Angel and the Ape (Volume 2, DC Comics, 1991)
Written and Drawn by: Phil Foglio
“Is it time for Angel and the Ape to return?”
Every decade or so, the question pops its head above ground at DC, whenever the company needs an antidote against its own ponderous gravitas. It’s a solid, one might say timeless, idea: team a talking ape with a beautiful girl, and have them solve crimes. The original series ran for 7 issues back in 1968/69 and it’s been revived twice since, in 1991 and then again in 2001, and if the success of Harley Quinn‘s persistent zaniness is anything to go by, we might just see them return again soon as DC madly thrashes about in a quest for some cohesive identity.
The second volume, our subject for today, was written and drawn by Phil Foglio, who is known today primarily as the creator of Girl Genius. As much as Angel gets first billing in the title, she’s more or less a third wheel in the story itself. The central thrust of the four issues centers around the Ape, Sam Simeon, and a scheme hatched by his grandfather, Gorilla Grodd, to change all of humanity into apes. The secondary story revolves around Angel’s half sister, the Inferior Five’s Dumb Bunny, who fights crime in a tight sweater and bunny ears and has massive strength but no intelligence. She’s looking for a boyfriend she won’t inadvertently break, and has her eye on the Ape.
Angel, meanwhile, zips through the periphery of these stories, shoving characters around to their respective narrative destinies but she doesn’t have any real central drama of her own to deal with until the very last page of the very last issue. Foglio characterizes her as static and anchored in order to let the rest of the comic go insane around her, and it works pretty well. She cracks skulls, follows leads, and calls in favors, while it’s left to the Ape to communicate psychically with reality-altering Green Lantern technology and to Dumb Bunny to find fulfilling love at last with a ninety-five pound nerd in a nice bit of fan service wish fulfillment that threw a fantasy bone to all of us early Nineties gawky adolescents. Thanks, uncle Phil.
It’s a curious book, one that takes pot shots at DC’s craven bid for grittiness at all costs while poking at the borders of inter-species sexual relations. Its central plot, of apes and humans switching places to even the species odds a bit, is just weighty enough to keep the kookiness from floating the book away, and just silly enough to keep the book from being a continual sacrifice to its own plot points. And, for all the maturing we’ve done since 1991, the central story of Dumb Bunny looking for somebody she can hug without harming is really quite touching when at last it is resolved. We should be outraged that she’s even a thing, but she is handled so genuinely, with such real uncomprehending pathos, that it’s hard not to cheer for her, name and costume notwithstanding.
Angel and the Ape is, at day’s end, a tough book to evaluate. Angel should have had more room for development in this story that belongs overwhelmingly to the Ape, but Dumb Bunny’s unexpectedly warm sub-narrative is so cozy and fluffy that it’s hard to stay mad at the slight for too long. When the jokes feel old or uninspired, the main plot is interesting enough to keep pushing you through, and when that starts getting a bit thread-bare, the Inferior Five stumbles onto the page for five pages of just unremitting goofiness that clears the air again. It has perhaps found the perfect recipe for staying just enough on top of its faults to stay consistently interesting. That’s an art every deadline-wary author needs to cultivate, and Angel and the Ape might just be the textbook.
A City Where Men Evolved from Power Meters?
Fierce: 8: Both Dumb Bunny and Angel can handle a situation on their own, and not since Fezzik has there been a more sympathetic gentle bruiser character than the former.
Smart: 4: Angel’s detective work isn’t of preciesely Sherlockean proportions, and Dumb Bunny is pretty much as advertised. The central plot is cleverly handled.
Funny: 6: Funny books don’t age well. With rare exceptions of particular genius, humor is really the least generationally transcendent aspect of human social capital. I suspect Monty Python will always be funny, but go ahead, I dare you, go back and watch a full episode of Mr. Belvedere. There are a lot of bits here that fit in very well with the satirical forms of a quarter century ago (yes, 1991 was a quarter century ago – man, you’re old) but that don’t quite stir the funny bone anymore.
