Welcome to the latest installment of my comics review column here at Skiffy & Fanty! Every month, I use this space to shine a spotlight on SF&F comics (print comics, graphic novels, and webcomics) that I believe deserve more attention from SF&F readers.
This month, I’m going to draw your attention to the first two volumes collecting a remarkable comic book series that was supposed to be a light-hearted story about giant monsters doing hard time and became accidentally relevant: Zander Cannon’s Kaijumax. (This review contains spoilers!)
Kaijumax Season 1: Terror and Respect and Season 2: The Seamy Underbelly
Created, written and drawn by Zander Cannon
Published by Oni Press
I have an early memory of being allowed by my parents to stay up late to watch the end of a movie on TV (because this was when there were “movies” on “TV”). I remember the final scene incredibly clearly: a bunch of giant dinosaur, dragon and/or bug-like creatures, after a climactic battle, have fallen into the sea. After a moment, the dragon-monster flew up out of the waves, and rocketed away across the sky.
I was captivated.
That movie – called both Invasion of Astro-Monster and Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero in different English-language releases, and which I later learned was directed by the great Ishiro Hondo – inspired a lifelong love of the kaiju genre. The goofier the better. The more obviously the monsters were dudes in rubber suits, and the Japanese army’s dangerously ineffectual laser trucks were plastic toys, the happier I was. I’m particularly fond of films later in what fans call the Showa era of Godzilla movies – the silly movies that are more like wrestling where the faces and heels are space bugs, robots, and atomic dinosaurs than anything else.
I’m also, notoriously, fond of genre mashups. So, when I realized that acclaimed comics writer and artist Zander Cannon’s current series is essentially a giant monster prison drama? Godzilla doing time in Oz?
Obviously, I was sold. And I eagerly read the first two collected volumes, expecting some irony, some nostalgia, and a lot of comedy.
What I got was a searing, heartfelt, and sometimes tragic examination of PTSD, institutional racism, and the carceral state. And irony, nostalgia and comedy. Plus giant atomic monsters.
Kaijuimax opens as Electrogor, a giant, bright yellow, radioactive insect-monster, is processed into the titular maximum security giant monster prison – an island surrounded by forcefields and staffed by guards who have the power to enlarge themselves into heavily armed and armored forms to deal with the inmates. Electrogor is new to the system, wary, confused, and not sure who to trust. He’s an everymonster, a single dad, captured by humanity while looking for food for his kids, and he spends most of the first volume desperately worried about them, and trying to get some word to or from home.
This is, of course, the classic set-up and structure of a prison drama, a model that the story follows as Electrogor tries to survive and understand his new environment. We discover Kaijumax with and through Electrogor, meeting other inmates, guards and factions within the prison – but the focus doesn’t stay exclusively on him, as we follow other characters and explore their conflicts and backgrounds.
The first volume alone introduces Electrogor, his children (via flashbacks); his cellmate, the hapless Creature From Devil’s Creek; affable prisoner Green Humungo; the powerful Ape-Whale, leader of the J-Pop gang, and his unappreciated son Whoofy; the corrupt guard Gupta and his patrons in the Von Vilestra crime family (giant green aliens who run smuggling and gambling rackets on the Moon); traumatized rookie guard Jeong; the prison’s far-too-empathetic-for-her-own-good Doctor Zhang; the spiritual, pacifist giant robot Mechazon, imprisoned for refusing to fight other kaiju; his disapproving creator/”father” and his sister, Chisato, a robot who wants to be a cop; the intimidating Warden Kang; and the vicious, manipulative inmate Zonn, who targets Electrogor for abuse.
That’s just book one. The second volume, The Seamy Underbelly (and wow, do I ever love that title; it’s such a deeply layered pun) pulls the camera back even farther, showing more of the wider world and its history, delving more deeply into previously minor characters and introducing new ones as – I know that I always provide a spoiler warning, but this is a big one, so, spoilers – Electrogor and Green Humungo, who escaped Kaijumax at the end of volume one, try to evade capture long enough for Electrogor to get home to his kids and go into hiding.
It makes for a densely-packed narrative; I’m glad I read the story in these collected volumes (which are called seasons by Cannon, playing up the HBO/Netflix drama vibe). That means, unfortunately, waiting to find out what happens in Season Three, currently in the process of being published as a six-issue limited series, and the collection of which is pending its completion.
Cannon’s art, cartoony and brightly-colored, is perfect for the story – it makes giant, city-flattening, people-eating monsters empathetic, relatable, and in some cases even lovable, while also providing a vital balance to the violence and emotional intensity of the story. This would be far too grim a narrative with more realistic art or a darker palette. Just don’t forget those more challenging elements and be misled into thinking that because it’s visually echoic of Saturday morning, the story is slight, trivial, or simplistic.
Because yes, the high concept sounds like the set-up for a joke – Godzilla does hard time in Oz, kaiju is the new black.
Then Electrogor gets attacked – beaten and sexually assaulted, and although the latter phrase is never used, it’s quite clear what’s happened – by Zonn, and there’s nothing he can do about it because nobody cares what happens to a giant monster. The staff are corrupt or simply don’t believe that the inmates are people deserving of trust or empathy. The world at large thinks the kaiju are a menace, who deserve to be imprisoned or dead.
Kaijumax, by interrogating the idea of monsters and monstrousness, becomes a deeply complex and challenging work, and one that obviously touches on very important and sensitive issues – of the carceral state, of people and populations that are viewed as other, as dangerous, and that are deliberately and disproportionately targeted for harassment and violence by law enforcement.
That being said, the story is also tremendously fun. Love of the source material, and of acknowledging those sources, is a thread that runs throughout. Kaijumax never forgets that it’s about giant monsters, and never stops celebrating the stories that inspired it – I consider myself a fan of the genre, and I couldn’t keep track of half of the references and homages. But it also, clearly, became something else along the way, something more substantial.
Zander Cannon acknowledges, in the afterword to Season 2, that it may have been unrealistic to believe that in our times, he could tell a story set in any kind of prison, and not grapple with the issues that raises – of police violence, of institutional racism, of the prison-industrial complex. He takes pains to emphasize that his goal has been to avoid direct parallels between the imprisoned population in his story and imprisoned people in the real world – an approach I applaud, because it would become very problematic very quickly – while drawing on the emotional and thematic parallels.
For me, those connections work. They enrich the narrative. But I’m not a member of a marginalized community disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. So, consider this a caveat and a content warning: Although we’re not meant to read Electrogor and the other kaiju as being members of any particular real marginalized group or groups, authorial intent only goes so far. Some readers could find those connections trivializing of the experiences of real people, or find some of the action triggering.
The balance Kaijumax strikes is perfect for me, but that risk is real – because metaphors are all, always, imperfect, and break down in different places for different people.
That same approach, though, places it firmly within the great science-fictional narrative tradition of concretizing the metaphor. And Kaijumax is not only smart, funny, engaging, and deeply moving by turns – it’s also superb science fiction. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Acknowledgements and Disclosures: I would like to acknowledge that Toronto, and the land it now occupies, where I live and work, has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years. This land is the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island. I am grateful to have the opportunity to live and work in the community of Toronto, on this territory.
Zander Cannon and I don’t know each other well, but we have a number of mutual friends through comics, and we’re Facebook friends. I believe we’ve met in person, at various comics conventions, some years ago now. I don’t think this degree of acquaintance unduly biased my review. I obtained my own copies of the graphic novels (I borrowed them from the library!)