Godzilla Comics: A Brief History Of Smashing Cities, Superheroes And Other Kaiju
The new Godzilla film opening this weekend will be the 30th to star the worlds’ most famous giant monster. Toho made 28 Godzilla films in Japan, divided by fans into three cycles, each with their own continuity—the Showa series, the Heisei series and the Millennium series—and then there was the ill-fated 1998 Roland Emmerich-directed film that served as a sort of How Not To Make a Godzilla Movie cautionary tale for the makers of the new film.
While the movies are undoubtedly Godzilla’s source turf, he’s expanded his territory into other media over the years, from cartoon series to prose novels to video games — and, of course, comic books, which he’s been starring in for nearly 40 years now. With that in mind, we present a helpful primer for the King of Monsters’ adventures on the paneled page.
Comics and Godzilla have gone together remarkably well over the decades. Sure, the medium denies its audience some of the greater pleasures of Godzilla flicks, including sound and motion, but they also free storytellers from the limits of special effects technology (there’s no need for “suitmation” in comics) or budget constraints; Godzilla can fight as many other monsters and destroy as many cities as he likes, since they’re all coming out of an artist’s pencil and pen, not being constructed out of foam, rubber and wood by small armies of artisans turning out monster suits and miniature cities and vehicles.
Additionally screenwriters and directors have always had to kill their darlings to make sure their finished films met particular run times, whereas comics stories can go on forever, allowing for bigger and longer stories starring this bigger than big monster.
Like Godzilla’s films, not all of his comics are good ones, but there sure have been a lot of them over the years. With that in mind, we’ve put together an overview of Godzilla’s North American comics career.
Marvel Comics (1977-1979)
Godzilla made his American comics debut during one of the longer lulls in his film career. The original, 21-year, 15-film Showa series of films had concluded with 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla, and the seven-film Heisi series wouldn’t launch until 1984’s Return of Godzilla (Known as Godzilla 1985 in the states, where it was released in, um, 1985).
Marvel Comics acquired the license to the character in 1977, launching a 24-issue series written by Doug Moench and drawn by Herb Trimpe and several inkers (with some guest pencils by Tom Sutton). In rather sharp contrast with most of their licensed comics, like the concurrently published Star Wars, Marvel didn’t merely bring Godzilla into the Marvel line of comics, but they introduced him into the Marvel Universe. From the time Godzilla surfaces from the Pacific Ocean in the very first issue, he not only stomps into the United States, but the Marvel Universe’s United States.
So when he attacks an Alaskan oil field, he’s met by S.H.I.E.L.D. (Which then stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law Enforcement Division), the Nick Fury-lead army of super-spies that protected the world from a flying aircraft carrier, employing all-manner of Kirby-esque super-gadgets.
S.H.I.E.L.D. would become Godzilla’s major antagonists, and readers’ main point-of-view characters, throughout the series. Fury handed the Godzilla situation over to the israsicble cigar-chomping, derby-wearing, mustachioed Dum Dum Dugan. His seconds were Godzilla-sympathizer Gabriel Jones and Jimmy Woo, who spent the entire series trying to romance one of the three Japanese specialists who joined SHIELD on their years-long Godzilla hunt.
These consisted of Dr. Takiguchi, the sole survivor of the atomic weapons test that unleashed Godzilla, his assistant (and the object of Woo’s affections) Tamara and his often hysterical 12-year-old grandson Robert, who consistently sabotaged S.H.I.E.L.D. in an effort to save his best and only friend, Godzilla.
While the Marvel Universe had a whole menagerie of giant monsters of their own, left over from the pre-Marvel Atlas era, Godzilla never tussled with Fin Fang Foom, Xemnu, Goom, Groot and company. Rather, Moench and Trimpe created giant creatures like supervillain Dr. Demonicus’ meteor-powered, genetic creations Batgragon, Ghilaron, Centipor and the Mothra-like Lepirax and an invading army of bizarre, alien biomech Mega-Monsters Krollar, Rhian and Triax. The series also introduced Red Ronin, a giant robot designed by Takiguchi and constructed by Tony Stark to fight against (and more often with) Godzilla, and a giant, irradiated yeti rather uncreatively dubbed Yetrigar.
