Gorillas in Our Midst: A History of Gorillas in Comics
Comics and gorillas have gone hand in furry hand since the earliest days of the medium, and this statement goes beyond simply superhero comics. While these great apes have certainly flourished within the superhero genre, they can also be found in numerous jungle action, science fiction, and horror stories in every era of comics. With the release of a new King Kong movie in theaters this week, it's a perfect time to take a survey of the history of gorillas in comics.
It's not surprising that gorillas would be around at the advent of the comics medium. When comic books were first really being developed, films like King Kong and Mighty Joe Young were smashes at the box office. Additionally, many Golden Age artists were not shy about hiding such influences as Burne Hogarth's Tarzan comic strip (not to mention the hugely popular Johnny Weissmueller series of Tarzan films of the 1930s) and pulp magazines, whose imperialist themes often featured jungle explorers encountering great apes.
As a result, it was not unusual to see gorillas as threats in such books as Fiction House's Jungle Comics or any number of other Tarzan imitators, or as comedy heavies in humor or funny animal books. One notable early gorilla character is Wonder Woman foe, Giganta, whose first appearance in 1944 shows a scientist mutating a gorilla into a red-haired strongwoman. 1940 saw the debut of Congo Bill in the pages of More Fun Comics, who at the time was just a jungle explorer, but who would come to be more intimately tied to gorillas later.
The real turning point for gorillas, the year that really made them a star, was 1951. This was the year that Strange Adventures #8 came out, featuring the story “The Incredible Story of an Ape With a Human Brain.” At this time, editors were anxious to grab on to any trend they could that would increase sales (plus ça change...), and apparently Strange Adventures #8 sold pretty well. Legendary DC editor Julius Schwartz once recalled that “[DC editorial director] Irwin Donenfeld called me in and said we should try it again. Finally all the editors wanted to use gorilla covers, and he said no more than one a month."
Soon they were pushing that “one gorilla a month” rule to the limit. DC's sci-fi/fantasy/horror titles such as Strange Adventures and Tales of the Unexpected have since become notorious for their gorilla covers. Even in this not-quite-Silver Age era, superheroes were getting into the gorilla mix, with Batman fighting the Gorilla Boss of Gotham in Batman #75 (1953), Superboy battling Kingorilla in Adventure Comics #196 (1954), and Wonder Woman, uh, playing baseball with one in Wonder Woman #78 (1955).
Once the Silver Age proper was in full swing by the late '50s, things began to go, well, bananas. Perhaps the most famous of the gorillas of this era is Gorilla Grodd, Flash's foe who first appears in 1959's Flash #106, and soon brings with him a whole Gorilla City, including his opposite number, the heroic Solovar.
But these were hardly the only ones. The period of the 1950s through the 1960s saw the debut of the villainous Monsieur Mallah in the pages of Doom Patrol, B'wana Beast's sidekick Djuba, Animal Man's foe the Mod Gorilla Boss (not to be confused with the earlier Gorilla Boss of Gotham), the cartoonist/detective Sam Simeon from the pages of Angel and the Ape, and numerous one-off gorillas in anthology books like House of Secrets and even Star-Spangled War Stories.
Jimmy Olsen seemed to either get his brain swapped with a gorilla or marry one every other month. The Man of Steel himself confronted several gorilla foes, including Chandu the Gorilla with X-Ray Eyes, The Super-Ape from Krypton, King Krypton the Super-Gorilla, and, most famously, Titano the Super-Ape, a pretty transparent King Kong riff with the added danger of kryptonite vision.
One character who was palpably affected by the gorilla boom was our old pal, Congo Bill, who had for years been coasting by as a moderately successful rip-off of Alex Raymond's Jungle Jim comic strip in the pages of first More Fun Comics and then Action Comics. However, in Action Comics #248 from 1959, Bill found himself able, by means of a magic ring, to transfer his mind into the body of the Golden Gorilla, a legendary beast he had encountered several times before. The newly fused Bill/Gorilla combo was known as Congorilla, and such would the feature be re-titled for the rest of its run, first in the pages of Action, and then later in Adventure. (After years of inactivity, Congorilla would of course somewhat notoriously join the Justice League in 2009.)
With all this talk of DC gorillas, you may be wondering, “Where are all the Marvel gorillas?” Well, simply put, there just aren't as many. They would, notably, publish not one but three different characters called Gorilla-Man: Ken Hale, who first appeared in 1954's Men's Adventures, and who would much later be molded to perfection by Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk in Agents of Atlas; the villainous Dr Arthur Nagan, who first appeared in 1954's Mystery Tales #21, but who would gain notoriety in the 1970s as a member of the Defenders villains the Headmen; and Franz Radzik, a scientist who transfers his brain into a gorilla's body in the pages of 1962's Tales to Astonish #28.
Otherwise, during the Silver Age period, Marvel's main gorilla character was Mikhlo, the super-strong member of Red Ghost's Super-Apes. Marvel has just never had the gorilla legacy of its Distinguished Competition.
The 1970s saw the birth of the Bronze Age, and while gorilla production slowed down somewhat in this period, nevertheless there are a few noteworthy entries into the ape canon, including the intellectual ape with tank tread legs Ape-X from Mark Gruenwald and Bob Hall's Squadron Supreme; the Primate Patrol, a squad of Nazi gorillas from Weird War Tales; and most notably, the Ultra-Humanite, who had been the first ever super-villain in comics, given new life in 1981 when his mind is transferred into the body of a powerful albino ape.
The Iron Age, beginning in the mid 1980s, saw superhero comics desperately trying to prove how sophisticated and adult they were, so it's no surprise that there are practically no new gorillas within the superhero genre in this period, with the most notable one being Cy-Gor, a spittle-mouthed cyborg ape from the pages of Spawn.
With superhero comics more or less a wash for gorillas in the years between 1985 and 1999, we have to look elsewhere to find them, notably adventure comics by creators who were unabashedly pulling from comics' pulp roots to create exciting new yarns: Axwell Tiberius from Art Adams's Monkeyman and O'Brien; King Solomon from Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse's Tom Strong; and the Kriegaffe from Mike Mignola's Hellboy.
Fortunately, since around the turn of the century, superhero comics have slowly started to embrace their silly roots, and gorillas have begun to pop up all over comics again. Beginning with 1999's JLApe, an event that ran through all of DC's annuals and saw most of their heroes changed into gorillas, there have been several notable gorillas, including the 2008 mini-series Marvel Apes; the future Batman villain Jackanapes; the absurdist gorilla with a jetpack Kirk Madge of Sky Ape; Matt Fraction and Andy Kuhn's Rex Mantooth, Kung Fu Gorilla; and not one but two revivals of the public domain pulp character Six-Gun Gorilla.
Between these titles and the inclusion of some of DC's more prominent gorilla characters in their TV series such as The Flash and, of course, the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode from which I “borrowed” the headline of this piece, hopefully we are ourselves in the midst of a gorilla renaissance.