A Brief History of Marvel’s Planet of the Apes Magazine

In the mid '70s, Marvel’s Planet of the Apes magazine was better than National Lampoon and Playboy combined. To some of us anyway.

Once or twice a week when I was a kid, I’d walk up the hill to the Snyder drug store on Webster to see if any new comics, magazines, or cheap paperbacks had come in. Being a small drug store in a small Midwestern town, there was no set schedule. You never could tell what they would or wouldn’t carry, when a new issue would come in, or if they’d even get the next issue. What the distributor sent them, they put out and didn’t think about it too much. So it was always a bit of a crapshoot.

One afternoon in 1974 I was loitering around the magazine stand, pretending to look at Time and the Saturday Evening Post, waiting for the old crone at the pharmacy counter to step away so I could sneak a quick peek at the latest National Lampoon (that or Easyriders, the closest thing they had to dirty magazines) when my eyes fell on something in the bottom rack and I froze. It was one of those moments, like accidentally stumbling across an ultra-rare album or movie you thought you’d never find, maybe didn’t even know existed. My whole body went all numb as a tingle of nerve impulses raced from my head, across my shoulders, and  down my back. Sitting there right next to Woman’s Day was Planet of the Apes magazine, issue one.

Above the title was the tagline, “Where man once stood supreme, now rule the apes!” The cover painting, in an odd mix of pink and purple hues, showed a group of gorillas handcuffing a weeping female chimp. It took all I had to keep from screaming. I didn’t even need to flip through it to see what I was getting into. The perfect-bound, 84-page newsprint mag cost a whole dollar (a hefty cover price in my world) but it didn’t matter. I snatched it off that bottom shelf and brought it to the checkout. It was the perfect magazine. I mean, THE perfect magazine, the one I’d been waiting for my whole young life.  

I ran home, ran to my room (already overflowing with Apes merchandise), and read every last goddamn word of it. Then I did it again. I would do the same thing with the next 28 issues until the mag was abruptly cancelled in 1977. I still have every issue safely locked away in my desk drawer, but pulled them out again recently to take another look. They’re a little tattered now, some of the covers are falling off and newsprint never has aged well, but they’ve lost none of that old magic from 40 years ago.

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The original Planet of the Apes film series ended with 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, but in 1974 the weekly TV series began airing on CBS. As the series was getting underway, Roy Thomas, who’d overseen several titles at the Marvel imprint Curtis (home of the b/w Conan, Dracula, and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu comics) acquired the licensing rights to the Apes franchise from 20th Century Fox in hopes of publishing a Planet of the Apes magazine. He brought on Doug Moench (who’d written for damn near everybody and every comic by that time,) to write the whole thing. Also aboard was a rotating roster of Marvel artists to draw the strips, and notables like Bob Larkin, Earl Norem, Ken Barr, and Malcolm McNeill to provide the covers. Man, the covers were fantastic, ranging from the hyperrealistic to the hyperstylized to the just plain odd (a group of apes in coonskin caps paddling a raft down the rapids?).

In those pre-home video days, if you wanted to experience a favorite film that had already left theaters, you had two choices. You could either wait around, hoping one of the networks would decide to air it as a movie of the week, or you could pick up the novelization (I had dozens). The Planet of the Apes magazine offered another option. The final feature in each issue was the latest installment of the serialized adaptations of all five films. They weren’t exactly scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot recreations of what had appeared onscreen, but they were damn well close enough for me.

Each adaptation ran from five to seven issues. The advantage of the strips was that they allowed the artists to go far beyond what was visually possible considering the budgetary, special effects, and MPAA limitations faced by filmmakers. There was more bloodshed, the apes were more expressive, and we could actually see things like spaceships and exploding planets, which the films’ budgets wouldn’t allow.

What stuck with me the most along these lines were the radiation-scarred mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes. While in the film they were merely gray and bald, looking like severe burn victims more than anything, in the strips they were monstrous, with dripping flesh, bulging eyeballs, and exposed bone. They looked like zombies from the old EC comics, which is how I always imagined a radiation-scarred mutant should look.

