It’s difficult to imagine today, but during the 1990s, English-speaking anime fans had easier access to legal versions of Macross than they did to legal versions of Gundam. Would-be Gundam fans were served with little in the way of official releases outside of some novels and comics. That all changed at Anime Expo 1998 when Bandai unveiled their new Anime Village label that offered Mobile Suit Gundam on VHS for the first time in English. It changed, even more, a few years later when Gundam Wing premiered on Cartoon Network’s Toonami programming block, but for the 1980s and most of the 1990s, there wasn’t much in the way of Gundam available through legal means. It fell on fellow fans to keep people updated on what was going on with the series , or even just where to start.
“What is Gundam?”
Published in English in 1990, Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam novelizations were one of the first examples of Gundam in English. Translated by Frederick L. Schodt and released by Del Rey1, these novels provided an early look at the groundbreaking anime series for those who weren’t able to track down fansubs or just wanted more.
A couple of years later in 1993, Viz Comics published a 13-issue Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory film comic based on the then-new OVA series. These film comics featured stills taken directly from the anime and provided a much more literal representation of the source material than Tomino’s novels, but the circumstances and style of the release were a bit odd. Film comics were extremely common in Japan2, but rarely had the format made the jump to U.S. shores even as upstart manga publishers were testing the waters with American audiences. The comics themselves weren’t in Viz’s usual black-and-white “floppy comic” format and were instead full-color, square-bound issues with no advertisements inside. Each issue’s interior cover pages covered the backstory to 0083 and included line art of the characters and mobile suits. Viz used the same format for a five-issue film comic based on Dirty Pair around the same time.3
Even if fans wouldn’t get their hands on legal English-language releases until Anime Village launched in 1998 (and again, it’s not like there weren’t fansubs), the then-booming English-language anime magazine industry kept fans informed about the series and, more often than not, talked a lot about 0083.
In the first issue of Dream Pod 9’s Mecha Press (publication date of January/February 1992) the magazine opened with the question “What’s Gundam?” True to the magazine’s name and ethos4 Mecha Press’ inaugural coverage of Gundam didn’t cover the franchise as a whole or provide the then-typical episode synopsis, but instead gave readers articles about the in-universe development of mobile suits, an A-to-Z dictionary of Gundam terms, and a two-page spread about the mechanics of space flight alongside character and mecha profiles from the original TV series. Subsequent issues of Mecha Press often included Gundam in some shape or form.
It wasn’t until about a year later with issue #8 that Mecha Press would cover 0083 and Victory Gundam, and this time they did it in a style you’d expect of magazines from the era: a bit of series background, some profiles on the groups, characters, and technology seen in the series and some detailed episode synopses. Those episode summaries were attributed to a publication called U.C. Herald #2, but we’ll get to that topic shortly.
Anime UK’s multi-issue coverage of Mobile Suit Gundam, written by Dafydd Neal Dyar, was perhaps the standout example of Gundam coverage in English in that era as it cut a wide swath and touched on everything from the major animated installments to the multitude of spin-offs and quasi-canon stories that were already filling up pages of magazines like B-Club, Model Graphix and Cyber Comics by the early ‘90s. In addition to plot summaries for most of the major Gundam series up to that point, Dyar covered the background and setting in detail and even included a timeline that was, if we’re being honest, probably way too detailed for a primer piece. The amount of information in the series even pushed the boundaries of what was typical for a series feature in anime magazines of the era as it was spread across three issues, but it’s clear that Anime UK staff viewed Gundam as a seminal series worth covering in detail, a reminder of the importance of Gundam among English-speaking fans at the time even if it remained out of reach to many.
