White Box Hero: Gundam: The Origin
Everybody here at "Are You A Serious Comic Book Reader?" is the type of comics nerd to spend two hours flipping through a quarter box of comics with the hope that there will be at least something sorta cool in there. Every once in a while, the nerdity pays off and you end up with something greater than you could've ever expected...a white box hero!
From my initial exposure in high school, the Gundam Universe and I got off on the wrong foot. Most of the kids were pretty into Dragon Ball Z because, you know, it was on after school. Some of the nerdier ones got hooked on Gundam Wing too. I had seen a couple episodes and it seemed to fall into the same needless plot exposition trappings as most other anime.
Years later: enter the internet and Mobile Suit Gundam. It excited me right from the start with the intro’s first image: The light from an explosion encircling Earth like a dawn. After you get past the (great?) J-Pop theme song, each episode starts with a history lesson on the Gundam Universe. Normally, this is a cheap way to acclimate the viewer to the world presented, but in Gundam it presents the world in the context of its people. Lines like, “Here hundreds of millions of space emigrants lived, raised children…and died.” develop the story and its themes instead of just providing information. Even though the concept is mind blowing for us (living in a continent floating in space), the intro doesn’t place emphasis on that aspect, it focuses on the people who inhabit it, and though they're in space, their human experience is essentially the same.
The show initially reminded me a lot of "The Macross Sage" from Robotech, another anime with mecha pilots set in space dealing with issues of war. The war becomes the characters’ job and how they deal with its stresses parallel how one deals with the stresses in a workplace. The notable difference between Gundam and Macross is, Macross focuses on the interpersonal friendships and romances between the characters, whereas Gundam focuses internally--on the main character Amuro.
Gundam: The Origin by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko mirrors the series in many ways. Although the characters and most of the scenes are the same, the comic adds onto the themes of the show through new dialogue and fascinating panel layout. From the start, Amuro is shown as a character that doesn’t have his life together. Frau, Amuro’s neighbor and maybe partial caretaker, comes to check on him because the civilians are being evacuated due to a scouting mission turned battle. She finds the 15 year old living in squalor; He's essentially one of the nerds in high school that would watch Gundam Wing. The attack instantly propels him into adulthood having to face the death of people around him...no longer can he wallow in teenage angst.
This is where the art of the comic takes over and makes his transition tangible to the reader. In one scene Amuro is near one of the giant enemy mobile suits and as it is firing, he is dodging the giant bullet shells. In a only-in-comics moment, the background is gone and the shells break the panel barriers. These techniques make the panels a metaphor for Amuro's mind--a breaking of form and expectation.
At the end of issue #1, Amuro has already toughened his mind to the prospect of death. He decides to fight back, but even as he fights and kills his opponents, he feels each death. The reader sees the pilot in each enemy mobile suit he destroys. One suit tries and escapes, calling out for his commanding officer. By showing the enemy in such detail, it moves the reader towards a war experience close to Amuro's--one where the death and violence of war is internalized.
All this builds upon Amuro until he starts manifesting it physically. At the end of issue #3, Frau comes into Amaro's room again but this time finds him having some sort of nervous breakdown. It's a strange page that's almost surreal. The backgrounds have the same effect of taking you into to Amuro's head and making this strange scene even more intense.
Manga is a particularly good vehicle for a psychological space action comic. Lots of brooding silent panel set up shots and expressive close ups give a real feeling of being in Amuro's head--all the push and pull of emotions.The trick is for it not to get too cerebral or go to far in any one direction. Gundam: The Origin does a really good job of balancing this with exciting action scenes and a bunch of sub-plots to keep the story moving and interesting.