One of the best compliments you can give a comic is that it isn’t like any other comic. This is true of every great series, but some stand out more than others. The mix of religion, scatology, romance, John Wayne and a vampire makes Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher like nothing in the multiverse. John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew—with its slew of food-based superpowers, alien shenanigans and a badass fighting chicken—would leave even Jon Morris stumped for comparisons. Likewise, nothing in comics today (or any other part of the timestream) resembles writer/artist Zander Cannon’s Kaijumax, which begins its third season/arc from Oni Press tomorrow. This saga of giant monsters in prison is more than 1959 Jack Kirby meets HBO’s Oz: it’s a compelling story about the horrors of prison and the prejudices of society, humanizing the citizens who are usually monsterized.
The first six-issue arc takes place almost entirely in Kaijumax: a maximum-security prison for peers of Godzilla, Mothra and Spragg. This is an ensemble comic, but the most sympathetic and prominent character is Electrogor, a yellow, bug-like behemoth. The first issue comprises his first day in prison, and he isn’t mentally or physically prepared: Electrogor’s only concern is his two children, who are now abandoned without any knowledge of their father’s whereabouts. They’re also probably hungry, since poor Electrogor was foraging when captured. Cannon gives every character, monster or guard, a distinct personality, but Electrogor is a particular triumph: he has the saddest face and posture of any character in comics.
While trying to figure out the politics of the vicious prison ecosystem, where the guards are as bad as the gangs, Electrogor trips on one horrible situation after another. One humiliation involves trading the uranium that grows on his back (which can be converted to drugs) to a corrupt guard in hopes of getting a message to his children on the outside. In the most harrowing incident of the series, Electrogor gets raped in the Kaijumax equivalent of a shower. Impressively, Cannon nimbly avoids the sick pitfall of prison-rape jokes: the horror and aftermath of this event are taken seriously. The sensitive handling of this issue is one of the first signs that this comic is a classic in the making.
Kaijumax Interior Art by Zander Cannon
Cannon brings this world to life through vibrant art and equally vibrant language. Prison—much like crime in general—is fertile grounds for slang, and Cannon invents his own lingo for the mons (monsters) and squishers (humans). No one has a cell-mate—only crater-mates. God is Goj, and “fucking” is redking. Religious robots who say “PC be with you” are accused of technobabble, which has never been more appropriate. Instead of hillbillies and social justice warriors, there are volcano-billies and battle justice warriors. Nobody is an asshole, but almost everyone is an ambergris-hole or a spawn of a bitch. This distinctive language is part of Cannon’s first-rate world-building.
Kaijumax Cover Art by Zander Cannon
Kaijumax, especially in its first arc, holds a number of parallels to HBO’s Oz, an underrated, poignant and absorbing show. You can see a direct similarity between some characters, including prison-yard prophets Mechazon and Kareem Said. On Oz, Said is a Muslim who primarily tries to inspire his fellow convicts toward peace and understanding. Mechazon does the same, denouncing violence and urging his fellow mons to “Turn to the cloud.” Much like Said, Mechazon has his limits. Being a man (or monster) of peace in a place like Kaijumax is nearly impossible.
But Cannon’s influences are plentiful, and his research is impressive—both on monsters and prisons. In a letter column, he mentions watching prison documentaries and reading prison memoirs by Seth Ferranti, Glenn Langohr and others. He’s also an avid monster enthusiast, which has helped him adapt and vary some classic Kaiju designs: “One of the interesting things about watching so many monster movies and having all of those templates in my head is that it gets easier and easier to see what it is about those characters that I like so much. It’s then therefore easier to strip those elements out and create a brand new original Kaiju that is all mine, to treat however I like without getting anyone’s permission.”
The second season expands the scope of the series, moving beyond Kaijumax into the outside galaxy, which also brings the series closer to the “real” world. One particularly sympathetic character is a lumbering red monster on parole, who has to please an awful boss at a demanding job while dealing with anti-monster prejudice: hello racism metaphor. This commentary comes across through the cover to issue #2, which features signs such as, “Kaiju Entrance in Back,” “We Serve Humans Only” and “No Kaiju Permitted,” as a frustrated monster makes his way to work, glumly carrying his lunchbox. It’s hard to blame a Kaiju for stomping the squishers when many humans can’t even bother to distinguish between a mon who’s been irradiated and one who arose from the sea. To add extra insult, that distinction is written off by some as biological correctness.
Kaijumax Cover Art by Zander Cannon
The heart-shredding conclusion of the second arc shouldn’t be spoiled, but it is one of the saddest situations to unfold in any recent comic, as Electrogor finally meets his children, but—to make a mech-sized understatement—things have changed in his absence. This storyline moves elegantly on two levels. It’s hard not to think of real-life convicts in similar circumstances, and it’s impossible not to wish Electrogor could catch a damn break for once. Season three promises to expand the scope of the series with the addition of a female Kaijumax, which should offer Cannon new avenues for drama, comedy and commentary. If you like an insane mashup premise—such as Shirtless Bearfighter or Dr. McNinja—then this comic will fulfill your craving for bonkers. But if you like intellectual sequential art that tackles real-life issues in a strong—but non-preachy—way, you will adore this comic. Along with Lazarus, this might be the most relevant ongoing comic. Only a real monster wouldn’t give it a shot.
Mark Peters is the author of Bullshit: A Lexicon. Follow him on Twitter.