Art: 9: It’s Phil Foglio, so you know precisely what to expect. The nice thing about Foglio’s art is that, even when it’s at its most gratuitous (Grodd at one point imprisons Angel and company and strips them all down to their underwear for the purpose because… he was worried… she’d use her dress as a weapon?), the figures are so different, so uniquely solid, that it’s hard to take it really as titillation. In all events, this style is perfectly suited to a story this zany.
Debris (Image Comics, 2012)
Written by: Kurtis J. Wiebe
Art by: Riley Rossmo
Fans of Super Heroines might recall a few weeks back when we talked about Apocalyptigirl, a comic that absolutely sank itself on its need to cram universe explanation into every spare chunk of the page. It was an object lesson on how not to do a dystopian graphic novel, and the proof is in the comparison with comics that do it right, which are able to present a whole world in the space of four issues without explaining the death out of it. Debris is such a book. Wiebe weaves for us a story about a water-starved future and allows us to simply live in it. No page of blocky expositionary text, no narrative captions soggy with back story, just a story about a girl, the last of the Protectors of her tribe, and a mission to find a safe place at last for her people.
The setting is of a familiar sort: in a run-down village, most of the population is put to work operating a water-producing machine that was built long ago, while a few protect the borders from rampaging bio-organic monstrosities. We are thrown into this world, and the way Wiebe constructs the sequence of events, we understand everything completely just by following along with the story. Do we know where the monsters came from, or what happened to the tribe 5000 years ago? No, because we don’t need to. In order to be with the characters, who don’t understand most of the workings of the world they’ve been thrown into, we have to be as clueless about the history of the world as they are, and Wiebe makes sure to keep us that way.
Maya, our protagonist, is training with the village’s Protector when the story begins but soon enough finds herself not only Protector, but tasked with finding a mythical civilization with free access to water. The tale, told over just four issues, is in essentially three parts: she’s in the village, she’s in the wilderness, she’s at another village. But in that space she is steady – she is a warrior, an expert at dealing with monstrosities, but one whose personal code is too simple for the subtle hatreds of societal institutions. When she reaches her destination, the people there are possessed of ancient prejudices and civilizational greed which break against her steadfast goodness and sense of purpose. She doesn’t go through any self-doubt or great emotional change – she’s just her, a person overtaken by the need to help her people, and who puts every bit of herself at the service of others.
Most of the title’s space is taken up with Maya fighting gigantic robot monsters on a scale beautifully captured by Rossmo. It’s the same full-throttle modern woman warrior flavor Wiebe has since perfected in Rat Queens, only with a shade of solo, end-times desperation that is entirely unique to this mini-series. And, in between the fights, we have her quest, her discussions with those she meets along the way and who end up following in her determined wake. If the book has any fault, it’s this: she is so sure of herself, and that confidence is always vindicated so quickly, that it’s hard to believe she’s ever really in peril or that her standpoint won’t soon win the day, regardless of how set against her the other characters appear to be. But it’s also nice to read a comic with a female lead where that lead just steamrolls through town and, by force of personal dedication, drags history behind her.
There is no Water… Only Power.
Fierce: 10: Maya is both an unstoppable physical combatant and an unconquerable moral force. Everything she has is directed towards service and she has no patience with those who aren’t driven by empathy.
Smart: 8: Nobody in the book does anything particularly brainy, but the title narrative itself is woven so intelligently, with the world and its weirdness allowed to speak fully for themselves, that it supports perfectly a character of this Knives-n-Duty nature.
Funny: N/A: Other than a few amusing expressions of annoyance in the midst of battle, there really isn’t any humorous content in this book, unlike the densely hilarious Rat Queens.
Art: 10: Rossmo draws grit and entropic despair like nobody else. Maya’s design is strong and practical and reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, while the monstrosities are rendered on a massive scale that nonetheless Maya believably engages with.