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The pairing of comic books and apes might not seem an immediately obvious one, but nevertheless, it’s a combination that has been a tried-and-true winner for more than a half a century. Where else would you want to get your stories about exceptional primates, after all?
In many ways, the connection stems back to an unusual sales effect noticed years ago. As DC comic artist Sheldon Moldoff explained in an interview with The Comics Journal, “It was a question of trying to find something that sold, and if one issue came out and it happened to sell, then immediately they would follow that type of story. … Now, I know Jack Schiff, when he was the editor of Batman, he followed sales very well. When he found that a gorilla on covers sold, then you could be damn sure that in an issue or two you’re going to have another gorilla story.”
“Another gorilla story” is an understatement; throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, apes were a mainstay of DC’s output — enough to cull a “best-of” anthology a few years ago, in fact — and have remained a source of inspiration and nostalgia for the publisher ever since, inspiring a storylines and special issues in subsequent decades.
That’s not to say that other publishers haven’t tried to muscle into the primate market. Alongside the masked hero Ape-X and an entire alternate universe of superheroic apes, Marvel had a successful run of Planet of the Apes comics in the 1970s, tied in with the then-current TV series. (In the U.K., the series was even more popular, leading to a shortage of reprint material to meet demand; the publisher simply repurposed existing material about an alien invasion by cutting and pasting ape heads on the aliens. The series continued to be a hit.)
Unsurprisingly, King Kong has made it into more than a few comics across the years from a number of publishers, including Gold Key, Fantagraphics Books (who put out an adaptation of the original story with cover artwork by Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens that was every bit as beautiful as you could imagine) and Dark Horse Comics. Yet he’s never quite found a massive audience in the medium. Perhaps it’s because he’s missing a gimmick beyond simply being a giant ape; after all, look at these five fan-favorites and you can see that each one brings something more to the monkey business.
First Appearance: (As Congo Bill) More Fun Comics No. 56, 1940. (As Congorilla) Action Comics No. 248 (1959)
The Gorilla’s Gimmick: If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I wish someone would do Freaky Friday, but with a hunter and a wild gorilla, then guess what: Congorilla is your man. Originally created as the big-game hunter “Congo Bill” Glenmorgan, the addition of a magic ring midway through the series run gave Bill the ability to swap bodies with a super-strong gorilla, allowing him to fight jungle crime. In recent years, he showed up as a short-lived member of the Justice League, where it was revealed he was stuck in the gorilla’s body after his human body was killed during a mind swap.
First Appearance: Adventures of Rex the Wonder Dog No. 4 (1952)
The Gorilla’s Gimmick: The origins of Bobo have undergone a number of revisions, but his gimmick has remained consistent throughout: He’s a chimpanzee who solves crime through deductive reasoning. At first unable to speak — and considerably less intelligent than he’d become — Bobo has evolved into a cynical detective whose instincts are rarely wrong, and whose results are, if anything, more impressive than Batman’s. (For the curious: Yes, Detective Chimp and Batman have, in fact, worked together on more than one occasion.)
First Appearance: The Flash No. 106 (1959)
The Gorilla’s Gimmick: The most famous — or infamous, perhaps — ape on this list, Grodd is known to millions thanks to his appearances on The CW’s Flash. Those are fairly true to his comic book incarnation, although with less alien intervention. (It was a crash-landed alien that transformed Grodd from a regular gorilla to a hyper-intelligent, telepathic one in comic book lore.) He’s big, evil and wants to destroy humanity for complicated reasons, which is almost ironic; Grodd is, after all, the most human of the apes on this list.
First Appearance: Fantastic Four No. 13 (1963)
The Gorilla’s Gimmick: Mikhlo, Igor and Peotr were just regular cosmonaut apes before they were exposed to the same cosmic rays that gave the Fantastic Four their super powers — so it’s no surprise that they, too, got powers of their own. Sadly, their potential was always reined in by the Red Ghost, their human handler, but it can only be a matter of time before there’s a Planet of the Apes-style uprising and the Super-Apes get their due. We’re waiting for you, our primate brethren.
First Appearance: Doom Patrol No. 86 (1964)
The Gorilla’s Gimmick: Part of the Doom Patrol’s arch-villain team the Brotherhood of Evil, Mallah — a regular ape before being experimented on by a mad scientist who himself would later become a human brain in a robot body — went from lab assistant to love interest when it was revealed in 1990’s Doom Patrol No. 34 that he had fallen in love with his brain-in-a-metal-case former boss. Wonderfully, this version of events — that Mallah is a lab experiment who has fallen in love with the brain that experimented on him — has remained in canon in all subsequent appearances, with the two very happy together despite being mad criminal scientists.
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