An In-Depth Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron (50% Spoiler Free!)

There’s snow on the ground, in the trees, in the air – snow everywhere. The sky is grey and the landscape scrubbed white by winter. We see men in black running; hear shots being fired; words being shouted in a foreign language. Flashes of familiarity rush past – Hawkeye’s arrows; Thor’s lightening; Captain America’s shield; Black Widow’s guns; Hulk smashing; and Iron Man whizzing in and out of view. It seems like confusion, but as they weave and duck in and out of each other’s way a sense of organised chaos begins to emerge, and these seemingly disparate heroes are drawn closer and closer together until they suddenly assemble as one and leap into a beautifully choreographed slow-mo (money) shot.

Iron Man gets the first line: ‘SHIT!’

This is how Avengers: Age of Ultron begins – with a bang, and the pace rarely let’s up from that point to the end. In fact, you may have to run at superhuman speed to keep up with it.

For those who have yet to see it, I will keep this first half of the review relatively spoiler-free, and then head into some major spoiler territory later on to discuss the finer points of the Avengers: Assemble sequel, including how it has laid the ground for spin-offs and further sequels.


Synopsis

 Following the creation of the Avengers Initiative and their success defending New York from an alien invasion lead by Loki (Thor’s Frost-Giant/Asgardian adopted brother), the team are on the hunt for Loki’s pokey-stick which has fallen into the hands of Hydra.

Loki pokey stick

The Loki pokey-stick.

The Avengers successfully obtain the Loki pokey-stick from Baron Von Strucker (manacle-wearing nefarious dude heading up Hydra) despite the efforts of the super-powered Maximoff twins: speedster Quicksilver (who has also appeared in Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past) and his sister the Scarlet Witch who possesses telekinesis and reality-manipulation powers. These two are pissed at Tony Stark as his tech was responsible for killing their parents, and gained their powers through surviving Hydra’s twisted experiments.

Twincest, anybody?

Twincest, anybody?

Back at Avengers tower, Tony convinces Dr. Bruce Banner to help him use the gem contained in the Loki pokey-stick to realise his dream of creating artificial intelligence so that the Earth can be better protected against the threat of alien invasion. He names the project ‘Ultron’. Banner reluctantly agrees, but when Ultron is “born” he attacks Jarvis (Tony’s computer system) and then the off-guard Avengers, interpreting his “mission” from Tony to bring “peace in our time” as the extinction of mankind so that Earth can evolve into something better. “All that shall remain will be metal”.

Ultron: Cover Girl.

Ultron: Cover Girl.

To aid his cause, Ultron recruits the Maximoff twins; equips himself with the strongest metal on Earth (Vibranium) and even decides to create life – the Vision – a more biologically composed version of himself powered by the gem from the Loki pokey-stick.

The Avengers finally track him down to a small city called Sokovia, where Ultron’s plan to destroy the Earth culminates in a difficult moral conundrum for the team: Do they sacrifice the lives of a few for the lives of many?


What does the film do well?

 The biggest question for any sequel is whether it matches up or surpasses the original, and considering just how successful Avengers Assemble was both critically and commercially, this question must have been making director Joss Whedon really sweat during the film’s entire production. Short answer? Yes, it definitely matches up to the quality of the first film and I think some of the audience may say that it even surpasses it. The strongest points of Assemble – a dynamic team made up of distinctive well-written characters kicking butt and snapping jokes – is replicated in Age of Ultron to the same degree of success and entertainment. The difference this time around being that with their group dynamic already established, no time needs to be wasted on introductions and sizing each other up. The pace is full-throttle, the stakes are high, and you’re never quite sure which is more fun: the gang beating the crap out of each other or getting drunk and trying to lift Thor’s hammer (not an innuendo).

Thor Hammer

Totes worthy.

Beyond the explosions, dick jokes, bromance, and Tony Stark’s excellent sunglasses collection, the introduction of artificial intelligence to the Marvel cinematic universe sparks some heated and emotional debates between the team about responsibility, scientific ethics, the ‘greater good’, and complicated parallels between the monstrous and the heroic. Considering this, it is especially fitting that the cyborgian being ‘Vision’ is finally gifted his life by the lightening strike of Thor’s hammer, deliberately invoking the most famous of all artificially made creatures – Frankenstein’s monster.

During the battle for Loki’s pokey-stick at the start of the film, Scarlet Witch uses her reality manipulating mojo to mess with Iron Man’s head and bring to life his greatest fears. In his vision, he sees his fellow Avengers dead and the Earth laid open to an incoming alien invasion that he is powerless to prevent. “We create the things we fear,” Ultron monologues later on. Not only does Scarlet Witch put the fear of God in Tony Stark, but also she allows him to take the gem in the Loki-pokey stick. Does she see a bit of Dr. Frankenstein in Stark and hopes that he will create a monster of his own? It’s not quite clear.


What doesn’t the film do well?

 Let’s get nitpicky. Age of Ultron is a solid and character-led action romp and I have little complaints about it, but I did find a few small things to gripe about concerning Ultron. Ultron, as a follow up to fan-favourite Loki, has some big Asgardian shoes to fill. Does he fill them? Well, nearly. Ultron’s first appearance in corporeal form is a limping, skeletal robot, and dripping with oil – as though he really has been birthed from some sort of artificial womb. Very creepy. The next glimpse of him is even more sinister; as he sits alone in an abandoned church, draped in holy cloth and philosophising to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, he definitely sends out some cool Dr. Doom vibes (the Fantastic Four’s arch nemesis and perhaps Marvel’s most melodramatic of villains).

