Upon unwrapping my review copy of this book, I was reminded of two shocking facts: One: I’ve been a comics fan all my life – I have bookshelves HEAVING with the things – but very little of them come from Japan. Two: I’ve been besotted with Mobile Suit Gundam for years. And yet, while I own pretty much all the English language DVDs, I don’t own a single Gundam manga. All that may be about to change, though, with Vertical Publishing’s lavish deluxe editions of ‘Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin’. The series is something of a high-powered novelty, being simultaneously a more recent addition to the printed end of the Gundam franchise, as well as a return to its very first incarnation.
The story itself is a re-telling of the classic 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam anime, as rendered by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, a key figure in the history and development of the franchise. For those not in the know, the story is set in the Universal Century, an era during which mankind’s overpopulation of Earth has led them into space, where vast colonies called ‘sides’ house thousands of men, women and children. But humanity’s age-old problems persist, and before long, a faction calling themselves the Principality Of Zeon appears, opposing Earth rule, and initiating a bloody war for independence.
Caught up in this scenario are our now famous ensemble cast of characters, including most notably Amuro Ray, a 15-year-old boy who, finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, must flee his home colony after it comes under Zeon attack. During his attempts to escape, Amuro stumbles upon Earth’s new secret weapon, the RX-78 Gundam mobile suit, and becomes ever further embroiled in the conflict between the Earth Federation forces and Zeon from that point on.
Fans will doubtless be aware that ‘Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin’ has already been published in standard tankoubon format. However, these new editions collect a couple of volumes apiece, bound in the more deluxe aizouban hardcover format, and it’s a real treat to behold – and indeed, to hold! The book feels very solid in hand, with a silky satin feel to the covers, and reassuringly thick binding. The interiors are printed on a very smooth, glossy stock – no newsprint here, manga fans! The print job is also meticulous, and if you’ve owned, say, the Dark Horse editions of Ghost In The Shell or Appleseed, then things will feel reassuringly familiar.
To add to the ‘collector’s edition’ vibe of the product, a selection of articles from outside sources have been included. It appears that each future volume will contain something like this, which certainly adds some extra appeal. A little research reveals that these articles (including one essay in this volume by Hideaki Anno of Evangelion fame) have appeared in print elsewhere, so they’re not exclusive to these volumes. But they do make for interesting reading at least.
But what of the main event? The lead story itself?
Well, we’d expect an artistic feat from Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, being a figure tied into the Gundam franchise from its very roots. Let’s not beat around the bush here, folks: This guy’s involvement in the manga is a very, VERY big deal. You need only consult one of the aforementioned essays to see just how huge his contribution to the saga has been. Here, it’s his practiced craftsmanship that leads us into the defining Gundam story anew. Impressed yet? You will be! As a teenager witnessing the British anime and manga boom period, I remember being sold the ‘cinematic’ aspect of manga by every pop culture pundit under the sun. While it’s possible that was over-egged a little (and my disappointment with a lot of the material I picked up back then has a LOT to do with the dearth of manga on my bookshelves) ‘Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin’ scores very highly in this regard. From the painted opening prologue, the storytelling is of an incredibly high standard, with Yasuhiko’s touch servicing action scenes especially well.
Visual highlights abound. Indeed, when Amuro fatefully boards the RX-78 Gundam for his first engagement with an enemy mobile suit, we’re treated to a real spectacle. It takes a great deal of talent indeed to pull a reader into a comic and lead them through such an action-driven story without losing them. The fact that Yasuhiko never misses a beat and manages consistently to keep the visuals grounded in Gundam’s Universal Century aesthetic, sometimes over stretches of pages with minimal dialogue, is nothing short of breathtaking. There’s a certain kind of imagery that you can only find in a mecha story, and that’s present in abundance. Stand-out moments for me include Amuro, caught in the field of battle, dashing for his life as the spent casings of bullets from a Mobile Suit’s oversized firearm rain down around him. Similarly, once Amuro is in the Gundam’s pilot seat, we’re treated to some jaw-dropping fight scenes, not least when he faces off against his infamous nemesis, the enigmatic Char Aznable. But, as we’d expect from high quality manga, it’s not just the slam-bang action-oriented parts of the story that are rendered so luxuriously. Char’s famous unmasking scene is here in this first volume, and looks glorious – as do Yasuhiko’s painted pages, which appear towards the opening and ending of story chapters.
