Mech Cadet Yu is a distillation of familiar storytelling elements and tropes: wizened old mentor figures, doting mothers, spiky bullies, misfit kinship – all in service of a classic underdog tale. The risk of relying heavily on these well-worn narrative touchstones is that, in the wrong hands, the story can feel trite and derivative. Now, Mech Cadet Yu’s concept isn’t winning any points for novelty (hell, it wasn’t even the only giant humanoid robot comic to launch last month, as Titan’s Robotech reboot dropped on the same day). But Greg Pak and Takeshi Miyazawa harness the essence of its sleeve-worn inspirations to create something that feels fresh and relevant.
Based on the conceit that three giant bipedal robots (Robos) come to Earth every four years, choose adolescent human Sky Corps cadets to bond with, and fly away together to protect Earth from existentially-menacing extraterrestrials, Mech Cadet Yu follows titular protagonist Stanford Yu. His mother is a Sky Corps Academy janitor, and while he longs to train for his shot at robot coupling, his station in life all but precludes it. Stanford’s pluckiness is immediately endearing, and it’s a triumphant moment in the first issue when one of the incoming Robo visitors foregoes the Academy’s proffered superstar Sky Corps cadet and chooses Stanford as a partner instead.
Issue #2 finds Stanford officially beginning his Sky Corps cadet training, and these dynamic pages of Robo action are pure fun and excitement. In the vein of a Star Wars space battle, Mech Cadet Yu focuses on pilots’ faces for dialogue, laying little pop-out balloons on top of panels that zoom on their reactions. Touches like this do so much to build familiarity and empathy with the book’s characters, and I anticipate that it will be incorporated into more serious battles later in the series, to great effect. We also get to learn more about Stanford’s rival (and resident bully) Cadet Park in this issue. The way she interacts with her Robo and her conversations with her father demonstrate a distinct depth of character, suggesting that Park’s role in the story will likely go beyond merely serving as Stanford’s dramatic foil.
Miyazawa’s art clearly takes some cues from the mecha manga that’s inspired Mech Cadet Yu. But compared to the slick, sanitary lines of many other comics featuring big robots, Mech Cadet Yu’s pencils feel organic and imperfect, helping its characters seem more human and its places feel more real. The roundness of the Robos’ designs helps to sell their existence as sentient beings, especially when contrasted to the singular man-made Robo in the story. The cartoonish style amplifies the book’s buoyant tone, and figures, both human and Robo alike, exhibit realistic and fluid movement. As a setting, the Arizona desert works perfectly and allows breathing room for the Robos to move around and interact. And the palette used by colorist Triona Farrell really pops, with the complementary pairing of azure skies and burnt orange topography providing a gorgeous backdrop for the training Robos.
The story of the book itself parallels Stanford’s own inspirational tale, in a way: after receiving critical acclaim and selling out the week of its release at the distributor level, Boom! Studios upgraded it from a limited series to an ongoing one. On comic store shelves increasingly abound with dystopian allegory and pointed social commentary, it is refreshing to see the story of a character overcoming boundaries to achieve his dreams. That being said, it takes more than a hefty dose of luck for him to do so, and his struggle for acceptance and success have only just begun. That Stanford converses with his mother in Cantonese ostensibly suggests that he is the child of immigrant parents, and he exists in a world that seems not too dissimilar from our own (obvious mechanized details notwithstanding). Immigration in all its forms is one of the most complex and important issues facing modern society, and the perspectives of immigrants and their children have rarely been more relevant than they are today. Mech Cadet Yu is a comic I enjoy and appreciate now but would have adored as a kid, and it achieves the rare feat of truly appealing to an “All Ages” audience. 5/5
(W) Greg Pak (A) Takeshi Miyazawa (CA) Marcus To