Thursday, January 04, 2018

Converts to the Kong Religion

Skull Island: The Birth of Kong #3-4 (Legendary, 2017, $3.99)
Kong: Gods of Skull Island #1 (Boom, October 2017, $7.99)
Kong on the Planet of the Apes #1-2 (Boom, November-December 2017, $3.99)

The release of the Kong: Skull Island movie last year brought a welcome rash of Kong-related comic books, of which these are three examples. Each comic or series does its own thing slightly differently, and all do it well.

Skull Island: The Birth of Kong comes closest to what an ongoing Kong series might feel like, similar perhaps to Godzilla in Hell or Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters. (Even with the recent issues of Hammer comics such as Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, the Godzilla comics are as close as we get to ongoing monster comics.) The series is a sequel/prequel of sorts to the Skull Island movie. Arvid Nelson's writing and Zid's art and colors combine well to capture the lush expanse of the island's foliage and geology, as well as its inhabitants, living and dead.

A party of armed explorers led by Aaron Brooks, following in the footsteps of his father, meets with the resident natives, and one, Riccio, converts to the Kong religion. Their journey takes readers to many of the major sites of the film, including the valley of the fallen gods, where the current Kong's origin is told, and includes the major creatures, as well, including the skull crawlers. Riccio decides the best way to test whether Kong is a protector is to destroy the wall protecting the village, opening it to threat.

The artwork is particularly impressive. Almost full-page panels delight, and the images of Kong in action are powerful, especially #4's pp. 9-10, 14, and 17. It is the combination of place—the land—and races—its inhabitants—that makes this comic most impressive. Skull Island is an awe-inspiring location.

Each issue includes several pages of "Monarch Declassified Field Notes," which offers background information on some of the new fauna of the island, including the magma turtle, swamp locust, spore mantis, and mother longlegs. The Godzilla comics makers could learn from that: Don't just roll call through the existing creatures, introduce others worth of inclusion in the mythos!

The Boom Studios one shot Kong: Gods of Skull Island is a standalone story set on the island, written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and drawn by Chad Lewis. The artwork is less muscular and cinematic than the Legendary miniseries, reminding me just slightly of Guy Davis or William Messner-Loebs. The end result is visually less awe inspiring, but perhaps more naturalistic and gentle—and certainly conceptually strong—offering an interesting counterpoint.

In the early 1900s, a pilot crash lands on the island, and several months later, two ships run ashore. The sailors' mission is one of missionary work among the Tagatu, whom they soon encounter. "Let's go save these poor devils." Along with the tale of clashing religions, the comic also offers new insight on the origin of the island itself, as well as man's many attempts to tame it rather than coexist with it—and introduces the idea of the cult of the worm.

Several details gave this reader pause: the village of pincushion men, the bones' false life, the harpies, the nest of the queen worm, and skeletons lying broken on the rocks. So much of the book is spent trying to disregard or disbelieve in Kong. "Kong is real. It was me that wasn't. I am a ghost, less than a man in a land of gods." An excellent one shot that shows how standalone stories can work well in a semi-shared universe such as Kong. It also indicates the storytelling potential of the religious underpinnings of the Kong myth.

Finally, Kong on the Planet of the Apes. I don't really understand the appeal of the idea of crossover books like this, Batman '66 Meets the Green Hornet, or He-Man/Thundercats—or even the more recent Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes. (That said, Batman/Grendel and Grendel vs. the Shadow were both awesome.) It took just a few pages of #1 for that skepticism to fade.

This miniseries—written by Ryan Ferrier and drawn by Carlos Magno—is set squarely in the original Planet of the Apes timeline, perhaps shortly after Taylor left the apes. The apes are about to destroy the rediscovered Statue of Liberty when they find the corpse of a Kong washed ashore. Doctor Zaius enlists Cornelius and Zira to perform an autopsy and learn what they can about "something that very well may shock the foundations of science and faith for all apekind."

One of my favorite moments was when Zaius shows the others a New York Globe clipping that ties the comic in to the original 1933 movie. So inspired, the apes undertake an expedition to leave the Forbidden Zone and try to find where the corpse came from. On a warm water island (effectively from New York City to Kenya), they meet other intelligent apes, suggesting that their community is an isolated example of what could be many around the world. That opens up additional opportunities for standalone Apes stories; perhaps they don't need to center on the core community and characters!

Continuing on, they encounter giant creatures and eventually find Skull Island. There, they find proof of life, stone work, and crude art depicting Kong. "They prayed to her. As they would a god." P. 7's distant view of the church, place of worship, or mausoleum, is stunning. As the apes struggle to reconcile their own historical understanding of religion with what they're now finding, they are attacked by humans, who recognize that the non-soldiers are possible allies. Then, they meet Kong—and the result is surprising. I can't wait for #3.

This is an impressive assortment of comics. Three different approaches to the Kong myth, from different creators and publishers, all fulfill different forms and functions in terms of appeal, structure, and tone. The underpinnings—the scale and scope of Kong island, the protection of humankind, and the religious awe due such a protector—remain consistent. More Kong comics, please, movie or no!

Availability: Skull Island: The Birth of Kong has been collected. Kong: Gods of Skull Island is available online. Kong on the Planet of the Apes is also available online. We also recommend Planet of the Apes Archive Vol. 1: Terror on the Planet of the Apes.

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