Dawnrunner is a mecha-kaiju comic about the ‘Bandai-ification’ of the military-industrial complex

Dawnrunner is a mecha-kaiju comic about the ‘Bandai-ification’ of the military-industrial complex

Every beloved work of mecha fiction, be it anime or not, isn’t just about cool robots. Whether it’s the anti-war underpinnings of Mobile Suit Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion’s allegory for learning to love and be loved in return, or a commentary on the ways in which power is concentrated in the hands of a select few, the mecha genre is filled with stories that drive at something deeper than the chrome-plated exteriors of its humanoid war machines.

Dawnrunner, the new original sci-fi comic series from Detective Comics writer Ram V and artist Evan Cagle (Catwoman #32), follows in the footsteps of these giants, crafting a story that follows Anita Marr, a mech pilot in a post-apocalyptic future who must pilot a powerful new prototype to defeat an extra-dimensional threat. It’s a mecha-kaiju story, yes, but it’s also a ghost story, depicting the relationship between Anita and a weapon that seems to have a mind of its own — quite literally. It’s a big action-drama with big, beautiful artwork and even bigger questions at its core. For example: What do all human beings have in common, even centuries apart? Or another, as Cagle puts it: ‘What if the military-industrial complex acted more like Bandai?”

“I’d had this story in my head probably around 2015 or 2016-ish,” Ram told Polygon in an interview over Zoom. “It had begun in concept as a mecha-kaiju story, but also with the sci-fi of it, the human drama of it, and the elements of a ghost story. The basic idea being people communicating with each other across time.”

A double-page spread of a soldier consoler another soldier in the ruins of a city riddled with the remnants of a giant monster in Dawnrunner #1. Image: Ram V, Evan Cagle/Dark Horse Comics

Though he had the basic concept down, a mecha-kaiju story that could be summed up as “Pacific Rim as told by the people behind Arrival,” it wasn’t until Ram came across Evan Cagle’s artwork on social media that the idea that would become Dawnrunner began to fully spring to life.

“I hadn’t really acted on it until I saw this illustration that Evan had done for Neon Genesis Evangelion called Golgotha. I saw that and I went, Man, if I ever do that mecha-kaiju story, this is the artist I have to work with.” Shortly after, Cagle reached out to Ram to compliment him on his 2018 graphic novel Grafity’s Wall, as well as express his desire to collaborate in future. “It was largely serendipity, but part of it is that it was one of those ideas that had been floating around in my head for a while. So I’m glad it all came together.”

Set nearly a century after a race of mysterious gigantic monsters known as the Tetza invaded Earth, Dawnrunner takes place in a world where civilization has radically changed — governments have been dissolved, replaced by an oligopoly of weapon manufacturers dedicated to combating the Tetza with colossal mechanized weapons known as “Iron Kings.” More than 100 years of standstill conflict has transformed the war against the Tetza into a televised spectacle on par with a gladiatorial sport — where champion pilots are lionized as celebrities and defeating the Tetza is a formality in service of preserving power and profit.

An interior page from Dawnrunner #1, featuring characters Anita Marr and Andro Lestern. Image: Ram V, Evan Cagle/Dark Horse Comics

A full-page illustration from Dawnrunner #1, featuring a point-of-view shot of a man holding a champagne glass to a table of guests identified through an augmented reality heads-up display. Image: Ram V, Evan Cagle/Dark Horse Comics

“More than anything else, it’s a reflection of my view of the commodification of human conflict that we see now,” Ram told Polygon. “Y’know, there’s a war going on in Ukraine, there’s a war going on in Israel and Palestine, and I think Western media and global media, to a large extent, look at these conflicts as opportunities for engagement [and] to explain an exciting narrative to their viewers. Every time I see or hear someone describe something as an ‘exciting day in Ukraine today,’ or ‘What are the military tactics of so-and-so operation, oh, so interesting,’ I think only someone who is so disconnected from the humanity of it all could ever make such a comment as ‘That conflict was very interesting today.’ To me, what we see in Dawnrunner is a logical consequence of that.”

Cagle compares this commodification of an existential threat to humanity in Dawnrunner to the way toy manufacturers like Bandai have marketed Gundam model kits. “Like, every week, you’re going to introduce a new mech or a new enemy so that you can roll out a toy of it in the following months. There are different in-universe story reasons for why you roll out a new toy every week, but they’re kind of all bullshit, right? Like, everybody knows that the reason you’re getting a new one every week is so they can sell you a toy of it. Dawnrunner sort of asks the question, ‘What if the military-industrial complex acted more like Bandai?’”