Now, if all this sounds like a glowing appraisal of the book, it should be noted that there are some inevitable bugbears. While the artwork is of a generally eye-popping quality, there are a few – just a few – instances where it slips just a tad. I noted perhaps a half dozen panels in the whole book that looked as if they might have benefited from a little more detail in the grey tones, making the art look a tad rushed. But this is a really minor nitpick.
A slightly bigger concern for me, though, was the reading experience of the story overall. While the visual storytelling in the book is sublime, the way the lettering is handled certainly is not. Initial sittings with the book proved quite difficult, as there are many, many instances of character dialogue being split across speech balloons in clumsy fashion. This is done without the use of leading ellipses (those little ‘…’ marks) to indicate that the dialogue is flowing from one balloon to another, which makes the flow feel rather choppy. The effect is much like a gag I saw on Family Guy, where the show lampooned Speed Racer‘s US television dub. In that, characters would speak… with jarring speech patterns… awkwardly punctuated… with arbitrary… pauses. The effect here is similar. It’s an issue that you can get used to, sure, but if American comics are more your bag, it may take some effort to pick up the flow. Markedly more jarring, however, is the unfortunate use of tall, slender speech balloons, which necessitate the English language version’s letterer arranging words in vertical stacks of letters,
Which really is quite hard on the eye, and impacts on the readability. Obviously, there’s a case to be argued here that this is due to the Japanese origin of the material. If you’ve read a lot of manga and become accustomed to this sort of thing in other books, then it may be less of an issue for you. I found it quite off-putting, unfortunately, and wished that perhaps things could have been better arranged at source.
Annoyingly, there’s no specific credit in this edition of the book for the English language edition’s letterer. That’s a real oversight, which I’d like to see Vertical correct on future volumes. Being in the business of lettering comics myself, I know that the task of re-lettering manga for Western readers can be an especially difficult task. As much as I initially struggled with this book’s readability issues, I’d like to know who had the unenviable job of making this book legible. They certainly did the very best they could with the material.
Another problem I could cite would be the familiarity of the story. I’m personally not somebody who relishes the thought of reading something that I’ve already seen on a small or large screen. But, thankfully, there’s some discernible effort made on that front to provide a fresh experience. While it’s apparent at all times that we’re reading the First Gundam story, with all the major beats and backbone intact, some tweaks have been made which keep things interesting. Right from the first chapter, we see that things are unfolding in a fashion that is similar to the 1979 anime, but not identical. The chronology of events and the locations where they occur have been changed. In this first volume, even though the revisions are easy to spot, nothing feels drastically different – in fact, you might argue that the tweaks are almost inconsequential – but they’re definitely satisfying for long-time fans. As the series progresses over future volumes, there’s the tantalising prospect of further divergence from and embellishment upon the original story content… very much a case good things coming to those who wait. And invest.
So, in the final analysis, the question has to be: do the reservations I have about the book’s content and presentation deter me from recommending it?
The answer? Not one bit. If you already own the softcover editions of the series, and want to trade up to a classier package, it’s hard to imagine a more appealing prospect. If you’re a Gundam or mecha fan seeking to explore the story for the first time, this format offers a luxurious way in.
I personally relish the thought of having the rest of the volumes on my shelf. Vertical have done a masterful job, and this first volume is a thing of great beauty, minor warts and all. It’s a dazzling, action packed ride, and I’d recommend it highly.