The big apes have been a cultural force since staples started to bend and popcorn started to pop. I’m sure there have been thousands of doctoral theses written explaining why people are so attracted to our simian brethren, but I am certain about one thing: in the 1950s and 1960s, when you slapped a gorilla on the cover, you sold comic books.
By the time the Comics Code came into being, publishers were trying to cater to their horror-story-loving audience by deploying these colossus of sinew and fur as the Big Bad. Fine. But, just as those horror comics before them, things started to get kind of weird – particularly at DC Comics, and then, particularly when editor Julius Schwartz was involved. Here are six stunning examples of the form, each completely lacking in the type of realism that readers of the time demanded.
6. Tomahawk. As we began to realize the whole cowboys-and-Indians thing was exploitative, inaccurate and bigoted, Tomahawk — one of DC’s longer-lasting features — switched from chasing native Americans to protecting America from the evil British. It’s nice to see that by this time Tomahawk and his Rangers opened their ranks to the people they conquered. Obviously, when you’re taking on a gorilla so huge King Kong would cross his legs in shame you need all the help you can get.
5. Strange Adventures. I haven’t counted, but it’s possible that this particular s-f title had more gorilla covers than the Planet of the Apes. This one is my favorite, as it explains exactly why reading is, indeed, fundamental. I should point out that the covers to this Julie Schwartz title were by and large quite compelling. So compelling, in fact, that the actual stories rarely matched their impact.
4. Judge Dredd. The big ape thing was not just an American thing, to be sure, but in the world of Judge Dredd having a big ape Judge was just another day in Mega-City One. In fact, I’d say it was about as surprising as the sun coming up. Note that this guy is called “Judge Heston,” in tribute to the astronaut who inspired one of Jack Kirby’s best covers. Take a closer look and you will see the name “Heston” was engraved on the badge by, evidently, someone who’s penmanship was lacking in an opposable thumb. Evidently, Judge Heston had a thing for doing Batman-like poses.
3. Bizarro Titano. If all you know of Bizarro is the current not-well-defined Solomon Grundy pastiche, you’re missing out on “Tales of the Bizarro World,” one of the most unusual, bizarre, and clever volumes in the greater Superboy oeuvre. The original Bizarro was manufactured by a malfunctioning duplicator ray that was shined upon the Boy of Steel. Bizarro wasn’t an ape, but he sold comics during the JFK administration as though he was. Before long, there were Bizarros made of all the members of the Superman family and many of the members of the DCU at the time… not to mention a Bizarro Marilyn Monroe hanging out with a Bizarro-President Kennedy. God, those were good times. It wasn’t too long before Superman’s simian foe Titano got his own Bizarro doppelgänger. Fair is fair. Which leads me to…
2. The Real Titano. Talk about upping the ante: Not only was Titano a truly great ape, but he had Kryptonite rays beaming out of his eyes. This made Superman’s day all the more difficult. Like the original Superboy Bizarro story, Titano’s initial appearance ended quite nicely and in a laudable, humane fashion. But, as noted above, later somebody found that Bizarro duplicator ray. I loved this story, and I even remember where I was when I first read it
1. Grodd. There’s no contest (in my feeble brain, at least) that Gorilla Grodd is the most impressive ape in all comics gorilladom. He is one of the most evil of all the DC villains. He’s got one of the best backstories in all bad guy history, and his world (Gorilla City; I would have given it a more impressive name) is fully developed, fascinating, and fodder for many a good subsequent story. Grodd looked great in The Flash comics, and he looks even better on The Flash television series. In fact, he’s one of the three reasons I still watch that show. I don’t think he’s in next year’s movie (the one with several Batmans), but I’d hardly be surprised if he shows up. Just as long as you’re not sitting behind him at the theater.
Honorable Mention. There were plenty of gorilla covers in the pulp days. This particular one deserves notice because the name of the magazine is Zeppelin Stories and, therefore, the stories therein are built around zeppelins. Those things were to biplanes what King Kong is to Detective Chimp. So, yeah, that’s a gorilla hanging from the ladder hanging from the gasbag, which is why the story is called… “The Gorilla of the Gas Bags.”
Thanks to my pal Marc Alan Fishman for unknowingly yielding me his snark space.