Review time! with ‘Kill All Monsters!’

“The forest that once was green was colored black by those killing machines”

A few years ago, I read the first part of the first part of Kill All Monsters!, “The Ruins of Paris.” Later, Dark Horse Presents ran a serial for a while related to the main story. Both of those stories are included in the new omnibus, which Dark Horse also published and which costs only $24.99 for 362 pages of monster-fighting action. Michael May wrote this, Jason Copland drew it, and Ed Brisson, Ryan Ferrier, and Micah Myers lettered it. It’s pretty groovy!

KAM! is a clever book, even though May indulges in some of the clichés of pop culture. It’s more thoughtful than most giant monster attack stuff, and while May kind of has to include some of the stuff we expect, he also subverts our expectations in other ways. The set-up is standard: in the 1950s, nuclear testing released/created giant monsters, which decided to take their frustrations out on humanity. Now it’s 60 years later, and a small group of humans has come up with giant robots to fight them. It’s the plot of a lot of pop culture stuff, with people “driving” the robots, desperate to save the planet, but it’s not the worst thing to hang a plot on. It does give us a reason to watch giant monsters fight giant robots, after all, which is (almost) always fun.*

* Man, why wasn’t Pacific Rim more fun?

May introduces the main characters – Dressen, Spencer, and Akemi – who spend the first part of the book wrecking what’s left of Paris in their attempts to kill monsters. It’s in this first section that May does the first clever thing – he not only puts this 60 years after the monsters appeared, he shows us a little of what happened to civilization after the monsters attacked. In a lot of the “giant monster” literature, the monsters attack a lot, but society never seems to change. In most of May’s world, society has changed a lot, because the Parisians, for instance, have no access to electricity. Society has collapsed, in other words, because for three generations the people are just trying to survive. The robot pilots discover modern-ish electronic equipment, which lets them theorize about what’s been going on in some parts of the world, but the natives don’t know what it is or how it works. If you think that’s ridiculous, think about what would happen if in 1954 or so, most of the world’s electrical grid went down permanently. Obviously, nothing new would get invented, but it would also probably be a quick slide back into the dark ages, especially if the generation that did know about electricity and such died off quickly fighting the monsters. So the Parisians, who still speak French and can therefore communicate easily with the pilots, have no idea of a technologically advanced world. May does a really nice job showing this dichotomy when the pilots are forced to spend some time on the ground in Paris.

He doesn’t stick with it too much, though, because the main story is still about the people fighting the monsters. They discover something that makes the threat more real than just giant monsters rampaging around the countryside, because as scary as that is, it’s still unfocused. Again, the plot that May does use isn’t the most original, but it is something we don’t see in this kind of story, so it’s a nice touch (I really don’t want to give it away, so forgive my vagueness). We also get to see some other parts of the world, as an ex-pat American now working for the Canadians (the United States, it is implied, is in disarray) visits Africa, where the robots are based, to meet the man in charge and receive the tech that powers them so that others can fight back. She also gets to fight a monster (monster-fighting is never far away in this book!), but May also ties this story nicely into the larger plot (this is the story that showed up in DHP, here reprinted in glorious black and white). Finally, we visit Japan, where another pilot finds an island where the monsters are actually not attacking each other (apparently, in the absence of giant robots to fight, they fight each other), and she also discovers the reason … which also ties back into the main plot. May does a nice job making sure that the overall plot is never far from our minds, even as we get a lot of robots fighting monsters.

