Preview page from MEKA (Magnetic Press, 2014), available on Comixology.
Explorations of collateral damage are not new material for giant robot stories; the most striking examples that come immediately to mind are good sections of Invincible Superman Zambot 3, the first fight in Mobile Suit Gundam that sees Amuro accidentally destroy a section of colony, and Gundam F91’s brutal, scrappy opening battle in a city as people flee the action. But there are other examples – SDF Macross with its Zentradi invasion of the island and even the continued effects of transforming the ship on the people within, or even Space Battleship Yamato’s very first use of the Wave Motion Gun. It is difficult to decouple super robots from superweapon stories and giant monster fighting from indiscriminate warfare.
Bengal and Morvan’s graphic novel MEKA is not the first story to explore the scale of destruction a super-robot fight causes, but it promised to explore it in a very personal and interesting fashion; two robot pilots shot down in a city trying to survive until help arrived in a wasteland of their own creation. In the process of its four short installments, it also touches on a lot of other strong themes of the genre – the effects of indiscriminate war on civilians more personally, the role of traditionally heroic figures as protectors versus unaccountable invaders. It feels very much, thematically, like Zambot 3 for a modern age. However, I do not feel it wholly holds together as a good super robot story, or a good science fiction story. Its covering well-worn ground is not the problem specifically, and simply saying it lacks nuance is not adequate; F91 is not nuanced or subtle in showing a woman crushed by shell casings. Zambot 3 is not nuanced, it is angry and melodramatic. The roots of the genre are in heightened emotions positive and negative. So where does MEKA fail? Because it is definitely an unsatisfying story despite ending its arc.
The problem is not the art, which has a clean Mirror’s Edge or Eureka Seven feel to it. The super robots that battle in the city are clean, pale-coloured and evoke designs like Jet Alone, Zearth and other such futurist, simplistic and inhuman robots. Slick, curved machines are inherently dehumanised; both factions in this war have faceless war machines that lack the traditional anthropomorphising features of heroic super robots. The architecture is all beautifully depicted, the city feeling generically futuristic and yet lived-in. The character art is equally pleasant, evoking a wide range of anime inspirations without specifically or distractingly homaging one. MEKA looks, generally, beautiful. The scale in Issue 1’s super robot war culminating in a spread of a machine sprawled across a destroyed city block feels right, weighty and brutal. It is hard to fault the comic’s depiction of mech fighting.
The problem is, I feel, the writing. The plot is simple – the two-man crew of an unnamed super robot, Enrique and Onoo, are shot down in a neutral city during a battle against invading forces. Stranded, they work together to survive and meet the civilians they are supposedly “protecting” but whose homes have been destroyed. In the process, they learn a little more about themselves and what it means to be a soldier. All extremely stock storylines – and yet all with the potential to work very well as character pieces. When done correctly, stories of pilots powerless and stranded are revealing and thematically dense. MEKA however feels superficial, primarily because the dialogue never gels. The weakness of the dialogue, which in turn weakens the characterisation, is a major strike against the comic because it undermines the opportunities for character development or the sense that what is being shown has depth. An exchange such as this in issue 3 lacks weight, perhaps because the written format does not communicate movement or emotion well enough:
Onoo: This is our fault.
Enrique: What are you talking about?
Onoo: This massacre. We did this to them.
Enrique: We? This is one of ours that exploded! Look at the debris! Think about the two brave soldiers who died here for their freedom!
Onoo: Keep on marching. The language of war… Look around you Llamas! These poor people lived in this city before it became our battlefield!
Perhaps the issue is in the comic’s translation into English by Mike Kennedy, but a scene that has been done so well so many times in so many of the source materials that inspired MEKA lacks punch. It feels less like the breaking of emotional tension that, say, the many moments of horrible epiphany Renton faces in Eureka Seven do, and more like a rote lecture on the horrors of war. And that feels like the continued issue with MEKA’s dialogue; it is often flat, matter-of-fact, and feels more like directions how to feel that reiterate what is visible in the well-drawn landscapes. And as I reconsider these exchanges I realise that perhaps the even more memorable expressions of these sentiments are in series that find the comedy in them, series like Terrestrial Defence Corp Daiguard or Mobile Police Patlabor; there, carnage is reduced to paperwork, insurance claims and angry police chiefs and yet it has a lot of emotional power behind the laughter. Onoo and Enrique’s exchange – even when it moves into another staple scene of the genre, Onoo criticising soldiers as being all the same, obsessed with duty and inhuman – lacks emotional power.
And in the comic’s climax the same issue occurs. Issue 4 has the pilots captured by angry civilians and needing to regain their trust, the introspection of issue 3 needing to be turned into an argument to convince others to let the super robots protect the city, this time against pirates looting. And there the story breaks down somewhat with some dubious writing. The civilians’ talking-points feel stilted and unnatural – a line like “Thanks, really! Thanks to you, our dead will remain free!” is a weak expression of the sort of moral mic drop moment that mecha anime is often so good at delivering. And the resolution of the argument is left offscreen, so the plot can move towards the pilots’ own self-discovery in fighting the pirates. Now my first issue with the pirate plot is the fact it hinges, in a way, on Onoo torturing a prisoner of war successfully after a whole plot line about the moral high ground is resolved. Perhaps the line here is that it is not so much Onoo and Enrique finding a moral high ground, but that they can’t change and all they needed to do was prove in the short term they were right. Enrique takes a bullet so Onoo can get her shot at soldiering, and suddenly there are a lot of different angles of character development introduced and none of them feel earned. Introducing the civilians, the victims of war, should have focused the themes, instead it feels like it introduces an unneeded redemptive arc without adequately resolving the ones it started with.
The comic ends with Onoo getting her chance at redemption, her shot at heroism, fighting off the pirates to save the city; it ends with the big heroic battle, this time to protect the city and its people directly rather than fighting a proxy war for a nebulous greater good. This would work as a climax, the resolution of her arc, but I was left feeling a little underwhelmed because rather than focusing the morality, it simply muddled it. Violence and inhumanity – represented by torture (and effective torture at that) works in the end. It is that that drives the story towards the shift from super robots as unaccountable forces to protectors of humanity, which does not quite work for me. Some of the most memorable stories of this kind in super robot fiction are about the realisation that there is the need for heroes to be better than that.