Sunday, April 10, 2016

Review: Godzilla In Hell

This is perhaps one of IDW's most surprising comics based on an intellectual property license, and they've certainly published some doozies. The format may be that of a standard comic book mini-series–it was published serially as five numbered issues–but it doesn't tell a single story so much as serve as a sort of challenge to its creators (which number among them two that are likely to be among many Godzilla fans favorites). It's that almost avant garde aspect that makes the collection such a startling read, as the creators are met with simple guidelines–the three words of the title and nothing else, apparently–and then get 20 pages to do whatever they want, several mixing literary allusion and theology into a story featuring a character still best-known for particularly cheesy and cheap mass entertainment aimed at children.

I was repeatedly struck by how deep and how daring some of these stories turned out to be, but never as struck as I was by the simple fact that IDW commissioned such a series in the first place.

Each issue has its own creative team and tells its own discrete story, with nothing in common save the obvious. Collected into a single volume, Godzilla In Hell becomes an anthology.

The first issue is by James Stokoe, creator of the excellent Godzilla: The Half-Century War (maybe the best of IDW's many Godzilla comics to date). One of his claims to fame on that series was how he decided to illustrate Godzilla's famous cry, and there are several instances of his clever uses of incorporating lettering into his art in his story, including integrating the title into the walls of the deep pit that Godzilla falls down to reach Hell (Godzilla himself is drawn tiny, making the fall itself seem astronomical, given what we know of Godzilla's size) and Dante's "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here" carved into a gigantic obelisk waiting to greet Godzilla. He responds, as he so often does, by blasting it to rubble using his atomic breath.

Stokoe faces the silent (save for a few growls) monster with a series of bizarre challenges as he stomps through a seemingly endless, rocky wasteland, including a vast sea of floating humanoid shapes that swarm the king of monsters and, ultimately, his own double, which Stokoe brilliantly designs into a horrifying monster wearing Godzilla's shape like a disguise.

Several of these elements are more or less classic visions of hell, but none so terrifying as the ending, which really drives home the most horrifying aspect of eternal damnation. Without giving away the ending, Stokoe not only puts Godzilla in a hell that feels both universal and personal to the protagonist, but uses it to demonstrate Godzilla's inhuman, force-of-nature will. While "hope" doesn't really seem like an emotion one might attribute to the monster, despair certainly isn't one either, and it's the absence of despair more than the possession of hope that keeps him relatively unruffled as he goes about falling and fighting forever.

That's followed by a story written and painted by legendary Godzilla artist Bob Eggleton. It's a much more straightforward story, told in a much more straightforward manner. While there's no dialogue, save for the occasional "REEE-UUNNNNNKKKK" or "SKREEONK," this story is anything but silent, as Eggleton narrates it, making for an extremley sharp contrast to Stokoe's preceding story.

In poetic, if purple, prose, the artist tells us that Godzilla has awoken in hell, "The abysmal plain of the underworld presenting all which has failed or gone wrong." But, he seems to assure us, Godzilla doesn't really deserve hell, either because he's a good rather than bad monster, or, perhaps, simply because he is a monster, and thus more animal than sentient, soul-bearing, morality-comprehending creature. "This is not his final destination," Eggleton's narration states, "but a journey, a test..."

Godzilla in Purgatory, then.

His Godzilla travels from one arena to the next, in each new setting–a flaming world of nuclear wars, a frozen cavern, the sea–he faces a demon version of an old opponent or ally. After three fights comes the boss battle, with "The reason the leviathan was brought into this horrific netherworld...King Ghidorah, the great three-headed dragon, the golden devil." You know Dante's devil had three faces, right?

A whirlpool sucks him below the waves before he can do battle with his archenemy, and the narration tells us that he is being taken to "fresh levels of torment...or a way out..."

After these first two stories, it becomes apparent that, despite the changes in story-telling styles, one could read at least these first few stories as connected, given how each ends with Godzilla falling from the level of hell the story is set on, so that perhaps this is the same Godzilla (varying artistic styles and visual signifiers notwithstanding) on the same journey through different parts of hell (Spoiler alert: That holds true of the rest of the stories too, if you want to view them from that angle).

Eggleton's story is something of a disappointment after Stokoe's, and the narration sucks some of the mystery out of the concept, but who's going to complain about Eggleton painting two-pages of sequential art featuring Godzilla battling Rodan, Anguirus and Varan through portentous settings?

The third story is the first by an entire creative team, rather than a single creator. Ulises Farinas and Erick Frietas write this issue, while Buster Moody draws it. Godzilla is facing off against his opposite number Space Godzilla in the ruins of Rio de Janeiro, with the Christ The Redeemer statue watching from a hell above. As Space Godzilla powers up, it crumbles to dust and rubble as well, and after a page or so of fighting, the Godzillas lock breath weapons, increasing their power more and more until the entire world is destroyed.

So that's what it takes to send Godzilla to the afterlife, apparently.

He awakes beholding a gigantic, Purgatory-like mountain, the words "Submit, Serve Peace" echoing from it on repeat. A host of tiny angels with butterfly wings (or should that be moth wings, given the fact that this is a Toho licensed comic?) stream toward Godzilla, and he smashes one between his massive claws like it was a bug.

