Review: Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes trade paperback (BOOM! Studios)

May 26, 2024

[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.]

I can think of few crossovers that, in hindsight, seem as obvious as Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes. Why wouldn’t you take the Lord of the Jungle and put him on a planet of apes? He is, after all, Tarzan of the apes. One could even argue there is a direct throughline between the monkey tribes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the evolutionary inversion from Planet of the Apes (and I spent just enough time in grad school to want to write that essay!). Yet while the crossover ground is fertile and the premise screams its immediate self-evidence, writers David F. Walker and Tim Seeley create a narrative that is almost too overcomplicated for its own good, nearly rescued by Fernando Dagnino’s painterly art.

In one sense, this book might better be called “Apes on the Planet of Tarzan.” In an alternate retelling of Escape from the Planet of the Apes (or perhaps a direct sequel to The Primate Directive), Cornelius and Zira travel back in time, only their ship goes a little bit further than it did in the films, depositing them not in 1973 but in the late 1800s. What’s more, their ship crash-lands in the heart of Africa rather than in Los Angeles, and after the death of their friend Dr. Milo they form a new family by adopting the young Lord Greystoke. Right off the bat, we have a Tarzan doubly torn between two worlds — between man and ape, but also between ape and Mangani (Burroughs' invented races of giant apes); meanwhile, Cornelius and Zira find themselves living among but certainly not with the Mangani, who regard these bipedal simians with a wary suspicion.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes might be my second favorite Apes movie because of its groovy fish-out-of-water vibe, a positively nutty sequel that forces Zira and Cornelius into '70s chic while shedding satirical light on the sociopolitical climate of the times. Put another way, when an ape-man from a primitive future dubs your world “beastly,” you don’t have to look too far for the allegory. The Tarzan myth, meanwhile, allows us to ask those same questions about what it means to be civilized. In Walker and Seeley’s version of the story, Cornelius and Zira end up having a pacifist effect on their young charge, raising him to be a bit less of a warrior and a bit more of a genteel diplomat. Yet in the battle between nature and nurture, Tarzan still ends up seeking adventure, defending his families when provoked by man.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

That adventurous spirit ends up setting the stage for the unbilled third crossover, which finds Tarzan and the apes exposed to the hidden world of Pellucidar. If you’re not familiar with this other franchise from Burroughs, if you’re logging onto Wikipedia with breakneck speed, think Skataris or the Savage Land by way of Doyle’s The Lost World; Pellucidar is a hollow earth setting in which dinosaurs and other fantastical beasts reside. It’s also, not for nothing, the site of one of the earliest crossover stories in modern pop culture; in 1929, Burroughs himself penned a novel in which Tarzan visited Pellucidar.

For comics readers, there are few delights quite like the advent of a charging triceratops, rendered lushly by Fernando Dagnino and especially by the brushstrokes of colorist Sandra Molina. Halfway between photorealism and expressionistic representation, Dagnino’s likenesses are spot-on for the ape characters, and his Tarzan is timeless and consistent without leaning on any one interpretation. Indeed, throughout the book, Dagnino’s art is magnificent, stultifying in the boxy scenes set in England, yet sweeping and expansive in the jungle sequences that employ creative page layouts to give us a sense of verdant lushness. “Fernando’s art is the reason to buy this series,” Walker told UK fanzine Simian Scrolls, going on to say, “This is some of the best Apes comic art that has ever been generated” — and he ain’t kidding.

There’s only one panel in the book that rings false, and it’s a moment where Dr. Milo looks confusingly similar to Dr. Zaius. Perhaps this is indeed the fulcrum point at which the book begins to buckle, because Walker and Seeley complicate and overcomplicate the plot with time travel and parallel dimensions. While Cornelius and Zira have traveled back in time, so too has a Dr. Milo from another timeline, seeking to prevent the destruction of his earth. (In a sense, Dr. Milo becomes the ersatz Cable of the Apes multiverse.) Meanwhile, the Dr. Zaius of a third timeline is plagued with visions from the original timeline, with Tarzan bouncing between his present and his own future. Very quickly, Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes becomes “Crisis on Infinite Apes,” resolving in what appears to be the birth of an entirely new timeline, one occupied by a kinder, gentler generation of apes (and, unfortunately for this reader, bomb-worshiping mutants).

My second complaint about Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes is that there is very little of Doctor Zaius in it. The late-game inclusion of a precognitive Zaius, and the implication that perhaps the good doctor has always already been aware that his world will end in fire, bodes well for readers who found this cinematic villain fascinating, but Zaius is just one more element in an overfull mechanism. Perhaps this is representative of the Apes franchise writ large, crammed with winding sci-fi twists and lurching cliffhanger endings that never quite gel together; the films themselves inhabit at least three universes, while Tarzan is a kind of modern Hercules whose canon is far from sacrosanct. It might seem odd to muse over continuity in a crossover comic, but after Star Trek/Planet of the Apes: The Primate Directive took such pains to respect the borders of the filmed Apes universe, Tarzan careens wildly around the bumpers, leaving this reader a little disoriented and overwhelmed.

Up next, get your ring fingers ready, and start sorting apes along the emotional spectrum: Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern gets weird!


Post a Comment

To post a comment, you may need to temporarily allow "cross-site tracking" in your browser of choice.