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"Gundam SEED Astray" Break Through the Crappy Scheduling to Freedom, Gundam!

Manga based on Gundam series are nothing new, even if we’ve only got a fraction of them here in the United States. While there have been manga stories that are supposedly set during the various series (such as The Last Outpost), very few of them effectively cross over into their respective anime series. Since Gundam SEED is Bandai’s latest marketing machine, it was time for a change. And it was good.

Year 71 of the Cosmic Era. Genetically-enhanced Coordinators live in hourglass-shaped space colonies called PLANTs and are currently waging a war with the Earth Alliance, filled with un-modified Naturals. The war even reaches the neutral colony Heliopolis, where the Earth Alliance and Orb (the neutral owner of Heliopolis) were developing a new warship called the Archangel and five brand new Mobile Suits known as the G-Weapons (or the Gundams). ZAFT proceeded to attack the colony in order to steal these new weapons, and the proceeding firefight completely destroys the colony, which is perfect for a bunch of scavangers known as “Junk Techs,” who include a young fan of George Glenn, the first Coordinator, named Kisato; a peaceful Coordinator named Liam; the smart and sexy Professor, and the energetic Lowe Gear. While exploring the remains of Heliopolis, they discover two brand new Mobile Suits designed by Orb without the Earth Alliance’s knowledge. Built from the same Gundam mold the G-Weapons were, these “Astray” suits blow your average GINN out of the water. Though Gai, a “Serpent’s Tail” mercenary, manages to acquire the Astray Blue Frame, Lowe gets his hands on the Astray Red Frame. However, there are people out there who want these new Gundams for themselves and believe that if they can’t have them, no one should.

Developed at the same time as the TV series, Gundam SEED Astray successfully crosses over into the anime without feeling forced at all. The crossovers are a real treat to see, as you find out what happened to Artemis after it was blown up in Episode 6 of the anime, and you find out exactly what happened after Kira & Athrun’s fateful battle in Episode 30. These connections really strengthen the story as a whole and further enrich the Cosmic Era universe. They also allow us to see events that got cut out on the series for time (such as what happened to the Blitz Gundam and Andy’s Lessups), as well as special Mobile Suits that belonged to some anime characters (such as Andy Waltfeld and Miguel Aiman) that never showed up in the anime for one reason or another.

The main problem is that many characters created for the manga (such as the Junk Techs themselves, Serpent’s Tail, and Rondo) never appear in the anime, which would have tied in the manga in even more (Red Frame appears for one second in the first SEED intro and that’s it, unfortunately). There’s also the problem of the manga and anime characters interacting. The gang interact with supporting characters (such as Erica Simmons, DeCosta, and Andy Waltfeld), but they never get to talk with the main core of the anime cast. To get around this, they invent all sorts of cop-outs, such as a heretofore unheard of “docking system” that’s compatible with the ReH.O.M.E. (Lowe’s ship) and the Archangel, thus effectively blocking everyone on the ship from seeing some panel time, except for Mudock. The Justice and a banged-up Freedom do make cameos, though.

The actual story and characters are good too. Lowe, so far the only Natural to effectively pilot a Gundam from the get-go, is a refreshing character. For the most part, he’s pretty happy-go-lucky, which is a nice change of pace from the uber-angst the Archangel crew/Zala team wallow in throughout the anime. He has great chemistry with his comrades as well as with Rondo (pilot of the Gold Frame) and Gai. I’d love to see him appear in the anime sometime, but it doesn’t look like that’ll be happening anytime soon. The story is one of behind-the-scenes conspiracies and discusses a converted colony heading to Jupiter.

As soon as you pick up Astray Volume 1, the story immediately pulls you in and never lets go, though it’s not perfect. Any levels of realism were pretty much destroyed even before Freedom came into the picture with Red Frame gaining a samurai sword and an energy ball attack, while Blue Frame has a sword so big it would make Cloud Strife cry. Still, despite how unrealistic the Astrays are, the story is engaging. Unfortunately, due to how the manga is being released, it’s also very, very muddled.