Ultron on his Throne

Age of DOOM.

However, as Ultron’s character develops – and the more he tries to distinguish himself from his baby-daddy Tony Stark – the more like wise-cracking Stark he sounds. Seeing as he essentially copied and pasted a large part of Stark’s personality, this makes sense. After all, if Stark did create what he fears, his narcissism means that he fears himself most. Ultron is all the worst parts of his personality. But, personally I wanted more psychopath and less jokes as the comedy kind of lessened his menace.

My other little gripe with Ultron is a mild spoiler, so you may want to skip this paragraph if you don’t want to hear any. Without revealing too much, Black Widow becomes Ultron’s prisoner for a short time in the second act. Whilst imprisoned by him, she is able to alert Hawkeye to Ultron’s location, and is then able to escape. There’s one big problem with this: Why did Ultron even imprison her in the first place? Why didn’t he kill her? His first directive – before global destruction – is to destroy the Avengers. He has one right in front of him… and doesn’t kill her. If he wanted her to draw the Avengers into a trap, then why didn’t he kill her once her purpose was served? It seems a little sloppy for a supremely intelligent robot. If anyone can offer up an explanation I’d be happy to hear it.


MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

 If you’ve seen the film already, or if you’re okay with spoilers, then keep reading. If not, STOP. You’ve been warned.

Right, for those still reading, let’s discuss some finer points of the story and uncover some of the teasers dropped for Infinity War, Civil War, and other upcoming Marvel films that may or may not be about wars.


 Black Widow & Bruce Banner

Black Widow and Hulk

What is love, baby don’t hurt me… No seriously, don’t hurt me plz.

 Who’d have thought it, right? I mean, these two? The pairing up of Widow and Banner is a bold step away from the continuity of the comics, but provides a clear point of separation between them and Marvel’s cinematic universe, which I think is necessary. For the comic book fans scratching their heads at Widow and Hulk’s compatibility, the film again uses its central theme of the monstrous twinned with the heroic as an explanation. At Hawkeye’s safehouse, Bruce tries to dissuade Natasha from pursuing a romantic relationship with him, reminding her of the green-skinned danger she could be in. She in turn reveals to him that she too harbours a ‘monstrous’ secret. During her training as an assassin she was sterilised in order to also sterilise any empathy that may make her less efficient in her murderous profession. As a woman who cannot have children, she implies that she too feels less than human, and seeing her interact with Hawkeye’s children so affectionately brings this pain to the surface.

Hawkeye’s loving and naturally created family also provides a stark contrast to the man-made monstrosity of Ultron grown in a lab by two “mad scientists”. As the AI genre always dictates, meddling with the natural order of things produces wholly unnatural children.


Infinity War: Part 1 & 2 (2018 & 2019)

Avengers Infinity Wars

 THIS is what Marvel has been building towards since the end of Phase One and throughout Phase Two. To cut to the chase, the infinity gems are super powerful on a cosmic level, and when collected together form the infinity gauntlet, which the maniacal Titan Thanos (the big-chinned pink dude first seen in Avengers Assemble) is looking to possess for universal annihilation. For a comprehensive summary on which gem has appeared in which film so far, check out this article on Screen Rant.

In Age of Ultron, we get the first name drop for the infinity gems from the beautiful bearded mouth of Thor. After Scarlet Witch gives Thor a scary vision of a dark Asgardian brothel (?) complete with creepy dancing girls and a blind Heimdall, Thor also glimpses a red face for a split second. He decides to take time out from the main plot to visit his old drinking buddy Dr Selvig, who takes him to a mystical pool (yes, this really happens) that enables Thor to see his vision again.

Thor

You mind doing that scene again but slower, Chris?

Meanwhile, nerd-mates Tony Stark and Bruce Banner decide to mess with the natural order of things once more and put the not dead Jarvis into the bio-tech hybrid body Ultron has been creating for himself. Just as Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Hawkeye arrive to shut the fun down, Thor storms (literally) through the ceiling to bring the body to life with his lightening, having ascertained that the face he saw in his vision was The Vision. At the centre of the Vision’s power – and forehead – is the gem from the Loki pokey stick. Whether this gem is an infinity gem or not is kind of up to debate at the moment, especially since the gems’ colours have changed in translation from page to screen, but seeing as Loki used it to take control of people’s minds previously, it seems to be a safe bet that it’s the Mind gem.

Vision

Ummmm.

Then there’s Thanos’ little cameo in the post-credits scene. This is the most intriguing Infinity Wars teaser of the film. We see Thanos reaching out towards the gauntlet, pulling it over his fist, and uttering: “Fine. I’ll do it myself.”

WHAT?!

Was Thanos in control this whole time?? I mean, Thor does mention that he suspects someone has been “pulling the strings” when he explains what the infinity gems are. But if so, what has Thanos even been controlling? Could it have been that strangely fortuitous moment when the formula for creating Ultron just magically solved itself the second Banner and Tony left the lab? Or maybe it was the moment that Scarlet Witch decided to let Tony take the Loki pokey-stick? Or is his pawns failing him in Guardians of the Galaxy? I NEED TO KNOW MARVEL.


Civil War (2016)

Civil War

 Those not familiar with the comics would have probably missed any Civil War hints, but for the eagle-eyed (and eared) fans, there were some palpable undercurrents of what is to come nestled in the dialogue. Most notably, the existing tension between Captain America and Iron Man resurfaces more than once as they clash on some fundamental ethical issues surrounding Stark’s way of doing things. This is essential for the prelude to Civil War, which pits Cap and Iron Man squarely against each other upon the introduction of the Superhero Registration Act.

