Review: Kaijumax: Season One trade paperback (Oni Press)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

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

I'm still a little surprised that "kaiju" has become a common word in American popular culture, but perhaps I shouldn't be. It sums up the idea of a giant monster in a simple word that conveys the genre's Japanese heritage. Whether they're protecting annoying children, fighting any given Ultra Brother, or trampling through Tokyo to fight a Sentai team, the kaiju genre has certain rules and characteristics. These well-worn tropes are ripe for parody, which is where writer and artist Zander Cannon comes in. He was part of the art team for Alan Moore's Top Ten and his new book, Kaijumax -- collected as Kaijumax: Season One -- takes a similar approach with a different set of tropes: in this case, prison drama.

The events and characters of Kaijumax are clearly ripped from episodes of shows like Oz, Prison Break, and Orange is the New Black. A new prisoner who isn't a hardcore criminal has to deal with the terrors of prison life. Except in Kaijumax, the prisoner is a lizard-like monster called Electrogor, brought in to the titular prison for destroying an underwater fiber optic cable. He was simply trying to process the electricity in the cable to feed his new young children (shades of Jean Valjean). The opening dialogue, as Electrogor tries to scare the guards but can't sell his fury over his terror, is very similar to how criminals talk on episodes of Cops or Jail. Later on, the book deals with prison rape, and Cannon doesn't play it for humor.

If you're not familiar with the basics of kaiju films, you might get a little lost, especially when it comes to the language the prisoners speak. Their slang is really well-thought-out, such as "Goj" (as in Gojira) taking the place of "God" and "Nilla" (as in Godzilla's son Minilla) replacing the n-word. At times this becomes the biggest weakness of Kaijumax, stalling the plot so that you can decipher what the characters are trying to say. This is a technique that worked very well in Top 10, which, for instance, had its own replacement n-word, "clicker," used when talking to or about robots. Moore was better at keeping the dialogue clear while still adding world-building language. (Sadly, as the newer League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books demonstrated, Moore has since lost this ability.)

The sheer weight of genre shout-outs carries over into the monster designs; one lead gangster is Ape-Whale, which is the literal translation of the two words ("gorira" and "kujira") that were combined to make the name Godzilla. Ape-Whale's idiot young son gets his own subplot based on the infamously bad film Godzilla's Revenge, meeting up with a little boy who dreams himself onto the island. Some are less subtle, like a turtle with bird wings who is clearly just a simple version of Gamera. Monsters of American myth get featured as well, such as Hellmoth, a version of the Moth-Man urban legend. No matter their origin, the kaiju are all lumped together in one island which quickly becomes too small.

Electrogor's plotline serves as a spine for a number of groups and subplots. Ape-Whale's mob is just one faction on the island; another is led by a sentient volcano, and both are rivals to the Queen of the Moon. An entire subculture of mechanical kaiju inspired by Mecha-Godzilla preach peace and take the place of born-again Christians in regular prison stories. The guards also get some focus starting in the second issue; the first issue leaves the reader in the dark until we learn that they grow tall like Ultraman to contain their prisoners. A corrupt guard named Gupta becomes a major thorn in Electrogor's side when he gets the naïve kaiju prisoner involved in the drug trade. Mind you, for these creatures, "drugs" are radioactive substances like uranium.

One of my favorite facets of Kaijumax is that the art thoroughly mismatches the tone of the book. But considering that this is a genre mash-up to begin with, the soft-looking art just adds an extra layer of humor. Giant monsters shouldn't be this adorable, especially when they're trying to work out using equipment that looks like toppling buildings. That sequence with the exercise yard is an example of how well Cannon turns real-world objects into props for the kaiju characters. Another is a shiv made out of part of an oil tanker's hull. The drawback of this art style comes with the humans, who all look a little off in comparison, but it's an exchange I'm happy to live with.

The physical trade of Kaijumax: Season One came out recently but I would recommend getting the digital issues instead. This is because the individual issues have fantastic extras such as mini kaiju film reviews and jokes that the reader might have missed. These aren't in the physical trade and they add a lot to the overall presentation since it's clear that Zander Cannon is a huge fan of the kaiju genre. A sequel volume is starting soon and I look forward to seeing what he has in store for his giant monsters.
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