Tuesday, February 19, 2013

King Kong Continued: Kong: King of Skull Island and World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island

(Above: From the storyboard of the original film, in which Kong searches New York for Ann Darrow)

There are few films—maybe even no film–as powerful, as primal, as fantastical and as fascinating as Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's 1933 King Kong. It is certainly a film that bears repeated viewings, as the age, the experience and the societal context of the viewer at each viewing will likely inform them of different aspects of the film's text, subtext and technical achievements.

For a certain kind of viewer, the kind who has watched it over and over again, questions will likely have formed regarding the world inside the film, questions that aren't necessarily important—earnestly presented as a breathless nightmare, it asks and answers the only relevant questions itself—but will occur to the imaginative, the cynical and the unsatisfied. This goes double, if not quadruple, for modern viewers, who have seen real gorillas and apes up close in nature documentaries and at zoos, and are familiar with the their looks, their diets and their behavior.

Some viewers of that kind will go on to careers perfecting the technology of the film in order to make their own similar films for the rest of their lives, like Ray Harryhausen, or to remake King Kong itself, like Peter Jackson. Others of us will simply seek out whatever continuance of the story we can find, and may ultimately end up reading a pair of a gorgeous, over-sized books that concern themselves almost exclusively with the answering of questions raised by King Kong.

The first of these was Joe DeVito's ambitious illustrated novel, Kong: King of Skull Island (Dark Horse Press; 2004), a sequel/prequel to the original film authorized by Cooper's estate. DeVito illustrated and "created" the work, while Brad Strickland and John Michlig share writing credits.

So what happened to Kong's body after his fall from the Empire State building? What became of Carl Denham and Captain Englehorn (forget Son of Kong; this book does), of Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow? Did the discovery of Kong and Skull Island's dinosaur fauna completely change the course of the world? And where, exactly, did Kong come from? Why did the natives worship him as a god, and give him young women? What did he do with those women? And while we're at it, who built that big damn wall?

DeVito and company's story opens in 1933, with Denham and Englehorn returning to Skull Island on the Venture, Kong's body in the hold. The brash showman, full of regret, is bringing Kong back home in an act of too-little, too-late contrition. After a predictable dinosaur attack, the narrative jumps ahead to the 1950s, where we meet Carl's son Vincent Denham, a paleontologist.

The events of the film, we learn, had little effect on the world. No one knows where Skull Island is, exactly, and few believe it exists. The young Denham himself isn't so sure Kong even existed, as all he has to go on are years-old stories and blurry photos from a few newspapers (Hard to imagine, in our post-Internet age, that something like a giant gorilla attacking New York City might be something that would recede from consensus reality into something akin to an urban legend, but not unlikely for a pre-television era).

When he chances upon a map to Skull Island, however, he gets in touch with Driscoll, and recruits the aging adventurer to return to the Island with him, in the hopes he can discover what really happened to his dad. Obviously, Driscoll complies, or we wouldn't have much of a story.

The book pulls off a bit of a neat trick in functioning as both a sequel and a prequel to the original film. Driscoll and the younger Denham almost immediately get separated from their crew and lost on the island, and they end up discovering the history of the island in a few very different ways. Denham learns it in the most direct way, as he is nursed back to health by a wise, old shaman-like woman of the native population and her apprentice: She tells him the story of the island, and, in particular, a pair of star-crossed lovers from two warring factions of the native peoples.

The story continually jumps back form the present to that past.

I hesitate to spoil anything, but it is well worth noting that DeVito and company have imagined a high culture responsible for the structures and ruins of the island, one that was able to control the dinosaurs by burning certain plants and to have domesticated the kongs, who seem to have arrived on the island with them.

Eventually, the culture fractured and fell, and the dinosaurs drove the people to the protection of the wall, where the Venture would eventually find them.

As for Kong, he was among the last of the kongs on the island, and after he witnesses his parents get killed by a dinosaur, he is the last of his kind.