Plus, given the mass destruction that is dealt by the team to various miscellaneous Asian and East European cities, it’s not a jump to expect that public opinion will start to turn sour towards the self-proclaimed ‘heroes’ that have essentially been cleaning up their own messes, and the registration act seeming more and more imminent to curve their activities.


Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther

The most obvious hints at the Black Panther film was the visit to Wakanda – home of the Panther – and the name check for Vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth that makes up both Cap’s shield and Ultron’s armour.

But I have reason to suspect that there was originally supposed to be a lot more featured from Wakanda than the final cut of the film gave us. Cast your memory back to the trailers for Age of Ultron and you may remember a shot of what appeared to be a woman disrobing in front of the mystic pool that Thor took a dip in to go down memory lane. This woman appeared to be African, and many assumed she was Wakandian. This entire scene was interestingly nowhere to be seen in the cut of Age of Ultron that I saw here in the UK.

Woman in the Cave

Who dat?

One plausible explanation is that Black Panther was originally going to fulfil the important role that Spider-Man plays in the Civil War story, but after Marvel retrieved the rights back from Sony for the web-slinger, Whedon could have been forced to take some Black Panther content out at the last minute as it was no longer important to establish his presence strongly. But that’s just a theory… A comic book movie theory. (Sorry MatPat, I couldn’t resist.)


Written by Hannah Collins. Check out her own blog on pop culture and gender representation here.

For original manga-inspired comics, head to the Cosmic Anvil website and Comixology.

Advertisements

Sacred Blacksmith by Kotaro Yomada

 The Sacred Blacksmith or Seiken no Burakkusumisu is a fantastical story about knights, demons, medieval melodrama, magical swords, and reincarnation. At its core, however, it is essentially a story about a young woman asserting herself in a man’s world. In light of this it might be surprising to learn that the manga’s key demographic in Japan is the ‘Seinen’ audience – young to middle-aged men. Seinen stories are primarily characterised by soft-core sexual content and a female protagonist, but rather than rely solely on the usual fan service to satisfy male readers (panty shots, accidental nudity, nosebleeds, etc.) Sacred Blacksmith uses its genre trappings to instead highlight the causes and consequences of sexual violence with chilling realism, and handles it better than most live-action representations I’ve seen.

The Sacred Blacksmith began life as light novel series by Isao Miura with illustrations by Luna. The manga adaptation by Kotaro Yamada has been serialised in Monthly Comic Book Alive since 2009, and the (criminally short) 12-episode anime from Manglobe also aired in 2009. It’s hero is Cecily Campbell, a young woman who dreams of becoming a great knight like her Father. The problem is… Cecily doesn’t have a clue how to be a knight. In fact, she’s pretty useless at it. That is, until she teams up with Aria – a formidable spiritual sword who can take the form of a human – and Luke Ainsworth, a grumpy and isolated master Blacksmith who is attempting to forge a sword powerful enough to take out the evil presence that plagues the medieval world they live in. Aria quickly becomes Cecily’s ally and best friend, but Luke takes a lot more convincing. This is not because Luke has any prejudice against women (evidenced by his female assistant, Lisa) but simply because he finds Cecily’s incompetence really annoying.

cosmic anvil recommends review comic manga anime sacred blacksmith

(From left to right) Cecily, Luke, Aria, and Lisa

Cecily, however, is unrelentingly ambitious, and slowly manages to become better and better at wielding Aria, and far more confident in battle. Luke finds that as their paths continuously cross, and Lisa and Aria conspire to push the two together, he begins to see past his initial impression of Cecily as a bumbling idiot and instead as a valuable ally and equal. These feelings predictably intensify into more romantic ones, but as Luke seems unsure if Cecily returns these feelings, he remains at a respectful distance from her… for now, anyway.

cosmic anvil recommends review comic manga anime sacred blacksmith

Shall we dance…?

Cecily and Luke’s tentative and courteous relationship throughout the story is put into stark contrast with Cecily’s encounters with the villain of the story – Siegfried. Siegfried is your standard ‘insert-villain-here’ kind of villain: power-hungry, ruthless, and very, very creepy. This creepiness doesn’t take long to become predatory, culminating in one of the most shocking moments I’ve ever come across in my years of reading comics and manga.

It comes after Cecily manages to claim a significant victory over Siegfried, and he – humiliated – physically and sexually assaults her when she is alone and off-guard. His intention is to not only humiliate her in the way she did him, but to demonstrate both his power over her as an enemy and, more importantly, as a man over a woman. He doesn’t even need to actually carry out the ‘act’ fully because the implication is enough, and the implication is that it would certainly not be a sexual act rooted in lust, but a violent one rooted in sadism. The ordeal is quite honestly extremely difficult to read – as you would expect it to be – but perhaps equally heart breaking is seeing the effect it has on Cecily, who is utterly psychologically destroyed by it.

cosmic anvil recommends review comic manga anime sacred blacksmith

Cecily’s inner turmoil.

