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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Reviewing 1991's Angel and the Ape mini-series

Years ago, I picked up the first issue of this mini-series from a local convenience store*. I was familiar with Batman, Superman and the like -- and even dimly aware of superheroes like Dr. Fate -- but Angel and The Ape would hardly be household names anywhere. I read the first issue with earnest and was disappointed to find that I was 11 years too late to wait for the next issue. Without a local comic shop to go to, I resigned myself to not knowing how this series ended... until now, that is!

First thing's first, some background information: created by the famous E. Nelson Bridwell (best know for The Inferior Five), Angel and The Ape first appeared in 1968's Showcase #77. The premise was simple: Angel O’Day was a lady detective and Sam Simeon was a comic book artist and a talking gorilla. Together, they fight crime. Jokes arising from the unusual pairing and cultural fads (such as a cover depicting Sam A product of the "groovy" era of comics arising from the popularity of the Adam West Batman TV show), they starred in their own bi-monthly series for 6 issues in 1969. As with most characters from this period (Detective Chimp, I’m looking at you!), they were relegated to Z-list status and seemingly lost in the shuffle of Crisis on Infinite Earths, along with dozens of other characters that DC had amassed over 50 years. What happened to all those characters after the Crisis was explored in a more dark and serious manner in Grant Morrison’s seminal run on Animal Man.

Angel and the Ape v1 #3 (1969) Bob Oksner cover.

Phil Foglio had made a bit of a name for himself in the black-and-white, indie comix scene of the late 80s with books such as Myth Adventures and Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire. He was hired by DC to write and draw this revival mini-series. That being the case, you get a real sense of authoritative intent and uniqueness in this mini-series that was rather refreshing compared to the 'Ford assembly-line' quality of the other comics of this era.

page from Myth Adventures #1 (1984). published by Warp Graphics.
Pencils by Phil Folio, inks by Tim Sale

The cover of the first issue is something of a joke on the 'grim and gritty' trend for comics at the time. The cover text boldly states “THEY’RE BACK... BUT WHO ARE THEY, WHAT ARE THEY NOW?” Angel and Sam are presented in dark silhouette, however, you can clearly see them as their normal lovable selves in the upper left hand corner near the date and issue number.

Angel and the Ape v2 #1 (1991). Cover by Phil Foglio.

The storyline is simple, but effective: it tells the origin story of how a young Angel met Sam in Africa. It cuts to years later when they’ve become established detectives in New York City. Sam is going out on a lunch date with Dumb Bunny from the Inferior Five (and half sister to Angel). Bunny ducks out of lunch with Sam and asks Angel to go with her to talk about things.

panels from Angel and the Ape v2 #1: mocking the grim
turn Batman had taken since the death of Jason Todd

At lunch, she admits to her sister that she’s in love with Sam and want to be his girlfriend. Angel is taken aback at this, both for the obvious physical implications (Bunny says she’s not interested in sex anyway) and for the moral reasons -- like him being essentially a part of their family. It’s also implied that Angel has feelings for Sam herself, but won’t admit it.

panels from Angel and the Ape v2 #1

During this time Sam is dropping off some art pages to "DZ Comics" when he sees that he’s turned into a human and everyone else has turned into a gorilla. After a spit second, they all turn back to normal, and everyone is shocked at his gorilla appearance after his concentration is broken (Sam uses light mind control to make people not notice or care that he’s a gorilla). It turns out this is all part of a scheme orchestrated by Sam’s grandfather, none other than Gorilla Grodd.

Grodd is worried about the population growth of Gorilla City becoming unsustainable into the twentieth century, and when he approached King Solovar about this issue Solovar felt that when that time came they would be ready to show themselves to the world. Grodd doesn’t buy it and has found a green glowing entity called the "Green Glob" to alter reality to destroy humans by making them unintelligent gorillas. He needs Sam’s telepathy to communicate with the glob, to obey his commands. Sam doesn’t want any part of it, but he’s kidnapped by Grodd. Angel and Bunny try to contact the Justice League, but after a typically crass phone conversation with Guy Gardner, Angel, Bunny and the rest of the Inferior Five decide to rescue Sam themselves.

panels from Angel and the Ape v2 #2: Guy Gardner being Guy Gardner

In the middle of the third issue there is a cool sequence where Angel is experiencing Sam’s memories of Gorilla City and his grandfather, while a fight between Grodd and the Five are happening in the bordering panels. It reminds me a little bit of Sergio Aragon├ęs' comics in MAD magazine.