By Gundam Fans, For Gundam Fans
As early as the late 1980s fans were putting together fan publications dedicated to Gundam, with the earliest likely being Randall S. Stukey’s Mobile Suit: The Gundam APA, first announced in the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization’s newsletter in early 1987. APAs (or “Amateur Press Associations”) differed from traditional fanzines in that they typically required subscribers to contribute some sort of content to an organizer who then collected all the contributions and sent them out to subscribers.5 Coincidentally, 1987 was the same year that Animag premiered with a Zeta Gundam illustration on the cover of the magazine’s first issue6. At a time when a lot of people were embracing the desktop publishing revolution with pseudo-professional anime magazines, Animag was the most serious effort and as a result stayed in print for over a dozen issues as it laid the groundwork for magazines like Viz’s Animerica. Their first issue of Animag included a synopsis of both the original Mobile Suit Gundam film trilogy and the TV show Zeta Gundam.
With dedicated fan publications and semi-professional magazine coverage being readily available, English-speaking fans were clearly aware of the series and how important it had been in Japan. But how hard was it to track down Gundam tapes in the 1980s? According to anime tape and fandom historian David Merrill’s recollection, while the original trilogy was easy enough to find and “Everybody seemed to have at least the first episode of Zeta Gundam,” episodes of the original TV series were much more challenging to get a hold of. He added, “By the time Char’s Counterattack came out, the tape trading/laserdisc buying/fansubbing ecosystem was firmly in place and we got that one fairly quickly.”
There was more to it than just the tapes themselves, though, as Gundam scholar Mark Simmons pointed out to me when I asked him about Gundam fandom during this era and the perception of the series among anime fans. He wrote, “As far as perceptions of Gundam, I think it was always something of a hardcore taste – back when imported toys and model kits were one of the main interfaces by which Western fans encountered anime, it was pretty clear that there was a lot going on in terms of world-building with Gundam, and once they started rolling out sequels in the mid-’80s the learning curve got steeper.”
As Gundam got more convoluted and, presumably, more daunting to jump into for newcomers, it also had to contend with the fact that more and more anime was available. Simmons described this as “the Gundam portion of [anime] became smaller.” He added, “In that sense, I’d say it was more likely that a randomly encountered ’80s anime fan would be familiar with or fond of Gundam than their ’90s analog. Aside from the occasional breakthrough hit like Gundam Wing, it basically turned into a weird cult subset of anime fandom, rather than something discussed alongside works like Nausicaa and AKIRA and whatnot.”
That subset of fans was active in their own way, with the two issues of the U.C. Herald fanzine proving that Gundam fans were out there and eager to share their knowledge with those who were interested.
U.C. Herald was published by Tonghyun Kim, Lesfeena Lee, and Noel Gamboa, a trio of UC San Diego students. The first issue proclaimed itself “The fanzine by Gundam fans for Gundam fans.” Much of the first issue was dedicated to 0083, with character profiles and mobile suit stats, some general Gundam background, and a surprising amount of original art. Unlike the coverage found in most professional magazines of the era, U.C. Herald spent time covering the production staff and voice actors that worked on 0083.
The second issue of U.C. Herald was almost twice the size of the first and while it also focused largely on 0083, the scope and diversity of what it covered is impressive even thirty years on. In addition to some more critical examinations of the series (as 0083 had finished by the time the issue was published), it featured in-depth episode summaries, more series background information, coverage of 0083 merchandise (including summaries of the drama CDs, and detailed lists of books and model kits), and more detailed character profiles. The fanzine included multiple comics, including some original Gundam stories and parodies like a Bastard!/0083 mash-up, as well as a profile on Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino and a short interview he gave to the staff at Anime Expo 1992. The issue of U.C. Herald #2 I acquired even had a loose sheet of errata tucked inside, listing corrections for things like mistranslations and incorrect mobile suit stats. This issue also included the contributions of the aforementioned Mark Simmons.
Simmons later worked with Julie Davis to release their own Gundam fanzine called Crank! in the Summer of 1994. Filled entirely with original art and wrapped up in some charming PageMaker 4.0 style, Crank! had a lot of personality and less of a focus on being crammed full of tons of information. “I think Julie and I were conceiving of it as a spiritual successor to the Gundam APA, which had a more chatty and creative tone,” Mark told me via email. “Early anime fandom was heavy on the fan art, fanfic, and fan humor – not too different from any other kind of nerd fandom, which was all pretty goofy and experimental at the time.” Much of the content of Crank! was focused on Zeta Gundam and Victory Gundam, and included features like ‘The Silliest Moments in V Gundam.’ While Mark and Julie started work on a second issue of Crank!, it was never finished.
