The monster in Steve Ditko’s Dragon Lord isn’t Steve Ditko’s Gorgo (though it’s pretty much Steve Ditko’s Gorgo) – Marvel Spotlight (Vol. 2) #5
Not long ago we paused to glance at an issue of Charlton’s Gorgo, one of that company’s many second-tier monster books. Illustrated by Steve Ditko, that particular story retold the first encounter of Gorgo (and Gorgo Jr.) with civilization, and was hence an Americanized version of a source material film that was a British ripoff of the venerable Godzilla franchise. (Lost yet?) It was a crappy comic book, with hack story elements and over the top caricatures of Soviet apparatchiks, but Ditko’s art, as always, shone through. Unexpected delights even amongst the compost pile, as usual.
And here we are, with the first appearance of one of several characters at Marvel to carry the Z-level moniker of “Dragon Lord.” The monster on the cover (drawn and inked by Frank Miller and Bob Wiacek), may look a little familiar to you. All giant bipedal lizards, after all, look like Godzilla. And yes, this comic features art from Ditko. Ditko drawing another Godzilla story that isn’t a Godzilla story. Huh. Mark Twain was right about history maybe not repeating itself, but sure as shootin’ rhyming.
In this case, it seems that Ditko was actually doing a Godzilla story, at least as he was putting pen to paper. Over at Comic Book Resources they say that this senses-shattering origin of Dragon Lord was actually a fill-in book for the old Marvel Godzilla book — you remember, the one with Dum Dum Dugan and his hat chasing our hero/monster all over the damn place, and sometimes crossing over with the mainstream Marvel universe. Fill-ins were rather common back in the day (and somewhat confusing to young readers accustomed to the regular crew and regular storylines, as it was for me as a kid when the Transformers book suddenly lurched into reprinting a UK plot), and it would appear that this one was left on the scrap heap when the license was lost. Then, a while later, not wanting anything to go to waste, Marvel slapped it in the burnoff anthology that was the second iteration of Marvel Spotlight.
Or so the story goes.
Godzilla’s name is never mentioned in these pages. Nor does the Steve Ditko Godzilla really scream GODZILLA! at you at the top of its lungs. But it’s him. You don’t even have to squint that hard. Part Godzilla, part Gorgo, part something else is…THE WANI.
The Marv Wolfman-scripted plot opens in 16th century Japan, with fishermen upsetting the gods or something and a giant beast called
Godzilla the Wani rising from the briny depths to kill everyone and stomp on a lot of houses. All appears lost, right up until a valiant (but up to that point failing badly) samurai does a kamikaze dive with gunpowder strapped to himself, which sends the creature to a watery exile. The samurai’s sacrifice leads to subsequent generations vowing to restore the family’s honor should Godzilla the Wani ever return, a vow initially made in an angsty panel that echoes roughly ten thousand others in Ditko’s repertoire:
The years pass, the decades pass, the centuries pass, and generation after generation learns the mystical skills that will one day (hopefully) come in handy while battling their family’s bane. Then, in present day America, when Tako Shamara gets word that a giant monster is on a rampage, he knows that his time has come. He rushes home, startles and horrifies his wife by putting on goofy old clothes and strapping a sword to his hip, and starts summoning things in the backyard grill:
That scene reminds me of Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr in Close Encounters. A LOT. “Roy, our friends don’t call anymore…”
Godzilla The Wani is drawn to Tako’s magic, and soon a proxy war is raged, with Tako creating a series of spectral monsters to battle the very real one before him. But he didn’t think to, you know, evacuate his family beforehand, WHICH WAS REALLY STUPID OF HIM:
Tako, next time leave the monster fights to trained professionals. Give Dum Dum a call. Or the Orkin Man. SOMEBODY.
Tako manages to get the last of his proxy monsters out of there before the whole place is leveled and his wife and children are killed, but still
Godzilla the Wani looms large. Then, for reasons unknown, it starts obeying Tako’s commands:
Godzilla the Wani goes, back to its own time, and its own place in the sea:
The Comic Book Resources post linked to above suggests that those last panels were altered to basically cut Godzilla out of the frame and make it seem that he was disappearing, instead of doing his usual walk back to the ocean that he did after every movie. Makes sense.
You can easily see how easily this story was rejiggered to accommodate a standalone, unGodzilla plot. The Wolfman text boxes are extensive, and you might read Godzilla’s sudden, late in the game change of heart as part and parcel of the somewhat more tame version of the character that was featured in Marvel run (in which he was something akin to the Hulk, harried by military forces and just wanting to be left alone). And what we’re left with at the end of it all is an odd little artifact: an introduction to a character whose appearances would be few and far between, and a fine sampling of Ditko’s strengths. I mean, look at that pink magic-monster, and tell me you don’t smile and think a little bit of J. Jonah Jameson’s Spider-Slayer. Just a little?
So Ditko never technically got to do a Godzilla book, even though he did a Godzilla rip-off and an apparently repurposed Godzilla. Mark that down on your cards if you’re keeping score at home.