In Japan, there are three Astray series: the original, R, and X. Each of them ran concurrently in three weekly magazines, which allowed the stories to run in time with the anime (for example, the story involving Artemis was published shortly after Episode 6 aired). Unfortunately, Tokyopop decided to ditch that idea and release each series in the standard Graphic Novel format and schedule. And since Bandai decided to rush the DVDs to shelves, it’s very likely that by the time Astray X is finished, Bandai will have already released the first volume of SEED Destiny on store shelves! I know that the only monthly manga magazine is Shonen Jump, which doesn’t fit in with Gundam for various reasons, but Tokyopop could have released graphic novels with all the issues of the original, R, and X in one issue as they were released in Japan (i.e. putting the first chapter of all three series in one issue). That way, the manga could have been timed better with the DVDs, everything would likely have been released by now, and the story wouldn’t be nearly as jumbled up. As it stands now, Tomohiro Chiba’s story looks like a confusing mess.

While all three series were written by the same person, the art is completely different. The original’s art was done by Kouichi Tokita while Yasunari Toda drew R, and the difference is very noticible. Tokita’s art is very clean, using a smaller amount of shading, but a bit cartoony (especially when a certain character shows up in Volume 3). However, it fits in very well with the anime and almost looks like it was done by the anime artists. Best of all, the anime characters are actually on-model and look as if they were taken right out of the original drawings.

R, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Toda’s art is very overboard, rough with all sorts of extreme shading. Seriously, there’s more black and grey than there is white, and half the time everything seems like one big grey blob, making it much harder to follow the action. As if that wasn’t enough, the character designs are awful. Most of the characters are tall, shapeless blobs, the Mobile Suits look very wobbly, and the anime-only characters (such as Lacus and Kira) look nothing like their anime counterparts. Lacus in particuar got mangled pretty badly. And while it may be more translation-related, I have to make a mention that R has a lot more cursing than the original manga. While the original had a few s words here and there, R ratchets it up to the f-word all over the place as soon as Volume 1, and it screams of cursing for cursing’s sake.

Aside from its superior art, the original also has superior extras, mainly in the form of the long-standing Gundam tradition known as “Don’t Give Up,” also known as “Domon W” in the Wing/G manga. Basically, the characters all become super-deformed (SD, or chibi) and perform a comedy skit, much like the original SD Gundam shorts from the late 80’s/early 90’s. They have been a huge success (and were easily the best part of Last Outpost), and that tradition continues in Astray. Jokes like Lowe carrying the Strike instead of Kira, the Professor showing her inclusion in the first opening, and Kisato’s RC BuCUE are all great. The only problem is length. Each of the SD manga lasts a measely two pages, in contrast to the oodles of SD manga in other Gundam stories. I also wish they had kept the tradition of crossovers with other Gundam series (“Domon W” crossed over the Universal Century, Wing, and G), but what’s here is still good. Aside from that, there are your usual blueprints, character spec sheets, art designs, and a preview of what happens in the next volume. Not the greatest collection of extras, but still pretty good.

Bottom line is this: Gundam SEED Astray is for fans of the Gundam SEED anime only. Unlike previous manga, you can’t really understand what’s going on unless you read it while watching the anime, which is a good thing in this case. If you loved the anime, there’s no reason to pick up the manga. But it would have worked better for the franchise had Tokyopop coordinated its releases with Bandai for Gundam SEED Destiny Astray. And let’s all hope Tokita stays the exclusive artist for Astray, since Toda’s art is very inappropriate for the series. I’m not sure I even want to see X‘s art.

Manga covered in this review:

  • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Astray, Volume 1
  • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Astray, Volume 2
  • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Astray, Volume 3
  • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Astray R, Volume 1
  • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Astray R, Volume 2
  • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Astray R, Volume 3

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