Going Ape! Redux
More on Planet of the Apes Predecessors: Balaoo, DeCamp, Miller, Wellman!
Back with me now? Good.
I’ve a bit more to offer this time around, including the sf pulp/novel precursor to some of the comics stories I mentioned in that post (the Strange Adventures cover story “The Gorilla World” and Jack Kirby‘s “The Last Enemy!” for Harvey Comics‘s Alarming Tales #1, among others).
I’ve also found in my collection of Manly Wade Wellman rarities the obvious predecessor to the most recent Planet of the Apes feature—a story I’d in fact argue deserved a screen credit on Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, a film I quite love). I doubt much of this will be news to Planet of the Apes devotees, but you never know.
First of all, reconsidering the hardcore predecessors to the entire Planet of the Apes concept, I think we need to backtrack to 1941…
Consider L. Sprague deCamp and P. Schuyler Miller‘s science-fiction novel Genus Homo (1941/1950), which I reread this past winter. Given my high school sf reading of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I (incorrectly) remembered it being a contemporary of the original Pierre Boulle novel—I was surprised to find it predated by over two decades Pierre Boulle‘s satiric account of Ulysse Mérou‘s expedition to the Betelgeuse solar system in La Planète des Singes/Planet of the Apes (1963, a Swiftian novel still superior to all its multi-media incarnations and spinoffs).
Genus Homo was the prolific DeCamp‘s first novel, Miller‘s only novel, and it originally saw print in Super Science Novels #7 (March, 1941; cover at right), and subsequently published as a novel in 1950 (Fantasy Press, hc). The copy I read in high school (borrowed, if memory serves, from my pal Alan Finn) and the copy I reread this winter was the Berkley Books/Medallion paperback (1961, and still predating La Planète des Singes by two years).
Revisiting DeCamp and Miller‘s novel—which I highly recommend—I also have to say that if the late Julie Schwartz were still with us, I’d be willing to bet cash-on-the-barrelhead that it was the DeCamp/Miller opus that Julie consciously riffed from for the Strange Adventures #45 story “The Gorilla World” (June 1954; cover below, left).
Since the editors brainstormed all the covers (according to Julie, as related in countless interviews and in personal conversation with me back in 1986) back in those days, the cover concept most likely would have been Julie‘s—so to speak. Given Julie’s encyclopediac knowledge of pulp sf and his having even agented for many sf authors, I find it more unlikely Julie wouldn’t have been aware of De Camp and Miller‘s seminal novel.
The classic DC/National Periodicals run of “gorilla covers” kicked off with Strange Adventures #8 (May 1951, below right), and it didn’t take long for Julie to suggest an abridged spin on the DeCamp/Miller novel for a cover story.
The DeCamp/Miller novel concerns a busload of folks passing through Pennsylvania who suffer a should-have-been-fatal accident only to Rip Van Winkle into the distant future: there’s none of the “what planet are we on?” folderol, they know they’ve awakened to their native planet’s future, where common lifeforms of the 1940s have either evolved into monstrous predators or gone extinct, and gorillas and baboons have hyper-evolved into the dominant sentient species.
You bet. The novel has its own rich energy, wit, and style, and the satiric digs at mankind via its extinction and all that has replaced it is still often delightful.
That said, the pulpish sf nature of DeCamp/Miller‘s opus is self-evident: the bus is buried when a tunnel caves in, trapping two dozen men and women on board (many of them scientists en route to a Columbus, Ohio powwow) and perfectly preserving them all in one of those incredibly unlikely states of suspended animation so much vintage futurist sf depended upon. This time, their million-year survival was initiated not only by the earthquake and premature burial, but also by an experimental hibernation “gas” the one of them thar scientists on board just happened to be carrying. Damn lucky, that.
Thanks to the biologist of the group, communication is established with the city-dwelling super-gorillas, opening the door for DeCamp and Miller‘s satire to kick in. Having based their culture on science, the gorillas have managed to eschew everything that resulted in the self-destruction of mankind (there’s a passing reference to nuclear destruction—fleeting, vagure, and entirely speculative—though I wonder if that wasn’t added for the post-WW2 book edition; I’d welcome input on that point if anyone out there has the original Super Science Novels version).
So, the humans pitch in to help the gorillas take on the baboon military-industrial complex (a monarchy, and savaged as such by the authors), culminating in some lively mayhem sure to please Planet of the Apes buffs.
