Tuesday, February 18, 2014

42 awesome things about James Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half-Century War

Godzilla's been on my mind a lot more than usual lately, thanks in large part to the recently-released teaser trailer for the upcoming reboot of the previous, 1998 attempt at a Hollywood reboot. So with Godizilla on my mind and a Christmas gift bookstore gift card in my hand, I finally got around to reading James Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half-Century War in trade, the format I've been waiting to read it in.

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.

2.) That scream. If you've ever seen a Godzilla movie, you know what Godzilla sounds like. It's not an easy sound to imitate, let alone translate onomatopoetically into writing. Stokoe got around that in an extremely inspired fashion on the fourth and fifth pages of his first issue of the series, rendering Godzilla's cry into an oscilloscope-inspired visual, meant to remind the reader of the film cry more than recreate it (Or, if one's never heard a Godzilla scream, then to create one of their own in their imagination to match that visual).

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.

5.) Godzilla's face as Noh mask...? Here's something I never noticed, never considered about Japanese cinema's most famous giant monster until reading this comic, and seeing this particular panel: Viewed from a certain angle, Godzilla's visage looks a bit like a Noh mask, of the sort used to designate gods or monsters in the traditional Japanese dramatic form.

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.

12.) Stokoe draws incredibly detailed buildings, whether standing or in rubble. The amount of detail in this comic is often stop-reading-and-stare high, from the very first panel where Stokoe draws little squares for seemingly every city block in Tokyo, to the various scenes in which monsters rampage through cities, Stokoe taking the time to have drawn every single window on every building.

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.

17.) Anguirus's grand entrance. The first giant monster Stokoe's Godzilla fights is Anguirus, just as it was in the film series (although Stokoe sets their fight during the height of the Vietnam war, rather than off the coast of Japan and in Osaka). His appearance is every bit as dramatic as Godzilla's, first emerging as spikes rising up through the ground beneath the feet of some of our human heroes, and then appearing in all his glory on a two-page spread. He and Godzilla then oscilloscope-scream at each other.

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.

23.) Kumonga.

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.

26). Megalon. Wow, what a goofy-looking monster. Stokoe's skills can't do anything to not make this guy look more like something that would menace the Power Rangers than Godzilla, I'm afraid, but he doesn' t have too much to do here anyway ("He looks kinda like a Christmas tree monster," Joel said of Megalon's grand entrance in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring Godzilla vs. Megalon. "And his arms look like the Chrysler Building," Crow added).

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.

28.) The AMF is becomes basically a Godzilla-fighting version of G.I. Joe. What did I love as a child even more than Godzilla? Few things, really. But one of them was G.I. Joe. So it was sure exciting to reach the chapter of the book set in 1975 to discover that the AMF had essentially evolved into a G.I. Joe team of colorful soldiers with their own uniform/costumes and signature weapons, a handful of each of them devoted to fighting a different monster. What's better than Godzilla? Godzilla fighting G.I. Joe, obviously.

29.) The paint job on the Mothra team's van. I think it speaks for itself.

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.

32.) The panel where the giant crystals that shower the earth. The Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla battle is interrupted by a new combatant—a third Godzilla. Before he appears, however, huge shards of cyrstal start falling from the sky like bullets fired from a giant gun, a gigantic, crystalline formation following them.

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).

34.) Godzilla's reaction to Space-Godzilla. When Godzilla attacks his cousin from space, he does so by breathing a blast of radiation at him. Space-Godzilla responds by summoning a crystal shield to block the blast. This is the face Godzilla makes when he sees a weird space version of himself using weird space powers:

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.

37.) Gigan's first appearance is awesome. Despite his ability to fly, for reasons I don't understand, he's first shown standing atop an aircraft carrier, part of a fleet he and Ghidorah have destroyed on their way to Antartica, where Murukami and the AMF are set to make their last stand against this fearsome pair of monsters, who have pretty much destroyed the whole world between the end of the last chapter and the beginning of his one.

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.

39.) Mechagodzilla's arsenal. This upgraded version of Mechagodzilla is brimming with weaponry, and Murukami seems to fire everything all at once constantly, like he's button-mashing inside the giant robot. I like how it apparently shoots missiles out of his back. This may have some analogue in real-life military hardware, I have no idea, but I like to think that they had to put the missiles back there because there was no room on the front of the robot for them, what with all the guns up there.

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.

42.) Brandon Graham's variant cover. There's a mini-gallery of covers in the back of the trade, including one from EDILW favorite Brandon Graham.  Based on its content, I'm assuming its from the third issue of the series, as it features the AMF soldiers, with Godzilla and Rodan as smaller figures in the background. Man, I sure would love to read a Brandon Graham Godzilla series, and it sure would be interesting to see more series like this one, in which auteur cartoonists like Stokoe or Graham get to do their own thing with Godzilla and friends.


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.


Michael Hoskin said...

You don't know Hedorah? Check out Smog Monster some time, it's my favourite of the 70s films.

Also, Stokoe's use of Mechagodzilla is very close to Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, which - as it sounds like you haven't seen it - you should absolutely track down. I'd call it the best of the 21st century Godzilla flicks so far and, much like the Half-Century War, creates pretty good drama out of the human cast grappling with Godzilla.

Caleb said...

I recently decided to watch all of the Godzilla movies in order, starting with Godzilla Raids Again!. This may be a mistake, as it seems the next one is Godzilla Vs. King Kong, which I hate so much...

I haven't seen any 21st century Godzilla movies yet...I think Final Wars was the last one I saw. Wait, maybe that one was 21st century...? I don't know; like I said, I'm gonna try and watch 'em all from the start, and right now I'm still in 1955.

p0w said...

Great review!

This mini-series needs a ton more love to get the word out about it. Easily the best Godzilla comics ever done.

Unknown said...

Two things:

It's funny that you mention that Godzilla's face reminds you of a Noh mask, because Stokoe is using the Miregoji suit as the basis of his design. Which was the first post-Showa face to forgo animatronics in order to replicate the Noh tradition. Kenji Suzuki took a lot of heat for it, but I love it.

Also, surprised to hear that you hate King Kong vs Godzilla. Have you only seen the American cut? The difference is staggering, the Japanese film is actually a really clever satire.