Gone ape indeed
In 1974 the big SF-media push was to “Go Ape!” I was so enamored of doing so at age 10 that I made it a point to imitate Roddy MacDowall’s ape-walk everywhere until brought to sanity by an unkind comment from my mom. But actually seeing the movies was tough – kids my age had to wait for chopped-up versions on our crap TVs, and mine was bad even for the early 70s. As a reading-frenzy kid, I had immediately hunted down the original novel and the novelizations of the films, but the Go Ape media blast came after that. It was based less on the movies, which were pretty grown-up SF, and instead more at the TV-watching and comics-reading kids.
Therefore our Apes were composed of the final film Battle for the Planet of the Apes which saw a lot of TV play in the next couple of years; the Planet of the Apes TV show in 1974; the black-and-white comics magazine from the Curtis Magazines branch of-or-with Marvel; the toy line from Mego under the same license, including action figures and a bunch of playsets, plus an assortment of Halloween costumes and similar cheap stuff; and the 1975 TV cartoon show, Return to the Planet of the Apes.
I’ll dispose of the first item quickly: Battle is an unmitigated piece of shit, the only genuinely bad work of the original films. It was the only one made under new ownership and lacked the input of Rod Serling,
The 1974 TV show apparently commands little respect among modern fandom, and although I grant you it’s no great prize, it deserves at least some credit. Fourteen episodes were made, two of which I consider completely horrible, and about six of which are surprisingly good – about the same ratio as Firefly, episode by episode. Its virtues include great scripting for and standout performances by Booth Colman as Zaius and Mark Lenard as General Urko, with excellent masks/makeup that allowed for actual acting. Its content – when not marred by “run at the camera, guys!” – was pretty edgy, including criticism of contemporary U.S. policy, e.g., cluster bombs, with one episode that was too controversial to air. [Hey, Firefly features the same, only for someone’s bare butt, rather than, you know, actual content.] In re-watching, I’m impressed by the range of ethics and decisions among the gorilla characters, who are scripted as trapped between their own bigotry against humans and the discrimination they receive from the other apes – it turns out the chimps are more often the sneaky bad guys, and Urko is often provided with sound motivations. All these are obscured by tons of knee-reflex plotting, the costumes probably looted from the same closet as Star Trek’s The Omega Glory, and the action/fight tropes of its era, but they’re worth a look.
My pals and I were really excited at the appearance of the 1975-1976, animated Return to the Planet of the Apes, which is also totally obscure especially in comparison to the well-known animated Star Trek of roughly the same period. Like that latter example, the show was generally faithful to the presentation and themes of the primary work, which in case, led to slow pacing and idea-driven debates, not at all the standard model for half-hour episodes aimed at random-play syndication. Visually, it was weird and spooky, typically panning across static imagery, with non-industry-standard rendering.
I now appreciate its ambitious and arty qualities and, remarkably for the time, its genuine full-series story, but it’s not fandom or franchise bait at all. It was especially unloved by the network and took a whole year for the thirteen episodes to air so I only saw a few back then, but its edginess stuck with me. They had some balls to depict mutant cultists chanting “Oosa! Oosa!”, and yes, in the intro, those are explicit crucifixions.
The magazine is my main topic, and man, what a magazine, completely of its era. Like all the Curtis Magazines work, it was much more like a zine, wearing its production-team-as-fans on its sleeve. The line editor was Marv Wolfman (this is the period when Wolfman oversaw the magazines and Wein oversaw the comics), the magazine editor was first Don McGregor and then Archie Goodwin, and the chief writer was Doug Moench.
1. Adaptations of the films, with the first illustrated by George Tuska, then Beneath by Alfredo Alcala – for which I could only gasp holy shit, it was terrifying. As an avid fan, I was most personally affected by Beneath and Escape, and these adaptations – rendered in unbelievable ink and the usual take-no-prisoners Curtis editorial attitude, also evident in Savage Tales – affected me much like one reads about from kids terrified by church pamphlets about hellfire and damnation.
2. Tight coordination with the TV show, featuring extensive coverage, interviews, and promotion, much of it by Chris Claremont who was apparently on-set a lot. Pages and pages of production details, makeup sequences, interviews with everyone, written in a gushy haze with no hint of promotional savvy – pure fan catnip. The desperate attempts to discern, or more accurately, invent a genuine continuity among the Apes works are a fine artifact for study.
