In 1996, Dark Horse, high on the success of their Godzilla line of comics, decided to see if it could strike monster gold twice with the only other giant Japanese monster with a long-running movie series—Gamera. The monolithic monster tortoise had recently celebrated his big thirtieth, and Gamera's parent studio Daiei produced a celebratory film, bringing back and reinventing the be-shelled beastie and one of his more popular enemies. The film was greeted by an adulatory public, and even the critics loved it; pretty quick, Daiei was scooping in some considerable cash, and Dark Horse smelled the green. Thus, Dark Horse, to test the waters, planned and executed a four-part mini-series continuing the story of Daiei's beloved reptile reboot. The comic, borrowing the movie title (and adding “the”), was called Gamera: the Guardian of the Universe, or, simply,Gamera (a title I will use here so as to avoid finger strain).
The story picks up a year after the events of the film. Asagi Kusanagi, the girl with the psychic connection to Gamera, and Mayumi Nagamine, the ornithologist/reluctant kaiju expert, are on a trip to Mexico, where Mayumi has been invited to investigate another giant rare bird on an island, and Asagi gets to tag along because “travel is very educational.” While Mayumi goes off to visit the island and look for the latest exotic big bird (this time, the fictional “emerald-crested dapplinger”), she apparently lets Asagi just bounce around Mexico by herself, and thus Gamera's priestess finds herself alone with a bone-headed conman named Lutz, taking a tour in a busted seaplane. Soon, we discover that the folks who invited Mayumi to the island have sinister plans of “mad science.” They are cooking up monsters in their monster lab, and want Mayumi's help in dealing with their newborn Gyaos... Which has escaped and has already grown to Super Gyaos size. Soon, Asagi and Lutz witness Gamera's arrival to fight Gyaos in the city of Guanajota, and in the confusion, Lutz abandons Asagi to a crowd of fleeing Mexicans. Cliffhanger!
Right from the start, Gamera does something right that few Godzilla comics have ever accomplished: It takes likable main characters from the movies, and continues their stories. I recently viewed Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995) again, and I genuinely liked Asagi and Mayumi, and wanted to learn more about them (even if Asagi's personality seems to disappear once she gets the amulet). It was great to see more of them here, and the story by Dave Chipps (who apparently is the Dark Horse manga editor, with his lone story credit being Gamera) moves at a rapid clip with plenty of nods to the movie, visually and in the dialogue, including references to the monster fights from before, as well as the slab upon which the prophecy was written, and another mound of Gyaos excrement complete with another pair of glasses. On the other hand, having Mayumi Nagamine go to another island to research another large bird only to discover another Gyaos is taking “inspiration” too far. Nevertheless, like with Godzilla: Legends #3, bringing in familiar cast members does wonders to spike up reader interest.
Granted, the familiar characters don't get to do a great deal here. Asagi meets Lutz because she is interested in seeing the “monster” advertised on Lutz' sign. (Lutz was trying to drum up business by dressing up a Chihuahua with an extra fake head.) Lutz is the focus, and Asagi is along for the ride. Mostly, we get that she is an adventurous, beautiful girl. Mayumi, similarly, is along for a different sort of ride—she has been kidnapped by real monster makers, instead of the fake Lutz. Mayumi basically gets to react to being kidnapped with outrage and defiance, but that's about it. The new characters receive the focus, and they are admittedly colorful, but not immediately likable.
Lutz is a criminal trying to escape from his past—and an idiot. The story immediately strikes a farcical tone with his double-headed Chihuahua, and he acknowledges his own lack of intelligence later on. Basically, he's a dope looking for a way to make a cheap buck, and functions as comic relief—and he's the narrator. Mayumi's kidnappers are a duo led by an evil bombshell babe scientist, and their dialogue maintains a campy core (including how they got their nuclear goods at “rockbottom prices”). The comic takes the humor of the movie and amps it over the top while retaining plentiful action and drama. For this issue, I thought the mixture worked well.
The art supports the story as well. Like the Dark Horse Godzilla comics, the linework is strong, with pretty good depictions of the monsters (although Gyaos is a bit iffy), and well-rendered (if far from movie-accurate) humans and backgrounds. (Asagi and Mayumi don't look like they were based closely off their movie counterparts, though Mayumi looks reasonably similar to actress Shinobu Nakayama.) If only the IDW comics consistently looked this good! Granted, Gamera AND Gyaos seem to be breathing fire rather than blasting plasma balls and spitting sonic beams, but the monster action crunches and smashes things up real good, and just about everything looks competent.
However, when Gamera the comic was released, the prospects for success were not great. As relatively popular as Godzilla is worldwide, Gamera by comparison is and was obscure, and the movie from which Dark Horse's mini-series is built was not yet released in the States. (According to Amazon, it appears the ADV VHS wasn't released until 1997 or 1998—quite some time after the 1996 print of Gamera.) I remember when the comic came out, I was curious, loved comics, was familiar with Gamera, and I still didn't buy the book, despite flipping through it in the store. I didn't buy the ish for the simple fact that I was wary of movie adaptations, as well as being dirt poor. The first issue includes a two-page introduction to the Gamera mythos, plus a synopsis of the movie, and the cover art is the same gorgeous promo art by Mitsuaki Hashimoto that appeared on posters and video covers, but apparently this wasn’t enough to sustain a property as obscure as Gamera past four issues. Having recognizable characters from the movie doesn't help your product if the consumers are unable to see the movie!
Still, after reading this first issue, I was really pleased. Gamera takes the strengths of Dark Horse’s Godzilla interpretations (good art, decent story) and combines them with some of IDW’s strengths (lots of licensed monsters and characters), and makes something fans should really enjoy. Whether that level of quality continues into the rest of the series, however, is another question. For now, I want to bask in the minor joy of a well-done Gamera comic in America, because such a thing is very rare indeed.