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The Ape on a Motorcycle: My Big Essay on The Humans Comic

The-Humans-Comic-2I’ve described The Humans comic as bikersploitation meets apesploitation meets 70sploitation. In a world where chimps are men and men are cattle, The Humans are Bakersfield California’s top motorcycle club and the year is 1970.

We had series creators Tom Neely and Keenan Marshall Keller (Tom of Henry & Glenn Forever & Keenan of Galactic Breakdown) on our podcast when their first trade paperback was released. They are fascinating guests and have a great sense of humor. Give the episode a listen.

But I’d been having reviewers block when I tried to write anything deeper then a blurb endorsing the series. After reading issue five I figured out why.

My initial affection for this comic was not an intellectual one, it comes from my guts and from my eyes. It can be hard to explain art you enjoy at that visceral a level but I’ll try.

The following review is spoiler free, except for the end of Easy Rider. I spoil the end of a movie from 1969. So shoot me. Heh.

The Humans is visually stunning and entirely outrageous. Reading it is an act of hedonism. The action is easy to follow and propulsive. It is the best crafted, most addictive, least office appropriate comics reading you’ll find.

I love comics. But most comics art is ugly, sloppy, boring and sexist. In most comics you couldn’t visually tell apart Wonder Woman from Lois Lane if they’re out of costume even though one of them is the strongest woman in the world and the other is a top journalist.

the humans diversityWith a few noted exceptions most characters in mainstream comics have been drawn in the same street clothes as each other and with the same face shapes, the same body types. A woman who fights super villains and a woman who works in an office are drawn to have the same figure.

But then here we have a comic about biker apes and instead, every character is physically distinct with period correct clothes according to their personality. Everyone has their own unique face and facial expressions. Doc’s t-shirts with sayings like “I may not go down in history, but I’ll go down on your sister” are copied from actual t-shirts that were sold in biker magazines in the 70s. And while the female characters may all be shapely they’re not all the same shape.

This book has the time and character building necessary to craft unique individual primates and it pays off. They do it because that’s good world building and they do it because they respect their characters and audience. Yes, even when there are ape blowjobs in a cemetery.

the humans inkingWhen it comes to pure technical chops as a comics artist Neely is in a class of his own. His splash pages are so wild you can find your self sitting and staring at them for a good long while sober. He’s an expert draftsman. He’s the best inker I’ve seen in ages. His hand lettering reminds me of what I’m missing every time I read a computer lettered book. And what we’re missing when we only reach digitally lettered books is quite a lot. By hand lettering Neely has additional design elements at his disposal. His onomatopoeia are Batman worthy. I may need one of them tattooed on my body. Digital lettering always looks cheap to me. It’s aesthetically disappointing to look at a computer lettered or computer colored book after reading this one.

Colorist Kristina Collantes‘s work is instrumental. (She is also an illustrator herself, check out her portfolio, it’s fantastic.) Her color palette makes the comic look like it was filmed on late 60s color film stock and is aging in to lovely orange decay. It is instant atmosphere and nostalgia for people who grew up loving movies of the period. The paper itself is colored to look like cheap newsprint.

World building in The Human‘s extends beyond the printed page. In what I believe to be a first for a comics series, each issue is released with a few songs to stream on SoundCloud— a mini-soundtrack. The genres range from various types of metal and punk to something I can only describe as “John Carpenter Film Music”. I’ve discovered some great bands this way.

The music is more evocative then literal. None of the songs are 70’s pastiches so they don’t sound quite like what the gang would have listened to in 1970. Instead, the songs all sound like what the gang would listen to if they were around today.

It’s an interesting choice. I love music that sounds straight out of the past. But by choosing to soundtrack their comics with more contemporary but still biker approved music, they are tying the story to the present without taking the listener out of its setting. They are also promoting new music in a way that builds a fan base for everyone involved.

Speaking of nostalgia… I realize that it sounds incongruous for me to talk about my 70s nostalgia when I grew up in the 80s.

the humans 1I first watched Easy Rider in on the Jewish High Holiday of repentance, Yom Kippur when I was but a second grader. I’m guessing my parents were probably too out of it from low blood sugar from fasting all day to realize that most people would’ve considered this underground hippie biker masterpiece an inappropriate movie choice for a little kid. Hey, I turned out ok regardless! What better way to keep a kid distracted until it’s time to break the fast while visiting with friends who own a Betamax video player.

Even before watching the film in 2nd grade I had long been familiar with the Easy Rider soundtrack. We played that record all time time. The official singalong song for starting the family’s VW Dasher was “Born to Be Wild”. So for all I know, watching Easy Rider may have been my idea.

The movie made a huge impression on me. I remember liking the film even then but mostly remembered the visuals over the story until I saw it again as a teen. On a subconscious level I probably still expect to get shot by yahoos driving a pick-up truck if my counter-culture-looking self shows up on the wrong country road. I realize that I’m white so that fear is probably irrational.

The movie impacted my taste in music, fashion and more. My husband looks enough like Peter Fonda did in the film that he’s actually been street harassed for it more then once (“Hey, what’s up Easy Rider!”). Also, one time a highway patrolman at a traffic stop told him to get a haircut. But anyway…

Easy Rider has been ingrained in my head for the vast majority of my life.

