Go Ape! The Planet of the Apes Books And Comics Of The 1970s

From novelisations to Marvel Comics to Power Records, the publications that fed the relentless Ape Fever of the Seventies.

Originally based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, the Planet of the Apes franchise proved a surprisingly lucrative one for publishers, even by the standards of the 1970s when movie novelisations were ten-a-penny. As well as numerous tie-in editions of Boulle’s original novel (translated either as Planet of the Apes or more accurately as Monkey Planet, depending on the whims of the publisher at the time), all four sequels were novelised. Beneath the Planet of the Apes was adapted by the prolific Michael Avallone, who was both a crime fiction author and contributor to the Nick Carter series of novels but is perhaps best known for his extensive career writing movie and TV tie-ins, most notably The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but also including everything from Friday the 13th Pt III to The Partridge Family.

The rest of the film novelisations were published by Award Books, and are notable for all being written by science fiction heavyweights. Escape From the Planet of the Apes was novelised by Jerry Pournelle, a research scientist, the spiritual father of Ronald Reagan’s SDI ‘Star Wars’ programme and author of numerous intensely serious science fiction novels, often in collaboration with Larry Niven; this was his only novelisation. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was penned by John Jakes, best known for his civil war novels including North and South, but also a prolific sword and sorcery and fantasy novelist, usually chronicling the adventures of Conan knock-off Brak the Barbarian. And the final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, was novelised by David Gerrold, a Star Trek scriptwriter and a prolific and acclaimed science fiction author, as well as a gobby columnist for Starlog magazine over many years.

Award also published the tie-in novels for the Planet of the Apes TV series. Although the series only lasted for fourteen episodes, it nevertheless spawned four books, each with three episodes brusquely adapted by prolific, award-winning science fiction author and comic book writer George Alec Effinger.

The final batch of Apes novels in the 1970s was a collection of books based on the Saturday morning cartoon series Return to the Planet of the Apes. Cartoons have rarely been novelised – only the animated Star Trek also spawned novels at the time to the best of my knowledge – and it perhaps speaks of how popular the Apes saga was for readers that this thirteen-episode show led to three novels published by Ballantine Books and written by ‘William Arrow’, in fact a pseudonym for William Rotsler, who wrote the first and third, and Donald J. Pfeil, who wrote the second. Pfeil was the editor of sci-fi magazine Vertex and author of a handful of SF novels, and Rotsler was also a prolific science fiction writer who later novelised two Star Trek movies, but is perhaps better known for his work in sexploitation cinema – he directed Mantis in Lace, The Godson, Like It Is and The Agony of Love among other films in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and launched the adult industry guide Adam Film World. Notably, the three novelisations try to hide their cartoon origins, using stills from the films and TV series on the covers.

In the UK, where Planet of the Apes had proved especially popular as a TV show – leading to all manner of merchandise – the franchise spawned three hardback annuals from Brown Watson, dated 1975 – 1977 (like all UK annuals, the cover date was a year ahead of publication, reflecting their status as Christmas gifts designed to entertain throughout the coming year). These annuals are a mixed bag, with comic strips and short stories based on the TV show mixed with articles about the films. The first edition is actually pretty good, with solid writing about the history of the Apes franchise and the creation of the makeup; the latter two are more disposable, though the John Bolton art on the strips is a bonus.

The popularity of the Apes in the UK is also reflected in the Marvel comics based on the series. Marvel in the US launched their Apes comic book as a black and white magazine format publication that mixed adaptations of the movies with original stories and some articles and interviews. In 1975, Marvel also published an 11-issue colour comic book series called Adventures on the Planet of the Apes, which adapted the first two films before being cancelled. The black and white magazine ran for 29 issues, between 1974 and 1977, but in the end was being kept alive by the huge popularity of the British weekly version, which proved to be one of Marvel UK’s biggest sellers after The Mighty World of Marvel and Spider-Man. The only problem was finding enough Apes material to keep it going, and at one point, the science fiction strip Killraven was redrawn as Apeslayer to fill the gaps. The comic lasted for 123 issues, absorbing Dracula Lives! along the way, before eventually being absorbed into The Mighty World of Marvel, where it shared the cover for another sixteen issues before finally being put to rest as both the material and Apes fever dried up.

But the Marvel comics were not the first Apes strips. There were Japanese Manga adaptations of the first two films in 1968 (Saru no Wakusei) and 1971 (Saigo no Saru no Wakusei). In the US, Gold Key Comics produced an adaptation of Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1970.

And concurrent with the Marvel comics – and, indeed, the Brown Watson annuals in the UK – Power Records produced four book and record sets in 1975, with comic strip and audio adaptations of four of the five films (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was possibly a bit heavy going for the child audience). The collection was popular enough to be followed by a series of LP-only adventures based on the TV series.

The final Apes publications of the 1970s were a collection of Argentinian comic books published in 1977 by Editorial Mo.Pa.Sa. El Planeto de los Simios was an ‘unofficial’ (i.e. copyright violating)  comic based on the TV series, written by Jorge Claudio Morhain and illustrated by Sergio Alejandro Mulko.

There have been more Apes novels and comics since the heyday of the original films and TV show – the story is too good to ever stay down for long, and with the recent film trilogy, the Apes story has been extended in various versions, including crossovers with Star Trek, Tarzan, the Green Lantern and King Kong. These expansions, variations and twists on the format have all pushed the story into weird and not always wonderful directions, but the original run of titles that appeared at the height of Apes fever remains the most fascinating.


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