Of course, there's more to Gundam manga than tossed-off adaptations of the actual shows. There are loads of manga-exclusive spinoffs, although the vast majority of them have not reached our shores. Today's review is one of those rare exceptions, and a UC continuity one no less.
MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM: ECOLE DU CIEL (Kido Senshi Gundamu: Ekooru dyu Shieru), based on the series by Hajime Yatate & Yoshiyuki Tomino, with art by Haruhiko Mikimoto, mechanic design by Yoshinori Sayama, & produced by OUTASIGHT. First published in 2002 and first published in North America in 2005.
It is UC Year 0085, and Asuna is starting her first year in pilot training at Ecole du Ciel. Sadly, Asuna is at the bottom of class. She struggles with learning the controls as well as social scorn. That's bound to happen when your father was not only a Zeon sympathizer, but also expects you to be the perfect pilot from the day you were born. Just as Asuna is finding her place with her peers, they are put into some seriously non-simulated danger by forces outside their control. It will now take all their skill to survive.
Ecole du Ciel genuinely surprised me. Its first impression left me fearing that this would merely be yet another slice-of-life series celebrating how nice everything is when there is niceness and friendship. Instead it actually built up to a decent twist which not only adds drama, but helps bring the story into the larger picture of the Universal Century.
That impression isn't helped by the fact that the schoolkids are the weakest part of the story. All of the interesting stuff about Asuna is in her backstory, and for half the book we only hear about it in whispers from others. Otherwise she just blends into the background right alongside all the other stock characters in her class. You know the sort: the blandly pleasant love interest, the mean girl, etc. Things do get more interesting for them as the story moves along. Asuna's not the only one with baggage from her family and the fallout from this allows the kids' relationships to take on some more interesting dimensions than they might take otherwise. She also does eventually shape up as a pilot, which keeps her from turning out to be some hapless moe baby girl.
That being said, the story really gets going once we start seeing things from the perspective of the staff. In particular, things get really interesting once we start following the ludicrously named combat instructor Yahagi Fringeback. He's a strict teacher, but is also shown to be incredibly protective of them. That's a good thing because he learns that both the government and the other instructors are in league to turn the school into a Newtype farm and want faster results. It's here that the story finally gets some proper stakes. There's more at stake than just a bunch of high-school friendships after that point, and I was absolutely compelled. It's also the part of the story that UC fans are most likely to perk up at, as these events start to tie this story to the larger UC narrative as it heads towards the events of Zeta Gundam. I do wish it was more closely tied to Asuna's story. It seems like the story's trying to bring the two together, but at this point they're still two story lines running parallel to one another. Nonetheless, it's shaping up to be a good one that balances the character-driven elements with those of the larger continuity.
Now I finally get to talk about the real selling point of this manga: Haruhiko Mikomoto's artwork. Most anime fans will recognize his work from the original Macross series. Gundam fans will recognize his work on the 0080 OVA. Only a few will remember that he occasionally does manga, and that's a real shame. There's an appealing softness and fineness to his linework. At times it feels like the panels are like pencil sketches. That's not to say that it looks unfinished; quite the opposite, in fact. There's plenty of fine hatching, which helps to give the characters dimension. The backgrounds strike an interesting balance between precise detail and something that verges upon impressionistic at times. He even handles drawing the training mobile suits well. There's not a lot of action here so he's not called upon to draw a lot of long, intensive fights, but his use of watercolor-style inking for the gunblasts and explosions is perfect.
The character designs have a lot of interesting variety with a very clear visual divide between the students and the staff. Mikimoto's got a soft spot for drawing doe-eyed girls in soft-focus, and nowhere is this more obvious than with Asuna. She's perfectly cute, but a bit bobbleheaded at times and frequently missing a nose, and anytime he draws her at an angle other than straight on or portrait-ready 3/4 profile things get wonky. Luckily, the other students are a little more well-defined in both a literal sense and a profile sense. The adults are a little more varied in style but much more even in quality of design. Visually, they fit right in with the established designs of folks like Yoshikazu Yazuhiko. I'd even go so far to state that Yahani is downright hot with his well-defined jawline, handsome looks, nicely slicked-back hair and devilish goatee. The only regret I have about the artwork here is that I wish it didn't have to suffer from Tokyopop's usual poor quality scans. Thankfully, there's more than enough quality here to overcome that.
There's a short interview afterwards with the mechanical designer Yoshinori Sayama, where he talks about designing the training suits, computer modeling, and even how he would handle some of the better-known mobile suit designs. It's a bit technical at points and unless you're a real nut for mobile suit design you'll not get a lot out of it.
Ecole du Ciel is one of the few UC Gundam-related manga out that doesn't get bogged down in the details. It uses good character-driven drama to draw the reader in before it starts to tie itself to a bigger narrative, and in doing so it creates a story that's compelling for Gundam newcomers and fans alike.
This series was published by Tokyopop. This series is ongoing in Japan with 12 volumes available. 8 volumes were published and are currently out of print.