This internal collapse is physically represented – and powerfully visualised – by Cecily shutting herself away in bed at home, curled up under the covers with the curtains drawn, closed off to all of her friends and family. Aria tries to console her, but gets nowhere. Cecily seems to suffer in silence for many painful weeks. It is unclear if Siegfried’s actions are unique to his cruel character, or symptomatic of a larger culture of sexual violence in that world, but either way, the effect on Cecily would be the same. In a manga that had been fairly sweet natured up until this point, the gritty brutality of this arc was rendered all the more shocking to me, but I was also impressed at the balance of realism, brutality, and delicacy that Yomada conveyed through art and text, and all the more endeared to Cecily. I was reminded of a scene in the film G.I Jane (1997) which told the story of Jordan O’Neil – the first woman to go through a male-exclusive Navy Seal training programme, the toughest in the world. In the scene, the harsh reality of being prisoners of war is demonstrated to the new recruits, and to their horror, Master Chief Urgayle graphically simulates raping O’Neil to coldly remind them of the horrible fact that sexual abuse is used as torture in war. Broadly speaking, he is also reminding O’Neil that she truly is a woman in a man’s world, and could be taken advantage of in ways that her male peers probably wouldn’t. The only difference between G.I Jane and Sacred Blacksmith is that O’Neil’s abuse was simulated, but Cecily’s was all too real.

cosmic anvil recommends review comic manga anime sacred blacksmith G.I Jane

G.I Jane – the harsh reality of war?

My expectation in Sacred Blacksmith was that Cecily would eventually confide in Luke leaving him to enact revenge on Siegfried as the resident valiant ‘Prince Charming’, but I was glad when this expectation turned out to be completely wrong. Instead – as you would hope from a self-motivated woman of action – Cecily manages to not only come to terms with the ordeal, but faces down Siegfried again with Aria in hand. Luke does aid her in doing this and there is an implication that he has some idea of what may have happened, but I don’t think this detracts from the significance of Cecily standing up to her attacker and finding strength as a survivor rather than continue to feel defeated as a victim. In fact, when Luke steps in to confront Siegfried alongside Cecily, he does so not as Cecily’s protector or superior, but as her friend and ally outraged on her behalf.

cosmic anvil recommends review comic manga anime sacred blacksmith

Luke has had enough of this shit.

The ‘woman in a man’s world’ trope maybe a well worn one, as is the ‘clumsy girl who learns strength through fighting’ one. And although Sacred Blacksmith doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it is ultimately Cecily Campbell’s inner strength that pulls her through one of the toughest ordeals a woman can face, and handled with the appropriate mix of shock, brutality, and sensitivity through the beautifully drawn art. And don’t forget – this is all in a story aimed at young men.


Written by Hannah Collins, writer of the iwantedwings blog.

@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in comic and children’s book illustration. Check out her portfolio here.

Don’t forget to check out the official Cosmic Anvil website for our original creator made comics!

Black Butler by Yana Toboso

Written and drawn by Yana Toboso, Black Butler, or Kuroshitsuji, is a Victorian supernatural fairy story like no other. Dark, weird, and classically gothic, this manga is fantastically written, stunningly drawn, and hugely loved both in and outside of Japan. It’s popularity is so strong in fact that its franchise has stretched beyond the manga series and anime adaptations, but also into a video game, a live-action film, and even two musical productions (only in Japan, unfortunately).

Poster for the first Black Butler live action cinematic adaptation

Poster for the first Black Butler live action cinematic adaptation

Despite volumes of the manga selling millions of copies, Black Butler is surprisingly not ranked highly in lists of the most popular manga on sale at the moment, but what sets it apart from most of its competition is the level of adoration and demand for cross-platform adaptations. The fans aren’t just satisfied with reading the story – they want the story to be as real and interactive as possible.

This only leaves one question: What is it about this manga that’s so special?

For starters – and I know this word is overused – it’s truly unique. I love manga, but like any established medium, so much of it is stuffed with generic tropes, fan service gimmicks, and ‘this-seems-very-familiar’ premises. The genres and sub-genres – although endlessly abundant – are also incredibly rigid, and most authors seem to prefer to play it safe within these genres, telling the kinds of high-school romance or action-adventure stories that the audience is used to reading and therefore easy to sell. However, it serves to note that the biggest sellers at the moment – One Piece, Attack on Titan, Naruto, Magi and Kuroko’s Basket – are actually very distinctive, showing that if an original idea catches people’s imaginations, it can really take off.

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

Magi Manga Cover

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

Kuroko’s Basketball Manga Cover

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

Naruto Manga Cover

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

Attack on Titan Manga Cover

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

One Piece Manga Cover

Black Butler is a manga that has certainly achieved this. Set in Victorian England, the story revolves around 13-year-old Earl Ciel Phantomhive; orphaned on his tenth birthday when his parents were killed in a mysterious fire. Upon their death, Ciel vowed revenge, and inadvertently summoned a demon – Sebastian Michaelis – whom he made a deal with: To help him enact his revenge in exchange for his soul. Until that day arrives, Sebastian poses as Ciel’s butler and aids him in fulfilling his family’s duties as Queen Victoria’s ‘Watchdog,’ solving crimes in London’s gritty underworld while facing other paranormal beings along the way. Even in the worn-out supernatural genre, it’s a pretty interesting set-up.

