We’re living in a golden age of comics. No, I’m not talking about Marvel and DC with their splashy stunt-casting of Female Thor (sorry, I’m not supposed to say “Female Thor,” am I?) or their sometimes-if-its-convenient bisexual occult investigators. Big-name, legacy characters have their place,* but there’s increasing visibility for fresh, out-there, wildly creative independent concepts that have nothing to do with capes or canon or convoluted, decades-long story arcs. The Humans, a psychedelic thrill ride published by Image Comics that smashes together Planet of the Apes dramatics with grindhouse biker grittiness, is one of the finest examples of this kind of creator-owned comics work.
*Not on my bookshelf, but… you know, Do You.
Set in an alternate universe 1970 where gangs of biker apes roam California’s highways, The Humans tracks the members of the titular group as they fight for turf against their rivals. Johnny, brother of gang leader Bobby, is just back from a hellish tour of duty in Vietnam and the Humans are angling to start a criminal empire by trafficking a mind-blowing new drug called Spazm. This power grab doesn’t go unnoticed by Abe Simian of Flex Trucking, controller of the area’s illicit substance trade, and a cascade of betrayal, vengeance, and heartbreak ensues. Oh yeah–this all comes along with A LOT of violence, gore, and nudity. The Humans goes full-on X-rated in a way that’s frequently beyond what’s contained in the movies that inspired it. Faces are pulped, bodies are cleaved in half, and there’s graphic ape sex that would make Charlton Heston spin in his grave.
The Humans also draws its inspiration from underground comix luminaries like S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez who splattered the American id across their intricate ink compositions. Instead of suffocating under the weight of its cinematic and artistic predecessors, though, the comic has its own manic energy and clever world-building that make it more than just a parade of worn-out references. The ape bikers that populate its pages have unique personalities and motivations, and there are even some surprising moments of poignancy throughout the story. It’s true–a comic that features gruesome cage fights to the death and close-ups of shattering monkey skulls also has rather a lot to say about the nature of brotherhood, friendship, and love.
It’s not overstating matters to say that writer Keenan Marshall Keller, artist Tom Neely, and colorist Kristina Collantes are a comics creation dream team. Keller’s passion for exploitation cinema comes through in every page and he has an understanding of what makes these movies tick. Absent are the groan-worthy winks and fanboy nods that mark many of today’s throwback movies and comics–The Humans delivers the same brand of shocks and black humor that one finds in movies like Satan’s Sadists and Psychomania. Many metal fans will be familiar with Tom Neely as one-fourth of the Igloo Tornado collective responsible for Henry and Glenn Forever, the delightful slashfic detailing the fictionalized romance between Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig, or from his poster art for bands like ISIS and Wolves in the Throne Room. Not only is Neely adept at conveying the brutal action that takes place in the comic, he also possesses a nuanced eye for expression and sensuality that make the ape protagonists of The Humans into fully-developed characters. Neely draws and hand-letters each page of the comic in ink on paper, adding some welcome grit and grain to the feel of the artwork. It should be noted that the work of a colorist can make or break a comic, rendering even the most beautifully inked lines illegible under a hodge-podge of woeful digital gradients or washed-out muddiness. Kristina Collantes (an incredible illustrator in her own right) pays homage to the earth-tone color trends of the early 70s while using highlight colors and spreads that feature neon wildness to capture the turmoil of the desert world that the Humans inhabit. While Neely establishes distinctive characters (no mean feat considering he’s dealing with ape and monkey features!), Collantes’ colors help guide the reader’s eye through the action, adding clarity to complex scenes of mayhem.
Sure, Neely’s illustration pedigree along with the gut-ripping violence of The Humans are enough to make the comic relevant to the world of metal. I’d argue that there are few concepts more suited for a certain type of screeching guitar than “chain-whipping apes on bikes.” Even so, The Humans goes a layer deeper and comes with its own punk and metal soundtrack that you can enjoy online. Bands like Ghoul, Coliseum, and Witches of God turn in road rage ready tracks that are heavy on the distortion and smoky riffs.
While the sticky floors and big screens of the grindhouse may be long gone, comics like The Humans capture a bit of the balls-out madness of that type of movie experience. Crack open a cold one, crank up that soundtrack, and hit the road with these monkey madmen. You’ll thank me when your head stops spinning.