It's in the rescue that Grodd breaks Bunny’s neck, telling Sam the only way to save her is with the glob. Grodd comes off as a particularly menacing villain in this comic’s universe. He’s almost like a Sideshow Bob or Mister Burns (from the early seasons of The Simpsons), since his adversaries are more comical and simplistic, he becomes more diabolical and evil.

The whole cast of characters comes off like a comfy sitcom from the 70s -- similar to the Mary Tyler Moore show. Angel is an optimist (Mary Richards), Sam is her more earthy, pessimistic co-worker (Lou Grant), Dumb Bunny is the lovable, airhead blonde (Georgette) and etc.

It ends with Sam communicating with the glob and using its powers to outsmart his grandfather. He gets the glob to give Grodd an uncontrollable desire for junk food which distracts him long enough for Solovar’s forces to raid his hideout. Sam asks the glob to heal Bunny, with it does. It also briefly turns Sam back into a human and the romantic tension between Angel and Sam is address by the two, but they decide to remain friends and Sam turns back into a gorilla.

panels from Angel and the Ape v2 #4

It’s a decent little story, my only criticism would be that it maybe gets a little too heavy on the romantic triangle between Sam, Angel and Bunny, and that distracts from the storyline. I have a feeling like they might have been expecting this to turn into an ongoing series, and they would play the "will they/won’t they" angle up like many romantic sitcoms. It’s also unfortunate that the cool subversion of the 'damsel in distress' trope is a bit undone with the neck-breaking "women in refrigerators" moment with Bunny and Sam.

The last issue of the mini-series finishes off with a belated but interesting letter column. It seems like I was not alone in being unfamiliar with the Silver Age incarnations of A&A and The Inferior Five. Many of the letters lamented the fact that there had been such sparse material in the "humor" genre of comics.

In the letter column, series editor Mike Gold defends the cartoony style by citing the fact that one of the most respected comic artist of all time, Will Eisner, drew in a cartoony style. Gold also cited a few other artists with cartoony styles (ex: Howard Chaykin, Joe StatonFrank Thorne and Rick Burchett), and points out that if you take away the hard angles in Todd McFarlane's and Frank Miller's art, even they would be perceived as cartoony. 

. Foglio’s style is "Cartoony", but expressive. It would be very easy to turn his art into animation. Under different circumstances, I could see this being adapted to an animated TV show (resting somewhere in tone between the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Tick).

1991 was not a year receptive to this book; when the first issue was published in March 1991, the classic Batman "Venom" storyline ran in Legends Of The Dark Knight, Marvel was publishing its seminal "Weapon X" storyline in Marvel Comics Presents and Todd McFarlane was in the midst of his run on Spider-Man. Drugs, madness and pain. This was what comics where turning into. Foglio would go on to do a Stanley and His Monster mini-series for DC, and now runs a successful webcomic, Girl Genius.

Lighthearted and quirky revivals of groovy 60s characters is not what the audience was craving. I won’t go so far to say it’s perfect or somehow a lost masterpiece, but it’s competently done and a readable comic in an era where that would become more and more rare as Extreme 90s artists would throw graphic storytelling to the wind in favor of cool action figure designs. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments and, for under 5 bucks to get all four issues, it still holds up today as an enjoyable read.

If DC ever does put out a collected edition, it would be nice if they included the original 60s appearances as well as the 2001 Vertigo revival by Howard Chaykin.

Angel and the Ape pin-up by Phil Foglio

*Editor's note: Anthony explained that his convenience store sold bagged bundles of back issues -- mainly Marvel, DC, Image, Malibu, Valiant, and Continuity (circa 1986-1994). It would be a mixed bag with no particular theme other than 10 comics for around 2 bucks. This is why Anthony has such a  well-rounded knowledge of late 80s/early 90s comics. ;) 

-Anthony Kuchar

Anthony hails from Welland, Ontario. A Graduate of Brock University’s Dramatic Arts Program, he has been involved with the theatre scene in Niagara for many years. Anthony has had an interest in comics since he was young and his favorite 80’s DC books are Batman: The Cult, Sandman, Frank Miller's Ronin and Watchmen.

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