In the Marvel Universe, Godzilla crossed paths with The Champions in San Francisco (Hercules managed to knock Godzilla on his back once, but they otherwise didn’t do much to stop the big guy), the Fantastic Four in New York City, first fought and then teamed up with Devil Dinosaur in the prehistoric past (thanks to Reed Richards’ use of Dr. Doom’s time machine), and, in the series’ climax, took on the combined might of The Avengers, The FF and J. Jonah Jameson (The Wasp and Yellojacket, like Herc, managed to knock Godzilla down, but otherwise the superheroes were largely ineffective; Thor’s mighty Mjolnir merely bumping the beast’s nose). Fought to a stand-still by the heroes, Godzilla eventually decided he’d had enough of this crap, and literally stomped off into the sunset.
In the most compelling sequence, maybe the weirdest in Godzilla’s strange career, S.H.I.E.L.D. decided to try dousing him with Pym particles, shrinking him down to action figure size. From there he slowly grows, so he’s temporarily small enough to have to fight for his life against a sewer rat, then to fight New York muggers and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents hand-to-hand, and then to look Devil Dinosaur in the eye.
Mooney’s Godzilla was a particularly interesting design, deviating quite quickly and radically from the Godzilla of the films or the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, which launched in 1978 and was airing for much of the time that these comics were on the racks. He looked more dinosaurian here then elsewhere, basically resembling a pear-shaped T-Rex with bigger, buffer arms. His eyes were pupil-less, all red and shining, and that furthered his inscrutability. Moench’s narration made much of the mystery of Godzilla’s actions, how intelligent he really was, and whether he had an innate morality that kept him from doing any real evil or causing any real harm without sufficient motivation. The reptilian, expressionless face, all red-eyes and pointy fangs, made Godzilla himself impossible to read.
Moench, one of the most expert of comics writers when it came to devising onomatopoeia for sound effects, rendered Godzilla’s signature roar as “MRRAWW,” and variations of that, suggesting a giant cat.
Marvel collected the entire series into an inexpensive, 450-page, black-and-white trade paperback, Essential Godzilla, in 2006. Now out of print, it’s probably the best way for a Godzilla fan to experience his short stint in the Marvel Universe, and certainly easier to find than the 24 individual issues from almost 40 years ago now.
Dark Horse Comics (1987-1997)
When Dark Horse was founded in 1985, they were immediately at a disadvantage when it came to going up against DC and Marvel, since those two comic book publishers owned all the characters and franchises best-known by all comics consumers and potential comics consumers. Dark Horse solved that problem by pursuing the licenses for various popular film franchises, producing higher-than-usual quality comics based on Predator, Aliens, Terminator and, most successfully, Star Wars. And, as their presence in this article suggests, Godzilla.
According to an essay by Dark Horse’s Ryan Stradley in J.D. Lees and Marc Cerasini’s The Official Godzilla Compendium, Stradley was in large part responsible for the then-young publisher pursuing Godzilla, because he bugged Toho for the rights incessantly (and, according to publisher Mike Richardson, Stradley used to stomp around their offices in a Godzilla imitation, while humming Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla theme music).
Dark Horse published all of the American Godzilla comics to see release during Godzilla’s Heisei period. They published a six-issue translated version of Kazuhisa Iwata’s manga, simply titled Godzilla and later released as a standalone tradepaperback, and a series of one-shots, one-offs, short stories and miniseries, in a manner similar to Dark Horse’s other film franchises.
These included 1987’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters Special, 1992’s Godzilla Color Special and short stories by Stradley, Bobby Rubio, Rich Suchy, Brian Garvey and Daniel Rivera (“Blast From The Past” in 1993’s Dark Horse Comics #10 and #11) and Ed Brubaker and Dave Cooper (“Godzilla’s Day,” in 1996’s Dark Horse Presents #106).
The most notorious of all these is probably Godzilla Vs. Barkley, which was a 1993 comic book spin-off of a Nike commercial in which Godzilla and Charles Barkley played a game of one-on-one in downtown Tokyo. The comic, by Mike Baron, Jeff Bulter and Keith Aiken, revealed how Barkley was able to grow to Godzilla’s size, and how he gave Godzilla a pair of size 3000 Nikes. I should probably take back what I said about the Marvel storyline in which a tiny Godzilla must fight to survive while gradually regaining his super size; this has gotta be the weirdest Godzilla story of all time.
