For what is there beautiful in man,-what, I pray you, worthy of admiration, or comely–unless that which, some poet has maintained, he possesses in common with the ape? –Arnobius
I’m surrounded by a stack of comics and one illustrated novel all set in the same world as that 1968 film, The Planet of the Apes and my head is swirling with Cicero. I’ve been thinking about why I prefer one comic to the other, what exactly it means for a character to be relatable and what it means to be a person. As an ape, nothing ape is strange to me.
I respect Daryl Gregory and Carlos Magno’s Planet of the Apes: The Long War (Boom!, 2011). I am intrigued by Taylor E. C. Gaska’s illustrated novel, Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes (Archaia, 2011). But Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman‘s Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes (Boom!, 2011) and Exile on the Planet of the Apes (Boom!, 2012) are the Planet of the Apes comics I have always wanted.
Beautifully illustrated by twenty-six artists, Gaska’s Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes recounts the same events as the 1968 film. Three astronauts, Col. George Taylor, John Landon and Thomas Dodge survive the crash of their experimental spacecraft on an alien planet in the year 3978. They discover an ape civilization and voiceless, feral humans. Instead of retelling the movie’s events from the perspective of its protagonist, Taylor, (played by Charleton Heston), Gaska offers the perspective of multiple characters, many of whom were marginal to the film’s plot: Astronaut John Landon; chimpanzee scientists, Drs. Milo and Galen; Ape City Security Chief Marcus; orangutan Minister of Science cum Defender of the Faith, Dr. Zaius; and the mysterious psychic humans who live deep beneath the Forbidden Zone outside Ape City.
Conspiracy reads like science fiction written in 1968. Gaska uses 1960s language: Man, mankind, gender-neutral “he,” and one of the psychic humans is, “The Negro,” following the credits of Planet of the Apes‘ sequel, Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970). Planet of the Apes is easy to watch as an allegory on race and racism, but there’s more about class and “sexual politics” in Conspiracy. There’s even a little Sirkian melodrama as Dr. Galen’s class-conscious wife has an affair with a garbage collector.
Betrayal begins twenty years before the crash. It’s a sort of an Ape City crime comic. Lawyer and retired general Aleron represents Dr. Cato, an orangutan scientist, who, as part of his research, taught a human sign language. Cato is being tried for elevating humans to the level of apes. Ape kills ape and Aleron flees. Meanwhile, Dr. Zaius investigates secret doings among Ape City’s most important figures, as well as the mysterious disappearance of the general’s aide a decade before. Exile continues the story with Marc Laming as artist.
Gregory and Magno’s Planet of the Apes: The Long War is set in the industrial city of Mak, 1,300 years before the crash. Humans live in Mak’s Southtown, aka, Skintown. Most can speak, but an increasing number cannot. When a human assassinates the Lawgiver, the Lawgiver’s adopted granddaughters, chimpanzee Council Voice Alaya and Sullivan, Skintown’s human mayor, are set at odds, personifying the destruction of harmony between ape and human. In a way, the continuing series is an origin story, detailing ape and human relations’ deterioration from co-existence to armed gorillas hunting silent, crop-ravaging humans. It’s a solid, well-written comic with gorgeous art and so close to my perfect ape comic that I would’ve bought it every month if not for Betrayal and Exile.
I’ve thought about why I prefer those two books. Some of it is origin story fatigue. Some of it’s aesthetic. I like the 1960s design—the ape symbols, the gorilla uniforms, General Aleron’s eyepatch. The Long War uses Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001) designs, making chimpanzees more gracile and “human,” and the female chimpanzees human pretty. And that’s my fundamental problem: I don’t need the apes to look more human in order to relate to them. I already relate to characters different from me. I’ve done it since I was a little girl reading books about little boys. This is even more true for readers who are not white or able-bodied and are more complexly gendered. I prefer Betrayal and Exile because they follow the apes’ stories without “relatable” human mediators and I’ve always wanted to know more about Ape City. Bechko and Hardman trust readers to be able to relate with characters more deeply than through physical resemblance.
But how thoroughly beside the point the argument from resemblance, with which you are so mightily charmed, is in itself. Is not a dog like a wolf? And, as Ennius says:—
How like to us is the degraded ape!
