Batman faces distorted reflections of his own warped psyche: the researches into the theory and praxis of fear conducted by the Scarecrow; the three-steps-ahead planning of Denny O’Neil’s eco-terrorist Ra’s al Ghul; the Manichean worldview of Two-Face. Superman, the All-American boy, fights the military-industrial complex personified in the body of evil billionaire (and ex-president) Lex Luthor. Wonder Woman fights the very gods of Mount Olympus. Despite a history dating to 1939, including some lovely, loopy early stories written by Gardner Fox, the Flash’s rogues’ gallery doesn’t measure up. He fights people like sinister violinist the Fiddler, ice-skate wielding villainess the Golden Glider, and Australian menace Captain Boomerang. It denotes a certain lack of seriousness — or perhaps something in the water at DC — when the most you can do for a nemesis is a superintelligent gorilla.

When Gen. Edward Bragg nominated Grover Cleveland to be Democratic candidate for president in 1888, he said that the American people loved him most for the enemies he had made. The DC Comics superhero the Flash must therefore set a record for the least-loved long-running character in the four-color world. It’s not just that he travels through time with a Cosmic Treadmill; that the original character’s death was the capstone on the most baroque storyline in the history of American comics; or that he was played by Dawson’s dad on a dreadful t.v. show. It’s the bad guys.

Batman faces distorted reflections of his own warped psyche: the researches into the theory and praxis of fear conducted by the Scarecrow; the three-steps-ahead planning of Denny O’Neil’s eco-terrorist Ra’s al Ghul; the Manichean worldview of Two-Face. Superman, the All-American boy, fights the military-industrial complex personified in the body of evil billionaire (and ex-president) Lex Luthor. Wonder Woman fights the very gods of Mount Olympus. Despite a history dating to 1939, including some lovely, loopy early stories written by Gardner Fox, the Flash’s rogues’ gallery doesn’t measure up. He fights people like sinister violinist the Fiddler, ice-skate wielding villainess the Golden Glider, and Australian menace Captain Boomerang. It denotes a certain lack of seriousness — or perhaps something in the water at DC — when the most you can do for a nemesis is a superintelligent gorilla. Grodd, an evil genius who built things like fattifying machines to combat his speedster foe, is the worm at the heart of Gorilla City, a lost superscientific city in the heart of Africa populated entirely by the peaceful giants of the Ugandan lowlands. Alien manipulation of gorilla intelligence aside, Gorilla City is a nice nod from The Flash‘s Silver Age writers, who jumpstarted the superhero revival of the 1950s, to their precursors in the pulps. The most notable, of course, is John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, Tarzan of the Apes. Lost in Africa as an infant after his parents were killed by mutineers, young Greystoke was raised by strange, ape-like creatures, the mangani. These weren’t gorillas; the mangani had a rudimentary language, and one of Tarzan’s early accomplishments was killing a bolgani, a gorilla, impressing the mangani and ensuring his status within the tribe. They weren’t even really apes. Apparently Edgar Rice Burroughs thought of them as subhuman primates; Burroughs was a soldier, rancher, and laborer before turning to fiction, but he was never a primatologist. The character was enormously successful, though, and Burroughs was stuck with his sobriquet: "of the Apes".

One of Burroughs’ spinoffs was a Tarzan comic strip, one which continues today. Perhaps it was the Tarzan strip’s inspiration that led early comics to be so ape-crazy; literally hundreds of comic books have starred gorillas. Thomas Love Peacock’s Melincourt featured Sir Oran Haut-ton, a very civilized ape (purchased in Angola, the orangutan had been educated, freed, and elected to Parliament as the minister from the rotten borough of Onevote), and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Monikins was a satire starring a civilization of monkeys, but the idea of a lost Gorilla City seems to have first arisen in Congo Bill, predating The Flash‘s version by a few years.

The success of gorillas in the comics may simply arise from the fact that apes are fun to draw. Movies love of the gorilla, from classic serials like Tarzan to present day extravaganzas like Tarzan may be slightly more complicated. Even if they’re not mangani, primates are smart; They’re the distorted reflections of everyone. Primates understand things — following another creature’s gaze, sophisticated linguistic structures, even mourning — in a way that other animals don’t. And from Ingagi, the original gorilla exploitation film (which claimed to feature documentary footage of apes attacking half-clothed women), to Jackson’s King Kong, gorilla movies have allowed moviemakers to pander to white America’s ideas about race in a way that would do Vachel Lindsay proud. (The Wal-Mart kerfuffle about Planet of the Apes ignored the fact that the later movies in the series were transparent and self-aware racial allegories.)

On the other hand, even more than playing on notions about African jungle beasts, even more than the half-man nature of the gorilla, the fascination of gorillas on the screen may lie in the fact that that even a movie starring an alcoholic and semi-coherent Bela Lugosi could be livened up by a schlub in a gorilla suit. The gorilla men, that brave fraternity of ersatz apes, worked cheap and added some special effects fun to even the most cornball of B-movies. Charles Gemora, Bob Burns, and their colleagues have an heir today in Peter Elliott; he may merely be credited as a "mime artist" or "gorilla performer" in such movies as Fierce Creatures and Gorillas in the Mist, but he should remember that on the eight-hundred and thirty-second night, when even Scheherazade was running out of ideas, she remembered that the way to keep her audience’s attention was to bring in the talking apes.