I’d like to say I’ve had some good times with Gundam over the years. Yes, there are definitely some shows I’d say missed more than they hit, but in general, it’s a brand that’s managed to keep me interested for now over a decade.
It’s with that pretext in mind that I’m just going to say this outright-most Gundam manga are pretty bad. They’re rarely ever skin-peeling ‘I just looked into the Ark of the Covenant’ levels of failure, it’s just the majority of them are bland or unremarkable beyond bearing the Gundam brand name. If pressed for it, I can honestly say I can count the number of Gundam manga I could recommend to a person in good conscience on one hand. MAYBE two if you’re looking for more of a particular setting and I’m feeling forgiving to certain titles at the time.
It also doesn’t help that, of the ones that have been officially brought over to the west, only two of them are safely on the good list. Fortunately, this is one of those two.
(Note: Sorry on the image quality with these – given the quality the books were printed in, people are justifiably gun-shy about direct scanning to avoid damaging them.)
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin is arguably the most successful Gundam manga to date, both in the US and Japan. Created back in 2001, this series was a high profile project when announced, offering a fresh retelling of the original Mobile Suit Gundam as penned by the show’s character designer and animation director, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. The fanfare with this even kick-started Japan’s still running Gundam Ace magazine.
Now, the good folks at Vertical, having built a reputation on taking chances with titles most other publishers won’t consider (as evidenced by their phenomenal work on various Osamu Tezuka titles) decided to give this a shot, licensing the high-end collector’s version for release.
The project, as of this point, has paid off better than expected-after initially only expecting a limited one-off run, Vertical has since announced this week that due to high response, volume one is officially entering reprints. So now’s as good a time as any to try and get on this train. But, I digress. How does this hold up on its own merits?
Actually, very well.
Often, when a manga retells a story first run in an anime, the manga tends to be incredibly streamlined, with large chunks of the story or character developments left out, leaving an experience that feels incomplete to newcomers and downright infuriating to fans. In this case, rather than speed through, Yasuhiko has taken his time to pace out the story and build upon it. At a meaty 444 pages, this first collection only really covers the first five episodes of the show’s forty-three episode run, along with a lot of extra building on the setting. The highlight of the latter for this particular volume being more of a look at the Federation’s mobile suit development team- complete with a demonstration of their destructive power when the Zeonic reconnaissance team runs afoul of an earlier prototype Gundam.
Even the parts of the story we’ve seen done before in the series and movies are given more expansion here, with this volume showing more of a look at the characters Amuro Ray and Bright Noa. We see more of the latter’s inexperience which then feeds into his friction with the Gundam’s reluctant pilot. It makes good storytelling on its own, and it’s also a nice bonus for fans of the series- especially the moments when Amuro starts getting sarcastic towards Bright, showing some extra backbone while also highlighting just how out of his element he is in this scenario. As a retelling, this is one that hits the proverbial sweet spot: it’s fleshed out and well-developed enough on its own that newcomers can use. This as a very accessible first step into the larger overall world of Gundam, and long time fans can enjoy seeing the familiar story that started it all with a fresh perspective by one of the men who helped bring it to the screen in the first place.
When it comes to Yasuhiko’s artwork, he’s in top form here. While his classic characters still retain the look they had back in the 1979 original, he has also imbued them with a lot more detail here that adds to their characterization. Rereading this, I’m actually impressed with how expressive a lot of the artwork in this is. At points it sometimes gets a little cartoony, what with exaggerated expressions -which might be offputting to some- but it’s used with enough care that it never really ruins the mood when the scene needs to be serious. In fact, Yasuhiko does a great job with setting tone at several points – the fact this release includes sections of pages he colored himself only further adding to the feel in certain sequences. The opening attack on Side 7, for example, is arguably one of the best depictions in the franchise of just how destructive and utterly horrifying a mobile suit battle can be to those on the ground. The recurring element of just how utterly nightmarish the battlefield can look is a theme Yasuhiko runs with a lot in this first collection – even when Amuro is in the Gundam, his first battle with Char makes his opponent look even more imposing than animation was able to back in the day.
As for the original material, this is off to a great start as a retelling. It’s still early, and there’s a lot of ground to cover and expand upon, but for a first step, this is a great taste of what Gundam has to offer as well as what Yasuhiko plans to do on this project. For only covering the very first mini-arc, this installment gives a LOT and leaves one still wanting more. Which is a good thing since Vertical still has eleven more volumes after this. They’ve gone all in on this one, though it’s not without a few minor setbacks.
To start on the good foot, let me just say that I know the cover price may seem initially daunting: $30 MSRP, but trust me, you’re getting what you pay for here. As overall book quality of manga releases go, these are high end- hardcover releases, fairly sturdy gloss pages, along with some great color quality on the colorized pages, and translations of the supplemental bonus materials included in the Japanese collector’s editions. The gloss pages are, admittedly, a little bit of a double-edged sword- they are stronger quality than a lot of other manga releases and they look great, but because of the gloss, there’s an element of ‘handle with care’ to avoid fingerprinting. It’s a small issue, and not really a full-blown con. As far as the extras, this volume provides insights from three people: anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa who discusses what Yasuhiko brings in particular to this story that’s become such a classic, Kadokawa president Shinichiro Inoue on his thoughts from when the project was first announced, and finally Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno, whose essay is equal parts singing Yasuhiko’s praises and the signature lamenting the state of the current Japanese entertainment industry that he’s become known for. It’s a short set of essays, and there are a few minor typos, but they’re a good spread of opinions on the work overall.
As far as the setbacks, the biggest is probably the translated script. Now, as far as I can tell there’s nothing wrong with the overall translation itself, though some have had issues with how ranks were translated, but I digress. The bigger issue in this case is less what’s said and more how it’s said. While a lot of this release isn’t bad, there are also several lines that either feel stiff or overly flowery in their wording. This could especially rub fans the wrong way when it leads to several popular phrases being reworded in ways beyond the widely accepted translations from the anime. Personally, I can live with that as a way to help set it apart as a story, but even I’ll admit there are still several lines in this volume that read awkwardly, either thanks to wording or the way they’re made to fit the word bubbles. The only other issue besides the script – and this is one that sparked off a lot of murmurings when it first got announced – was the cover art. The sad part is, conceptually these are actually a good idea for covers: using some of Yasuhiko’s full page color art to sum up the volumes is a solid approach. The problem is, the title card in the middle of it feels more like an afterthought in the overall layout. On top of that, the placement of it smack dab in the middle of the artwork defeats the purpose of using the full image, paired with a translucent block that just makes the whole thing look needlessly busy…wow. That makes it sound like I really had it in for the cover. Honestly, it’s not that bad. It’s more just it’s a great idea that feels like it needed a little more work to really get right.
With that, this first volume marks a very promising start for what’s become a surprise hit for Vertical. Between Yasuhiko’s art and incredibly thorough storytelling, along with their high-end treatment to do it justice, this release is lined up to be a great read both for long time fans of the brand and those just discovering Gundam for the first time. Its price may seem a bit much (though a little hunting can turn up some discounts that really help that) but for what you get out of it, it’s well worth taking the ride.
The saga has begun. I’ll be reviewing the other five backlogged volumes over the next few weeks as we count down to the release of volume seven. If this has you interested, now is a great time to get started.
Also, if you still want to test some of it out before buying, the website ComicWalker is featuring the first few chapters for free and in color (their colorized pages aren’t as good, but still not a bad effort).
‘Til next time!
-Book printed in great quality
-Yasuhiko’s artwork is gorgeous
-Very promising start for a retelling
-Occasionally clunky translation
-Cover layout a weak point in otherwise great presentation