Monkey Business: Kesel Talks "Marvel Apes"

Martin Blank - better known as The Gibbon - already thought the Marvel Universe was a tense and dangerous place, but things will literally get a lot hairier for him this September when "Marvel Apes" hits the comic stands courtesy of writer Karl Kesel and artist Ramon Bachs. CBR News spoke with Kesel about the four-issue simian superhero epic that sends the Gibbon to a parallel world populated by ape versions of popular Marvel characters.

Since his debut in 1972's "Amazing Spider-Man" #110, the Gibbon has tried his hand both at supervillainy and heroics. Neither role proved successful for him, and Kesel sees that as part of the character's charm. "The thing I've always loved about the Gibbon is that he's just such a loser," the writer told CBR News. "What I began to realize as I was working with him is that he knows going into a situation that things aren't usually going to work out the way he wants them to. Generally things work out the exact opposite way but he still gives it the old college try. Then when things turn out bad he says, 'Yeah that's what I thought was going to happen' but it doesn't stop him from trying next time-- and I really like that about the character."

The Gibbon's mutant abilities bestowed upon him several super human physical traits, but in the wake of M-Day, the massive depowering of the Marvel U's mutants, it appeared that he lost those abilities. "Marvel Apes" will show that there is more going on with the Gibbon's powers than even he thought. "All I can say is we kind of cover that question," Kesel remarked. "In this story, there's some question to whether or not he's a mutant."

In "Punisher War Journal" #4, the Gibbon was one of many villains caught in an explosion triggered by the Punisher. He survived the explosion but suffered third degree burns that removed much of the fur covering his body. The Gibbon's most recent appearance in "Punisher War Journal" #16 saw the character plotting revenge against the Punisher, but reconsidering at the last moment and going back to live with his wife Princess Python, who was blinded by the same explosion.

When "Marvel Apes" begins, the Gibbon's marriage is on the rocks and his life seems to be on a downward slope. "He narrates the story and says something along the lines of, 'They say when life give you lemons make lemonade, but all life gives me is banana peels.' And that's really his life right there," Kesel explained. "Things are going so bad for him that he actually volunteers for a superhuman study at State University because he figures no one else is very interested in him."

State University is where the Gibbon meets "Marvel Apes'" other main protagonist, Fiona Fitzhugh. "She's a new character. She's working at State University, Reed Richards old Alma Mater, and in fact she's the recipient of the Reed Richards Fellowship there. So she's some sort of genius. She has a working knowledge of just about every field of science like Reed, but she's not on Reed's level," Kesel explained. "One of the things she's playing around with in the back of her mind is dimensional frequencies, and she tests out one of her theories on the Gibbon. It goes horribly awry and sends our characters into the ape world.

"She's much more youthful and exuberant than Reed Richards," Kesel continued. "When an idea hits her she's like, 'Oh I've got to check this out right now!' There's a difference between being intelligent and having common sense, and I think she's a good example of that."

When the Gibbon and Fiona arrive in the Ape Universe they're confronted by a world that's shockingly different, yet strangely familiar. "I'm sure over the course of history in the Ape Universe there's been real similarities and correlations to events in the Marvel Universe, but it's definitely not exact," Kesel revealed. "There are some characters in the Ape Universe who do not exist in the Marvel Universe, and vice versa. For instance, there doesn't seem to be a Gibbon in the Ape Universe. And there are characters like Ape X who exists in the Ape Universe but don't seem to exist in the Marvel Universe, or maybe we should say don't yet exist in the Marvel U. There have been at least a few major differences in terms of events that I don't want to go into, because it would give too much away. But certain characters like Doctor Strange have not survived in the Ape Universe for various reasons."

The Ape heroes of whom the Gibbon and Fiona run afoul include a variety of characters, like the Ape-Vengers. "A lot them have names that make you laugh when you say them out loud," Kesel remarked. "Spider-Monkey is the most obvious. Iron Mandrill then comes on real quick, but you don't want to overuse that with characters like Power Mandrill and others. There's only so many super powered mandrills that you can have.

"There are just so many fun ones," Kesel continued. "I really enjoyed Iron Paw, who can make his paw like a thing of iron! The great thing about that is when Ramon Bachs draws him using his Iron Paw, he's actually using one of his feet! I thought it was hilarious.

"We did a promo piece that was a takeoff on the 'One More Day' storyline in Spider-Man. Ramon penciled it and I inked it, and he drew in a Daredevil with a DD on his chest. I talked to our editor Steve Wacker and asked, 'Can we call the character something like Devil Chimp and make it a DC on his chest? And Wacker goes, 'No, I don't think we can do that.'"

The Gibbon and Fiona's adventures in "Marvel Apes" take place primarily in the heart of the Ape Universe, the city of Monkhattan. "There's a little bit of globetrotting, but not a lot," Kesel remarked. "If we ever go back-- and I certainly hope we do-- I'd love to see versions of Latveria, Atlantis, all of those places."

When the Gibbon first arrives in the Ape Universe, things aren't quite as bad as he expects them to be. "He's admired and liked and considered quite good looking! He really likes it there for a short while," Kesel explained. "But then something happens and he becomes very, very concerned with getting home as quickly as possible and hopefully in one piece, and that's really what the rest of the story is about."

Even with the mysterious event that makes him concerned with getting home, leaving the Ape Universe is not something that will be easy for the Gibbon on a personal level. "When the Gibbon is exposed to this experimental ray there is some question as to why they end up in this world of apes. He even wonders in one issue that if they trained the ray on Fiona, would they have ended up on a world filled with women? Probably not," Kesel said. "So there is some question about if he has a connection to this place. Then his question becomes: is this where I really belong?"

"Marvel Apes" features a number of supporting characters, chief among them the previously mentioned Ape X. "He's a big gorilla wearing a magical Mexican wrestling mask," Kesel explained. "He's a Kirby style character; a big brawler who throws people through walls and blast energy from his hands. He's just a really fun character-- and you can't go wrong with a gorilla in a Mexican wrestling mask!

"I was trying to figure out some back story for the Ape X character, and I have a brother-in-law who, in high school and college, was quite the wrestler. He was a state champion in Oregon," Kesel continued. "His name is Roy Reyna, and I thought, 'What a great comic book name! I wonder if he'll mind if I make a monkey out of him?'"

The presence of an ape in a Luchador mask obviously means "Marvel Apes" will be a very funny book, but it will have its serious moments as well. "It goes back and forth," Kesel said. "I'm a firm believer in the Joss Whedon approach-- if things are tense and you make a joke it's funnier, and if you're telling jokes and than something horrible happens its even more horrible. I think that's a great way to write stories."

Kesel is very happy to be working with Ramon Bachs on "Marvel Apes" and feels the artist's depiction of the Ape Universe and its inhabitants gets better and better with every page he turns in. "When he has the ape Captain America leaning forward on his desk , he's leaning on his knuckles," Kesel remarked. "I never said that in the script. Ramon just keyed in on that real quickly. His ape body language is really good, plus with the characters being monkeys and apes, he can be a little more expressive and cartoony with the faces than he would be if he was drawing a book like 'The Avengers.'

"He just did a page with Wolverine, and he gave him that weird haircut but still made him look like a monkey," Kesel continued. "I thought it was wonderful!"

In addition to Kesel and Bach's main story, readers of "Marvel Apes" will also be treated to back-up stories by writer Tom Peyer that flesh out the history of the Ape Universe. "He has a monkey Watcher telling the stories," Kesel revealed. "They're pretty hilarious." Barry Kitson draws the first back-up, and Kesel himself draws the second -- "Set in Apesgard!" Kesel said.

The seeds for "Marvel Apes" were first planted when a fan yelled out the suggestion to Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada at a comic convention. When editor Steve Wacker first offered Kesel the assignment, the writer thought he was joking. "He was serious. The idea had stuck with Joe, but I believe Wacker had seen some drawings Mike Wieringo had done of various Marvel characters as apes and that put the idea in his head as well," Kesel explained. "Somehow Joe and Steve came together and it became a real project and they gave me a call.

"I wrote up a proposal, and the good news was that Joe was very interested in this project. That was also the bad news, because it meant that Joe was very interested in this project," Kesel laughed. "He was very involved in the shaping of it. We went through a few different versions of the proposal before we hammered things out to everyone's liking."

As Kesel mentioned, he hopes "Marvel Apes" resonates with readers because he'd loved to return to the Ape Universe and its inhabitants. "I personally would love to do more with Ape X. I also think it would be fun to bring some of those characters into the Marvel Universe and vice versa," he said. "In one version of the proposal, one of the major players was the Red Ghost. If you threw him into the Ape World it would be very interesting to see what would happen. And of course if we did some more, maybe I could play a little with Gorilla Man. There's just a ton of possibilities. We haven't even scratched the surface yet."

"Marvel Apes" #1 hits stores September 3, and Kesel feels the book has something for everybody. "There's a real sense of high stakes adventure, the characters are very likeable and there are lots of great, bad jokes," he said. "So I don't see what's not like!"

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