The characters, however, are the real heart of the series. Ciel Phantomhive is far from your typical 13-year-old boy. Despite running his family’s toy company, he has little time or interest in childish pursuits – preferring to spend his time reading the newspaper, intimidating businessmen, indulging in Victorian High-Tea, and picking over crime scenes with his tailor-made cane and permanent frown of disdain.

black butler anime manga cosmic anvil recommends

Ciel Phantomhive

Sebastian Michaelis is quite simply what he says he is: “One Hell of butler.” He can do everything from cooking a three-course dinner from scratch in under an hour; to taking out armed mobsters armed only silverware. His demonic powers essentially give him enhanced strength, speed and invulnerability, but his slim physique and feline elegance are more reminiscent of Catwoman than Superman. Despite taking on a male guise, there are subtle hints throughout the story that Sebastian is in fact gender-neutral, which, coupled with his graceful but deadly demeanour, makes him a mysterious and unpredictable presence.

cosmic anvil recommends black butler manga anime

Sebastian Michaelis

Sebastian also becomes the unwitting object of affection for rogue Grim Reaper (and fan favourite) Grell Sutcliffe. Grell’s sexuality is never openly discussed, but the batting of his eye lashes, the shimmy in his walk, and a certain Titanic re-enactment scene (pictured below) – not to mention his constant fawning over Sebastian’s assumed-male body – make it pretty clear what kind of stereotype he is supposed to be (…or perhaps not if you take a look at this interesting forum debate between fans). Whilst Grell is genuinely endearing, this comedic but negative stereotyping of gay men and women as camp, sexually devious, and always chasing after people they can’t get is unfortunately common in manga/anime of this genre. Sebastian’s indefinable character draws strength from exactly the opposite.

cosmic anvil recommends black butler anime manga

Every night in my dreams, I see you… I feel you…

The dynamic between Ciel and Sebastian is often mistaken for something perversely sexual and has inspired a wealth of, uh, not so tasteful fan fiction and art, but though I agree it is a perverse relationship, it’s certainly not a romantic one. Despite Toboso’s seductively penned expressions and glove removal sequences, Sebastian actually has no discernable sexuality. It is more of an unhealthy co-dependency to satiate unhealthy desires that he and Ciel share. For Ciel, it is the desire for revenge, and for Sebastian, it is the desire to consume Ciel’s soul. Sebastian – like the witch in the Hansel and Gretel legend – is ‘fattening’ Ciel’s soul up as he helps Ciel get closer and closer to his ultimate goal. In that role, Sebastian appears caring, nurturing, and protective, and sometimes it seems that even Ciel mistakes this for the guidance and companionship he has been missing in the wake of his parent’s demise, forgetting that behind beneath his loyal butler’s skin beats the dark heart of a predator.

cosmic anvil recommends black butler anime mange

“One Hell of a Butler.”

Although there is something negative to be found in the twinning of androgyny with the monstrous, I think that what Toboso ultimately proves by playing on that connection in Black Butler is that we are perhaps more uncomfortable with androgyny then demonism, and this is the story’s unique appeal. The glimpses of Sebastian in his feminised demon form are more tantalising than his acts of inhuman strength and violence. Sebastian’s gender is a riddle that we – as readers in a gendered society – long to solve.

Written by Hannah Collins, writer of the iwantedwings blog.

@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in comic book and children’s book illustration. Check out her website here if you’ve got a project you want to bring to life with bespoke artwork 🙂

Don’t forget to check out the official Cosmic Anvil website for our original creator made comics!

Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP

It gives me HUGE pleasure this week to write about a manga that is so close to my heart I will physically hurt anyone that has a bad word to say about it. (Or maybe just cry a little.)

My first experience of Cardcaptor Sakura or Cardcaptors falls into the ‘Dubbed-Anime-That-You-Watched-as–a-Kid-in-the-90s-and-Didn’t-Know-it-Was-Anime’ category. A category that is also occupied for me – and probably most other people of my generation – by shows like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Digimon, and Dragon Ball. Cardcaptor Sakura (CCS) belongs to the ‘magic girl’ genre, and on the surface looks a bit like Sailor Moon – its closest contemporary comparison – but for younger girls, as the ages of the main group fall around 10 – 12 years old. Given this, and its ridiculously saccharine appearance, you could be forgiven for dismissing it as typical shŌjo (‘young girl’ in Japanese) fare. However, upon re-watching the anime in it’s original Japanese language format and reading the manga it was based on, I was surprised at the quality of the artistry, the depth of the storytelling, and the how much I connected emotionally with the characters.

Cardcaptor Sakura CLAMP Cardcaptors Manga Shojo Girl's Anime

Cardcaptor Sakura Anime

CCS was serialised in the magazine Nakayoshi between 1996 and 2000, and created by the all-female artist/writer group Clamp. It has since been collected into 12 volumes, and adapted into a 70 episode anime series and two films. I’ll summarise the story as briefly – and spoiler-free-y – as I can: The titular character – Sakura Kinomoto – is the daughter of a single father (her mother is dead) and sister of older brother, Toya (or ‘Tory’ in the English dub of the anime). The story begins with Sakura accidentally releasing a set of magical cards called ‘Clow cards’ that she discovers in a book in her father’s study. This simultaneously releases latent magical abilities within her that are connected to the cards, as well as the story’s mascot – Cerberus (nicknamed ‘Kero’) – who tells her that he is the ‘Guardian’ of the cards and tasks her to collect all of the cards that she set free. Sakura must battle the magical personification of each card’s power – e.g. Water, Wind, Fire, Jump, Fly, Mirror, etc. – in order to capture it, aided by Kero; her best friend Tomoyo Daidouji (‘Madison Taylor’ in the dub) and Chinese transfer student Syaoran Li (‘Li Showron’ in the dub, which borders on the phonetically offensive now that I’m seeing it written down…)

Cardcaptor Sakura CLAMP Cardcaptors Manga Shojo Girl's Anime

Tomoyo Daidouji or ‘Madison Taylor.’