Moench later said that each of the strips had to be sent to the film’s producer, Arthur P. Jacobs, to get his approval (mostly to insure the characters didn’t too closely resemble the actors in the film), but there were no real problems. He also admitted he was not a big fan of the original film series, and didn’t even bother seeing any of them beyond the second one. He wrote the strips based on the screenplays, and as a result the adaptations of the last two films in particular (Conquest and Battle) don’t resemble the films at all visually, and in some cases even include scenes that never made the final theatrical cut.

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Each issue opened with another unrelated serial strip, which was given the blanket title Terror on the Planet of the Apes. Terror was a collection of limited-run stories which also ran five to seven issues each (sometimes less) and while they took place in the Planet of the Apes universe, they took place in different historical periods, different geographical settings, and different points along the ape/human evolutionary scale. It was the first time Ape stories unrelated to anything in the films had been published.

Kingdom on the Island of the Apes, for instance, had a medieval setting complete with jousting apes, another involved a group of disembodied brains in jars (one with a heavy Bronx accent) who were out to destroy the apes and take over the planet, while another involved a small traveling carnival. Unchained from the films, Moench as sole writer was free to do anything with the mythology  he chose, including making up his own along the way. Perhaps a dangerous responsibility to give a man who admittedly didn’t care about the series, but in retrospect it was probably the wisest possible path. 

While  the serials under the Terror on the Planet of the Apes banner were considered the heart of the magazine, the mag also included the occasional one-off strip, a self-contained story that ran three pages (a human who can’t walk and an ape with paralyzed arms find they have to cooperate to survive, etc.). There was also a photo play now and again without dialogue involving models in ape makeup acting out a little eight-panel story. Those, I gotta admit, were always pretty awful, but maybe they had to whip out some quick crap to fill a page or two that month.

In between the major and minor strips was a handful of Apes-related articles, interviews, and photo spreads. In the first issue you had a long piece on the development and application of the makeup, in the second an article about the construction of Ape City. Since the TV show was running at the time most of the articles were tied in with that, including interviews with cast and crew members and reports from the set. 

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Ah, and then there were the ads. Pages and pages of  glorious mid-’70s comic book ads. “Fear No Man!” screamed an ad for a kung fu course. “Be a Detective!” promised an ad for a “detective kit” that consisted of a plastic badge. Apart from Marvel’s in-house ads and the ads for Apes merchandise, most all the ads seem to concern martial arts, bodybuilding, or detective kits of one kind or another. I guess these people figured Planet of the Apes geeks probably had bully problems and rich fantasy lives. 

As good and as beautiful as most of the strips were, it was clear by mid-’76 there was trouble afoot. the TV show only ran one season, and the Saturday morning cartoon which began in ‘75 didn’t run much longer. Article ideas and interviews were drying up, as there was nothing new or relevant left to talk about. There are only so many times you can interview Roddy McDowall about the same thing. The once perfect-bound mag grew smaller and was stapled. The price dropped from a buck to seventy-five cents. Eventually all the articles vanished, and once the adaptation of Battle for the Planet of the Apes wrapped up in issue 28, there wasn’t much of anything left save for the ongoing Terror strips and the kung-fu ads.

Another problem were the licensing fees, which were getting a little too expensive for a shrinking magazine and a franchise that wasn’t offering anything new. The killer, though, was Star Wars. By January of 1977 the hype had already begun, and it was becoming clear all those Planet of the Apes geeks out there (well, most of them anyway) were poised and ready to shift allegiances. The magazine’s material had dried up, and suddenly so had its audience. Abruptly with issue 29 Planet of the Apes magazine was unceremoniously discontinued, leaving several ongoing storylines unfinished.

It wasn’t a complete loss, though. The first three film adaptations were later colorized and released as graphic novels, several of the other strips had been picked up by magazines in Europe, and well, the damn thing had kept me going for a little over two years there, and that’s something. There have since been a number of Planet of the Apes comics issued, thanks mostly to the Tim Burton travesty and the more recent reboots, but as with the reboots themselves, there’s no topping the purity of the original. After all, which one of these more recent comic series would run a long interview with Natalie Trundy?

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