Thursday, 19 December 2013

In praise of: James Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half Century War

A couple of disclaimers before we start: 1) It is impossible to put into words the unfettered wonderment that James Stokoe's art begets. Hence every time I use an inadequate superlative, bear in mind that it is sadly incapable of fulfilling its basic function and multiply any effect it may have by at least 4- yes, let' go with 4. 2) This piece is spoilery, if you haven't read the book yet. There's not a huge 'this way or that way' in terms of plot, but events do go in particular directions, and knowing that in advance may affect your enjoyment of the story.

Chances are you've probably heard something about James Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half Century War. I certainly had, in the peripheral manner in which you can be aware of things being talked about on the internet: a tweet here, a glanced at headline there. My love of dinosaurs, beasts and monsters is deep, long-standing, and frankly, a bit weird, so the book was on my radar, but I tried not to read anything in relation to it because I'm a trade-waiter, and because I'm always a little wary of books which come with a high degree of pre-hype baggage; finding that despite my attempts to remain neutral, I begin to attach expectations to them which are then not always met. Anyhow- Godzilla was released as a 5 issue miniseries between August 2012 and February 2013, with IDW collecting and publishing the trade paperback in June this year. It's a singularly outstanding piece of work by Stokoe (on writing and art duties) and a superb comic, conceived and finished, remember, before the release of Pacific Rim and the supplanting of kawai by kaiju as the one Japanese word of which the west is aware and will use, misuse and abuse for the next 3 years or so.

Stokoe succeeds in 2 main ways with Godzilla: he understands fundamentally that when people read Godzilla, they want Godzilla. They want rampages. They want huge monsters, amazing, ferocious looking creatures doing battle. They want terror and wonder. Stokoe gets that. He gets that need for spectacle -spectacle to which his art is uniquely tailored, offsetting what can be a shallow function: clobbering beasts, and lends it depth and emotion in it's staggering ability, delivering wonderment in the truckload. You may not care about stomping over-sized creatures, but I dare you not to care about the mastery offered up on the page. He gets that the focal character of a Godzilla comic should be Godzilla. At the same time, a certain consideration for the human element is required; you could have a superb Age of Reptiles-style silent comic of Godzilla roaming the Earth and destroying city after city in inevitable annihilation of man's comeuppance, but you need some sort of anchor for the reader to side with, someone with whom to look up and gaze in awe, someone who is guiding, rooting, articulating. To convey the magnitude of a gargantuan, uncontrollable radioactive beast on Earth you have to provide scale, to juxtapose him against something smaller, something intrinsically different in nature, which is where man comes in. 

A lot of the time, I feel the human element is where 'monster' books go wrong: making the reactions of people the focal point, when we all know where that path leads- monster arrives on scene, destroys,  masses screaming, military bomb/tank it and so forth. In Ota Murakami, Stokoe presents a reader golem around whose life- from 20-something soldier to death- the narrative is framed. 23 months into his enlistment, Ota is having a quiet fag atop a tank with his platoon, having been mysteriously advised to expect 'bad weather', when Godzilla makes himself known to the world.

'Bad weather'

I love the above sequence: it's astoundingly executed, in terms of panels and pacing. Ota with an outstretched palm, the trio of tanks screeching to a halt, tight panel of anticipatory expressions and then a half-page in which Godzilla's foot coming into shot (look how tiny those cars look) and the emotions on Ota's face just changing completely. It's laid out so that it's on the turn of the page, which opens into the  balls-out double page spread (directly above) where we get to see Godzilla in full resplendence for the first time. The blast and heat of his roar is brilliantly personified in the lettering- the sharp edges and size of the looming almost-letters connoting the raw alien-ness of the sound and it's sheer volume. It's an awesome introduction.

Stokoe makes the narrative both big and small: relate-able on a personal level without diminishing or reducing the focus of Godzilla. Ota's brush with Godzilla marks the beginning of what it is to be a globe-spanning tussle to contain and suppress the beast, as he becomes the go-to guy for dealing with Godzilla, heading  up a special task force to try and predict his movements and attacks. Ota journeys from stunned awe, to relishing their encounters to tired resignation to anger as he increasingly concedes to the realisation that there will be no winning, that men will come and go but Godzilla will outlast them, that the world is irrevocably changed. What barometer do you use to for self-significance in the face of such uncontrollable forces  -Ota ends up using Godzilla and it defines him to the point of existentialism: the world -the animal- is indifferent, incapable of comprehension, he sits tired and bandaged repeatedly in the forefront as the monsters battle on the horizon. His final showdown is a bid to prove that he matters, a heart-breaking demand for acknowledgement in the wind to the beast upon whom he has spent a lifetime 'Look at me! look at me you damn monster!', a beast who cannot understand him. I love that Stokoe allows Godzilla to be Godzilla, an animal who acts upon instinct for survival, an intelligent animal, but still an animal, there's no scholcky moment of empathy, no deeper meaning, no understanding. I like realism: he is what he is- very much an other. Ota knows that, 'He's become a natural balance to this world, and how can you give nature intention?' knows that Godzilla is simply being, and when all is said and done he doesn't really have any regrets.

