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Thoughts on the Godzilla MonsterVerse comics (spoilers)

November 3, 2021 1 comment

Today (November 3) is Godzilla Day, the anniversary of the release of the original 1954 film and the beginning of the kaiju genre. In honor of that (or really by sheer coincidence, since I was going to publish this today anyway before I found out), I have a bonus entry for my Godzilla/kaiju review series.

Thanks to my library, I’ve managed to get hold of the tie-in comics that Legendary Comics published to supplement its parent company Legendary Pictures’ four movies in the so-called MonsterVerse: Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). The first tie-in comic, Godzilla: Awakening, was only available in hardcopy (hardcover, in fact), but the remainder can all be found for free at the Hoopla online library for those with cards from participating libraries. All these comics are theoretically canonical to the MonsterVerse, though like all “canonical” tie-ins, that only lasts until a movie sees fit to contradict them (in other words, exactly like non-canonical tie-ins — or indeed like canonical films, given how many sequels over the decades have retconned or ignored previous films).

As is typically the case with movie tie-in comics, these stories are prequels, sequels, and interstitial stories that attempt to fill in backstory or flesh out side elements of the movies’ stories, while trying not to leave too big a footprint on continuity that later movies might contradict, though some inconsistencies are hard to avoid.

Godzilla: Awakening (2014): Written by Max Borenstein and Greg Borenstein; art by Eric Battle, Yvel Guichet, Alan Quah, and Lee Loughridge

This is a prequel to the 2014 film, co-written by the film’s screenwriter Max Borenstein and expanding on a lot of the backstory only briefly discussed in the film. And it’s pretty deep backstory. The frame is set in 1980, when Eiji Serizawa, the father of Ken Watanabe’s movie character Ishiro Serizawa, calls his son home to tell him the truth he’s hidden all his life. (Just as the film character is named for Gojira director Ishiro Honda, his father is named for the film’s special effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya.)

In 1945, Eiji survives the Hiroshima bombing and rescues his infant son Ishiro, only to see a serpentine monster form seemingly from thin air above the radiation-ravaged city. A year later, resenting the Americans for what they’d done, he’s on a ship which answers a distress call from a US vessel and is called on to serve as translator. He cooperates with an American sailor named Shaw in rescuing the others, and then in rescuing his own men from the attacking aerial kaiju. This cooperation in adversity eases his resentment enough that he agrees to work for the US government on a task force called Monarch, organized by General Douglas MacArthur himself to stop the monster. (This contradicts the film’s claim that Monarch was founded in 1954, but continuity glitches about secretive organizations can always be handwaved as misinformation. However, Ishiro being born in 1945 would make him nearly 70 in the movie, which is hard to credit.)

As Serizawa and Shaw track sightings of the flying creature over the next several years, they hear claims that it was driven off by a second creature, a giant lizard known in island legend as Gojira, which Eiji identifies as a portmanteau of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale (its real-life origin). But Monarch disbelieves the rumors. Eventually they determine that the flying beastie is a parasitic colony creature made of large, spiky single cells that assemble into a macro-organism, and Serizawa dubs it Shinomura, from the Japanese for “swarm of death.” Radiation causes the cells to multiply (as usual with these things, there’s no explanation of where the biomass comes from), and Serizawa deduces that Shinomura and Gojira are fossil creatures from the Permian Era, when Earth was more radioactive (supposedly), and the asteroid impact that caused the Permian-Triassic mass extinction 250 million years ago lowered the radiation level (through some unexplained means) and drove the beasts underground. (In reality, the impact increased surface UV radiation by destroying the ozone layer, though only temporarily.) Now, atomic weapons have drawn them back up.

The Shinomura grown in captivity from a single cell escapes, and Serizawa fears that if it merges with its other half, it will be too large even for Gojira to stop, and its cells will propagate out of control until they overrun the Earth. A year later, in 1954, Monarch responds to a sighting and confirms at last that Gojira is real and fighting the combined Shinomura. Goji kills one of the two, but the other escapes and Goji pursues. Serizawa insists that Gojira is only the enemy of the Shinomura, that they’re acting out their ancient roles as natural rivals, and that Goji will go away once the colony creature is destroyed. The Americans refuse to listen and decide that an atom bomb will take care of both beasts. (General MacArthur anachronistically orders “Nuke ‘im,” a verb not recorded to exist before 1962. But then, MacArthur was supposed to have retired three years earlier anyway.)