From junior high on I devoured Tom Wolfe’s new journalism writing about 60s and 70s counter-culture. I loved the party scenes in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test where the Hells Angels and the Merry Pranksters (the seminal traveling hippie collective) party in unison thumbing their noses at “The Man”. Book writing hippies and motorcycle gangs can get along, right!? Well not so much… But that was a dream of the 60s and my youth.

Then I went on to read Hunter S Thompson’s Hells Angels book which is a must read for folks who enjoy The Humans. Thompson’s conversations with club members after they watch the premier of Kenneth Anger’s seminal queer underground cinema short, Scorpio Rising, is worth the price of admission.

I’ve been predisposed to love this book since I was a kid. Maybe I actually entered the first fan art contest I’ve ever entered because I wanted to draw something inspired by this book (I didn’t win). But you may be predisposed to loving it too. People love motorcycles. People love things that are shocking. People love stories about people— who are monkees.

The gang’s all here: different individual bikers, stoners and dropouts. The creative team announced that we’d be seeing more stories from the female members of the gang in upcoming issues especially Queenie. You know her as the tall, not to be messed with biker babe who’s introduced as Bobby’s Old Lady. We’ll also be seeing more of She-Bitch, the member of the Skaabs with a mean right hook and a B52 hair-do who’s look is actually based on Collantes, their colorist.

I look forward to reading those stories especially since writing women in genres like this is particularly fraught. Art disappoints it’s fans a lot. Art most frequently disappoints fans who are anything other then straight white men. One month I’m writing a glowing review of Airboy and the next we’re calling for it to be pulled for reifying virulent transphobic myths. The Humans is a comic based on an exploitation genre. Every month I was holding my breath to see if this is the issue where the creative team put something in that makes it clear that I am not their intended audience.

But it hasn’t happened. I’m still reading a book that wants me to read it. Issue 8’s particularly explicit monkey sex is outside of most people’s comfort zone but it’s consensual sex and used to hammer home (heh) narrative points. All parties involved are clearly having a good time. Eww. Monkey sex. Which is the point. Art can be outrageous and transgressive without demeaning anyone.

Fridging female characters doesn’t make your art edgy. Repeating stereotypes doesn’t make your art edgy. Consensual rainbow colored monkey orgies makes your art edgy. As are brains that explode into onomatopoeia.

I’m ecstatic to report that moving forward, I can definitely exhale as a female fan reading this comic. I had asked the creative team about whether the body diversity in the series is a product of world building if it is also part of a feminist perspective and their answers went beyond that question:

I think it’s a bit of both. It’s definitely a part of world-building and craft. It does also come from a feminist perspective. But it’s not really “political” so much as just part of me. I don’t discuss politics, I speak with my drawings. The story of The Humans is steeped in biker gang genre so it is a very male-centric plot that doesn’t always give the ladies a large role. And there is the questionable aspect in that genre of the male-dominance in the biker-gang hierarchy that we didn’t really want to be a part of our story, but you will see things like “Property of The Humans” on the mamas. But I wanted them to all be real characters and to develop them through their design and representation. Biker chicks are tuff and put up with a lot of shit. I want the reader to know these are strong women who have full stories behind them as soon as you see them walk in the room… – Tom Neely.

If creators can do that within the exploitation genre period piece I really don’t know what excuse other writers can have for how they handle their female cast members.

We talked about this a bit over the course of making this series. It was something we had to address with the sort of genre we were working in. We didn’t want to focus on a story of demoralizing of young women for kicks, which is rampant in most biker genre fare.

That’s not our style nor is it the sort of stories we’re into telling.

We want to depict real, tuff, bad-ass ladies with their own individual personalities, foibles and quirks and doing that also has the benefit of ensuring a world of depth and vitality. It’s good story telling.

I appreciate you seeing this in our work because I believe it’s there and Tom and I are making purposeful choices on how we represent all the characters, female included. – Keenan Marshall Keller

I’m not going to say the book is perfect. I’m still struggling with how to map out it’s handling of race and nationality in it’s depictions. But the fact that something like this comic exists at this level is really remarkable.

People joke a lot about #AllYourFavesAreProblematic. Somewhere in my feminist upbringing I got it in my head that all those things that men get to have were mine to have too, including the ability to play with being mad, bad and dangerous to know. I grew up singing along to Guns n’ Roses and The Misfits as if anything Axel or Danzig could sing was something I could sing too. I still do. All my faves ARE problematic.

But it means a lot to me that when I read The Humans I get to revel in the exploitation genre without having to play 50 Questions with my own internalized sexism. Another comic book that “gets” this, unsurprisingly, is Alex De Campi’s Grindhouse series for Dark Horse. She’ll be our podcast guest on August 24th.

In our “Best of 2014” podcast episode we gave The Humans our first ever award for “Best Historical Fiction” and “Best Funny Animal Comic”. We also acclaimed it as one of the best new series of the year.

Now be a good ‘mate and join The Humans MC. The Humans 4 Life! Till Deth!