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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
It is better to conquer yourself...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...?
...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.
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.