Camo Nets, Zimmerit and Grit: The Gundam Manga of Kazuhisa Kondo

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There’s been no shortage of creative people who’ve put their touch on the Gundam franchise over the last thirty five years, but few are as under appreciated as Kazuhisa Kondo.

Western fans will be most familiar with Kondo thanks to his Mobile Suit Gundam 0079 manga, a straight-up adaption of the original 1979 TV series. Published by Viz during Gundam’s U.S. heyday in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the English version of 0079 only saw nine of its twelve volumes released before getting cancelled. If anything, it’s impressive that the series lasted as long as it did in English, considering how little fans seemed to care about Universal Century products at the time.

Published in Japan throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, 0079 unfortunately demanded two things from Kondo that the guy doesn’t excel at: drawing mobile suits in the style of the original TV show and drawing familiar characters.

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To give you an idea of what Kondo excels at, and what makes his comics so great, let’s first talk about what he isn’t so great at doing.

Kondo’s strength in rendering mechanical designs skews towards his own original designs (easily recognized by their oversized shoulders and long armor skirts) interspersed with pre-existing mobile suits that he’s reworked a bit. His style takes more of a grittier, military tone inspired by actual military aesthetics, which is seemingly at odds with the brightly-colored designs of the original Gundam. In most of his comics, it isn’t uncommon to find mobile suits in his comics covered in camouflage or draped in camo nets. Compared to the super clean lines and polished paint jobs of more familiar designers, like Kunio Okawara or Hajime Katoki, Kondo’s rough lines and grit must have seemed out of place to young American Gundam fans.

Zeon 91st Infantry Division, African Front
Zeon 91st Infantry Division, African Front

0079 also suffered because Kondo never seemed to master the familiar, larger-than-life characters designed by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko for the original TV show. Kondo’s characters are often simple renderings, devoid of much in the way of distinguishing characteristics. Considering that most of his comics focus on regular soldiers rather than overpowered Newtypes, this is perfectly fine—he nails the look of low-ranking grunts. On the other hand, his attempts to replicate the familiar designs of well-loved characters in 0079 often ended up looking off-model, if not slightly amateurish.

If 0079 didn’t exact hit it off with fans over a decade ago, it’s unlikely to do so now. With Yasuhiko’s Gundam: The Origin in print again and readily available from Vertical Inc., a comparison between the two is inevitable. Unfortunately, it’s not a comparison that most would put in 0079’s favor, myself included.

0079, to my knowledge, was the extent of Kondo’s work published in English. Given that the popularity of Universal Century stories seems to have only risen among fans in the years since Cartoon Network was playing Mobile Suit Gundam and Gundam Wing, it’s a shame Kondo’s other work hasn’t appeared in English because he shines best when left to his own devices.

Mobile Suit Vor!! [Gundam Crossover Notebook I: Since UC 0079
Mobile Suit Vor!! [Gundam Crossover Notebook I: Since UC 0079]

One of the easiest Kondo comics to dive into, and one of the more unique, is Side Story of Zeta Gundam, which, despite the name, is not actually a side story at all. Instead, it’s a one-volume, original take on the beginning of Zeta Gundam that’s decidedly different from the TV show. Quattro Bajeena is working for the Titans hunting down Zeon remnants because Basque Ohm is holding Sayla hostage. Amuro Ray is under house arrest, but Quattro drops by occasionally for tea. Kamille Bidan, meanwhile, is already part of AEUG and involved in an operation to break Amuro out and bring him over to their side.

Given how hard Zeta Gundam fell on its face after a promising setup, I really enjoyed Side Story‘s alternate take on some well-worn characters characters. Of course, it’s a one-volume affair that ends on a cliffhanger, but I doubt it was ever intended to cover the entirety of the Titan/AEUG conflict. It’s worth noting that Kondo also did an adaption of Zeta à la 0079, but as with 0079 it’s hard to recommend over his other works.

While the same caveats about 0079 apply to Side Story, I’m more forgiving because it breaks so significantly from the source material. Besides, Kondo throws in plenty of weird mobile suits, including a new version of the Hyaku Shiki, some of his original designs, and a Zeta Gundam in desert camo on the cover. In a franchise that’s become so fixated on repeating the same story beats time and time again, I’ll endorse just about any product that attempts to break out of that cycle–even if it is an obscure comic from 1987.

The Revival of Zion
A Sazabi draped in camo netting, The Revival of Zion

The rest of Kondo’s Gundam work takes on a much grittier, militaristic tone. If you’re not a big fan of the decade or so when people were obsessed with cramming real military trappings and a World War II aesthetic into the franchise, it’s probably not going to be your thing. Beyond the obvious stuff, like camouflaged mobile suits and Wehrmacht-inspired uniforms, Kondo’s work presents a much more holistic take on warfare in Gundam. In short, if you found yourself enjoying MS Igloo but wishing it was dirtier and grittier—Kondo’s comics are what you’re looking for.

