(Image Comics, 2015)
Written by Keenan Marshall Keller
Art by Tom Neely
Colors by Kristina Collantes
Wow. What can I say about “The Humans”? It was spectacular. The adjective that kept coming to my mind when thinking about this series is “brazen.” It felt like it was breaking rules. That is probably because of all the not so good comics I have read in my lifetime. A really good one stands out like it’s breaking the rule that comics can’t be this good. The writing and art both seemed really fresh to me, and the story had me locked in.
I was a pretty big fan of the original Planet of the Apes movie, but have never seen a biker gang movie that I can recall. I also haven’t watched sons of Anarchy, so I’m not sure I have much in the way of affection for biker narratives. I wasn’t sure how I would receive this type of book. I was interested in the concept, and wanted to check it out solely for that reason. Essentially it’s a book about a motorcycle gang called “The Humans” in a world of humanoid apes set in the 1970’s USA.
One thing that struck me is how the “concept” isn’t explained at all; it just is what it is. There are no sci-fi (or otherwise) explanations (as of yet) that tell us why the apes inhabit the world of 1970’s America. I have a hard time deciding if the conceit is “high concept” or just lowbrow, or both at the same time. There is an element to it that has me guessing, and I wonder how it will be explained or if it will at all. I would be happy with either I suspect. I won’t say what that is because it was a nice surprise to me. It reminded me of the Goon for the fact that it is a very unique vision, presented with very little explanation. Both books took me off guard in the same way. Also, like the Goon, it has a nihilism that is grounded with an emotional core. I also would like to note that I listened to the Stooges 1969 self-titled album through reading this book, and I think that is the proper way to go about reading it.
The anthropomorphic aspect I am used to with Stan Sakai’s wonderful Usagi Yojimbo that I have been reading and loving nonstop since the early 90’s, among other anthro titles I have enjoyed through the years. This felt vastly different to me. It is more realistic in tone both in the storytelling and the art.
What kept me coming back is that the story is gripping. Keller tells a damn fine tale of ape bikers. There really is no discernable reason why these apes should appeal as the protagonists other than that the book is focused on them. They aren’t heroic or particularly “good” in any way shape or form. I personally don’t identify with any of them. That doesn’t mean that what is happening to them doesn’t make for a great read. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they are interesting characters, and a couple are rather deep for the small amount of issues we have to get to know them so far. It’s just a testament to the story that such damn dirty apes can keep our attention so well.
I’m struggling to find a way to extol the virtues of this book without giving anything away. I found the most joy in going into the book not really knowing what to expect other than apes on motorcycles, and being surprised by the depth of what I was reading.
This first trade collected issues #0-#4 and the #0 story was a little more of a “one off”, a taste. It was on the second page of #0 where I was first surprised, and intrigued. #0 would’ve definitely made me look for #1, even though the story proper hadn’t even been hinted at yet. The rest of the issues actually build a story, and one that I am going to come back to as long as this quality keeps up.
One thing I really dig about this book is the art. It’s amazing stuff. Drawings by Tom Neely and colors by Kristina Collantes. Two names I am not super familiar with, but have now taken notice and will be watching. There are several virtuoso two page spreads. They are anything but tame. Each one is an artistic achievement in its own right. They are so strongly designed, they will alter your natural reading order, moving your eyes around the page as Tom Neely sees fit. Collantes’ coloring is also top notch. It’s moody, and unreal when it needs to be. The coloring even helps you keep track of who is in which gang during a brawl scene. I think this creative team knocks it out of the park in general. The various apes all have such personality. None of them look like each other. They are all so unique. Not since I first saw the Gorillaz have I fallen so hard for simian designs.
Really, I liked a lot of what this book had to offer. The only caveat I would offer is that its subject matter is not going to be for everyone. There is plenty of profanity, nudity and depictions of sex and drug taking. Lots of pretty harsh violence/gore as well. If these are things you are not comfortable reading about, this book is not for you.
Ok, maybe two caveats. I have to address the lack of a single strong female character in a book that supports a pretty large cast. There are a few females around, but most if not all of them are under the heading “club property”. As a feminist, I find things like this troubling. I do not think that this book would pass the Bechdel Test., but I’m pretty sure given the subject matter the creators probably don’t care. That is not a dig on them, I am just guessing based on the presentation of the material that it’s not a high priority for them to have strong female characters. I want to give a book like this a pass on the feminism angle just based on the fact that it is presented as stark and raw. Uncompromising and gritty. Making time and room for positive strong female characters in a book like this may not only not be on the creators’ to-do list, it might actually be detrimental to what they are building. With a book that is this uncompromising, I feel a little silly going after it for the lack of female characters. There are so many other dark and disturbing things going on with it that being even remotely PC seems not on the radar at all, possibly antithetical. So I feel on the fence about it. Also, given time, we may see them improve this aspect of the book, who knows? There are a couple of female characters that have potential. I’m sold enough on the book that I am going to stick around to find out.
This book is well worth a read if you would like to see what a “high-concept”, “lowbrow” comic in the hands of some extremely capable and uninhibited storytellers looks like. Or what they can do with a rather simple yet unique concept like apes on bikes. It is so much more than what it sounds like. They have me for the long haul with this one.