Friday, 20 December 2013

Essential Godzilla

The Christmas holidays are beginning and I remember many a classic monster movie being screened during them when I were a lad. So it's time for one of the greatest monster movie stars to step forward...

Essential Godzilla (and that's the full title - unlike other solitary volumes there's no "volume 1" in the name and even the cover replaces the usual number with a mini-Godzilla logo) contains all twenty-four issues of the late 1970s series Godzilla. Everything is written by Doug Moench and nearly all is drawn by Herb Trimpe bar a couple of fill-ins by Tom Sutton.

Godzilla himself is one of the most famous icons to come out of Japan, but this series dates from a particular period when the character's main new adventures were generated in the US. The last of the original films, Terror of Mechagodzilla (aka Counterattack of Mechagodzilla or The Terror of Godzilla) was released in Japan in 1975 and there was a break until 1984. In the meantime Godzilla's biggest steps forward came in this Marvel series and in a cartoon series that began in 1978 (and which was my first encounter with the monster when it was screened over here in the mid 1980s). They may have altered Godzilla to just breath fire and shoot laser beams from his eyes, and added his cute cousin as part of the seeming obligation to have a silly animal/kid character in all cartoons of the era (this was one year before the horror of... Scrappy-Doo) but it still gave Godzilla stature and dignity.

This series also has a cute kid who often annoys in the form of Robert Takiguchi. However he does more such as stealing the giant robot suit built to battle Godzilla and dubbing it "Red Ronin" in order to fight off the monster without it being harmed, and to protect it from others. Robert is often seemingly more concerned about preventing Godzilla from being harmed than any worry about the huge destruction he wreaks and lives he puts at risk, to the annoyance of others whom he sometimes endangers. Yet when the series ends it's Robert who ultimately saves the day, having won the monster's confidence. Robert is the grandson of Yuriko Takiguchi, who in times past was the sole dissenting scientist aboard a nuclear test ship which inadvertently awakened the monster in the first place, and later the sole survivor when Godzilla attacked the ship. He's less developed than his grandson and spends much of his screen time focused upon building a giant robot to counter Godzilla. His assistant, Tamara Hashioka, also appears but is again underdeveloped other than being the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jimmy Woo's affections. There are some hints about the tensions raised when a Chinese-American man and a Japanese woman fall for each other but the issue and the relationship aren't developed much and at the end of the series she breaks it off when the end of the threat of Godzilla means she and the Takiguchis will be returning to Japan.

The other regular characters are existing S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, who in turn had been assembled from other series. "Dum-Dum" Dugan and Gabriel Jones had both originally appeared in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos but their present day counterparts were included in a modern day super spy outfit by the name of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division - yes I know that phrase doesn't make any sense which is presumably why it was later changed), headed by the now Colonel Nick Fury. Dum-Dum takes the lead in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s response to Godzilla and initially regards the creature as a hostile threat, though over time he is steadily won over to Gabriel's view that Godzilla is not malevolent but merely reacts out of provocation. The two moments when Godzilla actually saves Dum-Dum's life are seminal shifts in this debate. Bringing up the rear is Jimmy Woo, who originally appeared in the 1950s series The Yellow Claw as the Claw's main enemy, but who has again been revived in modern times as part of S.H.I.E.L.D. It's an interesting mix of characters to respond to the threat but most are underdeveloped and largely serve as window-dressing.

The real star of the series is the monster but he's not the most interactive of characters. A huge giant lizard from the dinosaur era with fiery radioactive breath, he's an impressive near unstoppable force of nature which ups the tension as S.H.I.E.L.D. and others race to stop him. But he's not the easiest character to relate to others - he never speaks and it's only towards the end that narrative captions start indicating what he's thinking. Otherwise we see the impact upon those around him. Perhaps in order to solve the problems of his size, issue #17 sees S.H.I.E.L.D. deploy Henry Pym's shrinking gas upon the lizard and the next few issues feature a much smaller Godzilla as the gas slowly wears off, allowing much greater interaction whether with humans or with Devil Dinosaur. It does lead to the odd moment when Robert Takiguchi finds a human sized Godzilla and persuades him to wear a hat and raincoat to disguise him. Somehow I just don't think the King of the Monsters would ever go in for such a move. Fortunately he's back to his rightful size by the end of the series.

