If you’ll recall, I wasn’t all that impressed with the first volume of this new “Gundam” series. It delivered all the familiar “War is Hell” moral musings you’d expect as seen through the Federation and Zeon’s struggle to take control of the strategically important Thunderbolt sector without doing much to distinguish itself. Some steps are made to correct that in this second volume as the fighting as the fighting gets more intense now that Federation ace Io Fleming’s Gundam is up and running. While this gives the Feds some much needed momentum in this conflict it isn’t long before Zeon and the members of the Living Dead squadron are forced to pull out their ace in the hole: The Psycho Zaku.
The first volume wasn’t all that interesting for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest was that its two leads were fairly bland. Io came off as the kind of cocksure fighting ace we’ve seen in countless other space operas, and Zeon’s top pilot Darryl only had the fact that he was fighting with prosthetic legs to set him apart. This time out we find out a little more about their backstories as it’s revealed that Io is struggling with witnessing the aftermath of his father’s suicide as a kid. He also does his best to oversee the new batch of recruits, who wind up being a bunch of kids that volunteered because they thought Newtypes and Gundams were cool, along with the promise of better food than in the refugee camps. That Io does this even grudgingly shows that he’s less self-centered than I originally thought. I also thought it was a nice touch that while the kids are shown to go nuts during their photo-session with the Gundam, they could still manage military professionalism when called to attention.
Darryl, on the other hand, gets the most striking sequence in the entire volume. As we see him remember a winter shopping trip with his father over a few wordless pages, he wakes up to the fresh horror of war in the medical bay and further physical loss. That’s not the end of his trials as it’s revealed that further sacrifice will be necessary on his part as he’s ordered to pilot the Psycho Zaku. I can understand that he’d accept these orders because we’ve seen him be a good soldier up to this point, but it feels more than a little inconsistent with the shock we see on his face after he wakes up in the med bay.
With regards to the supporting cast, it’s kind of a mixed bag. I liked the additional insight we get into Dr. Karla Mitchum, the Zeon doctor who is helping with the preparation of the Psycho Zaku and is forced to effectively mutilate Darryl to make him a suitable pilot for it. We understand why she’s doing these things, to save her imprisoned pacifist father, but what makes her memorable is how she owns up to her actions by continuing to fight after the point she could have left. Her actions contrast well with utterly craven, bordering on comical, self-interest displayed by her partner J.J. Sexton.
Then you have Capt. Claudia Peer, Io’s commanding officer, who clearly showed that she wasn’t fit to be a captain back in the first volume and follows that up by reinforcing this idea here. How does she manage that? By showing us that she’s also a junkie. While I can understand how someone in the stress of her position would turn to drugs to cope with that, it doesn’t reflect well on her character at all. She’s the captain and it’s her duty to keep it together for the rest of her crew! More disappointing is that this development is practically handwaved away later on in what is likely meant to be perceived as a moment of triumph for Claudia that feels completely unearned.
It’s to the point that I wish we had seen what her executive officer was capable of when he tried to assume command. He’s been portrayed as a kind of scheming antagonist to Claudia during his limited time in these two volumes. Though you get the feeling that’s supposed to make him a bad guy in this story, the way Claudia is characterized here means that it doesn’t have the intended effect. When the officer pulls a gun on her late in the volume, I really had no problem with his actions or what happened next.
Mangaka Yasuo Ohtagaki also gets more of a chance to show what he’s capable of with the action in this volume as well. Both the Gundam and Psycho Zaku are showcased in their awesome, destructive glory as they carve wide swaths through Zeon and Federation forces, respectively. Ohtagaki vividly demonstrates the fear the very appearance of these mechs instill in their opposing forces as we frequently see their perspectives in battle as well. Balancing things out is the fact that his characters’ expressions frequently become exaggerated enough to tip the action into melodrama. I also think his action scenes could benefit from some additional clarity, and there appears to be a glaring continuity issue after the scene where Claudia’s executive officer pulls a gun on her.
There’s also a tit-for-tat approach to the balance of power between Federation and Zeon forces in the Thunderbolt sector, which means that while a lot of stuff goes on here neither side has gained an appreciable advantage by the end of the volume. I wouldn’t say that’s an issue as it speaks to the futility of war as expressed frequently in “Gundam.” With better action and more interesting characterization than the previous volume, I’m actually interested to seeing how this struggle will play out. So long as it keeps improving like this.