Review: Godzilla: Half-Century War trade paperback (IDW Publishing)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

IDW gained the Godzilla comics license in 2011, and for the most part, it took them some time to properly use it. This isn’t an isolated case; their Transformers comics especially have gone through a couple of different eras. So while IDW used a variety of ongoings-turned-limited series to figure out what to do with their newly-arrived license, they also gave writer/artist James Stokoe the opportunity to create a truly epic monster tale. Godzilla: The Half-Century War, as the title implies, follows the King of the Monsters from his post-World War II origins to the modern day. What sets this book apart from the other IDW Godzilla comics is its manga-based style.

In its loosest sense, the manga aesthetic is used by artists such as Humberto Ramos and Michael Ryan to give their artwork a distinct look. What Stokoe does is closer to Adam Warren’s Empowered; all of The Half-Century War looks like it’s a manga that’s been translated into English. A lot of this is due to the carefully constructed word balloons, which are designed to be too large for the English text and which feature centered question marks below the words themselves; both are common translation features. Many characters chuckle constantly or have some other verbal tic, another common manga standby. Mixed into this are Western techniques, such as turning Godzilla’s traditional “Skreeonk!” roar into a John Workman-style word balloon and deliberately faded coloring.

A Godzilla project is much like an Aliens project in that its human cast can determine whether it succeeds or fails. This can be judged in two factors: how important the humans are to the overall narrative, and how annoying those humans are. Stokoe thankfully anticipated this and provided an excellent main character in Ota Murakami, a young soldier on the front lines when Godzilla arrives in 1954. He’s not burdened with an excess of backstory and he’s quickly established as intelligent and almost insanely courageous by taking on Godzilla with a Sherman tank. As time marches on, Ota grows more bitter, but it’s not angst for angst’s sake. This is a man watching the world fall apart and unable to stop the onslaught of monsters.

One major advantage that IDW has over the previous license-holders is that they have access to Toho’s entire monster catalog. Toho requires companies to license each monster independently; Marvel and Dark Horse could only afford to get Godzilla and were forced to make up their own foes. This is also why the 1998 film didn’t have a second monster (amongst many other reasons, but that’s a huge field of worms). Either IDW shelled out the cash or Toho was willing to cut a package deal since the films were on hiatus until the 2014 release. Whatever the case, IDW can use all of the monsters they want, and Stokoe uses this resource to set up the timeline of The Half-Century War as a broad strokes version of the films. While Godzilla is alone in the first issue, the second sees him fighting Anguirus in a loose adaptation of Godzilla Raids Again!. It simultaneously answers the question, “What if Godzilla ended up in Vietnam in the depths of the war?”

Issue three jumps ahead as Ota and the Anti-Megalosaurus Force (an organization from the films) have tracked all of the monsters to Ghana. The AMF features all sorts of strange characters which we sadly don’t get to learn more about, especially the hippies charged with following Mothra. This issue’s fight features essentially every major monster from the '70s “Showa” era of films, with the exceptions showing up later due to plot reasons. Even Megalon gets a turn to shine; Jet Jaguar is sorely missed though. We also get to meet the villain building the machines used to summon the monsters: Dr. Deverich, whose last name is a combination of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the team behind the 1998 film. Unfortunately, his machines work too well, even reaching out into space ...

The fourth issue sees a shift in the narrative as the heavily wounded AMF are demoted to being, in Ota’s terms, storm-watchers for oncoming monsters. Humanity finally has a weapon to take on Godzilla: Mechagodzilla! This is specifically the '80s/'90s “Heisei” Mechagodzilla, my personal favorite design of the character, as it fits in with the villain. Back when Toho made Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, they thought about including Mechagodzilla as well, but decided that two kings of monsters were enough. Stokoe clearly disagrees, and the real and metal Godzillas are forced to team up against the crystalline foe. Exactly how SpaceGodzilla came to be in this continuity is thankfully ignored; that’s a character that didn’t need a fourth origin.

We finally, in issue five, join an aged and sick Ota one year after Dr. Deverich’s machine summons more monsters from space. Stokoe saved Gigan and King Ghidorah, two of Godzilla’s nastiest foes, for last, and the two have wreaked havoc on Earth while the AMF have rebuilt Mechagodzilla into its 2000s “Millennium”/”Kiryu” design. Just to prove he’s a bigger Godzilla fan than anyone else, Stokoe uses the Dimension Tide, an obscure black hole weapon from Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, as a key plot point. Ota finally confronts Godzilla face-to-face after taking control of Mechagodzilla, leading to a satisfying finale ... until another set of spines rises out of the ocean!

This is a storyline that I’d love to see revisited at some point in the future. For instance, how would Ota react to Godzilla’s son Minya? Either way, it’s safe to say that James Stokoe’s Godzilla: The Half-Century War is both a definitive Godzilla epic and a stunning work of art. It could also be the basis of a really great film, so hopefully IDW has sent Gareth Edwards a copy.
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