Tuesday, February 18, 2014
42 awesome things about James Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half-Century War
It was awesome, and I loved it. How did I love it? Let me count the ways...
1.) It was an auteur take on a familiar, corporate trademark type of character. I have a love/dislike relationship with publisher IDW when it comes to many of their licensed comics. They obviously have an ambitious licensing program, and they tend to snap up a lot intellectual properties that I would theoretically love to read comics created around—G.I.Joe, Transformers, Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—but they tend to expand their franchises so quickly, with multiple titles and, in some cases, mutliple continuities, that by the time the books start making it into trade, I'm so lost as to what to read and in what order that I have no idea how to proceed.
Despite that, I'm glad they decided to do this particular Godzilla miniseries, and that they gave it to a single cartoonist—Stokoe does everything but edit the series, and he gets some color assists—with such a distinct style and unique vision. While Godzilla's name is on the cover, and it's his mug that's on almost every page, this is as much if not more of a James Stokoe comic than it is a Godzilla comic, and readers familiar with the cartoonist's work from Won-Ton Soup or, more likely, Orc Stain, will be thankful of that. There are a lot of Godzilla comics and movies. But there's only one James Stokoe, and thus only one James Stokoe's Godzilla.
It's effective enough that Stokoe doens't need to keep returning to it; whenever he draws Godzilla's mouth open in a howl or roar, you know the sound that's coming out of it after seeing that image. (For comparison's sake, in IDW's Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters, Godzilla appears roaring "SKREEEE-ONK," and in their just-plain Godzilla, his first roar is similarly written "SKREEEEE-ONNNNNK!").
3.) There's almost no variation between the way Godzilla "really" looks in the movies and the way Stokoe draws him. Godzilla's original look has become more and more preposterous seeming the more and more we learn about prehistoric monsters of the sort that originally inspired the character, and as his popularity grew and sequels were spawned, that look became more or less defined by the means at the filmmakers' disposal to pull it off—no matter how great the costume or special effects, Godzilla still had to look like a guy in rubber suit because, well, he is a guy in a rubber suit (Hence the attempt to improve Godzilla for that 1998 reboot, which, obviously, didn't go over well with, well, anyone).
Stokoe's Godzilla looks just like a faithful drawing of the guy-in-a-suit Godzilla of the old Toho films, right down to the way he walks, the way he stands or poses, the huge fat thighs, even the seams of the costume.
4.) Nevertheless, Stokoe's Godzilla still looks cool, and like he belongs organically, intrinsically in the world around him. The main character, Ota Murakami, and others refer repeatedly to Godzilla's impenetrably thick hide and armor, which explains the "seams" that appear here and there on the monster's bulk. That's apparently where the various pieces of "armor" are fused together.
The fact that he's drawn into a drawn environment is largely responsible for making him seem so realistic, despite the unrealistic design. Stock footage and miniatures never need to be married to shots of a guy in a suit, since everything is coming form the same place—Stokoe's pen.
6.) All of Stokoe's lettering is good. While his rendering of Godzilla's cry is the most grabby and impressie bit of lettering Stokoe accomplishes in the comic—there were actually a couple of posts on the major, professional comics blogs about that image alone—it's worth noting that Stokoe similarly invests all of the lettered dialogue with volume and emotion not merely through the usual comics tricks of italics, bolds or starburst-shaped dialogue balloons, but by making the words big and emphatically shaped when someone is screaming or shouting.
He does the same with sound-effects, similar to the way they're employed in manga: The louder the sound, the bigger the sound effect drawn into the panel of the action making the sound.
7.) The comic tracks the basic, real-world history of Godzilla. The title refers to the main character Murukami's life-long relationship with Godzilla, meeting him as a young lieutenant in the Japanese Self-Defense force in 1954, during Godzilla's first rampage, and by dint of that "expertise" (i.e. surviving it), he and his fellow soldier Kentaro end up spending the rest of their lives seeking a solution to the world's Godzilla problem.
