|Image from "Comic Book Vine"|
Friday, August 23, 2013
"Konga" not to be confused with famous "King Kong"
Today my attention turns to the big gorillas. I cite "King Kong" as a preface to my main subject matter. Chiefly I'm thinking about a character named "Konga," highlighted in a comic book series. This character grew out of a movie which I never saw.
Named "Konga," the flick had a British botanist, Charles Decker, discovering a serum that made his chimp subject "Konga" into a larger and lurking ape. The tinkering has just begun. An angry and rejected girlfriend of this mad scientist, as it were, gives the ape a huge amount of serum whereupon it becomes Kong-like, absolutely huge. He can be pretty belligerent too. The girl becomes his first victim. Meanwhile Decker's current squeeze, Sandra, gets bitten by one of Decker's carnivorous plants. The British army kills the ape and Decker. The ape reverts back to a chimp in death.
Death onscreen does not spell the end of the ape character. I discovered "Konga" on comic book racks. It was put out by Charlton which has been described as a sort of "minor league" comic publisher. I was intrigued by this Kong-like character who would go on a rampage in a storyline that still seemed open-ended (unlike with "Kong").
"Konga" was a fresh character in spite of the tremendous similarity (including its name) to the 1933 rampaging ape who came to us via "stop-motion." Instead of making new "Kong" movies, maybe Hollywood should go back to the well with "Konga." We'd be spared that tragic scene at the end with the biplanes and machine guns.
One of the King Kong versions came out smack-dab in the middle of the disco era. I was in college. Jeff Bridges played a hippie photographer in this 1976 release, long before he could pass for Rooster Cogburn. The flick is distinct because the backdrop at the end is not the Empire State Building, rather it's the twin towers of New York City. We all know the fate of those.
Peter Jackson came out with a King Kong movie long after disco had faded into the depths of retro. This version was in 2005 and utilized lots of CGI. I remember going to Alexandria on Christmas Day to see it, fresh on its release. I remember it well because the trip turned into a bit of an adventure, because I couldn't find any dining establishment open for a long time. I thought Alexandria was big and bustling enough that surely I'd find some activity somewhere. It took awhile but finally I noticed cars in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant! I could stay warm, have a pot of coffee in front of me and page through a newspaper. Elena Kagan of our U.S. Supreme Court told a like story of discovering a Chinese restaurant open on Christmas Day.
I felt the 2005 movie was done as well as it could be. I'm not sure we need any more "Kong" versions with the WWI weaponry. I'd be much more enthused about the revival of "Konga." The plot could go in unlimited directions.
As a kid I had no knowledge of "Konga" the movie. Made in 1961, it wasn't meant to be taken totally seriously. It had its fans even though it exuded a "schlock" quality. The film made enough of a mark to be novelized. The comic book series, put out by that "little engine that could" Charlton, lasted from 1960 to 1965. That's at the heart of my comic book-reading habits.
I have previously written about several Gold Key entries in the '60s comic book universe. Today I'm happy to pay homage to Charlton and its quite effective "Konga." There were 23 issues for that character, total. My schoolteachers may have gnashed their teeth over such reading fare. But I'll cite such stuff as the biggest inspiration for developing a reading habit. I'll stick to my convictions on this. The imagination behind such stories was limitless.
Adults might frown because there was lots of conflict. They shouldn't be in denial about the interests of boys. I wonder if today you'd get in trouble just having such a comic book in your possession at school. Indeed, conflict is an essential element in drama. Comic books in the 1960s had that in spades.
I'm sure comics haven't vanished. And I'm sure they present sharp violence. But today, kids lose themselves in a sea of entertainment with all the tech-driven resources at their disposal. Comics were far more essential in my youth. We'd buy them at the little grocery store down the hill from the old (now razed) east side school in Morris. Today that building houses Fergus Falls Monument Company. I always cite the building's history in my chats with manager Bob Welle. "That's where the comic book rack used to be," I'll say, gesturing.