The original Mobile Suit Gundam TV series was rounded out with plenty of tanks, aircraft, and support vehicles beyond the obvious giant robots. We never saw a lot of them, but there was at least some effort to portray mobile suits as one weapon among many in war. Considering how staggeringly popular the Gundam plamo kits became, and how they quickly came to determine the future of the franchise, it isn’t surprising that sequels ditched most supplementary vehicles to focus primarily on the giant robots.

In Mobile Suit Vor!!, we see Guntanks dug in as stationary gun emplacements (because, afterall, a big target rolling around on tank treads is really stupid) and infantry using heavy weapons to take down mobile suits. Vehicles are loaded down with supplies and extra parts (as you’d expect in an actual military campaign) and camouflage is employed about as well as it can be on giant robots. And yes, there’s even zimmerit. It’s about as close to “realistic” combat as we’re likely to get with Gundam, or at the very least, includes enough visual homages and legit trappings that military dorks will nod their heads in approval.

In Operation: Troy, the mobile suits appear much as they do in animation and Kondo’s original designs are nowhere to be seen (not surprising considering it was a tie-in for an Xbox 360 game), but most of the action is focused on ground-level grunts. Infantry zip around the feet of mobile suits in a variety of wheeled and hover vehicles while wielding handheld surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. Visually, the comic is an interesting mix of vehicles from the original TV series, mixed with weapons and designs from The 08th MS Team and that modern version of Earth Federation soldiers that sport flack jackets and bullpup rifles.

In Operation Buran (which I’d safely assume is a reference Soviet space shuttle program), Kondo combines actual photos of model kits with his comic. Aesthetically it doesn’t quite work, but it’s an interesting idea. As you’d probably expect, with Kondo’s designs featuring a lot of real-world military sensibilities, quite a few garage kits have been designed based on his work. As you’d also expect from resin kits, they’re worlds apart from Bandai’s user-friendly plamo kits and aimed squarely at “hardcore” modelers.

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It’s worth pointing out that Kondo isn’t the only one with these design sensibilities, as other Gundam series showed glimmers of this same aesthetic: the Zeon remnants in Africa in Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket’s background material in the M.S. Era book, and most of MS Igloo. But without the constraints of animation, the merchandising demands from Bandai or the limits of CG, Kondo’s comics are able to take this style to its logical, and most satisfactory, extent.

In truth, what Kondo’s work offers is something very different from the modern Gundam fan’s perception of the franchise. There are no pretty boy bishōnen types or doomed romances playing out between unlikable children. Mobile suits are a weapon, one among many, not a suit that grants its users super powers. Gundam is often credited as being the first “real robot” series, but it skews more towards the “super robot” genre than fans would like to admit. In Kondo’s comics, rarely do we see epic heroes; just a bunch of soldiers slogging through shit and trying to complete their mission.

The Revival of Zion
The Revival of Zion

Further Reading

While the majority of his work has been Gundam-related, Kondo’s also dabbled with other series as well. In 2003 he released a Gamera vs Baragon comic. In the mid 1980s he worked alongside Okawara creating mechanical designs for a Bandai toyline called Spiral Zone, as well as a manga based on the franchise that appeared in Combat Comics.

Most of Kondo’s Gundam work has stayed in print often enough that it’s easy to track down, assuming you don’t mind picking up manga in Japanese.

Gundam Crossover Notebook I: Since U.C. 0079
Although this book contains a couple of short comics, it’s primarily an art book containing Kondo’s color work. Most of the included pieces are of more familiar mobile suits and lack that grittiness inherent in his comics, it’s a solid book with some great illustrations. I have no idea if it’s still in print, but it’s quite easy to find in the usual places and goes for as cheap as $6.00 on Amazon, as of this writing. There are two other Crossover Notebooks, both covering U.C. time periods beyond the One Year War.

Side Story of Zeta Gundam
As mentioned above, this is a favorite of mine although it lacks some of the traits I love Kondo’s work for. It’s easy to recommend because it features familiar characters and it shouldn’t be too hard to follow along even if you can’t read Japanese. If you can read some Japanese, it’s also not a bad comic to pick up. Compared to most of his other comics, it lacks a lot of the kanji-heavy military terminology and should be easier for intermediate readers to pick up.

Operation: Troy
A tie-in comic to an Xbox 360 game of the same name released back in 2008, it’s one of his newer comics and should be easy to track down. While it primarily uses “normal” mobile suits, there’s a heavy emphasis on ground troops. One of the game’s unique features was that you could exit your mobile suit, fight on foot, or pilot other, non-MS vehicles, so it fit well with Kondo’s style.

The Revival of Zion
Taking place the year before Char’s Counterattack, Revival of Zion unfortunately uses the awkward spelling of Zeon, in English, on its cover and focuses on an Earth Federation assault launched against Neo-Zeon forces on Earth. Despite its proximity to the film, it’s very much a grunts-level story, although Char makes a brief cameo. First published in 1988, it’s been reprinted a number of times and isn’t hard to find.

Interested in purchasing old Japanese books? I’ve written a brief guide with some helpful tips AVAILABLE HERE.