That is, incidentally, the year Gojira was released in Japan, and during the next 50 years of the comic, we watch as the story of Godzilla transforms from a sort of man vs. monster one-off horror story into a monster vs. monster drama, with the creatures multiplying and their arena extending to the whole world. Other monsters are introduced in the order they appeared in during the films, until the climax, in which monsters from outer space have begun descending on Earth, and the stakes are finally apocalyptic in nature.
8.) As with the films, Godzilla gradually transforms from villain to hero. In the original film, Godzilla is the bad guy, although perhaps a sympathetic one, depending on the viewer (He wasn't quite as tragic a protagonist as, say, King Kong or Frankenstein's monster, though). As monsters emerged in the sequels for him to fight, however, Godzilla gradually came to be the "good" monster, or at least the monster we were meant to root for as he battled the heel monsters. This was especially the case when it came to invading monsters from outer space, like the three-headed King Ghidorah.
9.) The colors. I suppose this may be a generational thing, but for me, Godzilla exists mainly in pale, slightly sickly colors of 1970s and early '80s afternoon television and, later, in black and white (My fascination with the character existed mainly when I was a child, and the few times I've sought him out since have been to look back at things like the re-release of the original film, and Marvel's Essential collection of their short-lived comic).
Half-Century War is apparently colored by Stokoe and Heather Breckel, who is credited with color assists, and I think it's safe to say its colors don't resemble those Godzilla normally appears in, no matter how much you might have messed with the tint on your old television set.
There are a lot of reds, pinks and oranges, particularly in the skies and fires and action, with the darker color of the title character standing in sharp relief, along with the greens and purples of the settings he stomps on or crashes through. Godzilla's "fire"—radiation, as Murakami corrects a character at one point—is almost unique in the book in its bright, pale, blue-white color, which the growths on Godzilla's back crackle with before he emits in a beam.
10.) It's nice to see Stokoe draw human beings. Best known for Orc Stain, which is full of orcs, many readers probably haven't seen Stokoe spend a whole lot of time drawing human beings, so it's fun to see him do so here, and somewhat surprising to see how much his human characters resemble those of Akira Toriyama and, to a lesser extent, Jamie Hewlett.
11.) The human characters and their drama are actually engaging. I thought that perhaps the fact that while I loved giant monster movies as a child, I actually loathed about 75% of them was simply childish impatience on my part—I was watching Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster so I could see Godzilla fight a sea monster, not listen to all these Japanese people talk like ventriloquists (I had no idea what dubbing was as a child). But returning to some of the films as an adult, it was pretty clear that Godzilla movies—and other kaiju films—were generally pretty terrible, and the human drama was just something you had to sit through—like the commercials—before you could get to the good stuff.
That's not the case here. While we make pretty enormous jumps through Murukami's life time, sometimes a decade or more at a time, his motivation is pretty straightforward and consistent. He wants to destroy Godzilla and his monstrous ilk, and he grapples with relating to the monster and understanding both his role and Godzilla's role in the world.
13.) Stokoe gets over Godzilla's breath weapon in a few brief panels without resorting to any sort of information dump. The spines on Godzilla's back start to glow blue, make a "KRSH! KRSH! KRSH!" sound, and then "KRKOO" out comes the atomic breath.
14.) Stokoe "kills" Godzilla off in the first issue, the same way he dies in the first movie. While not an adaptation of the original film, the first issue adheres to the broad plot, including the way humanity apparently finishes off Godzilla...temporarily.
15.) The AMF. When it becomes clear that Godzilla hasn't died, and is going to be around causing trouble for a while, Murukami and Kentaro are recruited into the Anti Megalosaurus Force, an international, giant-monster fighting organization that would change missions repeatedly during the course of that half-century.
16.) AMF scientist Doctor Randall puts giant drills on all of his inventions, whether they need drills or not. "He was a bit eccentric," Murukami explains.
