By Steve Morris
There’s no explanation for why Detective Chimp is crying, just in case you were wondering.
Secret Origins was a series which ran for a very long time, and by the point where the comic reached issue #40, you could be justified in thinking it may have been struggling to find any characters left to provide an explanation for. Not only have you covered off all the big-deal characters and concepts – but by the time an anthology style series hits its fortieth issue, you’re going to get (let’s be fair) lesser-name writers and artists involved. And in this case your justified thinking would prove to be completely correct, because issue #40 of Secret Origins is a goddamn mess. It tells origin stories for three gorilla-centric ideas within the DC Universe at once, and not one of them makes a lick of sense.
The primary story is an explanation for Gorilla City, the home to Flash’s enemy Gorilla Grodd and his superintelligent gorilla citizens. This one is set before Grodd even appears, however, and instead follows as some weird alien creature called “The Mentor” crashes into the African rainforest. Mentor is a one foot tall naked baby creature with no elbows, winged eyebrows, and telepathy. The Mentor is taken in by a group of gorillas, who also pick up a diamond they find in the wreckage of his spacecraft. That diamond shoots lasers into their brains which speeds up their evolution to the point where they can build a city and start a conceivable approach to a monarchy-style system.
That then leads them to establishing the concepts for both “regicide” and “democracy” in one fell blow. Carmine Infantino draws the story by Cary Bates, and they are both slumming it. They’re not lesser-name creatives, but they’re not exactly giving 100% to this thing. This is all by the by – we’re not here to learn about Gorilla City or “ConGorilla”, who gets the second story here. No, we’re here for Detective Chimp, and his wacky origin story.
All three stories share a common theme, which is “white-coded creatures bungle their way into the jungle and stumble upon gorillas”, which is something which understandably feels rather uneasy in context. Whereas Gorilla City was founded by a baby with a diamond, Detective Chimp got his brainpower from genetic tampering, where some microscopic aliens fly their ship down his throat and start tampering with his body. These teeny tiny scientists want to make a name for themselves by proving that they can give intelligence to even a stupid earth-based creature – the joke being that they picked the wrong earthling, because they mistake a random gorilla for a random human.
They start doing DIY – literally, one of them has a power drill they start using on the gorilla’s brain – and we cut away to a camp where a scientist is on expedition. Another recurring theme through these stories is that they exist within a 1920s Tarzan world where white scientists are constantly travelling to Africa with “natives” as their guides. The depiction of the African characters in this comic is quite clear in its intention: they see Detective Chimp and flee in fear. The rest of the story focuses on the remaining three white characters – one of whom has been killing off members of the expedition in order to put himself in power. When Detective Chimp shows up, the characters shoo him away… but first he grabs a detective novel before running out.
That’s the origin of Detective Chimp: his brain power was amplified by some microscopic cowboy builders and then he read a pulp novel. With that understanding of common tropes, Detective Chimp heads back into camp and deduces exactly what’s going on, identifying the killer and his motive before anybody else knows what’s going on. Once everything is revealed the killer turns on everyone, and Detective Chimp knocks him out with the book. He’s promptly labelled a hero; the scientist takes him back to America; and there’s your story.
If you’re going to do a story about a Chimpanzee who gets altered by aliens into being one of the most inspired minds in modern-day detective work, I guess this is a perfectly fine way to do it. It does give off the impression of being somewhat rushed – Mark Badger seems like an artist who could do better than he can offer here, with small continuity errors and some really dashed-off pages. Interestingly the credits section shames Andy Helfer for “tradiness” in delivering the plot. Now, I couldn’t find anything online which explains what that means, so let’s just put that down to a dig from editor Mark Waid – yep! That Mark Waid.
The most enjoyable part of the short strip is when Detective Chimp reaches his power and starts deducing the mystery -he starts predicting what the other characters are going to say just before they say it, which provides a really neat touch and shows how clever he is. It’s almost a shame that he has to have the aliens in the issue – it’d be so much more entertaining if he just *was* Detective Chimp, and this was simply his first time meeting humans and showing off his prowess. In future years his origin would be changed away from this, which is likely due to the rushed feeling of the story. This isn’t a comic you really want people to refer back to in order to catch up on a character who became surprisingly popular as DC headed into the modern age, after all. It doesn’t look pretty, there’s some uneasy use of the black characters, and the whole thing is somewhat sloppy.
Nowadays Detective Chimp actually *is* just a really smart monkey, who was trained up to be a great detective without the need for alien alteration. That seems like a step for the better, to be honest. You can’t have all your superintelligent monkeys powered by alien intervention, after all.
Secret Origins #40: The Origin of Detective Chimp
Writers: Rusty Wells and Andy Heller
Artist: Mark Badger
Colourist: Robbie Busch
Letterer: John Costanza
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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