Every so often, in order to put the subject of one of my Deck Log entries into perspective, I have to go back to before the beginning of the Silver Age. Since I’ll be talking about that “Ninth Wonder of the World”, Congorilla, this is one of those times. So let’s ratchet the dial of the Wayback Machine much farther back than usual, back to the dawn of the Golden Age.
To More Fun Comics # 56 (Jun., 1940), to be precise.
Anyone in the comics industry at the time---from the publisher down to the kid who sharpened the pencils and emptied out the dustbins---understood what the popularity of Superman meant to comics. When comic books, in the format we recognise to-day, were introduced in 1934, publishers cast about for the type of material that would be most popular. Funny animals. “Bigfoot” cartoons. Westerns. Mysteries. Detective stories. Sea tales. You name it. It wasn’t until National Comics (DC) introduced Superman in 1938, to an overwhelming response, that comics publishers knew how to set their course.
Super-hero series took over the four-colour pages. Still, even after a couple of years, National wasn’t sure that “mystery-men”, as they were called, would prove to be anything more than a fad which would shortly run its course. With the luxury of hindsight, we know better, but National was hedging its bets. Many of its smaller, supporting series featured heroes who didn’t wear tights and capes. For these, it drew from types that showed popularity in other media, such as the pulps and newspaper comic strips. So, sandwiched between the super-hero headliners were plenty of stories about detectives and magicians and explorers, any genre that might prove to be the next wave.
That brings us to More Fun Comics # 56, which saw the debut of Congo Bill--- renowned hunter, explorer, and baldfaced swipe of Alex Raymond’s successful “Jungle Jim”. Bill was sprung full-blown on the readers, already established as an experienced, knowledgeable, and tough-as-nails soldier of fortune. He was never given an origin and the only detail mentioned about his background was that he had been a pilot during the first World War. We were never even told his last name; he was “Congo Bill” to everybody.
As befitting a “two-fisted globetrotter”, the most remote places of the world were Congo Bill’s sandbox. The locales ranged from that first adventure in the African interior to the Himalayan mountains to the South American tropics. Egypt, Mexico, the East Indies, the Caribbean, the Yukon---all these and more were backdrops for a Congo Bill adventure.
Like many back-up series, Bill didn’t enjoy much of a supporting cast. For about a year and a half, “noted botanist and archæologist” Professor Joe Kent accompanied Bill, who served as his guide. Sometime later, he picked up a kinda-sorta girlfriend, Shiela Hanlen. By this time, the series had jumped ship to Action Comics. Apparently a lifestyle of snakes, bugs, hostile natives, and dysentery didn’t appeal to Shiela. She was gone after Action Comics # 44 (Jan., 1942) and so was Professor Kent.
It really didn’t matter; Congo Bill steamed right along, leaving other second-stringers such as Pep Morgan, the Black Pirate, and Clip Carson (another Jungle Jim clone) in his wake. The strength of series was its verisimilitude. The premise of an adventurer with no ties opened the door to virtually any kind of plot. In any given issue, Congo Bill could discover a lost city in Africa, encounter dinosaurs in a hidden prehistoric valley, investigate a haunted castle in Syria, battle smugglers along the Ivory Coast, get captured by a secret cult in India, or infiltrate an underwater Nazi U-boat base. Occasionally, there would even be a fish-out-of-water tale set in New York or some other big city, showing how Bill’s wilderness skills would come in handy in modern civilisation. The series could be moulded like clay, to fit any theme editor Whitney Ellsworth thought would sell comics.
In 1948, Congo Bill hit one of the benchmarks of a successful character when Colombia released the fifteen-chapter movie serial, Congo Bill, starring Don McGuire as the “famed hunter and animal trainer.” The plot involved an infant lost in the Africa, following a plane crash, who grows up to become a fabled “white goddess” of the jungle. Bill is hired to find her by the executors of her father’s multi-million-dollar estate and out to stop him is the fellow in line to inherit that wealth if the girl isn’t found.
