KAIJUMAX is a series written and drawn by the phenomenally talented Zander Cannon for Oni Press, which is about precisely what the title indicates: Life inside a maximum-security prison for giant monsters, policed by human guards in growth suits. Imagine an island where Godzilla and his friends and enemies are the cons, and Ultraman and guys and gals like him are the corrections officers. It’s like HBO’s pioneering pre-Sopranos prison drama series Oz, only on a cosmic scale.
The first issue was published in March of 2015. I’d like to say I was hip enough to be in on KAIJUMAX from the start. But I didn’t know it existed until the second issue was already out in stores. I saw that eye-catching title peeking out from over the tops of better-known alphabet-adjacent books like Justice League and Luke Cage. The title was all I needed. And then I saw the first page.
When a comic book I’m holding in my hands opens up on a scene where an intrepid human is piloting a retrieval craft out through the rectum of an imprisoned giant monster (after finding a shiv up there), that comic book is already making its way over to the cash register. I hunted down the first issue and I’ve been at the store every month since (the series is now on its second “season” as I write this, on its eleventh issue to date).
Our point-of-view character is Electrogor, a mostly-reasonable giant bug-type creature with a carapace that produces uranium eggs (which come in handy as barter). Electrogor is caught and sent up to Kaijumax but since he has two kids somewhere out there alone who need to eat, he’s desperate to get back to them.
Admittedly I felt a slight disappointment when I saw the design of the series’ lead character. I was expecting something more in line with an iguana or a dragon, for obvious reasons. I didn’t think an insect monster could be all that expressive. But this is where the subtle brilliance of Zander Cannon’s cartooning craft enters into the picture. Through frequent narrowing or expanding of the eyes, through suggestions of body language, Electrogor becomes a remarkably sympathetic figure, and occasionally convincingly fearsome when the story calls for it. It’s amazing to me how much I’ve been moved emotionally by the deceptively simple line work of this comic’s style.
The bright, lively coloring of the book is another narrative rope-a-dope — the look of KAIJUMAX screams “fun,” and it surely is, but holy hell, that does not at all prepare you for the dark moments when they come. This series goes to darker places than I ever would have expected, and I like to be blindsided by a story’s direction as much as any thriller fan does, but here it comes with a resonance.
You might not think a comic book about giant monsters has all that much social value, but without ever sermonizing or getting too specific, KAIJUMAX says a lot about America’s prison-industrial system, about how it creates worse monsters rather than providing rehabilitation, about recidivism and bureaucratic inequities and the shocking callousness and opportunism of human beings.
It’s telling, I think, that everybody’s favorite kaiju superstar is represented here not by Electrogor, but by stand-ins like the nasty customer Ape-Whale (note the naming), a high-roller behind prison walls who runs his own crime family without being all too kind to his mentally-ill son Whoofy (the series’ version of Minilla). KAIJUMAX makes use of every chance to subvert the expectations of its audience, but not in a “gotcha!” way — instead, it’s the most absorbing, involving sort of storytelling.
As indicated up top, KAIJUMAX is being released in six-issue “seasons,” invoking the production cycle of prestige television. In the first six issues, the majority of the series regulars are introduced, with Electrogor’s story representing the A-plot while various secondary characters are established and their stories and conflicts followed. As the second season starts, the scope widens beyond the prison’s walls, and we get a look at what life is like for giant monsters on the outside. Again, the trenchant social commentary is there if you want to see it; if not, there are still plenty of monster fights to satisfy the lizard brain.
The first season of KAIJUMAX is out in a paperback collection, but I highly recommend picking up the individual issues, stuffed as they are with terrific features like Zander Cannon’s reviews of famous and lesser-known kaiju films, and even a find-the-monster! game that is not only remarkably charming, it also provides the reader with a fine excuse to go back and read the issue again.
This overview could be twenty pages long and I’d still be coming up with things I love and appreciate about this series. But I’ll stop here, with the most unoriginal “review” closer possible, but also the truest: If you’re not reading KAIJUMAX, you’re really missing out on a good thing, in a scary modern world where we can use all the good things we can find.
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