While Half-Century War’s first issue made a few flirty advances towards those kind of Vietnam War themes that are James Stokoe’s fascination (despite taking place well before the war), part two gets down to business and drops Godzilla and protagonist Ota into the middle of jungle heat, poppy fields, and napalm strikes. The result is not only great symbolism and even better pulp storytelling, the specialty of the the Godzilla film series at its best, but also one of those rare comics that justifies the increasingly elaborate production that goes into the monthly format.
Sure, Marvel and DC (and others) continue to gussy up their product with glossy pages and digital lettering, but what’s rare are the artists who use these tools to give actual, storytelling clarity and attention to detail. Often their big “event” books like Avengers Vs. X-Men, Flashpoint, etc., fail to tell coherent narratives within their overwritten yet under-thought pages, settling instead for throwing cluttered action or “cool” moments randomly at readers to obfuscate their lack of substance and justify their high price. Stokoe outdoes them all in the first seven pages with Ota riding a helicopter alongside Godzilla as the monster marches towards Saigon, before touching down to meet with his commander and a U.S. general to discuss the threat, a scene begging to be backed by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son or Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower before segueing into the classic scores from Akira Ifukube during a battle involving Godzilla, the military, and the ankylosaur-like Anguiras. It’s not just that Stokoe draws each panel of every page like an obsessive-compulsive with a fetish for commando flicks that makes it worthwhile, it’s how he uses all those details to imbue his story, settings, and characters with life. Little details like a slightly altered slogan on a grunt’s backpack (“Don’t
tread step on me”), a rural village’s tiered hills, or even how much the characters sweat from the oppressive humidity allows the world to feel dirty, bloody, and beautifully real. It’s the exact opposite of how Rob Liefeld settles for blocks of color in some vague ether for his backgrounds, which has become more the norm in sequential art these last few years. Usually, what Stokoe does is seen in higher-end manga, particularly Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (which Half-Century War borrows a few tricks from, such as the jagged lettering).
Godzilla himself is depicted with the beady-eyed menace and colossal scale usually given to him by Ishiro Honda (who directed the series’ best entries, including the original classic). In many ways, Honda’s own interpretation of Godzilla has always been ambivalent–whether it was the funereal handling of Godzilla’s demise in the first movie or the foreboding gloom to his “heroic” introduction in Terror of Mechagodzilla–since Godzilla has always been as much a symbol of Japan’s relationship with the United States as he was an allegory for Fat Man and Little Boy. There’s a bit of that at play when the American general insists on carpet bombing the King of the Monsters, much to the annoyance of Ota’s unit, the Anti-Megalosaurus Force. The AMF’s Colonel Schooler even digs at the general’s own self-serving interest (“Godzilla isn’t a problem when he’s only flattening Hanoi…”), a moment that highlights the U.S. government’s own role as imperialist superpower, ironically taking the position Japan sought for itself in WWII. Stokoe’s mistake, however, is not having Ota challenge the general, which would’ve highlighted the Japanese/American dichotomy; he also fails to elaborate on the soldier’s fixation on Godzilla and warfare, so wonderfully established in the previous issue but here kept to the narrative margins.
To Stokoe’s credit, however, he doesn’t use any of the subtext to lecture, only reflect: Godzilla’s radiation breath scars the Vietnamese countryside, flattening forests and leaving behind a suffocating cloud of smoke, same as the napalm so cavalierly dropped by the Americans. It invites comparisons to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings Godzilla is often seen as allegory for, which makes Half-Century War the closest a Westerner’s gotten to expressing what Godzilla is since Blue Oyster Cult uttered “history shows again and again/how nature points out the folly of man.”