The Dial-up Revolution
It should come as no surprise to hear that traditional printed fanzines in the West began dying out as the internet became more accessible in the mid-’90s. With lots of anime fans either being in college or simply comfortable with technology, the adoption of new internet-based channels of communication quickly became the de facto method of communication between fans. But this was the ’90s, so before social media or even web forums, there were newsgroups and email mailing lists.
Dive deep enough into the archives of the rec.arts.anime newgroup and you can find posts about U.C. Herald #2 and Crank!, a reminder of a time when printed fanzines overlapped with Internet discussion.7
In March of 1995, a post was made on rec.arts.anime about a new mailing list dedicated to Gundam. Largely forgotten today, these email mailing lists were commonplace for a time and allowed discussion threads to be sent directly to your email inbox. New threads could be started by sending an email to the mailing list (which would then send it out to all subscribers). It was a format that allowed users to download discussions and write responses while not connected to the internet (similar to newsgroups), a major selling point when connecting to the internet typically meant tying up a phone line and being charged by the hour.
Later in 1995 the Gundam Mailing List was moved to a new server where it lived on at least until the very early 2000s, as the last month on the list’s (admittedly incomplete) archive page is March, 2001. By that time Gundam was showing up on cable TV and internet discussions of all stripes were moving to web forums, so even if we don’t know exactly when it ceased, the end was probably in sight.
Nowadays Gundam is up there alongside properties such as Dragon Ball and One Piece in terms of series that have crossed over into the mainstream and become recognizable worldwide. Moreso, we seem to be in the middle of a second wave of Gundam popularity in the West, decades after that initial push led by Gundam Wing on Toonami when Gundam showed up in toy stores and video games were released in English… we’re seeing Gundam showing up in toys stores and Gundam games getting international releases, again. Heck, Gundam is on Netflix and the days of having to track down elusive fansubs or even order expensive legitimate releases feels like the distant past.
There’s no question that the Internet made things easier for fandom, at first as a way of exchanging information and facilitating discussion, later as a way to just watch anime itself. Easier access to information and anime means more fans than ever before can enjoy Gundam, and that’s a net positive no matter how you look at it. That said, in an era when the number of websites we actually use (or can use) seems to be dwindling and data can be deleted on a whim, well… at least I’ve got U.C. Herald.
Special thanks to Scott Muldoon, Mark Simmons, and David Merrill for making this article possible.
- According to Schodt himself, Del Rey was so eager to repeat the success of their long-running Star Wars and Robotech novels that they’d even licensed Tomino’s follow-up Zeta Gundam novelizations with the hope they could keep the series going. Unfortunately, this never happened.
- At a time when anime was largely stuck on TV or film and home video was expensive, film comics were a cheap and easy way for fans to enjoy the anime they loved.
- Another Sunrise anime, which I’d presume was the connection for this film comic experiment.
- Mecha Press was arguably the most exemplary example of the particular cross-pollination between anime fans, mecha enthusiasts, and tabletop gamers that existed in the 1990s. It wasn’t the only anime magazine that included stats for tabletop games (the Bay Area-based, R. Talsorian-affiliated V.Max magazine was another example, albeit focused on broader anime topics rather than being mecha-myopic), but it was easily the most memorable.
- For more information on the format I’d recommend reading the rundown of the format on Let’s Anime.
- That gorgeous Animag cover by Schulhoff Tam bore a striking resemblance to the cover of R. Talsorian Games’ mecha tabletop game Mekton II, also published in 1987, and that’s because Schulhoff Tam drew that one as well. He’d go on to work for Viz illustrating work like the cover art for Battle Angel Alita and the original Macross II spin-off comic series, Macross II: The Micron Conspiracy.
- Also interesting to note is that both posts mention the fanzines were available for mail order from local Bay Area anime shops like Newtype Hobbies and Nikaku Animart rather than directly from the publishers.