As part of the lead up to GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the iconic kaiju’s most notable rampages in comics.
At his best, Godzilla is a force of nature that embodies the side-effects of man’s hubris. This is the side of the famed creature which cartoonist James Stokoe explores in Godzilla: The Half Century War. Following one soldier’s quest over the course of 50 years to understand the beast, Stokoe examines Godzilla’s evolution as a pop-culture icon through the decades. In doing so, he is able to successfully marry the destructive nuclear force with the anti-hero of ensemble monster mashes. Also, the book looks damn good too.
Before diving into the story itself, it is worth spending some time to discuss Stokoe’s artwork. It is absolutely gorgeous. Matt Frank may be (understandably) the fan-favorite Godzilla artist, but for my money there is no one better than Stokoe. In preparation for this, I read this both in the oversized hardcover edition and the digital version, and it looks fantastic in both formats. With a significant cast of Japanese characters, the influence of manga is evident throughout the five-issue series. But more importantly, Stokoe’s art manages to successfully capture each of the three eras of Godzilla (at the time), while being true to the spirit of the original 1954 film.
It has been said time and again that fans only show up for the monsters; the human characters are often an afterthought. However, the best films in the series are notable for their strong and engaging human stories. Even those that fall on the goofier side of the spectrum can be well regarded in part due to their human characters (e.g. Invasion of Astro Monster). The Half Century War is no exception, as Ota Murakami is one of the franchise’s most compelling protagonists.
Readers are introduced to Ota during what appear to be the events of the 1954 film as Godzilla embarks on his initial rampage of Tokyo. A young, low-ranking lieutenant in the Japaneses Self Defense, he sought adventure no matter the cost. Stokoe uses his youthful ambition as symbolic of mankind’s hubris. Throughout the story, he desires recognition and a sense of self-worth, concerned about the legacy he leaves behind. To that end, he seeks acknowledgement of his existence from what is essentially a force of nature, no different from a tsunami or earthquake. This comes to a head in the series’ final moments, which is equally poignant, bittersweet, and fulfilling.
Stokoe does not shy away from some of the sillier elements of kaiju movies, especially regarding the human plot. Throughout the 5-issue series, Ota must not only battle his personal demons and Godzilla, but also a villain known as Dr. Deverich. It’s fun to note that his name is an amalgamation of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the “braintrust” behind the 1998 American Godzilla movie. Through Deverich, Stokoe is able to weave into the story the goofy sci-fi and “men in black” melodrama that has been a staple of the series. His motivations are limited beyond “be evil.” Had the story hinged on this character’s motivation, the story would have fallen apart rather quickly. However, Deverich is just a small cog in a larger machine.
Despite all its strengths, the success of Godzilla: The Half Century War hinges on the monster action, and it delivers in spades. As mentioned, Stokoe’s art evokes each of the three major eras at the time of publication. However, the story itself evolves in a manner that is reflective of each era. When the story begins in 1954, it closely resembles that first film. It is a somber and harrowing experience for Ota, and by extension the reader. But by the third chapter, which takes place in the 1970s, it is a full bore kaiju party. Familiar names like Mothra show up alongside Hedorah and more obscure picks. By the series’ conclusion, it draws on the best elements of the Millenium series while continuing to raise the stakes.
Godzilla: The Half Century War is nothing short of a masterpiece, setting the bar for all Godzilla comics which have come since. It is well paced and beautifully illustrated, establishing a formula which IDW has tried to replicate over the years. Their success has been varied, but none have managed to reach the highs established by Stokoe’s miniseries. If there is one comic book that successfully distills Godzilla to his purest form, it is this.
Next: Go to Hell!