For me, one of the issues creature features struggle with is impact. Broadly, it's usually shown in two ways: physical impact- depicted via size, building smashing, and the generic scenario of humans banding together and overcoming (purported emotional impact). The latter negates the former to an extent, nullifying the power of the beast to a significant degree. The notion of 'overcoming,' the triumph of will and human pluckiness, of winning, is a very American ideal. Stokoe's Godzilla, however, is set in Japan initially with a Japanese protagonist and crew, and for me, it's a crucial viewpoint, freeing the story from any pre-conceived expectations. Stokoe does something special in delivering a telescopic narrative with Ota's life serving as the small lens through which the larger impact of Godzilla's presence is reiterated.  It's difficult and tricky and Stokoe manages it cleverly, and in a very real way- transposing a whole lifetime against the unmoving, unchangeable Godzilla. He balances it beautifully too, with a good battle or monster scene never too far away.

Stokoe's trademark style is hyper-detailed, hyper-coloured- from what I've seen, he employs a slightly looser, more thicker line in Orc Stain, here it's finer- detailed and intricate, the manner in which he's able to render texture so forcibly, the spikes and claws, the roughness of hide is astonishing (he also sometimes seems to use thicker lines in the foreground and finer in the back to emaphsise perspective). The intensity of the detail adds a ton of weight, adding to that clumping, lumbering, realsim. Coming back to Pacific Rim, one of things that impressed me there was how the robots and beasts were portrayed, huge and heavy (as multi-ton machines and animals would be), their movements leaning towards the slow and ponderous rather than the zippy. Stokoe conveys that heavy grounded-ness really well. Another aspect I find interesting in Godzilla, and which contributes to the 'realism' is how the beasts are so meticulously and believably rendered, and the people cartoony, a juxtaposition that also reinforces the 'other' nature of the creatures and invites the reader to interface with Ota and co. 

I'm unsure how I feel about Stokoe's signature colour palette- it's highly distinctive, almost fluorescent and mostly gradients of achy pinks and lime greens which makes things look fleshy and bloody and raw- all pus and bodily fluids. It gives a sense of heat and danger too, which is perfect for blood and  battle, for war, for jungle foliage- I guess it works to establish a particular enclosed world- in that's it quite oppressive in it's relentlessness- I think it was Brandon Graham  who once wrote that Stokoe's colouring- 'he uses more gradients in a single panel than I've done in my entire coloring life. But it works.' And it does. There's not a lot of white in Stokoe's art, which makes it all the more pointed when it does appear- the final showdown in Antarctica is gloriously stunning. There are stretches in Godzilla of wordless fight sequences between monsters where the potential to be stiff and staid is ripe, but in which Stokoe invokes dynamism through a shit tonne of motion lines and clouds. I have no idea why there are so many dust/explosion/rubble/snow clouds but they look the business. And sometimes it's enough to be offered something different. 

You see how Godzilla's blue-hued in the panel immediately above? I like the thought that's gone into touches like that- I always forget that Godzilla's an aquatic dwelling beast- that's where he lives and comes from, and those icy, translucent spikes are a smart reminder. But I wanted to talk briefly about lettering and SFX before wrapping up. I don't know that comics is seeing more art that obviously takes stylistic and technical inspiration from comicking traditions around the world, but Stokoe's a good example, I think. Here he pulls together SFX which is pretty dead in European comics and now largely a Japanese conceit, with  a bande dessinne, font style- very Neil Hyslop in derivation, though all in caps with the thick black exclamation/question marks, and bolded shouty writing- a more stylised iteration (I've included a page from Tintin for comparison). I think that European/Japanese influence/leaning extends to his depiction of human characters, with elements of manga features paired with a more streamlined, refined approach. I wish we saw more of that taking and mixing.

I hope I've gotten across some of what makes Stokoe's Godzilla mini-series such an achievement: yes his art is amazing, the story is entertaining and engaging, but I'd also like to point out that he's produced something that respects and references a shedload of cultural back-matter and iconography (with over 28 Japanese films, books, TV series, video games etc) , which is still intelligible to audiences who may not be even the slightest bit familiar with the history. but Stokoe's produced a book that references those texts without being exclusive. 

I read Battling Boy earlier in the year, and great art aside, I  thought it was a pretty mediocre book. I'm not so arrogant that I think the many people who enjoyed it wrong, but one thing I found, was that a number of people who enjoyed it did so due to it harking back to silver and golden age stories and artists of whom I've never heard, with Pope talking about how Battling Boy's dad was based on some dude from some old comic. I came into comics late, so I don't have those points of reference- as don't a lot of people- but regardless a fundamental tenet of a text is its stand alone accessibility. Any inter-textual or historical references should be an additional layer from which the reader gains pleasure through recognition, not a crutch on which the narrative relies. Which is why I think Stokoe is to be applauded all the more for creating a superb book that exemplifies comics at its purest. The highest compliment I can pay any book is envying those who are yet to read it. If you haven't read Godzilla: The Half Century War, I truly envy you. I envy you hard.

Related extrasThis is how James Stokoe holds a pen:

This is what that produces (tis the darkest kind of magic):

That page is an homage of sorts to the many Godzilla films and the various monsters that have featured in them. I came across some interesting behind-the-scenes photos from those movies which I thought it'd be fun to include here (via):

And some Godzilla anatomy (via): 


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