The moderate success of the serial propelled the comic-book series along for a few more years. A couple of changes came along the way. Bill was given an official reason for his varied adventures by making him a troubleshooter for the World-wide Insurance Company. Then, in Action Comics # 191 (Apr., 1954), Bill picked up a sidekick---Janu, a young boy who been brought up in the jungle after his father had been killed by a tiger. Janu’s style of speaking came from the Superbaby-Zook-Bizarro school of English, but at least he gave Bill someone to talk to and provide exposition.
By the early 1950’s, the Golden-Age glow of super-heroes had finally dimmed, and DC, like other comics publishers, was looking for the next Big Thing. In a scattershot approach, it produced Western series, series about big-city newspapers, supernatural and science-fiction anthologies, titles based on pirates, mediæval knights, firemen, frogmen, and anything else it could think of.
Seeing as how Congo Bill had hung on gamely for well over a decade, it seemed like a natural. So, in the summer of 1954, Congo Bill # 1 (Aug.-Sep., 1954) hit the stands. Bill’s series in Action Comics continued to run concurrently with his own magazine. It was a good thing, since Congo Bill didn’t have the success that DC had expected. It ran for seven issues, ending a year after it started.
The cover of that first issue of Congo Bill featured a golden gorilla. That would prove to be prescient.
Meanwhile, in Action Comics, Congo Bill and Janu rolled right along, rescuing lost safaris and nabbing ivory poachers. But comics were about to experience another sea change, and this time, it would have an effect on the way Bill did business.
Showcase # 4 (Sep.-Oct., 1956) saw the return of an old DC super-hero---the Flash! But this wasn’t your father’s Scarlet Speedster. He had been revised as a new character, upgraded for the times, under the auspice of editor Julius Schwartz. The sales of Showcase # 4 soared. To make sure it wasn’t a fluke, the Flash appeared in three more issues of Showcase, and each time, the sale figures were impressive. It was official: super-heroes were back in vogue.
DC followed up with revised versions of other old super-heroes, such as the Green Lantern and the Atom. And some existing, non-super-hero series were nudged in that direction. Over at Detective Comics, the Manhunter from Mars series featured a Martian posing on Earth as a human police detective, secretly using his otherworldly abilities to solve crimes. Now the emphasis shifted to the Manhunter performing super-feats in his natural alien form, and by 1959, he was operating openly as a super-hero.
In Action Comics # 224 (Jan., 1957), Congo Bill encountered a gorilla with a golden pelt and seeming to exhibit a higher intellect than usual for such an animal. Bill spent the rest of the story saving it from some determined hunters looking to mount the ape’s golden head on a wall.
There’s no way to know for sure, but either Weisinger or writer Robert Burnstein probably remembered this story and used it as a springboard for “The Amazing Congorilla”, which appeared in Action Comics # 248 (Jan., 1959).
This landmark tale begins with Congo Bill rescuing an old friend, Chief Kawolo. The tribal witch doctor had accidentally fallen into a steep ravine, and though Bill is able to pull him to safety, Kawolo is mortally wounded. That night, while he lays dying, Kawolo gives Bill a ring bearing the carved image of a gorilla. It is a magic talisman, the witch doctor explains, that will allow Congo Bill to exchange identities with the legendary golden gorilla, sacred to his tribe.
Should Bill need the strength of the golden gorilla, says Kawolo, he has only to rub the ring. Then, his mind and that of the great ape will exchange bodies, for a period of one hour. Congo Bill dismisses this as superstition, but dons the ring, humouring his old friend in his final moments.
Weeks pass (in which, remarkably, Bill apparently resists the impulse to test the ring just to see what happens), then one day, while the famed jungle adventurer is exploring a deep cave, an earthquake causes a cave-in, sealing the entrance. Trapped, Congo Bill remembers the ring and Kawolo’s words. Not really expecting it to work, but with nothing to lose, Bill rubs the ring. Instantly, his head begins to spin . . . .
