Thursday 15 December 2011

Comic Book Review | Planet of the Apes Vol. 1: The Long War

When he's not writing tragicomic novels about the second coming of an undead messiah, or having his short story collection Unpossible described as one the year's best books, Daryl Gregory writes comic books. Damn fine comic books.

Among them, this one: the Planet of the Apes ongoing series from BOOM! Studies, which launched a little in advance of the latest film in the franchise, starring go-to dude in a suit Andy Serkis.

To be perfectly frank, I could give a monkey's uncle about the Planet of the Apes. I've seen a few of the original films, and both of the attempts in the last decade to reboot the feature series, but none of the above - excepting Andy Serkis' bravura performance as Caesar in this year's Rise of the Planet of the Apes - have managed to make me care about the mythos, such as they are. My interest in this future world, where apes either have or will one day overthrow humanity, is nominal at best.

Enter Daryl Gregory. The man's such a talent, and so unspeakably overlooked, that I've resolved to read whatever he writes from here on out, or until such a time as he releases something rubbish. On the basis of Planet of the Apes Vol. 1: The Long War, I don't see that happening anytime soon. Because where so many creators have tried and failed to convince me of the value of this to-my-mind one-note franchise, Daryl Gregory has gone and done it, be damned my disinclination.

The Long War collects the first four issues of the ongoing: a complete single story set, or so I gather, ten years after Battle for the Planet of the Apes, but before the events of the first film, which I see now was based on a book. I didn't realise! In any case, Gregory introduces us to a society somewhere between two more familiar extremes, of man versus animal in the last days or man, finally, as animal. In The Long War, the lunatics are already running the asylum, yet humans still have a place - albeit a small one - in Skintown, which is essentially a ghetto in the great ape city-state of Mak.

But when a masked assassin kills Lawgiver, one of the few remaining supporters of our lately endangered species, man and monkey stand poised on the brink of a conflict that could take away even that last refuge. Some people, like Sully - a pregnant women who the people of Skintown look to for leadership - think that everything that can be done to avoid a war and so safeguard the remains of our race should be done.

Others want the exact opposite: namely an end to the apes, or else an end to all the indignities of life not on top of the food chain, via certain death. Among this latter camp, the most vigilant are those who attend ceremonies at the Church of the Bomb - from the movies, remember? - where the investigation which Sully leads into Lawgiver's guerrilla killer begins.

The Long War is a short trade by all but the most generous of measures, yet it contains such a wealth of wonderful world-building and narrative know-how that you'd be forgiven for thinking it twice the length it stands at, which is to say a scant 112 pages. Gregory pulls no punches, either; the mysterious monkey-murderer is unmasked in the approach to the last act, and the plot moves on substantially thereafter. Dense, descriptive language gives the text a real sense of momentum, and a clarity that is altogether too rare in comics. Last but not least, a second (somewhat shocking) death quite suffices to get one's blood pumping for volume two, due from BOOM! Studios in May of 2012.

And there's can be no understating the part artist Carlos Magno plays in the success of this this initial collection. His pencils are perhaps a touch too grainy for my tastes, all fine lines and minute detail, leaving little for the imagination to play with, but they set the scene sumptuously - building the world as much as any amount of words would work to - and many of Magno's spreads are quite simply magnificent.

Somewhat to my surprise, then, The Long War gets this latest take on the Planet of the Apes off to an excellent start. For the first time in my life, thanks in equal part to Daryl Gregory and former Transformers artist Carlos Magno, I can't wait to see what's next from this franchise.

That is to say, this comic book franchise. The movies... meh.

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