The quirkiness of these sidekick characters is one of the things that set CCS apart from others of its genre. Kero is a street talkin’ dude (apparently from Osaka, which the writers tell you is basically the New York of Japan – or more specifically the Brooklyn of Japan) who can’t get enough pudding and lives in Sakura’s sock drawer.

Tomoyo plays the BFF role with heavy emphasis on the ‘Forever’ part and serves the shŌjo fans well by tailoring Sakura a new combat outfit for every battle. Except when I say ‘combat outfit’ I’m talking bows, fake ears, bells, frills, and hats, oh so many hats… Sakura still kicks major butt though, despite the frilliness of her skirt. (Adorable fact: At the end of every episode of the anime, Kero does a post-credit ‘spotlight’ on each outfit wearing a bow tie and smoking a pipe, which continually begs the question: Just how old is Kero and should we be worried about that sock drawer?)

Cardcaptor Sakura CLAMP Cardcaptors Manga Shojo Girl's Anime

Kero-chan!

Syaoran is basically a middle-aged man trapped in a child’s body. Not literally. He is grumpy, awkward, and so very desperate to be the hero, which makes it even more hilarious to see him get all huffy and jittery when things don’t go his way. At first he looks down on Sakura as though she were a bumbling idiot, but over time he grows to see her as a rival and equal, and then as a true friend. Beyond that, his feelings apparently get so complicated it takes the entire stretch of the manga and two films post-series to sort them out. (Who am I to complain though, I love those films…)

Cardcaptor Sakura CLAMP Cardcaptors Manga Shojo Girl's Anime

Grumpy Syaoran is grumpy.

There’s a lot to love about the central heroine too. Yes, Sakura is clumsy, cutesy, boy-obsessed, and naïve, but she’s also brave, loyal, eager, gutsy, and earnest. For a 10-year-old she also takes on a lot of responsibilities – staying late after school doing extra chores, cooking and cleaning around the house, going shopping with her friends completely un-chaperoned, and of course the small task of collecting all those rogue Clow cards that keep threatening to destroy the city and/or her friends and family. Perhaps this is in fact the reality for every Japanese child.

Cardcaptor Sakura CLAMP Cardcaptors Manga Shojo Girl's Anime

RELEEEEAAASSSE!

What you wouldn’t expect of such an innocent and well-meaning manga/anime is for it to be subject to any form of censorship. Yet, when the anime was shipped to the US to be dubbed, it was so heavily hacked up that certain key subplots and character dynamics were either gone or drastically altered. This was more than just removing cigarettes and violence, as was the case for other shows; it completely changed the way the English-speaking audience viewed it. In the interests of keeping this as spoiler-free as possible, I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that certain relationships between certain characters were put firmly back in the closet. Things like this may seem small, but they had a detrimental effect overall. As a show that is so much more than the sum of its parts, this harsh editing sucked out a lot of the fun minor details that fleshed the show and its characters out into real, loveable people. In short, if you’re going to watch the anime, don’t waste your time watching it dubbed.

The theme song is still pretty good though:

Written by Hannah Collins.

6 Kids Cartoons Adventure Time Fans Should Be Watching

It’s a cartoon special this week! Thirsty for more adventure? More wackiness? More epicosity? This week we’re taking a break from the world of comics and manga recommendations to count down our top 6 (because 5 just wasn’t enough…) kids cartoons – other than Adventure Time – that you should really be watching right now:

Bravest Warriors

Bravest Warriors

  1. Bravest Warriors

Channel: You Tube/Cartoon Hangover

Creator: Pendleton Ward

If you’re already an Adventure Time fan, then Bravest Warriors is a pretty easy sell when you realise that they share the same creative talents of Pendleton Ward. Set in the year 3085, the show revolves around Ward’s version of the Teen Titans as they travel around weird and wonderful parts of the universe having weird and wonderful adventures. Although it is aimed at a more mature audience than Adventure Time – with references to beer and a cheeky elf named, um, ‘Wankershim’ – it still feels very much like a kid’s show at heart, full of adorable creatures, punchy slang, bizarre plot lines, and heavy emphasis on friendship and emotion.

The beauty of Ward’s distinctive storytelling method is that events unfold in a seemingly random way on the surface, but upon closer inspection clearly rely on their own internal logic, with the seeds for overarching story arcs hinted at way before they come to fruition. That feeling of ‘randomness’ makes each episode wonderfully unpredictable, fresh, and organic.

Just remember: It’s always been Wankershim!

 

Regular Show

Regular Show

  1. Regular Show

       Channel: Cartoon Network

       Creator: JG Quintel

Although superficially very different, Regular Show and Bravest Warriors actually have a lot in common. Both are shows whose target audience is adults, but very much have the same appeal as a kid’s show (and certainly more appropriate for kids than other brands of adult cartoon, i.e. anything made by Seth McFarlane). Both of their respective creators also attended and befriended each other at The California Institute of the Arts and went on to work on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack at Cartoon Network Studios together. Ward and Quintel also provide the voices of main characters in their shows, and this ‘hands-on’ approach to their creations keeps their shows consistently true to their unique creative visions.

Quintel’s Regular Show revolves around the lives of two minimum wage groundskeepers, Modecai – a blue jay – and Rigby – a racoon, who spend most of their time avoiding work and being inadvertently sucked into unusual situations involving things like portals to alternate dimensions and the ghosts of guys from the 1980s who partied too hard. The show also features a beautiful watercolour-wash effect in its art; naturalistic dialogue in its scripting; and references to obscure 1980s/1990s pop culture and media that – through surreal reinterpretations – manage not to isolate any younger viewers.

