Review: Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes #1

When I was growing up, I had two great science fiction loves: pulp and 1960s sci-fi. I was obsessed with the words of Bradbury, Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick—these stories that felt injected with brave new ideas and strange worlds. This was a love that contrasted sharply against the crude simplicity of the pulp genre—the weird, tongue-in-cheek nature of the Green Hornet and his gun that melted other guns, the invincible brilliance of Doc Savage. They were contradictions that together I'd willingly live with. Planet of the Apes, however, was a totally different beast. It was a movie that managed to merge the far-flung traveler archetype of Edgar Rice Burroughs with a narrative that challenged the stability of our own society and highlighted the cyclical nature of violence and subjugation that every society inevitably creates. A movie that taught that long as there’s power to be held, the people with it will do whatever is necessary to keep it, even if those people are hyper-intelligent apes.

tarzan-on-the-planet-of-the-apes-1Despite the restrictions of its initial premise, the Planet of the Apes as a film series proved to be one of the weirdest and most flexible series in film. The series moved from the strange dystopia of the original, the mutant cult of the atomic bomb of the sequel and then to the time travel politics of the third.

So when this comic proposed a crossover between Planet of the Apes and Tarzan, it felt like one of the most natural things in the world. Tarzan is more-or-less exactly what the humans were in the original movie. They were half-naked pale dudes with long hair and bad English so contrast that archetype with the time travel at the end of the second film; it seems so easy for the two ape scientists, Zira and Cornelius, to crash land in Tarzan’s jungle instead of the contemporary Washington D.C. like in the third film.

That's where the comic begins chronologically. Tarzan, the orphaned child of some British people, is raised in the early 1900s not by a family of gorillas but by the temporally displaced ship crashed scientists from a strange and possible future.  Raised, that is, alongside their son Caesar.

The art here looks pulled straight from the old covers of classic pulp novels. There are these soft colors over detailed and lush linework that captures both the mythical jungle backdrop of Tarzan with the iconic designs and faces of the original Planet of the Apes movie. After the recent Apes movies with the hyper-realistic CG monkeys, getting to see the original make-up designs again now more emotive than ever took me in a wave of nostalgia.

With two franchises as old as these and as frequently reinvented as these, Tarzan on the Planet of Apes tells a story that feels both new and respectful to where these series came from. If there’s any even higher praise I can give this comic, it’s that this is the first time I’ve ever liked Tarzan as a character.

I was the perfect age for the animated Disney Tarzan movie when it came out, and still, I hated it. Maybe it was the Phil Collins music; maybe it was that Tarzan is, and always has been, built upon dated and racist concepts. More likely though it was because I’ve always hated characters who understood less than I did. Even as a kid, I hated seeing character who were not children still be infantilized. I do not want to see a grown man learn what a book is or learn the word, love. Here in this story, having him be raised by people who are educated, who know literature and science is a revelation. Finally here is a Tarzan that’s a kid only when he is actually the proper age to act like a kid.

Suddenly Tarzan’s family situation feels so much more real than it ever has. Tarzan and Caesar act like two kid brothers playing around, Zira and Cornelius act like caring parents, and I’m so much more emotionally grounded than I could have expected.

That means that when the story goes dark--when the poachers start hunting their gorilla prey, it’s so much more brutal and scary. The artists here balance the harsh and sickening reality of poaching without ever making it gratuitous. When the gorillas are injured from rifle wounds, it’s awful and stomach churning but never feels exploitative. There's no pouring guts or garish detailed wounds but the details we get hurt more than disgust.

We feel the weight of poaching even in a world of talking monkeys, and this creates villains that feel equal parts despicable and dangerous. There’s no guarantee here that Tarzan and the others will get away unscathed and they don’t.

The issue begins and ends in medias res and far away from the dangerous threats of the past. Tarzan’s fully grown and he feels invincible, and it’s this and what positions to be the central plot where I'm let down. The writers and artist here do so well in grounding this as a story about family and the very real threats to them, that when they start introducing the fractured space-time and enemy future ape armies, it’s hard to keep caring.

The plot points almost feel like an obligation--a lip service to the bombastic pulp nature of Tarzan to set up something that'd make for a good action movie. But this comic made me not want an action movie. Tarzan’s destined to be a human hero and Caesar an ape revolutionary and seeing this origin of a relationship, this united history, made me want to see where their natural paths would end and which side of a war they’d stand on.

I want that story, and if this miniseries is willing to offer it, I’m ready to follow it to the end.

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Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes #1 Writer: Tim Seeley & David F. Walker Artist: Fernando Dagnino Colorist: Sandra Molina Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $3.99 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital