Wrath—sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Kananaios’ son Ursus,
that inflicted woes without number upon Apekind. ~ sorta Homer
Ursus never knew his parents. He was adopted by Kananaios, an itinerant preacher of harsh principle, and traveled with him learning what Kananaios had to teach. Kananaios believed humankind was irredeemable, capable only of murder and cruelty. As a child, Ursus was horrified by the gladiatorial combat between men in the ape city of Terminus. In his travels with Kananaios, he was enraged by the cruelty of humans. He came to believe his foster father’s teachings. Ursus became a hero and a general, determined to destroy the greatest threat to apekind–humanity.
The Classics are always with us one way or another in Planet of the Apes stories, even if it is only in Latin and Greek names. In Planet of the Apes: Ursus, (Boom! Studios, 2018), it is also present in the form of tragedy about Planet of the Apes’ genocidally misanthropic General Ursus. Ursus has great strength and is an accomplished soldier. He is a hero to his people and especially to his soldiers. We see some of his vulnerability in this book and his love for his wife, Qama. Ursus helped lead hundreds to safety after a series of human raids destroyed ape villages and even the city of Terminus. Ursus sees through what he starts. He will not swerve from his duty or his principles. He will defend his city and his people. But, like a tragic hero, Ursus is terribly flawed. In his fear, grief and rage, Ursus is overwhelmed by hate and lets hate direct his life. He believes only in force, arguing that exterminating humans as the only solution. He sees politicians, academics and scientists around him as weak and foolish for not embracing this solution. And so he becomes a demagogue. Planet of the Apes: Ursus is less a conventional story, than a character study–a look at how non-human ape comes to hate human ape. It’s a look at how fear and prejudice creates hatred and genocide.
Ursus is David F. Walker‘s third Planet of the Apes comic, after and Tarzan On The Planet Of The Apes (Boom! Studios, 2016) and War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017). The lovely, minimalist main covers are done by Paolo Rivera. There are sweet alternate covers by Becca Carey, Mike Allred and one by Bob Larkin, re-purposing unused work Larkin did for Planet of the Apes magazine in the 1970s. The art by Christopher Mooneyham (issues 1-3) and Lalit Kumar Sharma (issues 4-6) is striking, elegantly shifting between styles to depict different periods in Ursus’s life. His past with his adopted father is more expressionist, sketchier even, than the present with gorgeous loose pencils. And colorist Jason Wordie past has more brutal slashes of red, whether blood or edgy red pencils lines of impending violence.
In 1968, Planet of the Apes caught a lot of things about its time. The nihilism. The disillusion with society and government. Violence against the vulnerable. It is appropriate that 50 years later, POTA still captures some things about our own time. It’s a comic that gave me a lot to think about, whether formal concerns about art and the construction of narrative, or people who do terrible things believing they are protecting their people. I am not sure how enjoyable Ursus would be to readers unfamiliar with the films and other comics. Then again, how many readers unfamiliar with General Ursus would pick up a book about General Ursus? The book includes events in Planet of the Apes (1968) and Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970), starting with astronauts Taylor, Landon and Dodge bursting into the outskirts of Ape City. It also includes a reference to one of my favorite characters in the comics, General Aleron from Betrayal Of The Planet Of The Apes (Boom, 2011) and Exile On The Planet Of The Apes (Boom, 2012). There are a brief appearances by Cornelius and Zira, but overall Ursus focuses on Ursus’ past, his complicated friendship with Dr. Zaius, his love for Qama, and his relationship with his Kananaios.
Ursus doesn’t remember how he came to be with Kananaios, but he does remember what the itinerant gorilla preacher* taught him: hate. Kananaios taught Ursus to hate humans, to distrust orangutans, to resent and despise chimpanzees. Kananaios showed the terrible things that humans are capable of and learning what Omerus of Terminus believed about humans: That humans are savage and capable only of killing. And Ursus begins to racialize humans, after being attacked by a black man, he believes they are the most cunning and dangerous humans. Kananaios taught Ursus to kill humans. And now, with talking humans appearing–with a talking black human man appearing–and apes returning from the Forbidden Zone raving about incredible things, the past keeps bubbling up for Ursus. He fears that Zaius and the Ape Council do not understand the threat. Their solution is to hide the truth about the massacres and a human civilization pre-dating an ape one discovered by Dr. Cephina and her student Zaius. In the present, Ursus fears he will lose more than he already has.
As Ursus travels with Kananaios, he begins to enjoy killing humans, or at least sees it as righteous. Ursus becomes the person we know from comics and film—the ape who stands before the assembled citizens of Ape City and declares, “The only good human is a dead human” in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). It’s a paraphrase of a statement attributed to General Philip Sheridan, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Sheridan denied saying that, but he did say, “If a village is attacked and women and children are killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers, but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack.” Assigned to force the Plains nations onto reservations after the Civil War, Sheridan brought the methods of total war to the Great Plains, attacking winter encampments to create such suffering that living on a reservation was preferable to living on traditional lands. And Sheridan provides a still popular rationalization for atrocities—they are doing it to themselves. They deserve it. With the Vietnam War and the struggle for social justice ongoing, Ursus’ dehumanizing statement resonated in 1970. And it is unfortunately resonant now.
While Zaius and the Ape Council are content to manage the human population, keeping them from destroying crops and areas where apes live, Ursus believes it is inevitable that organized, violent humans will return and destroy the city. He believes the only solution is genocide. And because he believes humans lack the divine spark of apes, he has no problem with wiping humans out. I think, even if Ursus were given proof humans were fully persons, he would still believe the threat humans pose required extermination.
Throughout the comic Ursus periodically tells his friends, his political enemies and his wife that he will protect them. We see Ursus as a child, horrified by violence. He was appalled by gladiatorial combats pitting human men against each other. He encountered massacres of ape settlements by organized and armed humans. And he helps ape refugees. And it is this desire, a strong desire to protect those he cares about and his people, that is warped into genocidal hate through his experiences and the teachings of Kananaios. Ursus tries to destroy evil by projecting it onto an enemy and killing them. By rendering the enemy utterly powerless and silent, Ursus believes he will destroy evil and all threats to what he loves. And then he will never lose anything again.
But Ursus also discovers not all loss is attributable to humanity. He loses his wife, Qama, not to humans, but misfortune. This is clever, because it would be easy to have Ursus lose her to humans in an attempt to create a more personal reason for hatred and rage. But he loses her and their child for no reason other than usual ones–that death and loss are part of life. That they just happen. That part of mortality is loss. And this loss gives him no one to blame, nothing to kill to stop it, but it still leaves him nothing but his hate. In becoming consumed by fear and then hate, Ursus destroys not only himself, but everything he loves and wants to protect.
Ursus is waiting for the end. He is waiting for a final battle. He is waiting to kill evil. He is waiting to die a hero saving his people. And with Qama gone, there is no one to stop him instigating it. There is no one but Ursus himself, and he will not stop. He doesn’t realize how he let his hate destroy everything until the end. Ursus’ rage leaves him with nothing. Ursus wrath leaves his people with nothing.
*One thing I really appreciated about this comic is that it addressed the racism within ape society as well. Kananaios does a job that is normally the work of orangutans. Ursus passes up Zaius’ initial offer to become the security chief for Ape City because, as Qama notes, gorillas have more opportunities in Terminus. It addresses some of the essentialism about different kinds of apes that irks me a bit.
The sorta Homer translation is based on Caroline Alexander’s 2015 translation of The Iliad.
Despite General Ursus’ views on humans, Carol Borden still thinks gorillas are the coolest.