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Kaiju are striking. They’re incredibly potent images, both as metaphorical representations of humanity’s fears and/or anxieties and as literal giant creatures merrily trampling things. Godzilla, as befits his title as “King of the Monsters,” is a great example. Over his 65 years, he’s stood for everything from the nightmare of atomic warfare to the awesome and uncontrollable might of nature. And he has done it with style, all the way back to his first attack on Tokyo in 1954’s Gojira/Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Whether he’s upending Tokyo Bridge or celebrating King Ghidorah’s defeat with a dance, whether he’s terrifying or lovable or something else entirely, Godzilla is transfixing. Comics artist and author James Stokoe understood this. Godzilla: The Half-Century War, the 2012 miniseries he illustrated and wrote (with color assists from Heather Breckel) is a sublime argument for how Godzilla makes stories tick and why those stories are both enduring and enjoyable. It’s a damn good comic, penning its love for the King of the Monsters not by repeatedly declaring “LOOK, IT’S GODZILLA! HE EXISTS, AND THEREFORE HE IS COOL!” but by using the storytelling tools of comics to show the many reasons and ways Godzilla is terrific.
It Puts the “Mega” in “Megalosaurus” and Saves Room for Character
One of The Half-Century War’s great visual pleasures is the way Stokoe’s interprets the physicality of Godzilla and company. Godzilla is not just big, he is massive. When he walks, the ground shakes. When he runs, he is a mountain doing a 100-meter dash. Godzilla’s body may be armored, but as drawn by Stokoe, his scales do not hide how much of him is muscle and raw physical power. Even his famous roar is so mighty that, in one of The Half-Century War’s best visual flourishes, its sound has force and shape.
The above spread is Godzilla’s introduction. It’s a tremendous first impression, emphasizing the sheer immensity of the King of the Monsters. Stokoe builds upon it not only through further showcases of kaiju physicality, but through shining a light on their body language and the way their expressions work. When Godzilla gets ticked off by a persistent tank, it’s apparent on his face. When he is surprised, or when he catches on to a sudden change in circumstances, it’s visible in his eyes. Godzilla, being a giant radioactive mutant dinosaur, is not verbose. But his actions and the way he reacts to the world around him in The Half-Century War give him a distinct character. The same goes for Godzilla’s fellow kaiju. They may not have the same amount of page space he does, but Stokoe makes certain the audience knows exactly who each kaiju is. Anguirus is scrappy. Hedorah is unsettling. And the diabolic duo of Gigan and King Ghidorah are sleazy creeps who thrive on pain and suffering.
It Knows How to Navigate a World Where Monsters Redraw Maps
Stokoe extends the same care he takes with the way kaiju move and think to the physical impact they have on their world. On a narrative level, he takes advantage of comics’ ability to move freely in time to chronicle the spiraling effect 50 years of regular giant monster attacks would have on humanity, both sociologically and physically. Until Anguirus appears in the middle of the American War in Vietnam, humanity regards Godzilla as an anomaly – something to be contained and hopefully destroyed, extremely dangerous but fundamentally something to be moved past. Once there is more than one, that stops being an option. The more kaiju make themselves known, the more humanity’s thinking on them has to evolve. Over the course of The Half-Century War the Anti Megalosaurus Force (or AMF) goes from an organization combatting Godzilla to a full-fledged army to a dejected band of storm chasers to the species’ last hope at the probable end of the world.
On a more practical level in-story, Stokoe never loses sight of the fact that even one kaiju going for a leisurely constitutional means that maps need to be redrawn. Godzilla does not just trample landscapes; he and his fellow kaiju shape them through their presence and their absence. When the AMF launches a desperate mission in the middle of a full-blown monster mash, their comparatively tiny Mothra-themed VW bus must contend not only with the plethora of ongoing monster duels, but with the utter ruin they have made of the city of Accra.
It Does Right by its Humans to Do Right by Its Monsters
The human element can be an albatross for kaiju films. The story of an individual person can mesh poorly with the story of Godzilla fighting, say, Orga. There might be too much tonal dissonance between a monster fight and a scientist’s tragic romance with an alien robot. Or perhaps it might spend too much time with a plucky family and not enough time with Godzilla. Stokoe succeeds in telling the human side of The Half Century War by making his human hero’s primarily relationship with Godzilla. Once a young JSDF recruit hungry for adventure, Ota Murakami wages war on (and eventually alongside) Godzilla for 50 years. His life, and the lives of his fellow AMF members, are irrevocably transformed by the kaiju. This not only provides a compelling inner conflict for Murakami – the most important relationship in his life is with a creature who may not care that he exists – it keeps the comic’s focus on the kaiju. Murakami is as fascinated with Godzilla as Stokoe and his readers are.
The Half-Century War is a toast to everything fantastic about Godzilla. And it’s an absolute blast of a comic. If you’re new to the King of the Monsters or a long-time follower, if you’re a long-time comics fan or at all curious about the medium, if you’re anywhere in between, The Half-Century War is essential reading.