The Gundam series is one of the longest-running and most successful anime/manga franchises in Japan. Starting with Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979, the Gundam franchise spans multiple television series, OAV series, movies, video games, novels, manga, and virtually any sort of merchandise one can imagine (and probably some you can't). Gundam itself is credited with changing the old "giant robot" genre from stories about a boy with some inexplicable and often personified superweapon to a story of war and politics which happened to feature giant robotic weapons (adapted originally from humanoid-shaped worker exoskeletons).
My initial exposure to the Gundam franchise was indirect; Kathleen Moffre (many years later to become my girlfriend, fiancee, and eventually wife) ran a Gundam-based RPG campaign for a few years. I didn't know much about the background, but that was all right since I played a character who was … rather different than the standard Gundam character set.
It was many years later, however, that I watched an actual Gundam series, though I'd seen one of the movies and occasional episodes. It was the newest Gundam series released at the time of our marriage – in fact, it had just started a couple of months before the wedding: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, usually simply referred to as Gundam Wing.
The outline of the plot is deceptively simple, and similar to several other entries in the franchise: Earth and its colonies are on the verge of a new war, as the colonies want independence and Earth has no intention of granting independence. The colonies, having gathered together the most advanced and brilliant engineers and scientists they could find, devise five super-advanced mobile suits codenamed "Gundams" and intend to use these to fight for their independence both directly and indirectly (foment confusion and division between Earth factions, and fight against aggressors with superior firepower).
But it is far from so simple. The events on both Earth and the Colonies are being manipulated – by multiple groups, with multiple motives – and the young pilots of these suits are, themselves, weapons: young men selected or even raised to be peculiarly suited to the roles that one of the most dangerous and mysterious groups of conspirators – the "Mad Five", the scientists behind the Gundam weapons – have selected for them. Seeking to force a peaceful resolution to the conflict between the colonies and Earth, the boys – and specifically Heero Yuy, pilot of the eponymous Wing Gundam – are tricked into destroying the people most capable of peaceful negotiation, ensuring that the war will take place.
The names of the characters alone were a clue to just how terribly their lives were manipulated: Heero Yuy, Duo Maxwell, Trowa Barton, Quatre Winner, and Chang Wu Fei. Each of their names turns out to be a number – One, Two, Three, Four, Five – and some other people in their world, all connected to the same plan, have other numbers.
Gundam Wing was extremely popular, especially amongst fangirls, for its cast which consisted mostly of young and often angsty men. This was in fact the first fandom I encountered where a considerable proportion of the "fans" turned out to not actually have watched the show, but simply read fanfiction and seen fanart. This led to some rather bizarre perceptual disconnects between viewer-fans and fan-fans, as the vast majority of the fanworks tended to "slash" the boys together and the fan-fans would perceive the relationships between them as being canon! In point of fact, there's one obviously gay pairing in canon – Quatre and Trowa are pretty much inarguably a couple – two of the boys are clearly interested in women (Duo and Wu Fei) and one is possibly interested in ONE girl, maybe, but in general is nothing but a living weapon (Heero).
For me, however, Gundam Wing was more important because it became the foundation for a new gaming and writing sequence. Kathleen often develops her own ideas by first fan-fic writing, and then extracting the concepts into an original story (a time-tested and respectable formula – there are several published authors, some very respected, who've done this). The Gundam Wingverse we created was in many ways quite divergent from even the original canon (let alone the "fanon" that the obsessives created), but still used many of the elements in various ways.
It was working with the Wingverse that helped give me a good grasp of the "chessmaster" type of character. I've used some such in my writing for years, of course, but the Wingverse helped point up how such people worked far better than I had yet managed to really grasp at the time. Treize Khrushrenada, for instance, turns out to have been playing all sides for his own goal, so well that even after he was killed his engame was still playing out.
The games and scenarios we devised all took place after the main stories, which allowed us some freedom of decision and action. As with many of my RPG experiences, they also allowed me to insert various components of my own writing universes and test out how they worked in various ways.
During this time, I finally understood how certain elements of my main universe would come to play out – and created one of my favorite, as-yet-unpublished, characters, the would-be knight of the future, Jared Engelshand. The creation of Jared, his family, and realization of who they really were and why they existed brought more of my main universe into focus (and rippled back into my earlier stuff – "Nike", one of the five mysterious young people seen in Phoenix Rising, is Nike Engelshand and a distant ancestor of Jared).
It also clarified how many elements of Kathleen's universe integrated with mine. Kathy's influence on my writing cannot be overstated; she not only helped teach me how to write anything involving complex characters, she also has worked with me to develop my world and even to combine elements of the world she was working on long before she met me into a shared universe. The major stories published are, admittedly, mostly my universe, but they have elements of her work in them… and could not exist at all had I not met her; even Jason Wood's saga includes elements which had their origin in Kathy's own work.
Thus, in several ways Gundam Wing was something of a turning point for me and my writing. It cleared up many questions about the future of my universe, and triggered a much more sweeping combination of my ideas and those of Kathleen. Kathy wrote a considerable amount of Gundam Wing fanfiction, in which I had some input, but as we progressed it became clear that what we wanted to eventually do is take the core ideas and write our own stories, which by this time would not resemble the original very closely at all.
I haven't yet gotten to those stories – I feel that telling the chronologically earlier history is necessary, especially to lay groundwork for what happens in the far future – but they are waiting, ready for when the time comes that Jared Engelshand, the supremely self-confident and arrogantly clueless son of nobility, meets up with a certain young man who demolishes Jared's illusions… and triggers the transformation of their world.
And when I write those stories – with Kathleen, as there is no way I can write some of this without her help – I will always remember how it started with Mobile Suit Gundam Wing.