Even with the help of our human heroes, though, it takes more to turn the tide against the baboons—you see, the hyper-evolved primates aren’t the only kingpin mammals supplanting now-extinct mankind: there’s also a species of rather metropolitan, outsized, super-intelligent beavers (!!!) who save the day.
Which makes me wonder, in retrospect, if Tim Truman hadn’t read DeCamp and Miller‘s novel… after all, Tim concocted the Time Beavers graphic novel! But that’s another story…
More sobering still was my reread of Manly Wade Wellman‘s excellent short story “Pithecanthropus Rejectus” in Astounding Stories (Vol 20, No 5, January 1938, cover above, left), which I’ve got the original pulp of in my collection and dove back into this past winter.
- I wrote at some length about my great affection for Manly Wade Wellman‘s work about this time two years ago,
- specifically about Manly Wade Wellman and his son Wade Wellman writing a sequel to H.G. Wells‘s War of the Worlds
- incorporating two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger,
- spawning Sherlock Holmes‘s War of the Worlds (1969/1975), which I highly recommend (particularly to those who still think Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman invented the revisionist historical fiction genre).
- As I noted, Wellman was already tinkering with Holmes as long ago as 1944, and Wellman and Wellman also argued (and incorporated into their novel) a debt Wells owed to Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla,”
- and even got into a pissing contest (in print!) with one of my own cronies about who was better-versed than whom concerning Conan Doyle, Holmes, and Holmes‘s love life in the context of the Martian invasion of London.
But I digress.
No surprise, really, that Manly Wade Wellman‘s “posthumous” contribution to the Planet of the Apes mythos predates even the DeCamp and Miller novel Genus Homo. Wellman, it seems, was often ahead of his times.
I originally read Wellman‘s story on a plane via the UK paperback The Rivals of Frankenstein (1977, Corgi), en route home from my first-ever UKAK in 1985. Wellman‘s story was, in its day, a concise rethink of a number of already-chestnut sf novels, including H.G. Wells‘s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and Gaston Leroux‘s now-forgotten Balaoo (1911, first published in Le Matin, October 9-December 18, 1911).
Balaoo in particular was incredibly popular in its time, internationally renowned and widely imitated; Leroux, after all, was the author of The Phantom of the Opera. Leroux‘s seminal tale of a scientist hyper-evolving a primate via surgery was repeatedly filmed, starting with Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset‘s Balaoo the Demon Baboon (1913) and often “borrowed from.” Official adaptations included The Wizard (1927) and Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942), but the ripoffs span from the Lon Chaney vehicle A Blind Bargain (1922) and the Universal “Paula Dupree the ape woman” films (starring Acquanetta and/or Vicky Lane) of the early 1940s on through the Mexican man/ape transplant horror films like Chano Urueta‘s seminal El Monstruo Resucitado (1953), Fernando Méndez‘s Ladrón de Cadáveres (1957), and René Cardona‘s Las Luchadoras Contra el Medico Asesino/Doctor of Doom (1962) and La Horripilante Bestia Humana/Night of the Bloody Apes (1969/1972).
Hell, even Todd McFarlane ripped on Balaoo (in Spawn), and didn’t even know it (I know he didn’t: in the one and only “want to work with me?” phone call I ever received from Todd, when he was asking me to take on a horror spinoff comic with or for him, and he told me it was the Spawn man/gorilla character he wanted me to work with, I mentioned Balaoo—he thought I was suddenly talking about the fucking singing bear from the Disney animated adaptation of The Jungle Book)!
The ol’ “surgically evolve an ape and/or transplant a man’s brain into a gorilla” schtick was and is just everywhere. But they all owed and still owe a debt to H.G. Wells and Gaston Leroux—and Manly Wade Wellman knew that.
In Wellman‘s tale, his put-upon narrator is an ape named Congo who has been surgically altered to increase his intelligence and allow him to speak. He details his life with the scientist and the scientist’s kind, caring wife, and the fact that he matured more quickly than the couple’s own son, Sidney, who remained “a fat, blue-eyed baby that drooled and gurgled and barely crept upon the nursery linoleum, while I scurried easily hither and thither, scrambling up on tables and bedposts, and sometimes on the bureau.”
Congo‘s account notes his own ability to speak and his unhappiness with the patience and affection showered on Sidney while the scientist “acted grave—almost stern—where I was involved.” Congo is also painfully aware of the ongoing surgeries necessary to his own rapid development, and how this further sets him apart from Sidney.
