KONG: GODS OF SKULL ISLAND
Phillip Kennedy Johnson (writer), Chad Lewis (artist), Dee Cunniffe (colorist), Ed Dukeshire (letterer)
October 18, 2017
On a whim, I went and saw Kong: Skull Island in theaters. It was a warm day, and theaters have air conditioning. I liked it. It was big and loud. It presented the titular ape as a sympathetic creature just trying to keep a lid on things before a bunch of humans come and muck everything up. It wasn’t deep. It didn’t have a moral lesson that couldn’t be taught in a single listen of “The Gambler,” but it was fun, in the way that watching giant monsters fight will always be fun.
Kong: Gods of Skull Island is a prequel or sorts, and well, it’s not good. It has a confused identity; it centers around and is narrated by a colonizer named James Copland. I explicitly call him a colonizer because that’s what he does as explained in the text of the story itself. Copland is not some simple adventurer or explorer; he seeks out civilizations to drag into the modern age. It’s a very uncomfortable premise, because while Copland himself is written as an unsympathetic character, essentially the villain of his own story, the act of colonization is treated as a simple, unchallenged fact. It’s frustrating because it’s right there, and it would be so easy to challenge it within the story, to call these terrible characters out for their actions and then punish them, but it’s not handled that deftly.
Instead we’re given a spread of characters ripped straight out of Disney’s Tarzan. Mister Hodge is a blond Cecil Clayton, an arrogant, misogynist, and always toting a shotgun. Mary Talbott is a carbon copy of Jane Porter. The similarities are so striking that it’s difficult to focus on the story for what it is. These characters recall those characters, which in turn recalls the tone of that movie, instead of the one this comic is supposed to be based on. That’s only one of the frustrating aspects of the art; another is the sheer interchangeability of many of the characters in the story. So many of these men look so similar that I found myself flipping back and forth between pages because I’d lost track of who was doing what. The monsters are more distinct, at least. Kong is recognizably himself, and several of the other creatures are both appropriately horrifying and in tune with the general aesthetics of the film.
I should say I like the style of the art as a whole; Chad Lewis has a very sketchy, loose sort of linework that plays well with both the monsters and the jungle-like conditions of Skull Island. It’s something we don’t see enough of in comics, I think. Lewis seems to be a relative newcomer to comics; this book is the only one listed under his name on Comixology, and the only other work I can find appears to be this joint project between Marvel and Adobe. Either way, despite the flaws in this book, I understand why Lewis was given the task, looking at his portfolio, and I’d definitely like to see more from him in the future.
The story is built around Copland’s failures in life; for all that he boasts of his achievements throughout, the opening has him discovering Skull Island as the result of a suicide attempt and then leading an expedition back there to colonize it. From there, we’re given a story of his determination proving his undoing, but there’s no actual tangible resolution to that. The rest of the comic is monsters and pitfalls, but with none of the spectacle of the film. Instead of letting these moments breathe, each appearance of a monster results in the death of a random colonist, the survivors flee, and encounter the next horror. It’s always over in a couple of panels, and it’s just boring.
When the last moments of the book are finally reached, it’s clear the author wants to tell some sort of tragic climax, but it doesn’t carry any of that weight. Copland wants to die, but he doesn’t. He wants to colonize the island, but he doesn’t. He wants to get the girl, but he doesn’t. In fact, the way that last goal is denied to him is truly, utterly infuriating; it manages to deny him access to Mary whilst still treating her as something to be owned or possessed. In fact the story seems to punish her despite the fact that she personally has done nothing wrong. It begs the question why. And what is the point of this story? What is the message it attempts to convey? Are we supposed to feel sympathy for this man who has built his name on the subjugation of other societies? What of the others? They all meet bad ends, but there’s no direct correlation between the ends they meet and the lives we’ve seen them lead. The island doesn’t care what kind of men these are, nor do its monstrous inhabitants.
I suppose that’s my real issue with the entire thing. A narrative about colonization is not a seasoning one dashes over the top for flavor. It’s a potent political and historical touch point with ramifications that remain relevant even today. If you’re going to include it in a story, you need to address it. The moral lessons of the movie this book is tied to were, like I said, simplistic to a fault: the bad people were punished, the good ones were not. This book can’t even claim that. The choices made in the climax of this story render the entire thing so devoid of any tangential meaning or purpose that the only pleasure to be gained in the reading of this book is to see a despicable man denied anything he might want. That, ultimately, is a hollow reward, and not worth the price on the cover.