And if that wasn’t persuasion enough, Mark Hamill voices an immortal yeti in it called Skips. Enough said.

Teen Titans GO!

Teen Titans GO!

  1. Teen Titans GO!

       Channel: Cartoon Network

Creators: Glen Murakami & Sam Register

       Developers: Michael Jelenic & Aaron Horvath

The original cartoon incarnation of DC comics’ Teen Titans in 2003 was nothing short of perfection. Dramatic, funny, touching, stylish, and hugely entertaining; it’s no surprise that cartoon guru Bruce Timm and his protégé Glen Murakami were involved in it’s development. It’s no understatement that I – and many others – was heartbroken when the series finally ended in 2008, and then overjoyed when its return was announced in 2013 following a series of popular shorts by DC Nation.

But, hold on… this wasn’t going to be the same show that we knew and loved. Following the equally superb DC comics’ based series Young Justice getting (criminally) cancelled in 2013 after just 2 seasons, it became clear that Warner Bros. was going in another direction with it’s DC owned properties, and that direction was: wacky. ‘More wack! The kids love the wack these days what with that Adventure Time thing…’ the network execs probably said to each other. And more ‘wack’ is exactly what we got with the rebirth of Teen Titans as Teen Titans GO!

This version focuses on the antics that the team get up to in between all the serious crime-fighting stuff, and is suitably rendered in the chibi ‘deformed body’ style that some of the gag cutaways were done in during the original show. As such, stories for episodes are as simple as: Cyborg and Beast Boy can only say ‘waffles’ all day; Raven starts a book club; Robin gets driving lessons, etc. All of which are peppered with Internet humour, quirky cutaways, and musical montages.

Some fans have taken against this new direction, and although I do miss the original sorely, I’d rather the show was on TV in some form or another than not at all. Plus, sorry to the haters, but it really does make me laugh.

The Amazing World of Gumball

The Amazing World of Gumball

  1. The Amazing World of Gumball

       Channel: Cartoon Network

       Creator: Ben Becquelet

The Amazing World of Gumball centres on Gumball Watterson – a blue cat – and his pet talking goldfish – Darwin – who grew legs one day and now exists as his adopted brother. The pair attend Elmore Elementary School, which is inhabited by an eclectic mix of characters such as a banana, a female T-Rex, a balloon, a peanut shell with moose ears, a potted flower, an Emo ghost, and – my personal favourite – a human upside-down chin with a face drawn on, to name only a few.

The most distinctive quality of The Amazing World of Gumball though is its ingenious collagic mix of 3D and 2D animation. Characters range from 3D computer models, to 2D flat drawings, to real objects with googly-eyes and mouths drawn on; and backgrounds are real images of peaceful American suburbia. This assorted visual tapestry merges well with plots that frequently unravel from typical family sit-com scenarios into chaos, accompanied by highly-strung, fast-paced voice acting from actual children who are not afraid to go from a whisper to a screech in an instant. Amongst all the chaos however, is an abundance of sheer warmth and vitality that few kid’s cartoons ever manage to achieve.

Gravity Falls

Gravity Falls

  1. Gravity Falls

       Channel: Disney Channel and Disney X D

       Creator: Alex Hirsch

What do you get when you cross summer vacation, Oregon, grumpy elderly relatives, conspiracy theories, and an amazing jumper collection? Gravity Falls.

Created by another California Arts alumni, Alex Hirsch – who also voices two of the show’s main characters – Gravity Falls follows the summer vacation exploits of twins, Dipper and Mabel Pines, who are sent to stay with their Grunkle (Great + Uncle) Stan in his ‘Mystery Shack.’ Together with Handyman Soos and gift shop attendant Wendy, they discover the spooky mysteries of the fictional town of Gravity Falls with the help of a strange journal marked ‘3’ that Dipper discovers in the woods.

The strengths of the show are two-fold:

  1. It is genuinely creepy, and
  2. It is genuinely funny.

Combine this with excellent characterisation and fantastic voice acting – particularly from Kristen Schaal who voices Mabel – and you have the recipe for a loyal and enthusiastic fan base of children and young adults alike.

Most of the monsters that inhabit the town are well-worn supernatural and science fiction tropes – haunted wax works, time-travelling scientists, shape shifting creatures, underwater serpents, zombies, etc. – but the real underpinning of the show is the conspiratorial thread that connects each of these occurrences. Hidden patterns, ciphers, codes, and repeated motifs feature regularly and cleverly riff on the suspicions and fears of Internet Illuminati enthusiasts. The antagonist – Bill Cipher – an inter-dimensional demon in the form of a floating yellow pyramid with a single eye and dapper top hat is a clear reference to the Eye of Providence that appears on the American dollar bill, which itself is associated with Freemasonry.

Bill Cipher

Bill Cipher

This attention to detail runs through every element of the show, including its comedic elements: Mabel’s brilliant jumper collection; the post-credits gags; Waddles the pig; Grenda’s masculine voice; Xyler and Craz from ‘Dream Boy High’… This is a show you will definitely want to catch the reruns of.

The Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra

  1. The Legend of Korra

Channel: Nickolodeon

Creators: Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko

Let me take you back all the way to 2005. Teenage me wakes up bleary-eyed mid-morning on a Saturday. I wonder downstairs. My sister is sitting in the living room holding a DVD. ‘I’ve recorded a cartoon I watched this morning.’ She says, thrusting the aforementioned DVD at me. ‘You have to watch it.’ That recorded cartoon was the first two episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which aired on CiTV on Saturday mornings in the UK. We didn’t have catch-up TV at the time, so the effort of recording onto a blank disc was reserved for truly ‘must-watch’ stuff. No other show was more deserving of that saintly title than the Avatar series, and we diligently recorded every episode of that show from start to finish until we could buy them on the official DVD releases.