Dark Horse eventually published an ongoning series, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, which lasted 17 issue, between 1995 and 1996. It imagined a team of four Japanese scientist adventures that bore more than a passing resemblance to a pre-cosmic ray-irradiated Fantastic Four: Brilliant scientist Dr. Kazushi Kagaku, his wife Reiko, her little brother Take and Kino, their big, strong pilot friend. They compromised G-Force, a team dedicated to studying Godzilla, who here is a prehistoric monster from beyond time, who awakens periodically with other monsters to cause a great deal of trouble for Earth.
Dark Horse, like Marvel, didn’t have the rights for the other kaiju in Toho’s sizable monster stable, but that didn’t stop them from coming up with various other combatants for the monster king, including a giant stone oni and bat-like space monster Bagorah. Among G-Force’s weapons against Godzilla is a Mechagodzilla-like giant robot dinosaur, dubbed Cybersaur (and looking a bit like a giant, metal theropod wearing football pads). Godzilla would do some time-traveling in this series as well, fighting the Spanish Armada, quaking the Earth in San Francisco, sinking the Titanic and visiting the future.
Dark Horse’s series was written by Kevin Maguire, Alex Cox and others, and featured pretty stunning art from some such monster and dinosaur experts as Art Adams and Steve Bissette and pencil artist Brandon McKinney, who drew most of the ongoing.
Much of Dark Horse’s Godzilla output has been collected into a pair of trade collections, Godzilla: Age of Monsters and Godzilla: Past, Present and Future, but even if you manage to track those down, you unfortunately won’t find Godzilla Vs. Barkley in either of them.
If the name Trendmasters isn’t familiar to you, that may be because it’s not the name of a comics publisher, but an American toy company that went out of business in 2002. They rose to some prominence in 1994, when they began producing 10-inch scale figures with light and sound features based on the Godzilla franchise (That was the same year Godzilla Vs. SpaceGodzilla, the penultimate film of the Heisei series, was released in Japan).
Like so many toy companies before them, Trendmasters packaged their wares with comics based on them. For their Godzilla King of the Monsters line, they published a 5×7-inch, 16-page comic entitled Godzilla King of the Monsters (naturally). The comic, written by Brian Weinstock and drawn by Butch Burcham, featured all of the monsters in their first wave in a pretty simple good monsters vs. bad monsters storyline.
Evil corporation Genco tried to use a Godzilla egg to create a weaponized monster, and so Godzilla and his pals Rodan and Mothra sought to stop them and retrieve the egg. Standing in their way were Mechagodzilla, Mecha-King Ghidorah (introduced in 1991 film Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah) and the Garuda (an anti-kaiju flying machine introduced in 1993’s Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla). Guess who won the fight?
Like Marvel, IDW acquired the Godzilla license at a time when he was missing from theaters for a while. The Millennium series, a six-film cycle that began with 2000’s Godzilla 2000: Millennium, ended with 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. At the time, Toho declared that they wouldn’t make another Godzilla movie for at least ten years, and, indeed, Final Wars was indeed the final Godzilla film…until this week’s release of Godzilla, anyway.
While necessity was the mother of invention for the writers and artists who told Godzilla stories for Marvel and Dark Horse, those who worked on the many IDW series didn’t face the same restrictions in terms of using Godzilla’s traditional kaiju foes and allies from the films. IDW had the rights not only to use Godzilla, but all of Toho’s giant monsters, most of whom would make their comic book debuts in the course of the three short years IDW’s held the license to the Godzilla franchise, and some of whom never actually fought Godzilla in any of his many movies (like the Gargantuas/Frankensteins from 1966’s War of the Gargantuas, for example).
IDW celebrated their series with an unusual publishing move, in which retailers who ordered enough copies of Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters #1 could get a special variant cover upon which Godzilla’s massive foot could be shown stomping on the retailers’ own shop (shop-specific variants then became tactic since employed by Marvel and Archie Comics).