Some distance away from the cave, the sacred golden gorilla is lumbering through the tall grass when his eyes suddenly flash with intellect. To Congo Bill’s amazement, the magic ring has worked! His mind now occupies the body of the golden ape. He rushes back to the site of the cave-in and with the mighty strength of the gorilla, he clears the entrance. Inside, he discovers his human body gibbering incoherently and beating his chest.
Bill realises that the gorilla wears a duplicate of the magic ring on one of its fingers, and when the hour elapses, he rubs it---and finds his mind back in his own body.
Following super-hero tradition, Congo Bill determines to use his newfound power to battle poachers, smugglers, and other jungle evil. It doesn’t take long for stories of a golden gorilla with a man’s intelligence to spread through the continent, and the man-ape was given the name Congorilla.
Once the new format was established, there seemed to be a great deal of need for a gorilla with a man’s intelligence. Congo Bill, as himself, was pushed more and more into the background. Lost was the idea that the rugged adventurer had been quite capable of handling jungle crimes with only his tracking skills, his revolver, and a good right cross. The scripts would tell us what a “famed hunter and explorer” he was, but we saw little evidence of it.
On the other hand, Congorilla made quite a name for himself. Whenever Bill’s mind took over the golden ape’s body, he didn’t take too many pains to hide the fact. Friends and foes alike were constantly amazed at the gorilla’s human feats---driving a jeep, piloting an aeroplane, administering medicines, communicating by morse code, and the like. That seemed to be the hook. Most stories contrived to put Congorilla in a situation of ape “imitating” man.
Only Janu was privy to the secret of Congo Bill’s magic ring. Good thing, too, because the biggest drawback to the mind-switching routine was the fact that, when Bill’s mind inhabited Congorilla, the ape’s mind occupied his human body. In order to keep his body from being imperiled whenever he made the switch, Bill would resort to protective measures, such as lashing himself to a tree, or taking sleeping pills to knock himself out, whenever the gorilla’s mind entered it. Janu’s job was to stand guard over Bill’s body while Congorilla was in action.
Usually it was an easy enough assignment, but every once in a while, the gorilla-brained Bill would get loose. Then Janu faced the knotty task of controlling the antics of a gorilla-in-a-man’s-body, as well as trying to cover up for Congo Bill’s apparently bizarre behaviour. Generally, the jungle boy wasn’t too good at either.
And then there a few occasions when ring on the golden gorilla’s finger would become lost, meaning Bill could not transfer his mind back to his own body after the hour had elapsed. It was fun having a gorilla’s body every once in a while, but the prospect of spending the rest of his life in it always spooked the bejesus out of him.
Another problem was the existence of the golden gorilla when he was just being a gorilla. He may have been sacred to Chief Kawolo’s tribe, but to others, he was an inviting target. Hunters wanted to bag him for a trophy; circus owners wanted to capture him for display as a unique attraction. Bill spent quite a few stories babysitting the big gold simian.
The Congorilla series finally lost its long-time home in Action Comics early in 1960, when Mort Weisinger decided to devote more pages to the Supergirl back-up. But Congo Bill, Janu, and the golden ape were still popular enough that it was moved over to Adventure Comics, beginning with issue # 270 (Mar., 1960).
Another indication that Weisinger intended to keep the concept alive was when, after twenty years, Congo Bill made his first appearance in another character’s series. In “Jimmy’s Gorilla Identity”, from Jimmy Olsen # 49 (Dec., 1960), Bill approaches Jimmy because of the cub reporter’s friendship with Superman.
Bill needs the Man of Steel’s help. As the hunter explains to Jimmy, the golden gorilla had been captured in Africa and shipped to some place in the vicinity of Metropolis. Bill has checked all the local zoos and circuses, to no avail. He’s hoping that Superman, with his telescopic vision, can locate the golden-pelted ape. To impress upon Jimmy the urgency of the matter, Bill reveals the secret of his magic ring and how it enables him to become Congorilla.