Back in 1980, Eiji tells his son how the US military set a trap for Gojira at Bikini Atoll, disguising it as nuclear testing, and assuming they succeeded in killing both creatures. But Eiji remains convinced that Gojira lives, and charges his son with carrying on his mission, leading Ishiro to join Monarch after Eiji’s funeral a year later.

This is quite a good story, adding a lot to the film. In some ways, it’s a more interesting and effective story than the film’s, though it necessarily features little direct interaction between Godzilla and the human cast, mostly cutting between them instead. It contextualizes the film’s backstory nicely, tying the rise of the Titans directly to the dawn of the atomic age, and nicely explaining what led up to the Bikini Atoll attack disguised as a bomb test, as described in the movie. I didn’t like the way the movie replaced the original 1954 film’s allegorical protest against the American H-bomb tests with a more neutral and benign depiction of them as merely a misguided attempt to stop Godzilla. Awakening corrects that somewhat by allowing its Japanese protagonist to protest the arrogance of an American military smugly convinced that atomic bombs will solve everything. It’s nowhere near the level of the original film’s powerful commentary on the ethics of WMD development and proliferation, but it’s appreciated.

It’s not perfect, though. The ending is a little abrupt, and the contrivance of making Ishiro 14-15 years older than Ken Watanabe strains credulity. The science is also a mess; one montage page shows Mt. Fuji remaining essentially unaltered over 250 million years of geological and evolutionary change, even though Fuji-san is an active volcano only a few hundred thousand years old. It also shows the Hiroshima atomic blast being visible from Mt. Fuji, when they’re actually about 700 km apart. But one doesn’t expect credible science from a Godzilla story anyway (with the exception of the recent anime Godzilla Singular Point).

There are a couple of interesting similarities between this and Singular Point. The nature of the Shinomura colony creature and the global threat it poses is highly similar to that of the Red Dust in GSP. And there’s a flamboyant Monarch biologist who refers to the science of anomalous creatures as “Problematica,” similar to the “Biologica Phantastica” that GSP’s Mei studied (though that discipline was theoretical and philosophical in nature). It could be coincidence, but I wonder if the comic could have influenced the anime.

One detail worth noting is that I think this is the only American-made Godzilla story I’ve seen where the creature is referred to exclusively as “Gojira” within the story proper, even by English-speaking characters. If anything, this is another anachronism, since the reason Toei coined “Godzilla” as the official English spelling back in ’54 is because the favored romanization scheme at the time rendered the Japanese syllables as “Go-zi-la” or “Go-dzi-la,” vs. the modern preferred scheme that renders the same syllables as “Go-ji-ra.”

Skull Island: The Birth of Kong (2017): Written by Arvid Nelson, art by Zid

This is a sequel to the 1973 events of Kong: Skull Island. The frame story is set in 2012, two years before Godzilla, and features the character Houston Brooks, played as a young man by Corey Hawkins in K:SI and in the present day by Joe Morton in G:KotM. This comic was probably written and painted (by Mohammad Yazid, a Malaysian comic book artist who goes professionally by Zid) before its creators were aware of Morton’s casting. The 2012 Brooks resembles an aged-up Hawkins, but isn’t too dissimilar from Morton. The story shows Brooks retiring from the monster-monitoring Monarch organization, conflicting with his portrayal in KotM, where he’s still with Monarch in 2019.

The frame involves the discovery of a voice recorder left by Brooks’s son Aaron, who was lost in 1995. In flashback to that year, Aaron argues with his father over Monarch’s decision to trust Kong to protect Skull Island and contain its monsters, and thus he secretly organizes an expedition to Skull Island, apparently just to find out for himself. Their helicopter is naturally attacked by Titans (kaiju) and crashes, and they lose their survival expert immediately. They’re rescued by Kong but barely see him, and are taken in by the Iwi tribe as seen in the movie, specifically a boy named Ato, who’s more verbal than most of his people, having learned English from his father, who learned it from Marlow (John C. Reilly’s K:SI character).