3. An original adventure series by Moench and Mike Ploog, in a setting roughly similar to that of the TV show, with peasant-ish downtrodden humans, but with themes more allied to the first two films. It starred an ape-human buddy duo without the latter being an astronaut, which I think is unique among all the Apes material. The art eventually shifted to Rico Rival, and the setting to one more like that in the first two films, with bestial humans. I don’t think I ever read more than ten – twelve? – issues back then, but it was genuinely riveting, freaky stuff on par with the best of the Warren mags or Metal Hurlant, and I’d like to read this whole series some time.
4. Promotion of the Mego action figure line, apes first of course, but also the Star Trek and superhero ones. For the time, the Apes figures were well-done, carefully on-model for the characters and costumed in detail, and the magazine featured photo ads for all of them. However, advertising culture had a couple years to go before perfecting the mighty engines we consider normal today. Compared to the psyop-class marketing G.I. Joe received a decade later (see G.I. Who), the Mego figures might as well have been handed out on random street corners.
I feel the need to explain something about Apes – it revels in militaristic violence and race overtones, all to the purpose of subverting both entirely. You won’t catch that without dedicated viewing. Most of it’s intelligent enough not to offer a pablum solution like so many 70s B-efforts (The Omega Man, Logan’s Run) but rather to drive into genuine tragedy, leaving the viewer shocked. This latter effect began to fail after Serling was no longer involved, including the borked ending of Conquest; the unbelievable stupidity of Battle; and the Gilligan-like must-escape, can’t-escape situation of the protagonists in the live-action show. In this flux, talking about the themes was almost impossible: trying to dial back someone’s perception that it was a gun-crazy probably-racist gore-fest at the same time as insisting the most available examples of it were quality-compromised. It’s probably why the films have only survived in fandom as empty memes.
As a franchise promotion, Go Ape fell apart almost immediately, a miserable failure. In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious why. The subject matter was wholly adult and hard to get to the target market of ten-year-olds. Kids wouldn’t be allowed to see the movies, and I get that actually; Beneath is traumatic for anyone, and Escape and Conquest are blatantly anti-Establishment and not in any cute or easily-dismissed way. Kids didn’t have the income to get the magazine easily, not to mention that the magazines were rarely carried on the spinner racks, and parents who looked at it wouldn’t be letting them buy another one, especially in the thick of the new wave of throwing-out-comics for Jesus. The TV show was screwed by the network and up against fierce competition including The Six Million Dollar Man, and the cartoon was barely available and obviously written by adults for adults, being both slow-paced and full of scary imagery. And it was a rare parent who’d be quick to get a playset like this one – putting people in cages, that kind of thing. Parents aside, the content is also thoroughly intellectual, practically a seminar discussion curriculum, and for all its action, extremely shy on outright adventure.
From the other direction, too, grown-up SF culture was very different then. It’s hard to explain now, but the chain of sequels was regarded as schlock, not saga. Remember, this is pre-Star Wars, or more accurately, pre-“trilogy,” and when the first Star Wars did come along a few years later, it was emphatically sold as and widely considered a kid movie. Furthermore, pre-Alien and pre-Blade Runner, science fiction fandom elevated prose above all else, with movies considered lowbrow, and neither 2001 nor Logan’s Run had made a dent in that. Even the movie-branch of science fiction grown-ups weren’t impressed by the blatant failure of story-consistency (I don’t care how many circles-and-arrows you draw) and simple absence of an ending. As for the purchasing, adults back then weren’t interested at all in dolls.
The experience had a real impact on me, related to what I would be thinking about for comics in another year or two (Never heard of’em): my first step in immunization against franchise fandom. I liked Star Trek because it was often edgy and dissenting, and the product line was often cottage-industry like the tribbles at the Federation outpost – but the viewer-romance with the characters as a soap or buddy comedy was just then blossoming, evident in the first collections of fanfic to be published, and I was already finding it cloying. I liked Apes for the same reason: its raw cry of what am I? who am I? what have we done to ourselves? why do we act this way? that I recognized from the science fiction I liked the most (see A dangerous vision). I was right in between: E.T. wouldn’t arrive to clinch the mainstreaming for aliens until 1982, and initial box-office surprise or not, Star Wars fandom wouldn’t kick in hard until Jedi in 1983 – by then I was out of the consumer zone entirely.
Next comics: Ophite, Gnosis, p. 10 (ending) (January 28)
Next column: More women 2 (January 29)
Posted on January 22, 2017, in Commerce, Filmtalk, The 70s me and tagged action figures, Alfredo Alcala, Chris Claremont, Curtis Magazines, Doug Moench, Marv Wolfman, Mego, Mike Ploog, Planet of the Apes, Planet of the Apes TV show, Rico Rival. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.