DeVito adds a lot of mysticism and pseudo-science to the brew. Of all the dinosaurs on the island, the natives are most troubled by "slashers," which appear to be some sort of raptor. Among the slashers are "Deathrunners," which are bigger, smarter versions of them, able to lead the others and even to use rudimentary tools. And then there's Gaw, a gigantic therapod dinosaur that is essentially a giant Deathrunner; it looks a bit like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, only with functional arms, and it is somehow able to control the slashers and Deathrunners (the text suggests it's a sort of recurring evolutionary mutant), like a Queen Bee of the dinosaurs.

When the natives turn to monster-worship, Gaw is their first god, and it was Gaw that killed Kong's parents.

While the book delivers lots of monster-fighting and jungle culture clashing, it is pretty fascinating for its world-building as well as how much it reflects the changing of western pop culture between 1933 and the turn of the millennium.

Rather than faceless "others" bordering on (and/or completely crossing over into) racial stereotype, the Skull Islanders have an advanced and complicated culture, divided between war-like savages and the sort of noble, enlightened, at-one-with-nature magical native-type characters more commonplace in the films of more recent decades (to Devito and Strickland's credit, they do present a couple of somewhat more complex characters among the natives, particularly in Kara, the shaman woman's apprentice).

As has so often been the case since the original, Kong isn't really the bad guy, or even a bad guy. Abused by nature and humanity, he's got plenty of reason to be pissed at the world, and yet what drives him more than anything isn't revenge or lust but loneliness, something surprisingly (and surprisingly affectingly) presented near the end with the revelation of what Kong did with all the "brides" he acquired before he tried to take Ann.

DeVito's artwork is presented in several forms throughout the book, including full-page, full-color, fully-painted illustrations and monochrome drawings. I remember picking this up and flipping through it in The Laughing Ogre about seven or eight years ago now, and ultimately putting it back because it was prose, rather than a comic book. Having now finally read it, I'm not certain how well it would work as a comic book (although the Internet tells me it has has been adapted into it), as some of the scenes regarding the bizarre advanced technology of the Islanders would seem incredibly difficult to pull off in panels on paper, and some the history would be difficult to communicate without resorting to dull walls of text, prose passages inserted in a comics narrative.

It's difficult to separate Kong from his medium, and this book is a pretty good illustration of why—if it's not film, is it really King Kong? This doesn't really feel like it. Kong needs to roar, to move, to have his fur ripple.

But then, at the same time, this is probably a pretty good stab at replicating film, in that there are at least pictures as well as words. Comics could certainly come even closer, but given the centuries-spanning story, and the fact that much of it is communicated as a story being told by one character to another, this particular tale might not work that well.

As for the answers it provides, they don't seem too terribly definitive—frankly, magically-powered natives able to telepathically commune with animal life seems no harder to disbelieve then There Was a Giant Gorilla, Just Because—but they are answers, and they are fun to consider. (In truth, any proffered answers will end up feeling off or wrong, because part of the appeal of the film and its story is that these blank spaces are left un-filled).

An infinitely more realistic set of answers to various questions of Kong can be found in The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island (Simon and Schuster; 2005). This book is the work of the Weta Workshop, and is tied to the Jackson-directed remake—in fact, Jackson pens the introduction.

It is an incredible book, and I mean that in the most literal way possible. Despite the title, it was not at all what I expected it to be, and I was surprised to find out that it existed at all.

It suggests a story behind itself: After the events of the film, "universities and private organizations across the planet fumbled to dispatch teams to investigate and catalogue" the wonders of Skull Island. After several disasters, "a properly prepared, jointly managed and financed effort was finally organized by the three biggest interested concerns," and lead by Carl Denham. It was called Project Legacy, and it became somewhat urgent when it was discovered Skull Island's days were numbered, as the sea was quite quickly reclaiming the shrinking landmass (a nod, perhaps, to Son of Kong, which ends with an earthquake sinking the island).