Yet the character in both cases is different.
You assumed that reason can only exist in the human form.
–Cicero, I, XXXV De Natura Deōrum
Theoretically, a relatable character could be anyone or anything. In practice, a relatable character is usually a straight white guy. In alex MacFadyen’s piece about The Dresden Files, he notes how bland Bob as a genie Jeeves is in the tv adaptation compared to Bob as a rune-engraved talking skull in Jim Butcher’s books. In avoiding the possibility that the audience would find a talking skull ridiculous and unrelatable, the showrunners settled for a less interesting sidekick—a white British man. And so, despite characters being human constructs and, therefore, entirely relatable to human beings, the more theoretically relatable human-looking character made for a mediocre show.
Of course, the question raised by a relatable character is, “Relatable to whom?”
Created as a normative person, a relatable character inevitably excludes others. The human is reduced to its most surface physical signification–gender, race, hair color–and the possibilities inherent in fiction are diminished. It’s a failure of imagination and empathy. And it doesn’t just limit stories. Experiencing only stories with protagonists like yourself–especially on the most surface level–is limiting and even stunting. It can limit and stunt imagination and empathy. It can create a crippling sense of entitlement at the same time as it creates such defensiveness when faced with even the smallest disagreement or deviation from a perceived norm. And the world is filled with disagreements, deviation and difference.
Which brings me to Col. George Taylor.
“If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months, we’ll be running this planet.” –Taylor
Taylor’s the focus of the 1968 movie. He’s the “relatable” white guy among people who are different from him. Unlike so many, he doesn’t go native, or, well, ape. He’s the breezy hero of his own story, on top of his own world and certain he would run any other. But Taylor’s barely present in Conspiracy‘s retelling. Instead, Gaska replaces Taylor with his fellow astronaut and fellow white man, Landon, as the only character who represents our earth. In the movie, Landon’s weakness highlights Taylor’s virtue. Landon’s breakdown after realizing the earth he had known was thousands of years gone contrasts with Taylor’s antiheroic jauntiness; and later Landon serves as a terrifying warning to Taylor of where he stands in a world where Apes rule Men. But in the book, we see Taylor from the outside, as Landon does, and this erodes Taylor’s position as relatable character, his primacy as representative of humanity. Resemblance is not enough. There is, as Dr. Zaius’ colleague Cicero notes, the issue of character. Landon sees Taylor as a pompous, narcissistic asshole.
Further, Gaska’s use of multiple narrators mitigates the problem of one relatable character excluding others. It’s easy to sympathize with them all. I sympathized with Dr. Zaius’ bad day at the office, of which Taylor crashing through Ape City was only a small part. I loved chimpanzee scientist Prisca for her basic decency and courage. Some of my favorite moments in the novel involve two retired orangutans who like to feed the birds. My favorite character was Dr. Milo (who appears in Exile as a chimpanzee Tesla). And I feel terrible for Landon, caged in Dr. Galen’s lab, waiting to be the subject in experimental transplant surgery.
But my concern for Taylor is at the most basic humane level: Involuntary surgery—Run! I understand the fear of being silenced, dismissed and subject to unfair justice and, again, involuntary medical procedures. But the existential angst that he feels as an astronaut, a man who men wanted to be and women just plain wanted, being silenced, ignored, dismissed and finally ordered neutered, the vertiginous experience of the natural order overturned and the world becoming a “mad house” because of his loss of primacy—that is foreign to me.
They weren’t humans. They weren’t even aliens. My god, they’re… gorillas? Gorillas on horses. Gorillas on horses with guns. –Conspiracy (66)
Being human, like Taylor, is not enough because I think that Taylor’s problem is not with his treatment, but that he would be treated that way. And so, Taylor is convinced by years of being Taylor and reading stories about men just like him, not only that every story is about him, but that every story should be, as he runs right through hundreds of stories in downtown Ape City, stories by and about people he cannot relate to because he’s already decided that they’re damn, dirty apes.
Carol Borden hopes one day to be granted a doctorate from Ape City University, though she’d probably be accepted by the Universtiy of Mak, Skintown. She would also like to give Tim Burton credit for depicting gorillas a little less atypically violent.
Carol received a review copy of Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes from Archaia.