The most significant member of Aaron’s expedition is Walter Riccio, a mythographer, who gets hooked on the Iwi’s medicinal brew and starts having mystical visions revealing Kong’s origins. According to him, Skull Island was the home of Kong’s giant ape species for millions of years, until it was invaded by the Skullcrawlers from the Hollow Earth, wiping most of them out. (GvK would later depict a Kong-species homeland within the Hollow Earth, but there’s no reason the species couldn’t have existed in more than one place. However, island living tends to produce dwarfism rather than gigantism due to limited resources, so the biology of Skull Island makes little sense whether it’s populated by a whole community of Kongs or by the horde of deadly Titans seen in K:SI and this comic.) In Riccio’s visions, Kong’s parents were the last two survivors, who greeted the Iwi when they first came to the island. Kong was then born just before his parents were killed by Skullcrawlers, with their violent demise being his first sight.

Riccio is driven mad by his drugged visions, worshipping Kong as a god and seeking to destroy the Iwi’s protective walls so that Kong will prove himself as humanity’s divine protector against evil. Aaron tries to stop him, and Riccio kills two other teammates (including the female lead) in the battle. Riccio succeeds in bringing down the walls and letting the island’s giant predators attack the Iwi, and Kong indeed comes to their rescue, convincing Riccio that he’s proven them worthy of the god’s protection. But Kong recognizes Riccio as the real threat and smooshes him, then has a bonding moment with Aaron and leaves him be. This convinces Aaron that Kong isn’t just a monster but a guardian, an orphan inspired by his own childhood trauma to protect others. (Sounds awfully familiar for a comic-book plot. Are Titans a superstitious, cowardly lot? Does Kong dress up as a giant bat?)

Aaron stays on the island to help the Iwi rebuild, but sends his recorded log out to sea in the slim hope that it will be found. Seventeen years later, the frame story ends with Houston Brooks hinting that he’ll go looking for his son.

It’s an okay story, I guess, but I have issues. I don’t think there’s any precedent in the MonsterVerse for mystical visions being a thing, and Aaron is far too quick to believe that Riccio’s visions of Kong’s origins are fact rather than drug-induced delusion, given that he doesn’t buy Riccio’s other claims about Kong’s divinity. Relying on shamanistic visions to reveal Kong’s backstory is an awkward plot mechanic, and what we learn doesn’t really add that much to what we already knew from the movie. We know Kong’s a good guy, so a story about proving that to someone yet again is redundant.

I guess the story deserves some credit for having the villain be the main white guy on the expedition, who appropriates Iwi culture and forces his own interpretation of it on the Iwi even if it kills them and destroys their creations. Maybe there’s a point being made about cultural imperialism. But the main thrust of the story is the monster mayhem, with frequent attacks by various improbably vicious and gigantic Skull Island denizens, some from K:SI and others original to the comic. The art is fairly good, with the characters easy to tell apart, though it’s in a painted style that I’ve never really warmed to in comics, and the characters’ expressions often look a bit stiff. Also, it tends toward the modern comics style of having only a few large panels per page, prioritizing the art and reducing the amount of story. Though this is more the case in the action scenes than the dialogue scenes.

The miniseries is collected with the one that follows in the MonsterVerse Titanthology trade paperback, with additional material purporting to be Monarch files and photos about Skull Island’s various species, based on the notes of John Goodman’s William Randa from K:SI. It’s not a bad supplement, but the supposedly technical descriptive text about the Titans tends toward unscientifically lurid descriptions of their savagery and whatnot. The file on Kong’s species inexplicably includes “photographs” which are panels from Riccio’s mystical visions of Kong’s parents and the newborn infant Kong. That’s a hell of a trick.