May makes sure the book has a wry sense of humor, as well. He gives the three pilots in “The Ruins of Paris” good and distinct personalities, and they play off each other quite well. They’re all suspicious of Archer, a robot that doesn’t need a pilot (it’s A.I., yo!), because they think it’s going to go Skynet at any moment. Archer turns out to be a fun character, because he’s like an adolescent – technically, I guess he is – so he just enjoys the sheer awesomeness of beating giant monsters to death. The dynamic between the whole team is nice, and when bad things inevitably happen, May has done some good work to make the bad things hit a bit harder. The Canadian who visits Africa, Matthews, is more of a simple plot device and not as fully developed, but the Japanese pilot, Joji, is a good character – she also thinks it’s pretty awesome to kill monsters, and her joy is infectious, but she’s still in pain from the death of her mother and the loss of Tokyo. May also does a good job showing the toll piloting takes on the humans inside the robots, and he doesn’t forget that this is early in the stages of humanity’s counterattack, so the pilots aren’t necessarily excellent at fighting in their robots. They fall down, they can’t always hit what they swing at, and the robots break somewhat easily, it seems. It’s not a comedy of errors, but May remembers that technology isn’t perfect, and failure of tech is something everyone has to deal with, even when you’re fighting giant monsters.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written for the past decade or so, you know I’m a fan of Jason Copland’s, and it’s mainly because he drew this that I bought the first iteration of it (May turned out to be a good writer, but I wasn’t familiar with his fiction work when I first got this). Copland drew this over several years, and you can see his style get a bit “cleaner,” for lack of a better word, as the book moves along. In the beginning of the book, his lines are scratchier and he uses a very neat Zip-A-Tone effect that he uses more sparingly as the book goes on (although he never abandons it completely). Copland’s style doesn’t lend itself perfectly to fluid action scenes, but what he’s very good at is showing the way figures move in those action scenes, so his static poses are dynamic even without the fluidity that we usually think of when things are fighting each other. This lack of fluidity helps with the robots, obviously, because they’re big and clunky, and Copland does a wonderful job making it appear that they’re stomping around without really being able to move all that well. Even Joji’s robot, a giant samurai (of course) that uses a big sword to kill monsters, is a bit more fluid than the others but is still a clunky robot in many ways. It adds to May’s idea of the robots not being as advanced as they might be, an idea that Copland brings to wonderfully weird life. Archer, the A.I. robot, is painted black and is a bit sleeker than the others, probably reflecting the fact that he’s not being piloted, but Copland does something different with him – he matches, visually, May’s idea of making him an adolescent. Archer bounds around a bit more prominently than the others, and even when he’s standing, he stands straighter and prouder than the others, as if the piloted robots match their operators’ fatigue, something Archer doesn’t have to worry about. Copland does a good job with the people in the story, too, as they react with appropriate fear to the monsters, and even the pilots, who probably are a bit safer than we might think because the monsters don’t seem to know that the robots are being piloted, show their fear well when things don’t go their way. Copland’s Paris is a haunting place, the eerie rubble doing a better job visually than May could ever do in showing how far humanity has fallen. His “barbarians” – the natives of Paris – are a fun contrast to the pilots they meet, as they wear what appear to be animal skins even though they’re perfectly “modern,” at least in terms of being able to communicate.

Of course, Copland has to be able to draw great monsters, and he’s certainly up to the task. He gives us all kinds of monsters, from giant flying turds with tentacles to lizards with long heads to giant insects with curved pincers. We get shaggy horned beasts; a gelatinous, acidic body with a brain floating in it; flying birds that shoot black ooze out of their mouths; a giant beard with mushrooms growing out of its head. There are rock monsters and lake monsters and crab monsters and feathery monsters and hairy monsters. When the pilots get stuck in Paris, he even gives us relatively human-sized warthog monsters, which attack them when they’re trying to find shelter and before they meet the inhabitants, who rescue them. Copland’s designs are terrific, and the weird “powers” he gives the monsters (which seem to be random, but since each monster is unique, they’re still fun) make the fights even more interesting. His robot designs are fun, too – we get a “lionbot,” one with a skull head, and an insectoid one, and it just feels like they’ve been personalized by their operators, although in the world of the comic, the designers probably didn’t know who’d be piloting them. His robot designs and his monster designs make Copland’s brutal fights more interesting, as he really goes all in on making the fights feel like epic struggles. The monsters know what they’re doing, after all, and the pilots are often on their heels, but they can also out-think the monsters in many ways, so they are able to rally without it feeling just like something that’s done for dramatic tension. The way Copland stages the fights make them feel like true back-and-forths, which makes the robots’ victories – and yes, they generally win, but not always in ways we expect – that much sweeter.

Kill All Monsters! doesn’t end satisfactorily, because May presumably needs another omnibus-sized volume to wrap everything up, and I contacted Copland and asked him if there were any plans for another one. He said he’s spoken to May about it, but I guess it’s always contingent on finding the time. Unfortunately, Copland doesn’t get a ton of work from companies that actually pay a good rate (although he drew a Judge Dredd story that’s out right now, if you want to check it out), so who knows if he will be able to work on this over the next few years. It took a while for this to come out – I know they’ve been working on it at least for five years, and probably closer to ten – so who knows how long a second volume this long will take? It’s too bad, but what we get in this volume is pretty danged entertaining, so if you don’t mind that the plot doesn’t quite wrap up, there’s a lot to recommend in it. Yes, the story is a bit familiar, but May does some nice work to make it stand out from the crowd, and Copland’s art is terrific. Give it a look at the link below!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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