As with some of their other licensed comics, IDW unleashed a deluge of series, often with different continuities. Kingdom of Monsters was originally written by Eric Powell and Tracy March and featured art by Phil Hester and Brian McCorkindale (other creators would become involved before the series ended). An awkward mash-up of pop culture criticism with monster-fighting, it featured analogues of Barack Obama, Lady Gaga and the cast of The Jersey Shore in a world being torn apart by battles between Godzilla, Anguirus, Rodan, Battra, a Detroit-built Mechagodzilla and others. It lasted 12 issues, and has since been collected into three trade paperbacks.
IDW launched two other sereis of some length. The first of these was just called Godzilla, by writer Duane Swierczynski and artist Simon Gane. That featured and an ex-special forces agent named Boxer, who Gane draws to resemble Jason Statham, assembling a team of similar tough experts that start mercenary business: They’ll take out any monster for the price of $7 billion, about a $1 from every person on earth.In addition to the title monster, Boxer and company take on Anguirus, Kumonga, Rodan, Titanosaurus, Battra. Before the end of the series, Boxer finds himself forced to team up with Godzilla, Mothra and the other “good” monsters against worse invading monsters like SpaceGodzilla, Hedorah, Gigan and King Ghidorah. Featuring a Hollywood-ready, blockbuster plot, a greatest hits selection of monsters and some of the finest art of IDW’s franchise, it’s probably the best of the longform series to start with. IDW collected into three trades, and recently released it all in a single volume, Godzilla: History’s Greatest Monster.
That was followed by a third Godzilla series, the still-ongoing Godzilla: Rulers of the Earth, a sort of sequel to both of the preceding series, as awkward as that is, which mentions the events and human characters from both. Its plot involved alien invaders harnessing monsters to help them rid Earth of human beings, and in addition to Godzilla, Mothra, Kumonga, Gigan and others, in introduced many more Toho monsters into the mix: Destroyah, Manda, Varan, Biollante, Jet Jaguar, Moguera, the aforementioned Gargantuas and, most spectacularly, Zilla, the name Toho assigned to the Godzilla from the 1998 American film, which they’ve since folded into their universe of monsters (It appeared in Godzilla: Final Wars, as well as a few videogames). The first big monster battle of Rulers of The Earth was an epic confrontations between Godzilla and Zilla. This one’s by writer and artist Matt Frank, a kaiju-drawing expert who had previously contributed plenty of covers to IDW’s Godzilla projects. It has so far been collected into a pair of trades, and is still ongoing.
IDW has also produced a bunch of shorter series. The best of the bunch is James Stokoe’s Godzilla: Half-Century War, which tracks a single soldier’s career-long vendetta against Godzilla from his first attack on Tokyo in 1954, culminating in a battle where he—inside of Mechagodzilla—is forced to team with Godzilla to defend what’s left of the planet after Gigan and King Ghidorah have destroyed much of it. Stokoe writes, draws, letters and colors, making this the most singular comic book vision of Godzilla yet, and Stokoe’s premise allows him to offer various reactions to various points in Godzilla’s long history (Plenty of other monsters show up as well, including Ebirah, Megalon and several of the others already mention).
They’ve also published Godzilla: Gangsters and Goliaths by John Layman and Alberto Ponteicelli, and Godzilla: Legends by various creators. In Gangsters and Goliaths, a police detective finds himself marooned on Monster Island, faced with the two threats named in the title. Legends, meanwhile, was a sort of anthology series, with different creators telling different one-shot stories featuring various monsters
And hey, speaking of legends…
Legendary Comics — the comics arm of studio Legendary Pictures, which is producing the new Godzilla film — has prepared a hardcover graphic novel prequel to Godzilla, akin to Pacific Rim: Tales of Year Zero, which they released in conjunction with 2013 film Pacific Rim.
Godzilla: Awakening, released just last week, features a cover of the new design for Godzilla, as drawn by frequent Godzilla artist Arthur Adams (In addition to his Dark Horse work on the character, Adams has contributed several covers to IDW). Under the Adams cover is a story written by Godzilla screenwriter Max Borenstein and his cousin Greg Borenstein, with art by Eric Battle, Yvel Guichet and Alan Quah.
It tells the story of a young scientist who would grow up to be the one played by Ken Watanabe in the movie. He’s searching for evidence of a battle between two monsters, one of which is Godzilla.