Review: Planet of the Apes: Visionaries hardcover (BOOM! Studios)

[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.]

“My earliest version of the script featured an ape city, much like New York. It wasn’t carved out of rocks with caves on the side of the hill. It was a metropolis. … The script was very long, and I think the estimate of the production people was that if they had shot that script it would’ve cost no less than a hundred million dollars.” - Rod Serling

“It’s really incredible. The similarities. Almost exact but not quite. Like a slightly out of focus photograph …” - John Thomas

Back in the days of the #SnyderCut, when fans were clamoring online for director Zack Snyder’s original Justice League to see the light of day, I took the pragmatist’s approach. Sure, I hoped to see a Justice League that hadn’t been Frankensteined together (and took a day off work to watch it when it dropped), but I was equally enthusiastic about seeing Snyder’s vision translated into a comic book. I had precedent — we’d already seen comic book extensions like Batman '66 and X-Men '92, or even something like Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson’s Alien: The Illustrated Story.

But me being me, the first thing on my mind was 2018’s Planet of the Apes: Visionaries, which reproduced Rod Serling’s original screenplay for the 1968 film. At once starkly different and yet strikingly similar, Visionaries gives us a film that doesn’t and likely can’t or won’t exist, a four-color “Serling Cut” of sorts, unlocked (as they say) with the key of imagination. And its very existence makes a compelling argument for comics as the next frontier for niche or otherwise unfilmable movie projects.

Writer Dana Gould and artist Chad Lewis adapt Visionaries from Serling’s initial drafts, and they are intriguing choices. A comedian in his own right, Gould has made a reputation for himself as the world’s leading Apes fan, up to and including his web series Hanging with Dr. Z, which finds Gould hosting a chat show in full costume and makeup as Doctor Zaius. (Indeed, a YouTube search for “Doctor Zaius” will give you equal parts Dana Gould, Maurice Evans, and that one episode of The Simpsons.)

It’s a slight surprise, then, that Gould doesn’t make more of Zaius in this version, though perhaps it’s a sign of good restraint and attention to the accurate presentation of Serling’s work undisguised. Chad Lewis, meanwhile, adds a primitive scratchiness to his pencils, reminiscent perhaps of a Jeff Lemire type, so while his landscapes are polished and developed, the linework betrays the absence of civilization at the heart of Serling’s fable.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Some of the changes in Visionaries are cosmetic: Heston’s George Taylor is instead John Thomas, whom Gould and Lewis both describe as Paul Newman. Meanwhile, the apes look decidedly more animalistic, drawing on the original screen tests of Edward G. Robinson in the role of Doctor Zaius. These are not animals that have evolved into ape-men; gone are the pronounced snouts and mod haircuts, with flatter faces and shaggier fur.

Consequently, as I’m finding is often the case with Apes comics, it’s not always easy to tell one ape from another, yet the trio of colorists - Darrin Moore, Miquel Muerto, and Marcelo Costa - provide admirable assistance in their respective pages. Zira, for example, is a lighter brown than Cornelius, while Zaius’s orange fur is much more pronounced than that of the orangutan assemblyman who introduces Thomas to the apes.

Absent also is the caste system from the 1968 film, which sorted gorillas into the army, chimps into the sciences, and orangutans into political leadership. Serling’s Ape City is an egalitarian monkey metropolis, implicitly devoid of the kind of prejudices that might lead to a segregated society. Gone too, then, is the rabid hatred of mankind that marked the filmic planet of the apes; instead, humans are regarded as nothing more than mere animals, not unlike the buffalo, with whom Thomas compares himself in one poignant moment when he realizes how similar his plight is to that of an extinct creature. Hence that “out of focus photograph” — Thomas recognizes this world, even if his place in it cannot quite be fathomed.

By the same token, Visionaries is itself like an “out of focus photograph,” following the structure and basic plot of the film while at the same time feeling like someone has changed the lens on the camera. The third act, for example, begins to conclude with a visit to an archaeological dig, but Thomas is invited, and Zaius ultimately proves unable to hide the talking doll, which leads in turn to the discovery of a fallout shelter. This sequence, wholly absent from the final film, finds Thomas intoning gravely, “Man preceded you. Then he died. Cause of death … suicide.”

That dark irony and bitter solemnity, a hallmark of so many of Serling’s Twilight Zone screenplays, is on full display in Visionaries, at the expense of the offbeat humor present in the 1968 film. Gone are the Three Wise Monkey gag, the wry presentation of young ape protestors as countercultural hippies, and inverted aphorisms like “Human see, human do.” Perhaps surprisingly, the only real joke in the book was kept in the final film, when Thomas kisses Zira goodbye, prompting the chimp scientist to grumble, “But you’re so damned ugly.”

Instead of jokes and punchlines, Serling doubles down on the grim moralizing that is music to this reader’s ears. Serling had a gift for purple prose that sent a shiver down your spine; “just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself,” Serling wrote of Henry Bemis in “Time Enough at Last,” and there can be no mistaking the same foreboding pen at play in the moment when gorilla Dr. Ernestine asks Thomas, “Forgive us, but to use a bomb as you describe even once, raises the question — how civilized are you, at all?” Not every science-fiction allegory needs to be a gag-fest, and there is certainly a place for Serling’s more austere style of fable, but once again Gould has not sacrificed textual fidelity for a more familiar Planet.

This humorlessness does not extend to the artwork, however. Lewis is clearly having a ball with his choreography, depicting Zaius at one point with his ankles crossed leisurely on his desk. Elsewhere, he makes delightful use of borderless panels to punctuate dramatic moments; in one, a falling medical tray underscores the drama of Thomas’s “first” words, while elsewhere a shattering teacup highlights the ape revulsion at learning Thomas has taught Nova to speak.

And whether Serling has tipped his hand too early at the twist ending with fallout shelters and prominent discussion of atom bombs, Lewis gives that climactic scene plenty of room to breathe over four pages before a double-page spread unveils the horrifying truth behind Thomas’s last words, “I’m afraid there’s no place to run to. There’s no place to go.”

In Lewis’s rendition, the discovery of the Statue of Liberty ends up being a chilling mirror of the way George Tuska presented it in his Adventures on the Planet of the Apes. Tuska gave us a foregrounded Statue on a sandy beach, facing away from Taylor, who knelt in defiance; Lewis, meanwhile, places the Statue in the verdant background, before the prostrate form of the dead Thomas. (The actual film splits the difference.) It is Lewis’s third double-page spread, the first being given over to a title card of sorts, while the second gave us a full treatment of Ape City in all its urban glory. These vistas are breathtaking moments for the reader, welcome opportunities to pause and linger over Lewis' linework, and their cinematic qualities remind us that we’re seeing a film that never was - an “out of focus photograph,” if you will.

Planet of the Apes: Visionaries is the perfect constellation of so many things I love — a favorite franchise, a writer I adore, and a particular attitude toward fable and allegory. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say it’s better than the film - lacking as it does a more villainous Zaius and missing my actual favorite line1 — but I will always be on the side of an auteur getting his or her original treatment in front of an audience. And now that we have Zack Snyder’s Justice League, maybe the rumored Parts II and III can exist in comic book format some day.

  1. “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.” — which I am only now surprised to learn was evidently not written by Rod Serling. Though it smacks of The Twilight Zone, this line appears nowhere in Serling’s early script drafts, and the first kernel of this idea appears in Michael Wilson’s 1967 final revised screenplay. Whether the line was emended by Wilson, Charlton Heston, director Franklin J. Schaffner, or Rod Serling (who did visit the set) is going to nag at my brain for some time.  ↩︎


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