Monday, September 12, 2011

Conspiracy Of The Planet Of The Apes

Between this summer’s excellent cinematic reboot (and surprise smash hit) Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Boom! Studios’ solidly entertaining Planet Of The Apes ongoing comic series (and its recently-announced spinoff miniseries, Betrayal Of The Planet Of The Apes, co-written and illustrated by Hulk & Atlas artist Gabriel Hardman), it’s a good time to be an Apes fan. It’s hard to detect where this sudden new surge of interest in the property is coming from—when most of these projects were being planned, the box office outlook for the new film was looking pretty grim—but I’m personally happy to reap the rewards, such as the intriguing new illustrated novel from Archaia Entertainment, Conspiracy Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Written by Andrew E.C. Gaska and sporting an absolutely dynamite cover painting by comics legend Jim Steranko, Conspiracy takes place in and around the events of the original 1968 Planet Of The Apes film. The plot diverges from marooned astronaut Taylor’s plight and instead centers on his colleague, Landon, following the events that resulted in his eventual lobotomy courtesy of Dr. Zaius. Gaska spins a suspenseful parallel adventure to the more familiar storyline of the original film, one that features flashbacks to an earlier space mission gone awry (which makes surprising use of simian imagery to slyly suggest that the whole adventure on the ape planet might all take place in Landon’s mind during cryosleep), while folding in elements from assorted Apes sequels, like the psychic mutants from Beneath The Planet Of The Apes and sympathetic chimp scientist Doctor Milo from Escape From The Planet Of The Apes. Gaska’s plot helps set up elements from the sequels, laying the groundwork for the war between the mutants and the apes in Beneath, while showing how Milo learned of, and eventually retrieved, Taylor’s sunken spacecraft so he could use it to flee his doomed world in Escape.

It’s not easy to maintain suspense when you know the story’s outcome courtesy of a 43-year old film, but that’s not really what Gaska is up to with Conspiracy Of The Planet Of The Apes. Aimed squarely at diehard Apes fans, who know not only the first film intimately but are familiar with the mythology of the sequels as well, Gaska is more interested in unifying the various strands of plot into more of a companion piece to the overall Apes experience. I can’t imagine it’ll be of much interest or use to the casual fan, but having just revisited the entire film series over the summer (check out my series overview at The Coast’s website), I definitely admired the scope of the project and was able to appreciate his knowledge of Apes lore. Gaska’s gritty prose thankfully doesn’t update the Cold War roots of the original movie (Taylor, Landon, Dodge, and Stewart still left Earth in 1972, hoping to conquer deep space before the Communists). A subplot about chimp surgeon Galen and his unfaithful wife doesn’t really go anywhere, and a last-act revelation about the fate of Ape City’s political dissidents is potentially interesting, but the book ends before we can learn more about it (maybe a sequel is in the works?). Archaia has put together a sharp package here, with some beautiful, occasionally nightmarish, paintings by Chris Moeller, Erik Gist, Joe Jusko, Barron Storrey, punctuated by Struzan-esque character illustrations by Matt Busch, although some proofreading was definitely needed before this book went to press (horse instead of hoarse, faired instead of fared, it’s instead of its). Still, as companion pieces to film projects go, Conspiracy Of The Planet Of The Apes takes a surprisingly old-school approach to fleshing out a familiar storyline and melding it with a larger established tapestry, one that Apes devotees would do well to explore.

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