pieces.

We find the apes’ time-traveling ship has ripped holes in the space-time continuum, allowing strange creatures to escape from Hollow Earth. So now we get to see Tarzan and Caesar fight DINOSAURS. A battle that is the first for the Apes series but actually not unheard of in Tarzan’s adventures.

So instead of continuing with a conflict that speaks to a primal theme in both works, we get this scene of savage pulp action. Not content to pick one conflict or central idea, the book keeps digging even further into the lore of both Edgar Rice Burroughs and the original Apes movies with time travel paradoxes and trips to the hollow earth and killer telepathic mutants. Two kinds of telepathic mutants to be specific, one type from each franchise. The book gets so cluttered that by its third act it is introducing new fantastical factions and locations faster than anything really gets a chance to make an impact.

By the end, the whole thing is a big pulpy mess...like a juice bar run by a dozen chimps. But on the one hand, that does sound kind of fun; there are times this book is definitely a fun read. And I can’t say with a straight face that the creators should have shown narrative restraint in such an august project as Tarzan on The Planet of the Apes. The creative team can be accused of excess but never of negligence. Even though the ever escalating action is narratively and thematically jumbled, the artwork is well-crafted and the action scenes strike a balance between a lot happening and keeping track of the action and characters.

The writers, while stronger in the earlier chapters of the series, do try valiantly to weave all this chaos back into the theme of “civilization vs. savagery.” But I think they had too many rings running in the circus to coherently make the point.

If you can appreciate the fun of trying to team these two series up, and you consider yourself a fan of the jungle pop genre or a completist for either franchise, then this might be worth a look. Tarzan fans can tell you about the times Tarzan fought Nazis; Apes fans can tell you about the time the Apes were defeated by a hip hop star from Boston. These are fan bases that are used to the bizarre. But even for them, I can promise that this series will stand out as something unique.

I can also promise that this isn’t the worst Planet of the Apes cash-in imaginable.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

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