By Dustin Cabeal
Having watched the first episode of the anime short that was done for this series, I couldn’t wait to read the manga. Then I realized, I have never read a Gundam manga before. Before I cracked the book open, I wondered if it would even work as a manga. The joy of Gundam is seeing the mobile suits in action, zipping through space and fighting to the death. How would that translate to still images I began to wonder.
By the time I had the answer to that question I had already read the entire volume and was anxious for the next. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop myself and my doubts washed away as soon as the setting and world was established. This is very much the classic Gundam world in which Zeon and the Earth Federation are at war, but that’s where the similarities stop in my opinion.
Music is a theme throughout the story. We’re introduced to two main characters, one on each side of the conflict and both listen to an illegal pirate radio station. One favors Jazz and the other favors a style of music I couldn’t quite place and isn’t labeled in the comic. What’s interesting, is that they’re both listening to these pirate stations that look to defy the very war they’re in the middle of fighting.
The conflict of the story centers around the Thunderbolt section of space. For the Earth Federation forces that have been sent there, it’s emotionally difficult because it’s also the home to the remains of their colony that was destroyed by the Zeons. They’re there to root out some enemy snipers that are protecting their supply route. The Earth Federation wants to cut off the route to stop Zeon, but what they don’t know is that the snipers are a crew of soldiers that have all lost limbs and joined a special platoon in order to have a second chance at war.
It’s this contrast that makes the drama of the story so rich. You feel for one side because their home was destroyed and they were sent out in space on a ship. The three characters we spend the most time with are revealed to be children of the ruling class and were forced to join the war after their parent’s death. None of them want to be there, but it’s their inescapable duty to serve and likely die as the scapegoats for their people.
On the other side, you have these soldiers that have been disregarded by the military for the most part. They’re just grunts in a shitty war, but they want their shot to serve their people rather than receive pity from them. It makes them relatable. It makes it incredibly difficult to label one side the bad guys, because war… is hell.
The writing/translation is very sharp. None of the dialogue is wasted. There’s very little in the way of info dumps, and when there is, it’s believable to the situation. The characters are still new. They’re not super developed yet, but given how early we are in the story, I wouldn’t want them to be. I want to get to know them more as everything progresses, and Yasuo Ohtagaki manages to pace everything just right in this first volume.
Ohtagaki’s artwork shines in this first volume. Having again, watched the first episode of the anime, I was curious to see how the book looked. Both are wonderful in their own way, but both share a very detailed and dynamic style. Ohtagaki’s layouts break the norms of manga, especially towards the end when the two main characters are having another confrontation and are in the midst of a lightning storm. Speaking of the Lightning, Ohtagaki makes it act like the third main character. It has a real presence in the story and makes Thunderbolt stand out in the world of Gundam.
Even if you’re not a Gundam fan or maybe you’re burnt out on them doing the same thing over and over, I would recommend giving this a look. I too strayed from Gundam for the longest time, but Thunderbolt takes everything that’s great about the franchise and adds new elements to it. The politics feel updated, the social commentary is fresh, and the artwork is modern and detailed. Simply put, this is one hell of a Gundam story.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Thunderbolt vol. 1
Writer/Artist: Yasuo Ohtagaki
Publisher Viz/Viz Signature