Godzilla: Gangsters and Goliaths by John Layman and Alberto Ponticelli – Comic Review [Bellarius]
Returning to IDW Publishing once more, Bellarius takes a look at how well John Layman and Alberto Ponticelli’s Godzilla: Gangsters and Goliaths holds up to analysis.
“An unexpectedly successful blend of stories which merges genres brilliantly.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
If there’s one thing you can’t fault the Godzilla franchise for it’s the writers’ willingness to try completely new things. While nearly every story will come down to a monster fight, the plot, themes, ideas and even the Big G himself will often radically change. He’s been written as a hero, anti-hero and villain (not to mention a zombie possessed by Second World War troops), and has fought everything from robot clones to cyborg space monsters. As such the idea to include kaiju in a street level war between a cop trying to clear his name and a mafia boss isn’t entirely unsurprising. The fact it works as well as it does however, that’s where the real shock comes in.
Set in an amalgamated universe of the Toho and Heisei era series, Gangsters and Goliaths follows the story of aged Detective Makoto Sato. When his investigation of Toko’s criminal underworld gets too close to bringing up hard evidence against the Takahashi Crime Syndicate, he is framed for his partners murder and sent to Monster Island to die. Unfortunately for them, not only does he evade his fate but manages to somehow blackmail the kaiju Mothra to assist in his war against Takahashi. However, Sato is playing with powers he doesn’t understand and soon everything is put at risk by his actions.
As you might have guessed from that description, the comic reads like a John Woo hardboiled crime film mashed together with Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters. While this would usually be a recipe for disaster, it manages to work here but placing emphasis upon the mythos behind Mothra and the reason for the kaijus’ existence. Rather than being freak accidents or by-births of accidental weapons, they instead exist to create a balance between order and chaos. We learn of its existence through Sato and his mistakes when he unintentionally disrupts this order. As such, for much of the story the kaiju are kept in the background, often only seen briefly to display their raw power and foreshadow what can happen if the balance is disrupted. Usually through Mothra when she’s called in by Sato in a manner similar to tactical air-strikes.
The lack of kaiju leaves much of the narrative’s drive to the characters and their personalities, mainly Sato himself. While a relatively uncomplex and straight forwards character, Sato thankfully works as a protagonist due to the self-awareness of the story’s clichés and the man’s likability. While he is clearly driven past the point of reason, he retains his morality. Refusing to go through with threats to innocents when he is forced to make them and giving final chances to some in Takahashi’s payroll to walk away from it. Even to those who are largely responsible for his partner’s death and unlikely to even consider doing such a thing. As such while he might be on a clichéd rampage of revengance, it’s still easy to sympathise with him. As a whole the story reads as if John Layman is saying: “What if the vengeful characters in these pulp crime comics had access to real firepower? How would they react?”
The artwork seems to reflect upon the mixture of two very different genres with Alberto Ponticelli’s gritty detailed style feeling reminiscent of crime comics, but shifting subtly when it comes to the kaiju themselves. Turning into far more detailed designs which make them stand out well from their environments and impresses how truly alien they are in a mob story. Both in terms of presence and overall impact. These fleeting moments of when we see them are often splash pages or little more than massive scenes of description only lasting a page, but it’s more than enough to show how potent they are.
The real problem is that the comic never really moves beyond this with the kaiju.
Centred upon the human characters, the kaiju often feel more like a means to an end when it comes to the story and are never properly focused upon. Any moments of destruction, glorious as they might be, are fleeting and even the fights between monsters are only in the background. Even in the explosive climax when the Japanese military becomes involved and multiple kaiju are rampaging across Japan, we barely see them on the way to have Sato combat Takahashi. The major issue with this beyond the lack of goliaths among the gangsters is that the criminals just aren’t compelling. Takahashi himself is relatively flat, a generic mob boss without any distinguishing traits, and his two reoccurring goons seem more like darker versions of Bulk and Skull than complex figures. The story does mostly work in spite of them, but between the second act and the final pages of the last issue it’s disappointing they’re the focus rather than Godzilla’s lot.
Gangsters and Goliaths’ problem is that it’s so clear what it’s lacking and if it had simply added a bit more focus onto the monsters, this would have been a much better comic. As it stands however, it’s an interesting idea which works well but fails to really stand out from the crowd or make full use of its setting. As a stepping on point for Godzilla comics it works, showing how outlandish some of the plots can be. It’s also a reasonable look into what happens with two vastly different genres collide and it works well. While certainly an okay comic, a perfectly enjoyable one if you like the idea, it’s not a story worth going out of your way to buy.