Marvel had a hit of sorts when it cranked out a Marvel Zombies mini-series. The premise was simple: Marvel’s heroes and villains had been turned into flesh-eating zombies. Walking Dead scribe Robert Kirkman wrote the original mini-series and the first sequel, and followed a world where a handful of uninfected normal people were still out there, but mostly the zombies were trying to find their next meal, and that eventually led them to realize they might have to visit other dimensions to get it. The various mini-series tended to have zombified versions of classic Marvel covers, and the series started off as good, gory fun before Marvel kicked that (un)dead horse one too many times.
But if it worked once, it could work again. Take the Marvel Universe, turns most if not all of the characters into something, and see what comes out. And maybe let it start as a cover gimmick.
That’s what gave us the Marvel Apes.
Following a series of ape-based alternate covers, the Marvel Apes appeared in their own spin-off mini-series. Minor reformed Marvel villain the Gibbon plus a woman scientist somehow found themselves zapped to a world where everyone was an ape. Well, almost everyone. There was Spider-Monkey, the Simian Torch, Iron Mandrill, and so forth. True, not every character got an ape-inspired name, but a number did. The lone human on this world was actually the Invisible Woman, and that was because the cosmic rays that made the Fantastic Four turned her into a freak.
At first glance, the first issue seemed mostly like a bit of funny animal humor and not much else. The most clever renaming was for the ape version of Hank Pym. He was called Gro-rilla. But after seeing Spider-Monkey defeat Dr. Ooktapus, and then turn the baddie over to the Ape-vengers, the reader and the Gibbon could be forgiven for thinking the whole mini-series was being played for laughs.
That’s where writer Karl Kessel did one really clever thing and reminded everyone that apes aren’t necessarily cute when the Ape-vengers then savagely beat Dr. Ooktapus within an inch of his life.
Speaking for myself, that would have actually made for a fine mini-series, where the Gibbon has to watch out because the apes aren’t completely cute and are, in fact, savage and dangerous when provoked. Since the average chimp is many times stronger than the strongest human, that’s probably important to keep in mind. Kessel did have humorous back-up stories, where an ape version of the Watcher grew increasingly drunk on Kirby dots and told backstory that managed to mock real-world Marvel continuity as well as use apes in silly stories. Personally, I think it was a smart observation to note turning Thor into Donald Blake to teach him humility is kind of dumb when Donald Blake is a successful doctor living in very expensive midtown Manhattan.
However, there was a problem with the main storyline. Had Kessel stuck to either the funny animal story, or to the idea that the apes were just a hair away from savagery, there might have been a good story there. As it is, the silly names continued, but aside from the final issue where two large groups of apes got into a massive brawl, the savage angle never really came into play. There was an introduction for a new hero, Ape X, a small monkey that grew into a giant gorilla when he put on an enchanted luchadore mask, plus ape Speedball managed to get to the regular Marvel universe at a time when the human Speedball was playing Penance. The mini-series ended when a human child found the Ape X mask and also turned into a giant gorilla, but the real problem was one of tone.
Essentially, the main conflict was that, during the ape version of World War II, all the Invaders (Captain America and his superhuman allies) went on a mission that only Captain America survived. Or so everyone thought. The original Simian Torch was definitely dead and gone, but that was because the Invaders were trying to capture a fortress held by Baron Blood, a shapeshifting vampire who could go out during the day. Blood had managed to subdue the ape Cap, made vampires out of most of the Invaders (except the android Torch obviously), and then gone on to pose as the real Cap and lead the Ape-vengers. The Gibbon, working with Speedball, Ape X, and the woman scientist who came with him from Earth 616, went out looking for allies to find the real Cap to stop Baron Blood and the Ape-vengers. That led to the Renegades, or all the good guy apes who weren’t in the Ape-vengers.
You know what’s wrong with that story? Very little of it had to be told with apes. A regular What If-? story would have sufficed. Every one of those characters exists in the regular Marvel universe. Aside from savage beat-downs that occurred all of once or twice in the entire mini-series, and a lot of bad puns for ape-version of superhero names, there didn’t seem to be much of a need to have these guys as apes.
But apes they were. And these guys didn’t get as many follow-ups as the Marvel Zombies, who were getting pretty milked dry by then themselves.
What better way to kill off both franchise possibilities than to have the apes and the zombies go to war?
Really, the Marvel Apes were just tonally all over the place. They probably should have just stayed as a bunch of joke covers.