Godzilla: Aftershock (2019): Written by Arvid Nelson, Illustrated by Drew Edward Johnson

This is theoretically a prequel to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, establishing the backstory of its characters Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), but it’s more of a followup to the 2014 Godzilla, featuring Ishiro Serizawa and his assistant Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins). It centers on a series of attacks on nuclear subs and plants by a creature similar to the MUTOs from the ’14 film, which is recorded in Japanese mythology as the Earthquake Beetle — which ought to be Jishin-Mushi, but is misspelled throughout as Jinshin-Mushi. Emma and Serizawa determine, with help from ancient Phoenician inscriptions that frame the miniseries and equate Godzilla with the god Dagon, that the creatures are MUTO Prime, the mature form of the MUTOs; that they’ve evolved to implant their eggs in Godzillas and kill them; and that these battles correspond to mass extinctions and civilizational collapses throughout history. (These are the second Titan species, after Shinomura in Awakening, to be touted as Godzilla’s ancient natural enemy and counterbalance. Kong’s species will be the third. I guess everyone wants to bring down the top gunslinger.)

Emma uses a prototype of the sonic ORCA device in the movie to trick MUTO Prime with the sound of its already-laid eggs so it will let its guard down while fighting Godzilla, which somehow works. You’d think the critter could tell whether it had actually laid its own eggs yet. Anyway, Prime manages to shatter Goji’s dorsal spines in the climactic battle, which means Goji’s atomic ray energy spews out uncontained from his back, which he uses to defeat MUTO Prime by shouldering underneath it and cutting loose. I suppose this was done to explain why Goji’s spines are larger and differently shaped in KotM; presumably the regenerative process caused them to grow back larger and thicker.

This story works poorly as an origin story for Emma Russell. It features Alan Jonah a couple of times, but in a cursory way that does nothing to explain the partnership Emma has formed with him by the time of G:KotM. Indeed, the story actively works against that. In KotM, Emma was sympathetic to Jonah’s view that human civilization was causing a mass extinction and needed to be wiped out by the Titans to restore the balance. But this story shows Emma learning that it was MUTO Primes and their MUTO spawn fighting Godzillas that caused mass extinctions. So there’s no real throughline between this Emma and the person she was in the film. I suppose that was unavoidable, as the comic was released shortly before the film and thus avoided spoilers. But in retrospect, it makes for a very disappointing attempt at filling in the gaps, utterly failing to tell the story it should have told. (There’s a brief appearance by Houston Brooks that connects to nothing and just serves to call back to the previous tie-in comic.)

The art this time is in a more conventional comics style, and is reasonably good. But the story is even more decompressed than in the Kong book, with a lot of multi-page kaiju (sorry, Titan) battle sequences of 1-3 panels per page with no dialogue. The framing pages of the Phoenician carvings further cut into the limited story time. All in all, a weak effort.

Kingdom Kong (2021): Written by Marie Anello, illustrated by Zid

One of two simultaneously released prequels to Godzilla vs. Kong, this is also a sequel to Skull Island: The Birth of Kong. The story centers on Audrey Burns, a Monarch fighter pilot wrestling with heavy survivor’s guilt after a 2019 battle with bat-like Titans called Camazotz (aha, there is a giant bat after all), in which she lost all her team save her best friend, who’s been in a coma ever since. She and several other hotshot pilots are assigned to the test mission into the Hollow Earth, established in GvK as the mission where Nathan Lind’s brother David was killed. But before that, Burns wrestles with her fears in the training, while Houston Brooks — now looking like Joe Morton and handwaving his abortive attempt at retirement from the previous Kong comic — studies Kong and tracks a mysterious superstorm heading for the island, the same storm established in GvK as wiping out the Iwi. Apparently it was created when King Ghidorah attacked Mexico in G:KotM and has persisted for two years.

