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Manga Monday: The “M” Word, and Gundam: The Origin

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9781935654872_p0_v2_s600For fans of anime and manga, the word “Mech” can yield a full spectrum of responses. An expression of excited outburst, a groan of exacerbated contempt, and a head tilt of complete ignorance are all very real reactions evoked by the “M” word. Regardless of position, what started as a sub-genre quickly evolved it’s on generic qualities, themes, and tropes, to the point of developing its own unique language. Mobile Suit Gundam in particular is a noteworthy example such a transition: what began as a dramatic space opera, featuring giant bipedal tanks, has spiraled out of control. Spawning TV sequels and derivations to numerous to count, and a line of model kits (with an associated yet entirely separate realm of fandom) so vast it would drive an otherwise sane toy collector mad; Gundam has transcended the role of entertainment outlet to become its own sub-culture. Gundam was not the first giant robot series to be certain, but its impact in influencing the identity of the “Mech” is undeniable.

Back in 1979 when the first Mobile Suit Gundam series aired, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko had his hands in just about every aspect of development. His influence oversaw some of the more personal aspects of characters and characterization, on top of lending his considerable artistic abilities towards shaping the overall feel and emotional context of the animation. Given Yasuhiko’s deep connection to the source material, it’s no wonder he would be a good fit to retell the inaugural entry into the Gundam mythos. Yet, this connection is not what makes Origin such a compelling read. The connection drawn between Yasuhiko and Origin’s cast is at the core of the comic’s compelling nature. Through Yasuhiko’s vision, readers experience a degree of human nature as vibrantly alive should they exist in the annals of history. The strife between the Federation and the Zeon Empire, the struggle for mankind to establish a new identity among the stars: all of these tales are told as capably and dramatically as epics of classical literature. Just as the Odyssey and Beowulf blur the line between myth and reality, we are left with a sense that the two stances are not separate but conflated. Although Gundam The Origin takes place in a fictional universe, in an unidentified future, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s narrative seamlessly turns science fiction into a kind of historical fiction.

From the very beginning, the pace of action is set to an accelerated speed. Characters are only given a brief window with which to feel the comforts of peace. And within this expediency to the action, Amuro, the main character and pilot of the Federation prototype Mobile Suit RX-78, is not even granted time to follow the traditional rules of a hero’s call to action. The entire crew of the Trojan Horse is suddenly hurled into the lion’s den, told the last hope of the federation rests with them, a crew of rookies, trainees, and civilians. The dire nature of Origin’s initial conflict sets the tone for the entire series. With the activation of a new, deadly prototype, both sides of a drawn out war have suddenly been called to arms. The end game has been revealed.

With a tone and setting like this, it’s no wonder Origin is a compelling read. Every single character is presented with a sink or swim dilemma, with the fate of all humanity in the balance. This heavy burden is masterfully balanced against deeply rich character individualism: no character or characterization is superfluous, however major or minor they may be. Each holding a unique ideal or perspective on the world, there is always a certain neutrality behind choices made and opinions held. Overt evil and inherent good are inexistent polar opposites, an absence which enriches the overall impact on the reader. Lacking a defined good or bad guy, Yasuhiko invites the entire cast to find their own way, and make their own decisions. Characters that seem good in one chapter can change sides in the next depending on the main conflict.

9781935654872_p4_v6_s600Amuro is one of the main examples of this motivational fluxuation. Clearly on the side of “good,” (whatever that means in the grand scheme of things), his motivations waiver as plot points are revealed, and the conflict between the Zeon Empire and the Federation escalates. His only static affiliation is with the pilot’s chair inside the Gundam unit.  Only when his position as Gundam pilot is threatened does his real neutrality show. Amuro proves that his obsessive, almost symbiotic relationship with the war machine supersedes any logical thoughts he may have about the world as a whole. Should the Gundam be a weapon of the Zeon’s instead of the Federation, Amuro would still be tied to the Mobile Suit without a moment of hesitation. His only reprieve from his attachment comes when he encounters his mother. She questions what he’s become, how he could so willingly kill another human being. Amuro’s subsequent introspection begins to scratch the surface of the nature of life and death, of war and peace, but the allure of piloting the Gundam quickly overrides any existential dilemma he may come face to face with.

Conversely, Char represents an element of chaotic unpredictability. Mysterious inside and out, his actions and allegiances change based on the direction of the wind, aided by a cool nonchalance. Although he is motivated by an agenda, (one that is a treat to discover through reading, and would be criminal to spoil here), even when it is finally revealed, how he plans to achieve his goals and stay alive are almost left to chance. Yet, just like Amuro, Char can be influenced and guided based on a singular factor: respect on the battlefield. A tactical genius, and feared by characters knowledgeable of his legacy, Char is unmatched in battle. But when he is presented with a challenge, suddenly his indifference turns to dedication, his neutrality to focus on his opponent.

The depth of these characters only scratches the surface of intrigue in Gundam: The Origin. Every aspect of this comic is masterfully crafted by Yoshizaku Yasuhiko. The artwork combines classic manga aesthetics with modernized attention to technology and action. Aided by an emotionally charged and uniquely motivated cast, the level of drama readers will experience surpasses the best science fiction narratives, TV, prose, or comic that it can be paired against. And as an unthreatening entry point into the world of “Mechs,” The Origin has a potential to serve as a bridge for non-manga readers.

Mobile Suit Gundam The Origin is available now from Vertical, Inc.

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