Review: Planet of the Apes Adventures: The Original Marvel Years Omnibus hardcover (Marvel Comics)

[A series on Planet of the Apes comics by guest reviewer Zach King. Zach writes about movies at The Cinema King and about comics on Instagram at Dr. King’s Comics.]

When Disney acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019, comics fans began watching the Marvel solicitations to see what properties might be joining the Merry Marvel Marching Society. With the Lucasfilm acquisition in 2012, after all, Star Wars came home to Marvel, having been initially published there from 1977 to 1986. And since 2019, Marvel has given us new Alien and Predator comics — and even Predator vs. Wolverine — along with reprints of older licensed content with those properties.

So too for Planet of the Apes, formerly of Dark Horse and Boom! Studios but also originally from Marvel circa 1975. Marvel published a new series set in the world of the Andy Serkis trilogy (by David F. Walker and Dave Wachter), alongside a miniseries that prequelized the 1968 Charlton Heston film (by Marc Guggenheim and Alvaro Lopez). Meanwhile, the publisher dug into its archives for the very first Western comic books based on the original film.1

This brings us to last year’s (take a breath) Planet of the Apes Adventures: The Original Marvel Years Omnibus, which reprints Marvel’s adaptations of Planet of the Apes (1968) and its sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). Before being colorized in Adventures on the Planet of the Apes, these comics were originally serialized in Marvel’s black-and-white magazine format, alongside making-of articles and original stories set in the Apes universe.2

These adaptations were penned by Doug Moench, with art by George Tuska and Alfredo Alcala. (Jack Kirby was at DC doing Kamandi, which for all intents and purposes is Kirby’s take on Apes.) The Original Marvel Years Omnibus retails for $100 and collects only 11 issues with no bonus material, which caused something of a stir in the review community. Consequently, unless you’re a diehard Apes fan, this volume doesn’t offer terribly much for you, especially not at cover price.

[Review contains spoilers for the omnibus and the first two Apes films]

Then again, even if you love the franchise as ardently as I do, you might not find much of interest in The Original Marvel Years. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation, with George Tuska’s artwork looking very clean and playing safely within Marvel’s house style (even if his Taylor looks more like Topol than Charlton Heston). Yet there is that old adage about comics with gorillas selling better than not, and it’s a real treat to see Tuska imbue the apes with far more expressiveness than their cinematic counterparts.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Although Troy McClure famously opined on The Simpsons, “I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-A to chimpan-zee,” I’ve always been fond of franchise antagonist Dr. Zaius, who is by all accounts the real star of this adaptation. Issue #4 is given entirely to the trial of Taylor, replete with the see-no-evil trifecta as tribunal. In this chapter, Tuska’s Zaius verily unhinges his jaw to decry Taylor’s monstrousness, though he confesses in an almost Shakespearean soliloquy (absent from the film) that his principal motivation is “fear. And God help us all… it’s the fear of man.”

Indeed, if there are any changes of note to the adaptation, it’s in the dialogue. One of my favorite lines of the film finds Taylor suggesting, in words that smack of original screenwriter Rod Serling, “I’m a seeker, too. But my dreams aren’t like yours. I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.” Yet Moench reconfigures the line: “I’m a bit of a seeker myself. But my dreams are a lot emptier than yours … 'cause, y’see, I can’t get rid of the idea that somewhere in this universe … there must be a creature superior to man.”3 Where the original text places the story into the realm of allegory, musing whether the ape society is better than human civilization, Moench recasts the whole thing in the light of evolutionary supremacy.

And speaking of changes to dialogue, there’s an arresting revelation in issue #5 when Zira reveals to Taylor that the mute human Nova is pregnant, with Taylor practically boasting, “So you see, Doctor … I’m not an altogether different breed from her.” This subplot had been deleted from the film, but it had also been excised at the 11th hour from the black-and-white adaptation, replaced by text in which Zira attributes Nova’s stomach pains to a psychosomatic case of homesickness.

