James Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half Century War follows two soldiers, Ota and Ken, and their obsessive chase to find a way to stop the legendary Godzilla. It's a simple plot, at times bordering on thin, and it reads as if it were just an excuse for Stokoe to draw big, over the top, monster action, but in this case it's enough to make a very fun comic.
Each issue features a look at Ota and Ken and the AMF (Anti Megalosaurus Force) as they test new mad-science weapons over the course of their long-standing fight with Godzilla. There's also a renegade scientist on the loose who's reverse-engineered one of the AMF's weapons to work as a beacon to draw in other Godzilla-sized monsters to cause more trouble for the AMF. We get a look at a different decade in each issue, so the big gaps in the chronology really allow us to see how a lifetime of fighting Godzilla has taken its toll on the members of the AMF, especially Ota.
After his first encounter with Godzilla, Ota develops a fascination with Godzilla that through the years develops into an Ahab-esque obsession. He joins up with the AMF and we get to look in as the AMF changes from a secret military side-project to a global organization led by top monster-hunters and eventually its demotion to a small team of trackers and damage control. Despite all the changes to the team Ota's obsession with Godzilla remains constant, culminating in a final battle and team-up with Godzilla against space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah where we learn that Ota's no longer trying to stop Godzilla. He's long since learned that Godzilla is a force of nature, necessary to the balance of our world. What Ota wants now is for his existence to be acknowledged by Godzilla, this creature he has devoted the better part of his life fighting. It's a nice little spin on the whole white-whale metaphor, and I guess I'm reading Godzilla as a stand-in for respect or validation (probably because that's where I'm at right now), and if we extend the metaphor further to include James Stokoe and his known love for all things Godzilla, maybe we can even read Godzilla as a stand-in for comics as an art form. I mean, we could do this, but I'd advise against it as I don't really know much about Stokoe outside of what he puts out there for public consumption. Read it and apply it to yourself however you see fit. You know how white-whale metaphors work.
In a way the simplicity of the plot and the sparseness of Stokoe's characterizations helps to strengthen this comic by keeping Stokoe's art at front and center. I guess this seems like a backhanded compliment, but I think Stokoe's a smart guy and that simplicity is deliberate and effective. The plot of a group of military guys chasing Godzilla is straightforward because it needs to be. Take a look at all those old Godzilla movies. Do you remember the name of a single human character? Me neither. Godzilla-type monster movies are never actually about the human characters. Of course there will be some human characters for us, a human audience, to tether ourselves to, but the human characters are only really there to give us an eye on the ground floor and to react to the rampant destruction, which is the real star of the show. Similarly in Godzilla: The Half Century War, Stokoe's plot and characterization remain simple because they need to be. The real show in this comic is the great idea of Stokoe's premise: Soldiers chase and hunt giant monsters with increasingly ridiculous and powerful science weapons. Stokoe knows how a Godzilla movie works. He knows we're not in it for deep ruminations on the dualities shared between man and beast. He's laid out enough for us to make those connections on our own if we want to read it like that, but he knows that what we want to see and what he wants to show us are some pictures of Godzilla destroying cities and fighting other monsters. And damned if he isn't the right person for the job.
If you've seen a James Stokoe comic, you know one very important truth about his work, and that is this: MORE IS MORE. Look at any panel in this miniseries and take a second to appreciate the strength of his linework and his insistence on drawing every scale and every smashed window, every chunk of debris thrown around in Godzilla's wake. James Stokoe draws like a madman, and it's not just that he pays great attention to including very specific details, but it's also because he's got such a full and vibrant vision and a killer eye for design. It's not even limited to his pencils! Stokoe's lettering and coloring (with some assists from Heather Breckel) is doing some heavy lifting as well, making sure this comic looks and "sounds" like a comic about big guns and bigger monsters should, which is to say: This comicbook is LOUD.
It may be worth noting that the work in Godzilla: The Half Century War is not quite as out there or bizarre as his work in something like Orc Stain, but I'm chalking that up to the fact that he's working with characters that we've seen before, so being faithful to the look of a classic movie franchise places some confines on design. Plus, I'd say that Stokoe is pushing the look and feel of a Godzilla movie as far as he can. It's a comic that just looks like it's about to burst, and as soon as you get to the inevitable double-page spread, you have to slow down and let your eyes take a minute to absorb everything on the page.
Another thing I love about Stokoe's art is how heavy he makes everything look, and appropriately so — he's working with top-secret heavy-duty army weapons and monsters thirty stories tall. There's this great sequence in the first issue where Ota and Ken are chasing around Godzilla in a rickety old Sherman tank, and it's getting tossed around like a little toy as it avoids Godzilla's atomic breath, and in each panel Stokoe really makes it clear that Ota and Ken are pushing this poor tank right to its very limit.
It's a great storytelling detail that's conveyed through Stokoe's meticulous and energetic — even frantic — art, and it gets reused a couple of times with various vehicles throughout the series to equally exciting effect. The weapons and vehicles change in every issue, but Stokoe makes them all look like they're vibrating with danger, ready to do what they can to stop Godzilla or die trying.
Godzilla: The Half Century War is a comic in which the
pure enthusiasm of the creator is on display, and that's the kind of comic that's always exciting to read. The spirit of the story is in line with the classic Godzilla movies, and Stokoe's art gives each of the many action sequences enough energy and weight to push the Godzilla aesthetic into the next level, making this easily the most fun I've ever had reading a Godzilla comic.
Geoffrey Lapid lives in Brooklyn where he writes about comics and gets older every day. You can follow him on twitter at @gwarrenl, and check out some comics he's made at strongconqueror.com. He's thinking about getting a bike.