Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Run Reader: Giantkiller (1999)

The opening page of Giantkiller Book One by
Dan Brereton, August 1999.
I enjoy reading and collecting two comic book sub-genres that are published with little regularity or consistency: giant monster (or "kaiju") and Western titles. Beyond familiar characters with high name recognition such as Godzilla or The Lone Ranger (both of which have current or recent iterations that are thoroughly entertaining), few titles from these two comic book sub-genres regularly see publication. This is especially true of titles published by the industry's "Big Two," Marvel and DC. While each will occasionally nod to their own giant monster-cowboy past with titles like DC's Jonah Hex or Marvel's current Secret Wars mini-series Where Monsters Dwell (both solid titles), few new characters are developed and promoted. There was a time though, when the comic book industry was on life support (or so I've heard) and willing to take greater creative risks,

The cover to Book Three.
While thumbing through some ancient longboxes last week, I re-discovered a long forgotten gem that incorporates classic elements of giant monster books with a common Western archetype thrown in for good measure, the 1999 DC miniseries Giantkiller. Written and drawn by Dan Brereton (most well know for his 1998 collaboration with Howard Chaykin, Batman: Thrillkiller), Giantkiller is basic in its plotting but dynamic in its presentation.

In the far-flung future world of 2002(!), atop Mount Diablo, "across the bridge from San Francisco, past the hills of Oakland" an inter-dimensional portal has opened releasing all sorts of Lovecraftian "daikaiju" or giant monsters. In an effort to confront these horrors, our government does what years of reading sci-fi and comic books have taught all of us what the correct answer to this problem is: experiment with evil DNA in an effort to develop super-soldiers.

One of the many spectacular
splash pages in Book Four
of Giantkiller by Dan Brereton.
The first product of this experiment, who as it turns out is our story's primary narrator, is Jill, a young woman who is injured while acting as an FBI agent charged with breaking up a cult dedicated to worshiping the creatures. Found nearly dead, Jill is resurrected following a hybridization process using the monsters' DNA. Eventually Jill goes native and is labeled "a lost cause" by the lead scientist responsible for her transformation, Dr. Steven Azuma. Following this first perceived failure, the good doctor to turn his sights toward an experiment with greater potential, Project Giantkiller.

The fruit of Project Giantkiller is the hero of our tale, a human-like creature (with a claw-tipped tail) christened "Jack," though he is affectionately referred to by Dr. Azuma and his team by the nickname "Yochu." Jack is educated ("Grades K through 6 lasted exactly two weeks.") and trained following his "birth," and armed with a samurai katana fashioned from the tooth of one of his "titanic relatives" which he names "Kiba" (Fang).

A number of mysteries involving our two protagonists are introduced and resolved during the course of the series as Jack and Jill meet in the kaiju -populated zone around San Francisco, and ally themselves with one another in an effort to close the portal. In a particularly clever move, writer-artist Brereton embraces the ethical quandry inherent in Jack's role as an agent of destruction pointed at his own race, and his willingness to address the reader's questions within the context of the narrative contributes to Giantkiller's success as a story.

"Friendly" monster,
Nox, from Book Five.
Brereton allows his energetic artwork to tell the story during the monster battles, and relies heavily on characters, most notably Jill, to deliver background exposition about the fictional world they inhabit. Despite this, I never felt weighed down by the necessity of information-sharing. Brereton characterizes Jack as a no-nonsense, action-oriented hero, so the moments during which he is engaged in battle are free of witty-remarks and absent nearly all dialogue beyond monster sounds and sound effects. It is in Jack's characterization that the Loner archetype (a la Western icons such as Shane and the Man With No Name) is employed. Jack is a monster, but he is also fighting on the side of "good," despite the natural urges deep in his DNA to be alone on his quest, he does meet those with whom he connects.

I couldn't help but notice some superficial  similarities, however, with Mike Mignola's Hellboy. As I was drawn into the world Brereton was crafting, I wondered if these similarities were part of why this potentially marketable character and his world have not since been revisited in some medium. Both Hellboy and Jack the Giantkiller work with (for?) a paternal character who raised them, and both also use their "sons"to somewhat surreptitiously further personal interests. Both are supported by female counterparts that are themselves cursed with abilities that make them distinct form the world around them. Given the opportunity to develop his character, it would have been fun to see where Jack and Jill, in Brereton's skilled hands, could have taken us.

As it stands, Giantkiller remains a promising introduction to a world and characters that work well as a single, inclusive mini-series. This is due primarily to Brereton's work, both as artist and writer; together his clear affection for the genres is infectious.

Giantkiller is a comic book miniseries originally published by DC Comics, along with a one-shot handbook called Giantkiller A to Z: A Field Guide to Big Monsters (which within the context of the story was written by Jill in her early days as a monster hunter for the government). The series has since been collected in a trade-paperback format by Image Comics. Both are still available in the back issue boxes of quality local comic books shops.

Jack the Giantkiller battles Shrill in Book Two.

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