2022 is the year that I finally decided to dive into the world of Godzilla. I’ve always liked the character but never knew really where to start. So over the last few months, I’ve been making my way through the franchise with the goal of watching every single film starring the King of the Monsters. I’m still deep in the Showa era right now, but really enjoying them. They aren’t all great, but there is an irreverent passion and clear craft on display in each and every film. While they are very often silly, the very best Goji films manage to tell allegorical stories with complexity and maturity. Godzilla and the other Kaiju are a way for filmmakers and Japan as a country to speak to the issues of their time and to help us understand humanity’s place in a universe that’s so much bigger than us.
While I’ve been loving the movies, I had yet to dip my toes into the comics until the newly released Godzilla Rivals vs. Battra #1. As I understand it, this is the 5th issue in a quarterly one-shot series where Godzilla fights a different classic monster each issue. The issue is written by Rosie Knight with art and colours by Oliver Ono with lettering by Nathan Widick.
The issue’s very first page establishes a setting I am very not used to at this point. It opens on a small coastal town in 2027, inhabited by cleaning robots. The movies I have seen so far have dabbled with sci-fi, with aliens and UFO’s, but this was a bit of a surprise to me. We’re all so used to seeing Godzilla tear his way through Tokyo that seeing him in a small futuristic coastal town was a bit of a shock. It’s a very different setting to any Godzilla material I know, which just makes it all the more interesting. Rosie Knight gives this future a level of familiarity and history paired wonderfully with Ono’s detailed and melancholic art. There is clearly a lot of thought put into worldbuilding and the visual design of this future, with an incredible amount of detail in every design. The robots may look futuristic, but they also have visible wear and tear and carry around rubbish bags to clean up the town. The technology is more advanced, but the buildings still look old and run down; nothing is pristine. It gives the book a really distinct visual contrast that sells itself as a world that has existed for a long time. That kind of subtle worldbuilding is a lot harder to achieve than it looks, but the creative team does an exceptional job here.
This is helped by the introduction of the story’s protagonist, Robbie, an adventurous young girl with a fascination with this world’s monsters, who have since faded into legend and myth. She’s a wonderful point-of-view character, and helps to ground the story in a very believable narrative. Much like the very best Godzilla stories, Goji doesn’t show up for a large portion of this book. But Robbie and the supporting cast are so enjoyable, and the world is so vivid and well realised that it just becomes an enjoyable sci-fi book. It helps that Robbie is a monster fanatic who wants to discover where these Kaiju disappeared to. Just as the audience wants to see Godzilla stomp about, so does she.
Robbie’s search eventually causes the emergence of Battra, a large bat-like monster who acts as a reckoning for humanity’s polluting tendencies. It eventually attracts the media’s attention and a public who welcomes the destruction of the known world. This summons our very own King of the Monsters as he arrives to face off against Battra. All of these threads eventually coalesce to form the books underlying themes and message. Godzilla and the other Kaiju have stuck in popular culture around for so long because of their malleability. They can stand for so many different issues, societal fears or anxieties. It gives them the ability to remain fresh and continually relevant as creators reinterpret characters for a contemporary world. That tradition is carried on here as Godzilla and Battra represent different approaches to combatting climate change. They are massive titans, the physical embodiment of nature’s anger and frustration, waking to pass their judgement on the world. These ideas can feel a bit trite in the wrong hands, but the creative team have done such a good job at laying the groundwork for this that it all feels very natural.
The opening of the issue does such a good job of establishing the toll humanity’s carelessness has taken on this small town that it all feels very believable. There is trash strewn all over the place, and Robbie and her robots try to clean it all up. However, it’s never the primary focus; her search for Battra is. It means the themes of the story can be developed while still focusing on the monster action, and by the time the Kaiju arrive, those themes are pushed to the forefront, and the stakes are raised even higher. What makes it so effective is that the battle between Godzilla and Mothra is just a super-sized representation of Robbie and the other characters fight for a better and cleaner world. It all just clicks together really well and ends on a wonderfully sincere humanist note that feels right at home with classic Godzilla.
All the commentary and sweet, low-key worldbuilding is great, but what if you just wanted to see some big monsters punch each other a bunch? Well, if you came just for the monster fights, you’ll be satisfied too. Knight does such a good job at building up the reveal of the monsters that it all feels momentous and huge. Ono gives these characters a great amount of scale with exaggerated and expressive colours. When Godzilla shows up, it becomes framed like a western showdown, and the sky turns red. It’s wonderfully staged, and his scratchy pencils give the monsters a great deal of texture and weight that sells their size and power. It’s excellent action staging, but it exists to serve the story and its overall message. It’s not perfect, though; the issue introduces another character midway through, and it struggles a bit to naturally join her story with Robbie’s. However, this is a small blight on an otherwise incredibly enjoyable and heartwarming read.
Godzilla Rivals vs. Battra is a great Godzilla story; it understands what makes the character so effective and has a clear amount of reverence for the source material. But that reverence goes much further than skin-deep references and iconography. It’s a story that understands what makes Godzilla such an icon and tries to add something new to his legacy. Its sci-fi setting and wholesome characters feel closer to a Ghibli movie than Godzilla. In the wrong hands that contrast could feel disjointed, but the creative team give it a lot of care to make the narrative and tone cohesive. The entire creative team should be proud of this, and I hope to see them collaborate again, big monsters or not. If you’re someone like me who has no exposure to Godzilla in comic books, this is an excellent starting point, and I highly recommend it. A lot of Godzilla material can lose its characters and voice amongst the monster rumbles. Here, however the human story is given equal importance to the monsters. The two stories never feel disconnected. As Godzilla rises from the ocean to combat Battra Ono captures the grandeur and spectacle that this character represents, but he also directs us to Robbie watching in awe as her dedication to the Kaiju is rewarded. It’s representative of the story as a whole, a big monster mash but one that never loses sight of its beating heart.