18.) Anguirus also looks like a guy in a suit. The quadrapedal Anguirus's combat techniques are a lot cooler in the comic than they look on film, but when Stokoe draws the entire monster, he doesn't redesign him either—he still looks like the film version. You know, a guy in a rubber suit on all fours.
19.) Stokoe draws great smoke. Anguirus and Godzilla fight one another in Vietnam; the AMF has developed a super-powered maser weapon (with drills on it) to fight Godzilla, while the American military wants to bomb Godzilla out of existence. Anguirus interrupts the former plan, and the monsters battle during the bombing raid, so that their fight takes place in and out of a cloud of smoke, through which Anguirus repeatedly tries to sneak up on Godzilla. Here, as in all the other scenes of mass destruction, Stokoe draws incredibly detailed and effective smoke and clouds of dust.
20.) Rodan. In the third issue, Murukami watches as a whole menagerie of kaiju convene in Ghana to battle one another. It starts with a roll call of some of Toho's greatest monsters, all drawn by Stokoe. What's better than one giant monster, or two giant monsters fighting? All the giant monsters.
21.) Battra. Like the Rodan and the next four monsters, he looks a bit like he does on film, but the freedom of drawing a comic book has allowed Stokoe to make these winged and insect-like monsters look more natural than they appeared bound by special effects technology.
22.) Mothra. In final moth form. I love this guy.
24.) Ebirah. Probably the monster that benefits the most from a film-to-comics transition, the giant crustacean now actually looks like a giant crustracean. Stokoe's love of detail pays off quite well in drawing the texture of the lobster-monster's shell.
25). Hedorah. The most Lovecraftian monster is apparently some kind of toxic goop creature? He's one I've never seen in a movie. At least, not one that I remember.
27.) Stokoe gives the human heroes a human villain to fight. Since there's only so much even the AMF can do to stop giant monsters—and by the third issue, as he impotently watches the eight monsters fighting one another, Murukami realizes they are essentially forces of nature that can't be slain—there's a cartoonishly over-the-top villain for them to deal with instead. Dr. Deverich was an AMF scientist who developed a "psionic transmitter" meant to repel the monsters from certain areas, but it didn't work right. Instead, it attracted them. Not terribly bothered, he decided to use it as a monster lure, and sell it to the highest bidder, allowing whoever buys his invention to essentially weaponize the kaiju against their enemies.
30.) The drive through Ghana. As all of the monsters introduced so far (save Anguirus) battle one another in Ghana, our heroes in the AMF realize they have to get past them all in order to shut down their enemy, the one responsible for bringing them all here, Dr. Deverich. To do so, they pile into the Mothra mobile and race between Ebirha's pincers, beneath Mohtra and Road, off a ramp of rubble to jump over Godzilla's tail and right through Hedorah (with a "SPLORCHHH!")
31.) Mechagodzilla. While the original was created as a weapon of mass destruction by one of those goofy alien civilizations that were always trying to destroy Japan or the world in the Toho movies, Stokoe integrates a giant, robot version of Godzilla pretty seamlessly into his narrative about man—and, specifically, a man—trying to come to grips with the unpredictable, destructive force of Godzilla. Here, Mechagodzilla is the ultimate in Godzilla fighting technology, a giant battle-suit piloted by a member of the AMF.
The scale of the thing is immense, as the two giant kaiju are drawn by Stokoe as tiny figures in an extreme longshot, and we know each of those tiny figures is many times larger than the biggest buildings. The humans in that image would be microscopic.
The crystals smash through buildings, the giant crystal crash-lands, and out steps a new monster.
33.) What's the name of the Godzilla from space? So, the monster that emerges from the crystal, which I suppose is actually a spaceship of some kind, looks an awful lot like Godzilla, only with stronger, brighter armor on his chest, crystals embedded in his tail, giant crystalline shoulder-pads and a little tiara.