In fact, much of the first third of Wellman‘s “Pithecanthropus Rejectus” reads like a template for much of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, sometimes with uncanny fidelity. The overall theme and thrust is also in accord with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in many striking ways—in fact, I’d argue that Wellman was due a credit or at least an onscreen acknowledgement.
The narratives diverge significantly, however, when the scientist sells Congo to subsidize his future experiments. Congo is essentially recruited into show biz (shade of Mighty Joe Young!), but Wellman was a most literary man—and so, Congo is offered the part of Caliban in a production of William Shakespeare‘s The Tempest (and Congo himself is sharp enough to respond to the role, and recognize his affinity with Caliban‘s plight).
Eventually, though, Congo contrives to realize his personal dream—his (ahem) “return to Africa,” where he is violently rejected by the natural tribal apes and forced to instead return to civilization, totally aware of his complete misfit status and utter singularity as a sentient being: the tragedy of Frankenstein’s monster, just as Mary Shelley conceived her monster.
When Congo is reunited with his maker, the scientist informs Congo of his plan to surgically mass-produce more of man-ape hybrids:
“…each a valuable property—each an advance in surgery and psychology over the last… In six or eight years there’ll be a full hundred of you, or more advanced… I will lighten the labor of mankind…”
At which point, Congo—just as Caesar does in Rise (as articulated in screenwriter Paul Dehn‘s original imaginary arc of the first Planet of the Apes movie series)—objects, and—
Go, read “Pithecanthropus Rejectus,” then revisit (or enjoy for the first time) Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
And tell me I’m wrong.
Original Astounding Stories illustration by William Elliott Dold, Jr. (1892-1967) aka “Dold” for Manly Wade Wellman’s “Pithecanthropus Rejectus,” January 1938. Below: Rupert Wyatt/Rick Jaffa/Amanda Silver’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis as Caesar via Weta Digital CGI effects (Rise of the Planet of the Ages photo: ©2011 20th Century Fox, posted for archival and entertainment purposes only).
Further recommended reading:
* Rich Handley‘s From Aldo to Zira: Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes (2010, Hasslein Books) is what its subtitle says it is: “A Comprehensive Encyclopedia” to the imaginary universe of the Planet of the Apes 20th Century Fox series and licensed offshoots in all media incarnations—and if this is indeed a first volume only, I can only say: Godspeed Volume 2!
Handley‘s intensive knowledge of his chosen subject—the complete span of the Planet of the Apes mythos, including all its detours, dead ends, eddies, and open vistas—is shared with enthusiasm, wit, and relentless attention to detail. If the minutea of the entire Planet of the Apes movie and TV universe and its cartoon, comics, and novel offshoots is your own obsession, rest assured Handley shares it. If a one-stop reference guide to acquainting yourself with the Planet of the Apes universe is your need, From Aldo to Zira: Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes is the best book on the market.
Fully illustrated and a clocking in at a hefty 400+ pages, this paperback covers everything of the invented PotA turf, with well over 3,000 entries citing every character, location, concept, and media permutation. Handley makes it all accessible to both the amateur entry-level reader/researcher and the lifelong obsessive, and I can imagine no higher purpose or scope for a book such as this. Highly recommended!
(SP: Rich also authored Timeline of the Planet of the Apes: The Definitive Unauthorized Chronology for the same publisher back in 2008; I haven’t laid hands on a copy, but it looks mighty tempting!)
* Also: I’m not sure how you can lay your hands on a copy for yourself, but I really enjoyed a recent zine dedicated to the Planet of the Apes universe, The Forbidden Zone/Zine (not to be confused with the 1992 Malibu Comics series; note the logo’s obfuscation of the ‘O’ in “Zone” with an “I”). I was kindly sent a copy of the first issue last year, and it’s a full-color 38-page slick jam-packed with comic art (both original comics material unique to this zine, and previews of Planet of the Apes comics series), behind-the-scenes peeks at the development of PotA comics cover art (by Ty Templeton), some of Richard Pace‘s unpublished Revolution on the Planet of the Apes comics pages, articles on the painting of the PotA collector’s cards, and much more. There’s work here from Drew Gaska, E. M. Gist, John B. Kirtley, Matt Solia, Jessica Rotich, Graham Hill, Neil Moxham, and Neil T. Foster (deliberately copping licks from Jack Kirby‘s Kamandi apes stories), and it’s cover-to-cover a labor of love. Any more issues available?
[See comments thread, below, for answers!]