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Friday, June 19, 2015

Panel Vision - Kaijumax

Kaijumax is a comic about a prison for giant monsters that draws heavy inspiration from the various films of Toho Studio’s Godzilla franchise.  The series itself is a great, a winning combination of clever visual gags an meaningful writing that knows how to get the most out of its characters and ideas.  Being a big fan of the Godzilla franchise I thought I’d talk about the various films that Kaijumax is drawing inspiration from, especially with this week’s issue.  In case you haven’t read my mini-review this latest issue puts the series focus on three quasi-new characters of the series.
 There’s Mecha-Zon, a robot monster built by humans to destroy Kaiju but who has turned against mankind and renounced violence, Whoofy, a the bumbling and comical son of Ape-Whale, one of the resident kings of the Kaijumax, and Jeong, son of Kaijumax’s Warden Kang and one of the facilities most powerful guards, able to transform into a monster-sized superhero.  Each of these characters has a key parallel from the Godzilla franchise and even though Kaijumax and I’m going to talk about them, starting with Mecha-Zon and his counterpart Mechagodzilla.  

Mechagodzilla’s first appearance was in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.  This was the tail end of the Showa era of Godzilla and Mechagodzilla would end up the last monster Godzilla fought in his original continuity.  That’s actually something most folks don’t realize but technically speaking almost all the Godzilla films from 1954 to 1975 are in the same long running continuity.  Nowadays we’ve come to view Godzilla as more in line with his later origins but here at the start the idea was that Mechagozilla was sort of a Kaiju terminator. 
In his debut appearance he was initially disguised as Godzilla till he eventually had all his skin ripped away.  Additionally Mechagodzilla was originally built and controlled by weird space apes.  That emphasis on aliens controlling Kaiju was a big part of ‘70s Toho, one we’ve seen reflected in Kaijumax in issue 2.  Mecha-Zon doesn’t draw that much from Mechagodzilla’s original appearance, mainly just the visual design of this clunkier retro robot as opposed to the much sleeker look of later films. 
Specifically it draws form Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2 from 1993.  This is the film that established most of the stuff casual fans associate with Mechagodzilla.  Here he’s built by humans to defeat Godzilla and is generally considered the hero of the film if not necessarily the protagonist.  Interestingly, the idea of using a robotic counterpart against a giant monster actually originated in Toho’s animated King Kong show, from 1966, where he was built by Dr. Who. 
This was a show they made in the wake of King Kong vs. Godzilla, the movie that revitalized Toho’s Kaiju films and launched the ‘60s trend of Japanese giant monsters.  Eventually Mechani-Kong, as he was called, made it to live action in the film King Kong Escapes.  Mechagodzilla would also go on to appear in the 2002 film Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and its sequel Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. but by this point most of the key aspects of his character have been pretty much locked in.  

Whoofy’s counterpart is a moderately more obscure Toho monster: the son of Godzilla, sometimes called Minya.  Minya’s arrival in 1967’s Son of Godzilla basically heralded the shifting aesthetic and focus of the Godzilla films at the time.  He was introduced as a “comical” bumbling sidekick to annoy Godzilla and make the film more appealing to kids.  This was a growing trend as the ‘60s dwindled and Toho barreled full steam into the ‘70s.  Minya would go on to appear in the last 2 Godzilla films made in the ‘60s: Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla’s Revenge.  Destroy All Monsters has a lot of major influences on Kaijumax I’ll talk about in the third section so for now I’ll skip right to Godzilla’s Revenge, widely regarded as the worst Godzilla film in the series. 
What’s shocking about that is that Kaijumax actually draws very heavily on Godzilla’s Revenge this issue.  The main plot of Godzilla’s Revenge is about a young boy somehow dreaming his way onto Godzilla’s island home where he makes friends with Minya.  That actually happens in this latest issue of Kaijumax, with a mysterious boy appearing to Whoofy with an offer of friendship from his cruel father. Another key element of Godzilla’s Revenge that informs Kaijumax is that Godzilla’s Revenge is one of the only 2 Toho films to feature giant monsters that can speak.  The only other film where this happened was 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan. 
However, Whoofy ends up sporting a much dumber personality than Minya in Godzilla’s Revenge.  He’s more in line with Godzooky from the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla animated series from 1978.  Minya would later reappear in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2 and its sequels Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, where he eventually takes up the mantel of Godzilla upon his father’s death.  I’m not sure how much of that will find its way into Kaijumax in some form or another but there’s certainly precedent for Minya growing into a stronger character.  

Which brings me neatly to the final character Jeong, and his clear Godzillaverse parallel Jet Jaguar.  Now from Jeong’s costume it’s clear he’s less of a one-to-one recreation of Jet Jaguar than Mecha-Zon or Whoofy, he’s more of embodiment of the tropes that helped created Jet Jaguar in 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon.  Jet Jaguar was the Godzilla franchise’s entry into the then popular kids show genre of giant superheroes like Ultraman or Zone Fighter, a show that Godzilla actually cameoed in.  At the same time the Kaijumax prison itself is thoroughly reminiscent of the stone cold Godzilla classic Destroy All Monsters from 1968. 
This is often cited as one of the best Godzilla films and high point of the ‘60s Godzilla era.  It’s one of only 2 Godzilla films to feature a truly spectacular amount of Kaiju and the way it gets them all together is by placing them on Monster Island, a futuristic prison island the humans have basically herded the Kaiju onto.  The whole of Kaijumax ends up essentially a spun out from that simple, hand wave of a concept, pretty impressive given how ferociously creative and well written Kaijumax is.  

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