Title: Godzilla: Cataclysm
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Dave Wachter
Letterer: Chris Mowry
Cover Artist: Dave Wachter, Bob Eggleton (Subscription variants), Mehdi Cheggour (Issue 1 retailer incentive variant), Brent Peeples (Issue 1 Hastings exclusive variant)
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
I’m a fan of Cullen Bunn. I’m a fan of Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects,” filmmaking, out of which came the kaiju movie, Ultraman, Super Sentai, and Kamen Rider, to name a few of the more famous examples. Put Cullen Bunn on a kaiju book like Godzilla: Cataclysm, and I’ll leap at the chance to read it.
This story takes place about 20 years after “the Cataclysm,” a great disaster during which the Toho stable of monsters went wild and totally destroyed Tokyo, with heavy implication that the rest of the world, not just Japan, is similarly ruined. Humanity survives, but in greatly reduced numbers. We only see one fairly small community living in a shantytown of tents and salvage among the ruins of Tokyo. The main characters are an old man named Hiroshi, his probably-20ish grandson Arata, and Shiori, a young woman around the same age as Arata.
If this story is set in a greater IDW continuity of their Godzilla comics, it isn’t necessary to read them to understand and enjoy Cataclysm. This is a common issue with IDW’s licensed properties, as much as I love them. They are extremely continuity-heavy, and if you don’t know it all, it can be very difficult to jump in (I’m looking at you, Transformers!). You don’t even need to know much about the Godzilla mythos. I’ve seen all but one Gamera, but only the original Godzilla from Toho. I know a little about some of the other Toho monsters, but I’d say any knowledge of them is supplemental – something that adds to the experience, but isn’t necessary. Bunn does a great job of making Cataclysm stand on its own, and he raises some incredibly interesting ideas.
Cataclysm’s worldbuilding is given to us through Hiroshi’s internal monologue. It opens with a stunning comparison between the monsters and gods. Hiroshi calls them “the idols of a new mythology.” The monsters haven’t been seen since the Cataclysm, and people pray to them like they’re gods: Mothra for good fortune, King Ghidorah for rain, Ebirah for good fishing. Hiroshi knows the monsters are not gods, or at least he thinks he does. He says he prays to Godzilla, pleads for Godzilla to never return. But the new mythology of the kaiju has ingrained itself in the human consciousness. Arata believes in the monsters as gods, and in the past, the Tokyo community offered human sacrifices to the monsters to appease them and keep them from coming back.
At the beginning, Arata and Shiori go out with a scouting party to search for salvageable items and run afoul of a swarm of mantis-like Kamacuras. Bunn and artist Dave Wachter understand that suspense is one of the most important tools of an effective kaiju movie. The scouts hear the buzz for three pages and watch one of their own whooshed away by something unseen before we actually see the Kamacuras. Then, after the suspense play, the stakes need to rise, something else Bunn and Wachter get spot-on. The plant monster Biollante attacks the Kamacuras, and then, blue energy attacks Biollante from off-panel. Godzilla himself has arrived, revealed with a full-page panel on the last page of issue 1, roaring an exquisitely-lettered “SKREEONK” as Arata exclaims, “The gods have returned!”
There’s build-up. There’s scale. Wachter gets it, and so does letterer Chris Mowry. Though the one-page and two-page spreads are magnificent, the action doesn’t need them to feel big. There is always an impeccable sense of how big the monsters are. Kamacuras dwarf humans, but Mothra dwarfs Kamacuras. The fights are visceral, the monsters monstrous. Wachter’s art has a hint of stylization that works great with the monsters and balances realism well for humanity and environments. During the scout mission, Shiori says, “Everything’s so… RUINED,” and Wachter sells it. His colors are washed-out without being dull, making breath and lightning attacks contrast excellently against the drab ruin. The CHOOOOOOOMs that inhabit Godzilla’s atomic breath are satisfying, and Mowry makes every monster’s cry distinct in the sounds it makes and the way those sounds are represented. The effects are well-integrated into the art, and it’s great to see that synergy, which extends to Bunn’s work, too.
I’ve found that a number of kaiju movies have a difficult time making the audience care about the human story. Some are only dull, some are offensively bad to the point that you just want to skip to the monster fights. Like in Transformers media, humans in kaiju movies are always going to be the least interesting part, so you need to work hard to make them compelling. Here, Bunn’s human story is excellent. Hiroshi carries guilt for destroying “the world before,” having been part of an effort to psychically influence the monsters that eventually drove them berserk. It would be easy to make this feel overwrought and bland, but I think Bunn does it well, in addition to the heavier themes of survival and extinction.
Godzilla destroys Biollante during their fight in issue 2, but Shiori rescues a small part of it. Hiroshi says Biollante had the potential to heal the world and make it green again, and Godzilla destroyed her out of his lingering anger toward humans for using him. He doesn’t want the world to heal. Shiori wants to protect the piece of Biollante that they saved, but Hiroshi and Arata are unsure. Arata advocates killing it at least once, believing Godzilla will leave again if they do. This isn’t presented as him being a bad guy, either; he’s just trying to protect the people he cares about. It feels natural, as does his anger toward Hiroshi when he learns of Hiroshi’s part in the Cataclysm, replaced later by concern for his grandfather when Hiroshi starts experiencing psychic feedback from proximity to the monsters. This is a place where Bunn shows he can work on the small-scale, too.
The monster beats are writ large, but there are beats in the human story that are crafted for subtlety, all the more effective for the titanic struggles around them. For example, Arata and Shiori are implied to start a romantic relationship after they witness the fight between Biollante and Godzilla. It isn’t shown through a sentimental big kiss or a declaration of love, but through a quiet moment together that night when they’re just sitting together, and on the next page when Shiori checks on her Biollante bud, crouching next to a mattress on which Arata is sleeping. The emotion in this book feels organic in the best way.
In the last issue, Hiroshi prays to Godzilla one final time, asking Godzilla to forgive him and protect humanity so they can do better this time, which the monster does. Hiroshi says he doesn’t know why Godzilla did it, but also that it doesn’t matter. I found myself agreeing. It didn’t matter if Godzilla just wanted to fight another enemy, if he was moved to mercy, or if he just got tired of fighting and didn’t care anymore. Humanity gets its chance to do right.
If I have any quibble, it’s that the final monster fight felt a bit short, like the team was running out of room, but I admit that this could be just because I wanted to see more of it. It was hardly a reason to knock off a whole star, or even half of one. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to a Godzilla fan, and I recommend it even if you’re only passingly familiar with the Big G. You can pick it up in comic stores starting March 11th and from Amazon on March 24th.