This philosophy, naturally, carries over to the designs of the Iron Kings themselves — particularly the Dawnrunner. Cagle cites multiple examples from anime and manga that inspired his approach to designing the series’ titular mech, from films like Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack and Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 to series like VOTOMS and The Five Star Stories. “It really is just a grab bag of everything I love,” Cagle says. “I wanted the [Hajime Katoki]-style fins from this Gundam on the back of Dawnrunner; I wanted the [Kazumi Fujita]-style feet from Hi-Nu Gundam. It feels a lot like kitbashing, trying to figure out how to mash all these things together in a way that’s cohesive.”

A full-page illustration of Dawnrunner, covered in acidic spray, holding the decapitated head of a Tetza. Image: Ram V, Evan Cagle/Dark Horse Comics

An interior page from Dawnrunner #1, depicting a news helicopter flying overhead of a Tetza creature being surrounded by a pair of Iron Kings. Image: Ram V, Evan Cagle/Dark Horse Comics

An interior page from Dawnrunner #1, depicting the Dawnrunner Iron King lifting up a Tetza and stabbing it with a wrist-mounted sword. Image: Ram V, Evan Cagle/Dark Horse Comics

The result is a mecha design that pays homage to the likes of Mobile Suit Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion, all while being something entirely its own: a towering, cyclopean behemoth with prominent, jutting thighs and an eerie, skeletal upper body. “From his color scheme on down, racing aesthetics had a large part to play in his design,” Cagle told Polygon. “He doesn’t have any straight lines; everything is a curve, everything is a compound curve, everything is a Bézier. It’s all these sort of flowing Ferrari lines, as opposed to the other Iron Kings, which have a lot more straight lines.”

Beyond the eminently stylish art style and sleek mechanical design, however, lies the beating heart of Dawnrunner: the series’ protagonist, Anita Marr. The star “jockey” of Cordonware, one of the five megacorporations responsible for constructing the Iron Kings, Anita is an intensely private person who happens to be one of the most famous people in the world, shouldering the weight of her role as both a public figure and a soldier with solemnity and poise. When Anita is dispatched to pilot the cutting-edge Iron King prototype Dawnrunner during a routine sortie against a Tetza, all appears to be business as usual.

That changes when Anita, momentarily incapacitated mid-battle, is overcome with an out-of-body vision of a man she doesn’t recognize. The second issue picks up in the aftermath of the skirmish, with Anita having successfully managed to defeat the Tetza, albeit plagued with doubts from her experience piloting Dawnrunner.

[Ed. note: Spoilers for Dawnrunner #2 below.]

An interior page from Dawnrunner #2, featuring protagonist Anita Marr and maintenance crew performing repairs on Dawnrunner. Image: Ram V, Evan Cagle/Dark Horse Comics

An interior page from Dawnrunner#2, featuring protagonist Anita Marr, her coworker Cat, and Dawnrunner. Image: Ram V, Evan Cagle/Dark Horse Comics

It turns out that Dawnrunner’s operating system is built on the mind of Ichiro Takeda, a soldier whose body was recovered after the Tetza’s initial invasion over a century ago. To successfully pilot Dawnrunner, Anita will have to somehow convince Ichiro — who has no idea that he’s dead, or that his mind is being preserved in order to power a mecha — to aid her in her battle against the Tetza. That’s easier said than done, as both Anita and Ichiro will have to learn to trust one another in order to create a force capable of rescuing humanity from the brink of extinction.

“In creating this gap between Anita and Ichiro, we’re getting into one of the things I love exploring,” Ram told Polygon. “Not only through Dawnrunner, but a lot of my stories, which is this idea that people are fundamentally born to communicate and make connections, regardless of how many things stand between them. Dawnrunner is really a narrative about that, about having to form connections, quite literally across lifetimes in this case, and how that connection then reinforces what Dawnrunner wants to do in this world. It’s a two-pronged narrative about connection and communication, both between a pilot and a mech and between a person and another person.”

A post-apocalyptic mecha-kaiju drama with exquisite illustrations and a resounding emotional throughline, Dawnrunner already feels like one of the most exciting releases of 2024. With only two issues of its planned five-issue run out so far, Ram V and Cagle feel confident about the series’ arc and resolution, while leaving open the possibility of future stories set in the Dawnrunner universe down the line. “I feel like it leaves off, even at the end of this first trade, in a place where we could easily come back and go like, And then next year, this is what happened. But we’ve also got other things planned, and we’d like to see this have its time and grow a little bit before we look at whether to come back to it.”

Dawnrunner issue 2 is available to purchase digitally at Dark Horse Comics and in print wherever comics are sold. A collected edition arrives in November.