Unfortunately, Superman is unavailable. He’s undertaking a crucial mission at the Earth’s core. Even Jimmy’s signal watch is of no help; heavy deposits of lead ore block the super-sonic signal from reaching the Man of Steel’s super-hearing. Congo Bill opts to continue his search on his own, leaving his magic ring with Jimmy, to show Superman later. Of course, Bill has no idea of what a bucket of worms he has just opened.
Because it's only an eleven-page story, it takes the Jimster less than a day to succeed where Bill failed. The cub reporter finds the golden gorilla in the possession of the owner of a wild-animal farm. Almost immediately, though, an emergency arises, and naturally, the impetuous Jimmy sees this as a job for Congorilla. He rubs the magic ring and finds himself in control of the gorilla’s body. Unfortunately, he does a piss-poor job of making sure his human body is safe while the ape’s mind occupies it. Hijinx ensue.
It was a valiant effort, but over in Adventure Comics, Congo Bill’s series was finally running out of steam. The last Congorilla tale appeared in issue # 283 (Apr., 1961), after which it was cancelled to make room for, of all things, “Tales of the Bizarro World”.
Whatever Congo Bill and Congorilla fans there were left hadn’t quite seen the last of them, yet. Bill returned to his old Action Comics stomping grounds when Superman, Perry White, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen visited Africa in “Brainiac’s Super-Revenge”, from Action Comics # 280 (Sep., 1961). The story begins when Brainiac is accidently freed from the ice-age prison where Superman had left him five issues previous. Intent on revenge, the computer villain returns to the modern era and tracks down the Man of Steel and his friends while they are exploring the Congo.
After using a kryptonite bomb to neutralise Superman’s powers, Brainiac shrinks the lot of them down to doll size and imprisons them in a bottle. Unfortunately for his revenge plot, a familiar golden gorilla is also shrunken with them. When the simian begins to act intelligently, Superman and Jimmy catch on. Still possessing his gorilla strength, Congorilla enables them to escape the bottle. And when Brainiac is distracted by Congo Bill, growling and beating his chest like an ape, the Man of Steel is able to restore himself, his friends, and Congorilla to their normal sizes. One tap of his super-strong hand later and Brainiac is under wraps.
That was it for Bill and the golden ape, until 1965, when four issues of World’s Finest Comics carried reprints of old Congorilla stories in the title’s “Surprise Feature” back-up slot. These got enough positive reception for Mort Weisinger to test the waters for the character’s revival. That came in “Jimmy Olsen, Ape Man”, from issue # 86 (Jul., 1965) of the cub reporter’s title.
Here, Jimmy receives a report from the African branch of his fan club; two strangers bound for the Kilimanjo mountains were overheard discussing something called “Project Kryptonite”. With Superman away on one of those space missions he goes on whenever the plot needs him out of the way, Jimmy decides to check it out himself. He heads for the Kilimanjo mountain country in Africa and seeks out Congo Bill’s help. The famous jungle expert is laid up with a broken arm, however, so he loans Jimmy his magic ring.
As it turns out, the golden gorilla is foraging in the same region, so the Jimster pulls the mind-switch. In the body of Congorilla, it’s a snap for the cub reporter to ascend Kilimanjo. At its snowy peak, he discovers the two men. They’re renegade scientists who have constructed a “hyper-magnetron”, designed to draw kryptonite meteors from space, to use against Superman. Jimmy has other ideas about that.
Actually, as Jimmy Olsen stories go, this one isn’t shameful at all, with little of the ludicrousness that usually makes Silver-Age fans squirm whenever the phrase “Jimmy Olsen story” is mentioned. It’s a decent showing for Congorilla, even with Jimmy’s mind instead of Congo Bill’s. With a little tinkering, it wouldn’t have been out of place in the original series.
Nevertheless, it was the last Silver-Age hurrah for Congo Bill and the great golden ape. It would be another dozen years before fans became nostalgic enough for Congorilla to see him, again.