‘Godzilla: Awakening’: Graphic novel prequel charts beastly history

May 07, 2014 | 4:49 p.m.

“Godzilla” roars back into theaters May 16 with a would-be blockbuster directed by Gareth Edwards (“Monsters”) that takes as its inspirational starting point Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 classic. A companion graphic novel prequel, “Godzilla: Awakening,” arrives from Legendary Comics on Wednesday, however, written by the film’s screenwriter Max Borenstein in collaboration with his cousin, Greg Borenstein.

Illustrated by Eric Battle, Yvel Guichet, Alan Quah and Lee Loughridge, and featuring cover art by Arthur Adams, the prequel centers on the younger years of the researcher Ichiro Serizawa, portrayed in the film by Ken Watanabe, and tells the story of his quest to track and make known the existence of Gojira, or Godzilla, and another creature that battled the huge dinosaur-like beast.

Hero Complex caught up with Max Borenstein to talk about the 80-page book, the cultural touchstones of Godzilla and moving from screen to graphic novel storytelling.

Hero Complex: How familiar does a reader need to be with Godzilla lore to appreciate the graphic novel?

Max Borenstein: Hopefully you can be a blank cultural slate and get into the story. Obviously if you happen to be a longtime fan and devotee you’ll appreciate different things in different ways. We certainly approached it from the standpoint of it being singular and coherent that would stand alone as a story — by the way, stand alone as a story without the movie, though it certainly leads into many of the things that follow in the film. It sets certain things up, so it’s useful in that sense. So it’s an additive thing, and certainly not something that you need prior knowledge to be invested in.

Godzilla in a scene from the movie "Godzilla." (Toho)

The legendary monster in a scene from the 1954 movie “Godzilla.” (Toho)

HC: Were you a serious Godzilla fan growing up?

MB: I had seen bits and pieces of the films on TV. My dad liked them, so I had seen some stuff, but I don’t remember seeing a full film until around when the “Power Rangers” hit big in middle school. I got interested in finding out where that strange phenomenon came from, and I fell down the rabbit hole of renting old VHS tapes from the video store. I think I watched most of the first series of “Godzilla” films then, and probably a few of the second series. Eventually, cut to years later, when this was mentioned to me that this was something that Legendary was developing and had Gareth Edwards attached to direct it, I suddenly got really excited and went back and filled in the gaps of what I hadn’t seen.

The first thing I did was, for the first time, watched the Japanese cut of the first film — which I had seen as “Godzilla: King of the Monsters!” when it came out in America. It blew me away. I thought it was so exciting and resonant and harrowing as this metaphor for nuclear annihilation that was so much of its time, but is still incredibly effective. The thing that attracted me as a kid was the camp value, but this is a film that was pretty light on camp actually, and it shows how this character Godzilla was invented as this walking metaphor of the fears that kept people awake at night. Looking back at all of the Godzilla films, what struck me was the fact that there is no one Godzilla. The character over the years has been more of a vessel containing a multiplicity of ideas thematically and plot-wise depending on what the surrounding culture was like, what period the movie is based in and what society was thinking about. So you get those early films where Godzilla is an embodiment of the atomic age, and as those nuclear fears gave way to another age, you got the films of the ’70s and ’80s where Godzilla has sort of an environmental message. It even deals with outer space and stuff that happened in the ’60s.

HC: So, as a cultural touchstone of the age that we’re in, what’s the message of today’s “Godzilla”?

MB: It may be reductive to get it to one specific message, but the thing that Gareth and I spoke a lot about was the way that the age we live in now is one that seems to be filled with cataclysmic events. Each year, we have worse weather and these events like Hurricane Katrina or tsunamis where nature seems totally out of control and things that we have done that we thought were protecting us or that we thought we were in control of, fail us — whether it be power plants or oil barracks or levees. And that sense, I think, is very pervasive right now. We as a civilization are more advanced than we’ve ever been — in terms of technology, though not necessarily in other ways — but we feel as if we have more control over the world than ever before. But there is now a sense that the world is proving us wrong time and time again, and that, I think, is certainly something that hits me at a gut level. It’s certainly a place to tap in and use Godzilla as that walking embodiment of human powerlessness.

'Godzilla: Awakening' (Legendary comics)

“Godzilla: Awakening” (Legendary Comics)

HC: What’s the difference for you in terms of writing the graphic novel compared with the film?

MB: There’s certainly differences in a technical aspect. One thing that’s really exciting about writing a comic is that there are no budgetary constraints for what you can put on screen. And no reality constraints to do what you wish — it’s all just pen and ink. The limitations of the medium –  creative limitations — are interesting. The compression of narrative — only so much fits on the page in terms of plot. Whereas in a film, a scene might take two minutes and can convey a good bit of information, a comic book page is only a few panels, and you really want to thin it out and keep it flowing fast. There’s a learning curve to that, which was fascinating and something I worked on with Greg, my collaborator who is my cousin.

In terms of creative freedom, I guess the expected answer is ‘Oh, there were so many more cooks in the kitchen on the movie, and in the comic book you get more freedom.’ The truth is, in both cases, the mandate from above was let’s make the best movie, the best story that we can — and let’s tell the best Godzilla story that we can. The only notes we were ever given was to achieve that, and that was really unusual and a blessing.

– Jevon Phillips

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