Mech Cadet Yu, from writer Greg Pak and illustrator Takeshi Miyazawa, is a love letter to mecha action series. Hotshot pilots control machines of war under orders from more mature commanding officers. Gundam, Voltron, Pacific Rim, and Macross fans, take note of this series, as it is aiming for your heart. This story of four plucky teens who manage to stave off an alien invasion is collected in three trade paperbacks: Volume 1 from June 2018, Volume 2 from October 2018, and Volume 3, which is scheduled for April 2019. This review is based on the contents of the single issues.

Stanford Yu is a teenage janitor working under his mom Dolly’s supervision at Sky Corps Academy in Los Robos, Arizona. While handy with machines, he is forbidden from endangering himself in the cockpit of a robo mech. “You can still make a difference here on the ground… and you’re gonna be safe,” Dolly tells him. Robo mechs are humanoid, robotic creatures, complete with sentience and free will, though they can be piloted by those they deem worthy. Robo Mechs are used by humanity to battle the Sharg, a spiky and violent alien race. A chance encounter with a rogue robo mech leads to an unlikely friendship for Stanford, as he is haphazardly recruited into the Mech Cadets with his new iron giant he dubs Buddy.

The three arcs of Mech Cadet Yu each have their own feel. First are the chapters where the mechs and personalities are new, dynamic, and impressive. Robo mechs are frequently shown towering over the humans who bother at their feet, beholding their cool rocket-powered takeoffs and landings. Stanford acts partly as an audience stand-in as he meets and befriends his fellow mech cadets Olivia Park (ruthless overachiever), Francis Olivetti (wimpy but loyal friend who often needs bailing out), and Maya Sanchez (who has few discernible traits of her own). Together, they hold their own in a surprise encounter with a giant Sharg and build trust as a team. Captain Skip Tanaka is the grizzled but spirited team leader willing to give the mech cadets a chance to prove themselves, while Sgt. Schatz and his robo mech Bronto are a tragic example of the lasting grief felt after losing a friend.

In the second arc, the team are seemingly grounded to janitor duty just as a Sharg invasion hits their base. The action does not pale for a moment, instead taking place in corridor chases and last-second saves on a human scale. The third and final arc sees the team taking the fight to the Sharg fleet in outer space, culminating in rival last-ditch efforts that each require their own sacrifices in order to work. Throughout all of the arcs are orders from a couple of generals, consisting of Olivia’s father General Park and his co-commanding officer, General Felix. They are stern figures of authority, but their orders and treatment of the mech cadets is always grounded in utilitarian, calculated thought processes. For example, there is a Suprarobo that could take on all of the Sharg with ease, but in order to power it, the other robo mechs must sacrifice their cores. A few would die to save many. The mech cadets hold fast to their conviction that there must be another solution, one that would honor their bonds to their mechanical friends they love. Don’t these generals realize they’re in an action/adventure comic book and that the power of friendship can solve anything?

All the robo mechs are visually unique, with their own color palettes, silhouettes, and font color when pilots speak through their radio systems. Miyazawa’s designs mesh well with the coloring of Triona Farrell, Jessica Kholinne, and Raul Angulo, as well as the lettering of Simon Bowland. Sound effects are often lettered in thick fonts that fill their panels, conveying the robot-on-robot and robot-on-alien action that takes place in each arc. Indoor, outdoor, and outer space settings each have their own visual feel, almost like progressing through levels of a game. The mech cadets start out playing war games with Captain Tanaka with foam bullets, leap into the robotic fray, defend themselves with broomsticks, then take to the final frontier with all the skills they’ve learned.

“I know how much this is to ask of you. I never had to take on a mission this hard at your age. But you’re better than I ever was. You’re ready for this,” Olivia’s father tells her, and the story is always perched for her to kick the most butt. At the series climax, her stern general father has no choice but to shout into a cloud of destruction and hope his daughter is the cause rather than a casualty. Stanford’s bond with Buddy defines his piloting style, going so far as hopping out to make on-the-spot repairs. Francis is trained but clumsy, if not a little cowardly, and finds value in the story just by surviving and getting some hits in along the way. In the case of Maya, she lacks any defining scenes, always acting as a duplicate version of someone else’s motivation. If Olivia is standing up for Stanford in a fight, she’s there, too. Her red robo mech seems to get more page time than she does, appearing in group shots but not determining the path of the story. When the cadets’ parents radio in to tell them to stand down, Maya’s parents have nothing specific to relay to her other than a generic, “You have to come back! I don’t want to hear any backtalk, young woman!” In writing this review, I had to remind myself that Maya was a core character of the series, which really belongs to Stanford and Olivia, with Francis as comic relief.

If that lack of characterization sounds like a setback, it’s only because the rest of the cast feel so lived-in by comparison. Mech Cadet Yu is a blue-collar sci-fi adventure where janitors have as much to teach as engineers and generals. The only dangling thread at the story’s conclusion is when an animated series will come out of this and entrance a new generation of children with giant, colorful, Earth-saving suits of armor – with a diverse crew of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic men and women. Also, for better or worse, they get the job done without falling in love with each other. Content-wise, there is an occasional “hell” and “damn,” and aliens are violently beaten, shot, and exploded into shrapnel and green ooze, but this is still recommended for young readers and up.

Mech Cadet Yu
by Greg Pak
Art by Takeshi Miyazawa
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781684151950
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781684152537
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781684153374
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

  • Thomas

    | He/Him Teen Services Librarian, Richland Library

    Features Writer

    Thomas is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. While studying for his MLIS at the University of South Carolina, he won an award from Thomas Cooper Library for his curation of the works of “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. He has spoken about manga, graphic novels, teen programming, and podcasting at NashiCon, DragonCon, ColaCon, New York Comic Con, and American Library Association conferences. He has been on on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels For Teens selection committee, written articles for Public Libraries, The Hub, Book Riot, and Library Trends, and reviews for School Library Journal and Kirkus.

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