Over the course of the series many try to stop him whilst others seek to use him for their own ends. As a result Godzilla goes on a journey that starts in Alaska and works his way down the west coast of the United States (omitting Canada in the process) and then heads into the interior, eventually ending up in New York. However along the way his journey takes in some interesting detours including a villain's lair in the Aleutian Islands whilst detouring between San Francisco and San Diego, or a trip to the Moon where he's conscripted to fight in an inter-planetary war (although his actual battle is fought back on Earth) and then finally his visit to New York is interrupted by a trip back in time hundreds of millions of years to the Mesozoic Era "900 million years" in the past (it was actually about 252 to 66 million years ago but I doubt Godzilla was counting) where he ends up in the land of Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy.

Throughout his journey Godzilla comes across many beings, some of whom try to stop him, others seek to use him for their own ends. Early on his appearance in San Francisco draws the attention of a reduced team of Champions - here consisting just of the Black Widow, Hercules, Ice-Man and the Angel. They battle the monster but keep getting in the way of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s efforts. Still we get some classic Hercules moments such as when he proves strong enough to tip Godzilla over and later when he throws a piece of the Golden Gate Bridge at the monster, who ducks, and instead the makeshift missile downs the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. Soon afterwards we get the first in a succession of other giant monsters for Godzilla to fight, picking up on one of the most common themes of his movies. We also get the first appearance of Dr Demonicus, the first villain who tries to use Godzilla for his own ends. Meanwhile Dr Takiguchi has developed a giant robot operated by thought to be used against Godzilla, but in one of the sillier moments of the series it's his grandson who sneaks into the robot and operates it. Then comes an encounter with Yetrigar, a Sasquatch mutated to enormous size by radiation. The interplanetary war sees Godzilla fighting for the Betans against three monsters sent by the Megans - Triax, Rhiahn and Krollar. The battle is long and fierce, with both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Red Ronin intervening unaware of the greater significance of their fight, but eventually Godzilla overcomes all three monsters and as a result the Megans sue for peace. On a more mundane level is a modern western as Godzilla wanders onto ranches and is believed to be eating cattle, but in fact he helps expose the real rustlers and pushes the ring leader to his death.

Once reduced in size, Godzilla starts fighting at a different scale, beginning with a sewer rat. Subsequently he battles the Fantastic Four, who send him back in time but his radiation affects the time machine. After teaming up with Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy against the Lizard Warriors of the past, a full-size Godzilla is catapulted back through time for a final showdown in New York. The Avengers join the fray but to little avail, whilst Spider-Man gets a one page cameo in the penultimate page of the very last issue as he swings up to get a poor photograph. In the meantime Godzilla has wandered through New York causing terror and having a hilarious encounter with J. Jonah Jameson at the latter's office. Finally with the licence expiring Godzilla is persuaded to return to the ocean where he will no longer be harmed.

Godzilla isn't the most in-depth series Marvel has ever published, and it was printed during a period when Marvel comics were only seventeen pages long so there often isn't much time in an individual issue to flesh things out, though presenting the whole series as a clear continuous narrative with each issue following on directly from the previous one helps. The series does take some odd turns such as the trip to space which came at a time when just about everybody was rushing to jump onto the Star Wars bandwagon, whilst the issues with Godzilla at human size and fist-fighting S.H.I.E.L.D. agents just feel odd and wrong. The conclusion to the series is a little hurried, as though the axe came down quite late in the day, and it's never established just how a prehistoric monster that has spent much of its time since its revival in Japan can understand English well enough to know all it has to do to be left alone is to walk into the sea.

This series reflects the origins in the monster movie genre where the main emphasis is on action rather than in-depth characterisation. But here the subject material allows it to work. It's not the most essential Essential by any means, and as the volume is now out of print (and Marvel may no longer hold a licence to reprint it again - Toho are very protective of their creation and doubtlessly don't give out open-ended licences) it's not worth paying through the nose for it. But if you can find it at a decent price or in a library, it's an enjoyable quick read that generally captures the spirit of the character and his usual adventures.

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