Whether original series editors Tony Isabella and Don McGregor intended to restore this subplot, or whether they simply missed the previous editorial revisions, remains unclear — and it would have made for fascinating material for this volume’s back matter, including a reprint of the original black-and-white page. But the editors, the book, and the plot all seem to have forgotten Nova’s pregnancy, and her death in the book’s final pages makes no mention of Taylor’s compounded tragedy.

The second half of the omnibus finds Alfredo Alcala picking up the pencil, and his artwork is very nearly the saving grace of the volume. Alcala’s horror influences run wild, particularly in the subterranean mutant sequences. I’ve never been a fan of the mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but Alcala depicts them as grotesque zombies, all dripping flesh and bared teeth.

Elsewhere, Alcala interposes a moment in which Brent (played by James Franciscus) and Nova wend their way through a subway car filled with skeletons, adding a delightful spookiness to a scene that actually looks, on film, a little too pristine for a nuclear wasteland. Moench and Alcala also abbreviate the mutant interrogation sequence, at the expense of clarity on the mutants' telepathic abilities, yet this truncation also keeps the mutants from overstaying their welcome.

By the time we get to the end of the volume, the adaptation begins to make so many changes to the story that we almost end up with a different tale. Gone is the quiet tragedy of the mutant Albina’s suicide, and a more overt attempt to detonate the bomb renders the mutants overall passive participants in the finale. Nova’s death sends Taylor into a rage more befitting Kirk Douglas than Charlton Heston, while the death of Brent is omitted entirely.

And where the film ends with Taylor, a broken nihilist, lurching onto the Doomsday Bomb’s detonator, Moench scripts a sequence where Taylor implores Dr. Zaius for permission to defuse the bomb, to which the orangutan retorts, “Why should I?” This time, oddly less fatalistic than the film’s bleak ending, Taylor detonates the bomb, and Alcala fills a three-by-three grid with orange and black panels.

The book, like the film, ends with the abrupt destruction of the planet of the apes, with only a page to reprint E.M. Gist’s omnibus cover artwork without the title dress. (I personally went with the direct market variant, which reused Gil Kane’s cover art.) For an omnibus, one might have hoped for a little more bonus material, particularly considering the other content from the magazines that might have been included here. The first magazine issue alone contained profiles on Rod Serling and make-up artist Jack Chambers, alongside a retrospective article on all five films in the franchise.

I was put in mind of Star Wars Legends: The Marvel UK Collection Omnibus (2017), which repackaged old British comics with vintage behind-the-scenes articles, puzzle pages, and even scans of old stickers. That omnibus also retailed for $100, with nearly four times the page count, and it frankly puts the Apes omnibus to shame.

At 224 pages, though, Planet of the Apes Adventures: The Original Marvel Years Omnibus makes a monkey of anyone who pays cover price. Even the staunchest simian defender would be advised to wait for a clearance sale, a secondhand copy, or the $35 paperback slated for release in June 2024; while the material may be fine enough, the collection itself ends up somewhat less than the sum of its (minimal) parts. (Never mind that, at the time of this writing, all 11 issues are available on Marvel Unlimited.)

If these comics weren’t quite the apes you were seeking, get your stinking paws ready for an adaptation of an Apes film I can guarantee you’ve never seen. When is a simian society like a Snyder Cut? When it’s Planet of the Apes: Visionaries, a graphic novel adapting Rod Serling’s original — and unfilmed — script.

  1. There had been a one-shot published by Gold Key in 1970, adapting Beneath the Planet of the Apes (the second film) in the style of a Classics Illustrated comic; meanwhile, manga adaptations were published in Japan in 1968 and 1971 as “Planet of Monkeys” — and from what I’ve seen online, those mangas were, pardon the pun, wild, blending Japanese art with fumetti-style stills from the film.  ↩︎

  2. These original tales were collected by Boom! in 2017 and 2018, in four hardcover editions that are far out of print and much too expensive for this collector. One hopes Marvel sees fit to continue their own line of reprints!  ↩︎

  3. The line in Michael Wilson’s final revised script is somewhere in between: “I’m really an idealist, Lafever. Surely in this universe there must be some creature superior to man.”  ↩︎


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