You can't make boys into pacifists. Our education establishment seeks determinedly to do that. Boys' instincts will prevail. We love stories like "Konga" the giant ape who faces a slew of aliens, dictators, mad scientists, giant robots, great white hunters and monsters. The character stands 30 feet tall.
"Konga" was part of a trilogy based on 'B' movies, where the comics take over the story, continuing it. Konga became a surprise hit for the Charlton publisher. Ditto for another part of that triology, "Gorgo." Success did not accompany "Reptilicus."
There was a clue in how the "Konga" movie came to have a schlock quality. Its original title: "I Was a Teenage Gorilla." Movies of that era could occupy a gray area between serious and schlock. I was offended once when a reviewer described a movie as "high camp." I hadn't seen it that way. Reviewers can of course look down their noses a lot. Today that whole reviewing world has been democratized. The elites have been humbled by the Internet which is the great enforcer of honesty.
"Konga" in the movie turns from a chimp into a gorilla. We might assume that a gorilla, based on appearance is more menacing. We learn from horrific incidents in the news that the chimp is really a bad news creature. It can tear you limb to limb. Chimps in popular entertainment are young, drugged and neutered. Still I'm sure the actors (like Ronald Reagan in "Bedtime for Bonzo") take precautions, like protecting your genital area.
Hollywood is "the dream factory." Chimps are not in fact cute and charming. The first Tarzan movie was in 1918, where we saw a chimp captivate us. Hollywood noticed the ape appeal, which led to the "giant gorilla" storyline impressed on us for all time with "King Kong." A gorilla gone bananas!
Peter Jackson's 2005 version cost over $200 million and grossed over $550 million. King Kong even gave us a look at how dinosaurs were going to appear on the big screen. The stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien in 1933 was state of the art, impressing even today. O'Brien was the mentor for the man whose name became synonymous with stop-motion: Ray Harryhausen. "Dynamation" is another word for this.
Harryhausen would give us "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (not the comedian) and "Jason and the Argonauts." Who can forget the sword fight scene with the seven skeleton warriors? Remember that scream?
Harryhausen's last film was "Clash of the Titans" (1981), after which he retired. He left us for that Skull Island in the sky in May of this year. He was a lifelong friend of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was proud to tell people he was "a graduate of the Los Angeles Public Library."
"King Kong" came out at the height of the Great Depression. The special effects genius was complemented by Max Steiner's striking musical score. We can easily conclude that CGI is not a step up from that movie's techniques. "Mars Attacks!" was originally going to employ stop-motion but went for CGI based on budget.
The "Kong" ape is obviously a tragic hero, symbolic too. It has been written he's a symbol of racism, an emblem of the Great Depression and an allegory of the clash of civilizations, also "a metaphor for the rampaging male libido."
Let's not leave out the '50s
I should acknowledge one more entry in the gorilla movie genre. In between the Great Depression and disco we had the 3-D craze of the 1950s, and thus we can appreciate "Gorilla at Large." The setting is a circus where the top attraction is "Goliath," a bad-tempered gorilla. A murder occurs. Did the gorilla do it, or a man in a suit pretending to be the gorilla?
Raymond Burr is the circus owner. Lee J. Cobb is the cigar-chomping cop. Anne Bancroft plays Burr's wife: a trapeze artist who dons leotards. The gorilla hauls her up a roller coaster in a scene that echoes "Kong." A "hall of mirrors" scene is memorable.
Both Goliath and the fake monkey are played by a man in a suit, so distinguishing can be a little difficult. (In Three Stooges shorts, we always knew it was a man in a suit!)
There's a surprise ending in this whodunit.
Monkeys and all their monkey business, whether in genuine or giant size, have been rich fodder for the movies and our entertainment as a whole. I'll give kudos to the "Konga" comic book creators who made what I feel is an underrated entry. Hats off to Charlton. "Konga" lives (or ought to).
I remember reading about an onlooker at the 1976 "King Kong" movie set who shouted: "He died for your sins in Viet Nam." Haunting.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org