This was a kaiju I had never heard of, so I later went to the Internet in search of the answer to the question of what's the name of the monster that looks like Godzilla, but is from space?
Space-Godzilla, of course.
Space-Godzilla, a Godzilla-like monster from space, apparently first appeared in a movie from 1994, when I was 17, and thus in a particularly Godzilla-less point in my life. Apparently, as is demonstrated in the comic, Space-Godzilla has some powers, like the ability to control crystals, and telekinetically lift Godzilla (Or Earth-Godzilla, I suppose Space-Godzilla would call him).
35.) Space-Godzilla as herald. Stokoe's storyline starts with one monster in one city in one country, and spirals out from there, with more locations and more monsters added, with bigger stakes at each turn of the spiral. At the end of the penultimate issue/chapter, in which Murakami must temporarily set aside his difference with Godzilla in order to help him defeat Space-Godzilla, we learn that the evil Dr. Deverich has boosted the signal on his kaiju whistle machine, and that's what summoned Space-Godzilla to Earth.
"Deverich, in all his ignorance,opened up a whole universe of horror to our tiny globe," Murukami narrates, as he emerges from the cockpit of Mechagodzilla. The final panel of the issue/chapter shows two tiny dark figures silhouetted in front of a ruddy planet that might be Jupiter or Mars. One of them clearly has three heads and large, bat-like wings.
36.) At least one of the space monsters looks awesome. Those silhouettes end up belong to King Ghidorah and Gigan. Ghidorah is the three-headed, two-tailed, bat-winged monster that essentially looks like a three-headed Western dragon. He looks particularly awesome as drawn by Stokoe, who, naturally, draws every giant scale on him. Gigan, on the other hand, well, like Megulon, he's not exactly the greatest design. While he's rendered pretty well, he still looks like a pot-bellied chicken robot dinosaur bug with hooks for hands.
Gigan appears to be surfing atop the aircraft carrier (The panels above are his dismounting from the aircraft carrier; the first appearance is actually a two-page spread, and not as scannable as that scene).
38.) The climax involves the tag-team, monsters vs. monsters action one would expect in a Godzilla story. While there was a monster battle royale earlier in the story, and Mechagodzilla and Godzilla did team-up to defeat Space-Godzilla, this chapter features the most extended, multi-monster action, as two heroic monsters (Godzilla and Mechagodzilla, piloted by the now elderly Murukami, who ambushed the real pilot to take his place) battle two evil monster (King Ghidorah and Gigan). It lasts about ten pages. It's awesome.
40.) Humanity's final weapon. Interesting that while Godzilla and his early films were meant as a reaction to World War II and the atomic age anxieties the war ushered in—urgently and palpably in Japan, unlike nowhere else—Half-Century War also tracks mankind's continual efforts to create bigger and more powerful weaponry. To fight Godzilla and the monsters. Who were awakened by mankind's continual efforts to create bigger and more powerful weaponry.
What they finally come up with is the "Dimension Tide," a giant gun that shoots a miniaturized black hole. The plan is to get the evil monsters close enough together, and then shoot them with the black hole, sending them off-planet or inside the black hole or whatever.
41.) The lack of closure. While Murukami's story arc reaches a fitting conclusion, and while the evil space monsters are defeated by the black hole gun, Godzilla's story goes on: It seems like he is caught in the same black hole as his enemies, but the last panel of the book is of Godzilla's back spines above the surface of the ocean. Apparently he wasn't vaporized or teleported off of the Earth like the others, but escaped, to rise again as he always does.
I was actually shooting for 50 awesome things about Godzilla: Half-Century War, as half of a century would be 50 years, but I guess I couldn't quite do it without repeating myself (Like, this drawing is awesome too, for the same reason that drawing was). Still, 42 awesome things about a single five-issue series? That's an average of over eight awesome things per issue, and thus a pretty good sign of an awesome comic.