Reviewby Lauren Orsini,
Mobile Suit Gundam: Thunderbolt
U.C. 0079, the final days of the One Year War. The Earth Federation's Moore Brotherhood and the Principality of Zeon's Living Dead Division clash in the Thunderbolt Sector, an area of space known for its chaotic, lightning-streaked debris fields. Despite its electrical discharge, both sides want control of the sector because it is an essential supply route to the A Baoa Qu space fortress, Zeon's final line of defense. It is at this critical point that the Federation's ace Gundam pilot, Io Fleming, engages Zeon's crack sniper, Daryl Lorenz.
“To all you music lovers out there—no borders, no war. You're tuned to Thunderbolt Station, the pirate radio of freedom!”
There's no shortage of work hazards out in the Thunderbolt Sector, where Federation and Zeon soldiers fall prey to their electrical environment and the dangerous wreckage of the Side 4 colony almost as often as they do to each other. But as their short lives play out in an adrenaline haze, they all hear the same local radio station as a background track.
While the “celebrities” of Gundam, from Red Comet Char Aznable to Newtype genius Amuro Ray, duke it out on the main front at A Baoa Qu, thousands of other soldiers are risking their lives on both sides. The Thunderbolt Sector isn't as glamorous as the front, but it's tactically advantageous and a major priority for both the Federation and Zeon. That makes Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt something of a side story. While it takes place in the same universe and time period as other Gundam stories we know and love, it's not critical to its continuity. That means the death count starts high and only continues climbing. No character is safe.
In this first installment of the nine-volume manga, we see a high-contrast take on the Gundam story that is dark, but not depressing, and as high-voltage as the setting where it takes place. Two firebrand pilots on either side of the war face off in a battle that's as entertaining as it is deadly. There's Io Fleming, a jazz fiend who pulls one over on Zeon and is rewarded with the best weapon of war the Federation can provide, his very own Gundam. Fleming meets his match in Daryl, a Zeon sniper who has lost both his legs and thinks there's nothing left he can lose. Both Io and Daryl treat the idea of death cavalierly, having been faced with it so many times that they're numb. But the unforgiving Thunderbolt Sector can only continue to take from them.
Storywise, we get an intimate back seat to goings-ons both in the Moore Brotherhood and the Living Dead Division. Both have taken heavy casualties. It's hard to decide who to feel more sorry for, Io and his superior Claudia, who must repeatedly order Io into battle despite her love for him, or Daryl and the rest of the Living Dead division, who have experimental, painful prosthetics not only because they've lost limbs, but because they are living guinea pigs. To pit the main conflict of Gundam Thunderbolt between two equally relatable soldiers on either side makes a powerful statement about how there are no winners in war, and whether Io or Daryl ultimately triumphs in this stand-off, we'll still have lost a character we care about.
Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt is about the horror of war before all else, and it's one of the most severe entries in the Gundam canon—which is frankly a difficult bar to meet. But as chaos and destruction reign, the sweet sounds of jazz music ring across the battlefield. Fans can hear those specific sounds brought to life in Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt's 2016 animated release. This soundtrack is the Gundam Thunderbolt story's greatest strength, but its manga's greatest weakness. In the manga, music notes around lyrics are our only indication that songs are playing, and if you don't recognize the words, you won't hear the sound in your head.
The manga features gorgeous art and an emotional story reinforced with details about the characters that fans may not have gleaned from the anime or movie. However, the lack of music is palpable, making it feel like this story was told in two dimensions instead of a rightful three.
Fortunately, there's nothing lacking from a visual perspective. Yasuo Ohtagaki is mecha designer as well as artist here, and his take on mobile suits is very realistic. Since Gundam Thunderbolt was never intended for kids, its suits don't have the hallmarks of toys, either. The candy red and blue of the original Gundam RX-79-2 have been replaced with burnished metal and massive weapons. Gundam Thunderbolt itself is all drama, with four shields extending from the body like arms, and Ohtagaki's detailed art lovingly renders that intricacy. From the Federation's Ball unit to Zeon's Zaku and Zaku II, all the old favorites are here, often with a fresh spin. While Daryl operates an old-fashioned Zaku, his big gun is something brand new. The art is beautifully kinetic, and it feels like you can see the movement of the machines.
My one complaint about this flawless art is that its color pages don't do it justice. Partway through the book, there are four color pages and four glossy black-and-white spreads. But while they feature the same stunning imagery as the rest of the book, it's almost as if they were randomly chosen for this section, instead of for effect. The standoff between Io and Daryl in Chapter 8 would have given a lot more drama to a glossy or color treatment.
The first installment of the Gundam Thunderbolt manga is like a sucker punch, with a vivid art style that renders both weapons of war and corpses in the same fine detail. In the same way, the story is equally visceral, whether it is depicting dramatic fight scenes or a pilot's nostalgic memories. That said, a story this well-paced deserves an equally high-energy soundtrack. It may be only “all that jazz,” but I still miss it.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A
+ Beautiful art that places mobile suits front and center; gripping, fast-paced, and often painful story that gets its message across loud and clear
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