A test drilling into the cavern to the Hollow Earth releases a Camazotz attack, bringing back Burns’s fears, but there’s a rather lovely scene where she confesses her survivor’s guilt to her commander, Col. Johanna Edwards (who looks exactly like Angela Bassett for some reason), and the rest of her team, who’ve been skeptical of her up to now, come in and share their own tales of guilt at the loss of loved ones to Titan attacks. Burns rallies and leads her team to evacuate the Monarch crew while Kong takes care of Camazotz, but she naturally chooses to go off-mission and help Kong by stunning Camazotz with a sonic boom. After Kong bashes the bat, he catches the parachuting Burns in his hand and they share a bonding moment much like the one between Kong and Aaron in the previous book.

The epilogue ties in more closely with the movie, showing Brooks retiring at last and turning over command to Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall’s GvK character), telling her to find a way to keep Kong on the island now that they know he’s a magnet for rival alpha Titans. Mercifully, it also establishes that the Iwi are being evacuated ahead of the superstorm, rather than wiped out as the film indicated. David Lind also shows up for his ill-fated mission, while Burns goes back stateside for a happy reunion, implying that she wasn’t lost with the others. This is three years prior to GvK’s 2024 setting, which I guess is enough time to set up the status quo seen at the start of that film.

This was a pretty good one. Burns’s story is effective, and the attempts to fill in the continuity gaps, including the inconsistencies with the previous Kong comic, work reasonably well — although the movie-setup scenes at the end feel tacked on to a largely unrelated story. Zid’s fully painted art has improved in the four years since the previous book, and the character renderings are excellent.

Godzilla Dominion (2021): Written by Greg Keyes, illustrated by Drew Edward Johnson

This is an unusual one, since it’s told entirely from Godzilla’s perspective, following him through various kaiju/Titan battles with narration describing Godzilla’s point of view, elaborating on the movies’ portrayal of him as an instinctive force of balance in Earth’s ecosystem. Writer Greg Keyes novelized the 2014 film, so I suppose he may have gotten into Godzilla’s head there too. It speaks of how, to Godzilla, territory is not a place but a compulsion, and how his senses are intimately linked to the Earth as if he’s an extension of it, bordering on the mystical, like he’s a chthonic deity.

There’s not much plot, though it’s established that his old lair was destroyed by the nuclear bomb in G:KotM and that he’s searching for a new one, as well as hinting at “the Rival” who drove him out of his old home, an adversary eventually established to be Kong. There’s also a passing acknowledgment of how Mothra giving him her life has broadened Godzilla’s awareness, though not much is done with it.

So basically there’s hardly any plot, just a lot of kaiju art and some exploration of what it’s like to be Godzilla. Fine, I guess, if you like that sort of thing. It’s an interesting alternative approach, I’ll give it that, but I found it fairly insubstantial. At least it’s not as dumb as the movie it sets up.

So an inconsistent bunch of stories, much like the movies they tie into. The two best ones, Godzilla: Awakening and Kingdom Kong, both add valuable backstory that enhances the films they tie into, and are both better than those respective films in some ways. The weakest is Godzilla: Aftershock, an attempt at continuity-filling that pretty much has the opposite effect due to its avoidance of spoilers. Skull Island: The Birth of Kong is a decent try hampered by a really clumsy and fanciful mechanism for providing backstory that didn’t really tell us anything new. And Godzilla Dominion is just hard to rate, because its approach is so unusual. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but others might find it brilliant.

One point in the comics’ favor is that they’re better at diversity than the movies. All four MonsterVerse films, to some extent, center on white male leads who are fairly bland (or obnoxious in the case of G:KotM’s Mark), when other characters feel more worthy of focus. The comics feature more diverse leads — two generations of Serizawas, two generations of Brooks, and two female leads, Emma Russell and Audrey Burns. The supporting casts are international and quite diverse, and Burns’s best friend in a coma in Kingdom Kong, featured in flashbacks, is non-binary, a fact treated entirely casually by the comic. I really wish that the feature film industry would catch up with other media in portraying human diversity realistically.

All in all, if you liked the MonsterVerse films, most of these comics are worthy or at least somewhat interesting additions — inconsistent and not always successful, but no more so than the films themselves. The art is generally pretty good, though I think kaiju battles in comics format are an acquired taste. But at their best, these comics expand the films’ universe, flesh out supporting characters, and in some cases correct the films’ shortcomings.

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