The contents of the book are presented as the results of those expeditions: It is an elaborate, straight-faced account of the fantastical fauna of the island, with some attention paid to the flora, geology, geography and people (as to the people's history, it remains a mystery; there is no explanation discovered for the bizarre ruins, which, in Jackson's version of King Kong, are much more elaborate and idiosyncratic than in the original).

The book is chock-full of various prehistoric and monstrous creatures, in too huge a quantity to count (I'd guess maybe 100, but that's just a guess). Each is illustrated, given a name, given a Latin name, and its diet, habits and niche in the environment are all rather thoroughly explained. It is remarkable to what lengths the Weta crew went in the creation of their creatures to populate the setting of this film, but where remarkability turns to incredibility is the fact that so very few of these creatures even made it into the film.

There were the three huge theropods in the film, which I assumed to be Tyrannosaurs (But, the book tells us, are actually examples of Vastatosurus rex ("Ravager-lizard King"), or V-Rex. This may have been borne out of some sort of paleontological in-joke, that the T-Rex Kong fights in the original had an extra finger, but one clever conceit of the book is that evolution didn't stop on Skull Island. It may have been a lost world, but it wasn't a frozen one, so the dinosaurs there had 65 million years to continue changing, growing and adapting from what we know from the fossil record.

Hence few if any of the species on the Weta's Skull Island are plucked straight and un-modified from any other dinosaur books—these scores of animals are original creations.

So, in the movie we saw the V-Rexes, a herd of herbivores and the raptor-like dinosaurs chasing the crew of the Venture between their stampeding legs (I'm guessing these are Brontosaurus and Ventatosaurus), the carnivorous quadrepeds that chased Naomi Watts into that log (there are at least three species here that those could have belonged to), those weird giant vampire bats that attack Kong in his lair (Terapusmordax obscenus, or "Filthy Pungent-bat") and some kind of ceratopsian dinosaur (Could be a "Tree Top" or "Bifurcatops"). And that's about it, not counting the variety of insect life, from the bugs Andy Serkis' grizzled cook Lumpy machine-gunned down to the valley full of horrifying monsters that almost ate Denham and those who survived the fall from the log (each of which bears an entry herein).

That isn't even the tip of the iceberg though. There are dozens upon dozens of other creatures in here, some of which merely seem like sinister, Skull Island corruptions of animals we might be familiar with (for example, there are three species of Carrion Parrots and two of Carrion Storks), others are so big and scary it seems a damn shame they didn't at least get a cameo (The giant fish Sepulcro, whose Latin name translates to "Ugly Gravemouth") and others still are so distinct and scary they seem like they could carry their own monster movie, even if it ends up a much lower-budget one, like the Pirahnadon, which looks a bit like a cross between a mosasaur and piranha, with it's own peculiar set of behaviors.

(Above: One half of a two-page spread detailing the Swamp-Wing, a flying amphibian)

As excited as I was reading the book, and as hard a time I had getting over the fact that so much work went in to creating so many creatures that never appeared in the film, the emotion that was most present throughout was one of regret. It honestly seems like a shame that so many of these fantastic and fully-realized animal monsters exist only in this book.

I kept continually wishing some comics publisher would secure rights to do King Kong comics—IDW or Dark Horse, probably—and that they'd be able to make something with all the monsters in this book. Honestly, while Kong is the guy with his name in the title, he and his species aren't even the most dangerous or interesting creatures in this Natural History.

But if these creatures only exist in the design work-turned-faux paleoart, the portentous Latin-by-way-of-Gothic horror scientific names and paragraphs of scientific description, I suppose that's in keeping with the power of King Kong. It's what you don't see, what you never see, but keep thinking about anyway, that imbues the text with an irresistible power, the power to fascinate for years and years.

1 comment:

Akilles said...

I haven`t seen the city-part of King Kong...Sniff...

I might wanna read the King of Skull island. And I`d definately wanna read World of Kong.