In response, the disembodied voice cries "You shall learn to submit to peace!" and Godzilla is plunged far, far below ground again, this time awaking in an endless cavern of ice, little red devils (well, little to Godzilla; they're our size) hiding behind stalagmites and, curiously, the rubble of Christ The Redeemer laying in the shape of a cross next to Godzilla.

He is immediately faced with Space Godzilla, and an evil, Satanic presence. The devils fly down Godzilla's throat. Then the host of heaven flies down his throat after the devils, the rubble resurrects itself in the shape of a cross, and here is the conflict in a single panel:
Heaven cries, "Serve God! Submit to God!" while Hell criews, "Enter the throat! Become one with Hell!"

Both Heaven and Hell want Godzilla, but what does Godzilla want?

Well, he uses his divine power-up to put down Space Godzilla, and when Heaven essentially says Godzilla owes his allegiance to the "my army of peace," Godzilla demonstrates that he wants what he always wants: To be left the fuck alone.
He breathes atomic fire in the direction of Heaven, snatches up a handful of both angels and devils and–in the book's most surprising moment, both sides betray God and Satan and fall to worshipping Godzilla, who couldn't care less, as he kills a handful of each and stomps off, the cross rubble once more.
This is probably the best of the five stories herein, and one of the best, most direct Godzilla comics I've ever read or seen, as it pretty directly and elegantly defines the character as an elemental force of destruction beyond morality and, here, beyond even God. Blasphemous? Maybe in certain circles, but then, that's Godzilla for you. He's a monster, not a man, and all he does is fight and fight until his conflicts have been killed or otherwise destroyed, and then he moves on until it's time to fight again.

The next issue, another by a creative team, is written by Brandon Seifert and drawn By Ibrahim Moustafa. Another mostly silent story, with only monster calls and roars for sound. This is the most meta of the stories, and the one that requires (and rewards) repeated readings the most. On the opening splash, Godzilla stands triumphant over the crumpled bodies of two of his greatest foes, King Ghidorah and Destroyah.

Almost immediately they rise to do battle again, and the three monsters battle throughout a seemingly abandoned Tokyo, one of them occasionally suffering what would appear to be a death blow, only to rise again later–as when Ghidorah flies Godzilla high up into the sky only to drop him so that he's impaled by Tokyo tower. (!!!)

During all the fighting, Godzilla eventually notices a huge and seemingly impenetrable wall, and tries to break it. Eventually he does, and finds himself beyond his own narrative confines. The character is outside of the film, outside of the panels of the comic book, in complete nothingness.

It's a maybe obvious, but well-done, version of existential dread for a fictional character of any kind, told and sold eloquently by Moustafa's artwork.

Dave Wachter closes out the book with another mostly wordless story. In this one, Godzilla determinedly trudges through several inhospitable settings, irritated but unfazed, not showing the least bit of fear or concern until he's swarmed by millions of strange red, cycloptic, bat-winged creatures. He attempts to escape them, and keep moving forward, by scaling a titanic mountain, atop which a creature that is all tentacles rest, red towers on either side of it reaching up and disappearing into the black clouds that fill the endless sky.

Godzilla's breath weapon won't work, as if he were in a dream, and he can't scale the mountain. So in a weirdly emotive panel, he spreads his arms and closes his eyes, and the creatures completely devour him, skeletonizing him in moments. But! Each creature's mouthful of Godzilla has turned it into a piece of Godzilla, and they then swarm the bones, acting as Godzilla's flesh and muscles.

He/they can now not only fire the atomic breath, but they can do so from endless mouths, every cell of this reborn Godzilla, blasting aways the guardian creatures, the clouds above and even carving a smooth pathway to the top of the mountain, upon which we see the red pillars were actually just part of an obscured torri gate. Godzilla passes through, a quote from Buddha hovering in the panels of the last two pages and, on the final page, he emerges, alive and whole once again, bursting from the sea.

The quote?

It is better to conquer yourself...

...than to win a thousand battles.

Then the victory is yours.

It cannot be taken from you...

...not by angels or demons...

heaven or hell.

How appropriate is it that at the end of a series in which Japanese Godzilla contends with a series of interpretations of the traditional, Western conception of Hell, he ultimately finds salvation in a the example and words of Buddha and a Shintoist symbol...?

It's a great, even beautiful ending to a great, even beautiful series. I can't recommend it highly enough.


I must confess that I was a little disappointed that the infernal figure standing between Godzilla and Ghidorah on Jeff Zornow's EC Comics-esque variant cover for Godzilla In Hell #1 never showed up within.
While these issues took on a cool, often philosophical bent, it also would have been great fun to see Godzilla fighting traditional denizens of hell like Cerebus and The Furies, or Beelzebub, Baphomet and Asmodeus, or denizens of Dante's Inferno, like Geryon and others.

1 comment:

googum said...

Man, I don't know why I didn't pick this up in singles. Not usually a trade-waiter, but I guess this time.