The reason for that little insight into my yesteryears is to convey the nostalgia that I – like many fans of my age group – feel for the original Avatar series, and what has perhaps led some to turn their noses up at its sequel, The Legend of Korra. The original series followed the trials and adventures of 12 year-old Aang – the ‘Avatar’ and master of the four elements – and his friends (‘Team Avatar’) as they seek to bring peace to a world ravaged by war from the over-powered Fire Nation. The series took strong inspiration from Eastern philosophies of balance; reincarnation; harmony between spirits and humans; as well as martial arts, and this also heavily influenced its aesthetic to the point at which many mistake it for an anime.

Avatar Aang from The Last Airbender Series

Avatar Aang from The Last Airbender Series

The Legend of Korra is a sequel series that takes place 100 years after the events of the first. It follows Korra, the successive Avatar to Aang, as she struggles to find her place in a fast-changing world in which industrialism and ideological challenges to the Monarchic ruling system perpetually disrupt the balance that she – as the Avatar – is tasked to keep. And yes – this is show is aimed at kids.

Some fans of the original series complain that the sequel is much weaker, but I can’t help but think that nostalgia impacts heavily on this, as the viewers I know who have discovered Avatar through Korra do not seem to harbour the same feelings. Thematically, the two shows can be seen as perfect inversions of one another: Whereas Aang struggled to accept his role in a world that desperately needed him, Korra struggles to assert her relevance in a world that constantly reject her. The Aang series was also largely character-driven, whereas the Korra series is largely story-driven. Whilst the Aang series had a single overarching story, Korra faces a new adversary in every series, with far more side-characters and subplots making up the story of each episode.

Korra’s production has also been plagued by a seemingly conscious effort by Nickolodeon to get rid of its most critically acclaimed show as fast as possible. From slashing its budget to taking it off-air completely, the network’s treatment of the show has sadly tainted the online airing of its final ever series, much to the anger of its fiercely loyal fan base.

Despite all this, Avatar remains quite simply one of the greatest cartoons ever created; striking the perfect balance between kid’s and adult animation that is only really matched by the likes of Toy Story. The world is steeped in rich history; the characters are loveable and believable; the adversaries are complex and often morally ambiguous; and the creators manage to distil mature emotional, political, and socioeconomic themes into digestible narrative and dialogue that anyone of any age can understand.

The world of Avatar is one that you will want to revisit time and time again long after its final episode airs.

Next week, we continue our cartoon special with a another list of top shows you should be watching!

Young Avengers: Style > Substance by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie

“Read the book that understands that hyperbole is the BEST! THING! EVER!”

Phonogram: Rue Britannia Cover

Phonogram: Rue Britannia Cover

One of the great joys of the comics industry for me is following a writer and artist partnership from success to success. I borrowed Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram: Rue Britannia from my local library – which was my one-stop-shop for graphic novels and manga when I was teenager (because I was just that cool.) Mixing Britpop, mysticism, and a distinctively British dark sense of humour, Phonogram’s black and white world left such a lasting impression on me; I instantly bought Marvel’s Young Avengers: Style > Substance without a second thought upon seeing their familiar names on the cover.

I had already been following the YA through creators’ Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s run, and as a huge Teen Titans fan, I think it was pretty easy for me to also fall in love with Marvel’s teen equivalent. But if it was Heinberg and Cheung who got me to bite, it was Gillen and McKelvie’s subsequent run that got me hooked and reminded me just how good they were together.

I’ve always thought that the hardest thing about writing as a teenage character is that you’re never really the right age to do it. Children can’t do it because they’ve obviously never experienced it, teenagers themselves can’t do it because they’re too close to it to have any proper perspective, and adults can’t do it because they can’t remember it properly. It’s a hard job… but not impossible. Gillen not only cracks it in YA, but he makes it look easy, and beyond even that – he makes it look convincing.

“I have no powers and not nearly enough training. But I’m doing this anyway. Being a Super Hero is amazing. Everyone should try it.”

The underpinning of Gillen’s writing on YA amplifies relatable and believable problems and heartaches of everyday teenagers through their larger-than-life super-powers within the chaotic and bizarre Marvel universe around them. This makes it sound deceptively serious, and although there is a fair share of angst and arguing, the thing that makes the book the most appealing is that it’s fun. It’s just really good fun. And the characters are really funny, too. Kid Loki in particular – I mean, how can an amoral Norse God trapped within the body of a teenage boy not be hysterical.

One of the other things that drew me to YA initially was its inclusion of a more diverse character roster. In terms of race, gender, and sexuality, I have to applaud YA for not just using the ‘outsider’ theme as a metaphor, but also actually embodying it with characters such as Patriot, Miss America, Hulkling, and Wiccan. Moreover, I have to applaud Gillen for making Hulkling and Wiccan’s relationship – in particular – more than just ticking an equality and diversity quota box, but fleshing it out into one of the most fully realised and emotionally charged in the Marvel universe that I’ve come across, and one of my favourites.

Hulkling & Wiccan

Hulkling & Wiccan

In terms of the artwork, I’ve been trying to work out why McKelvie’s style resonates with me so much as it’s not the kind of artwork I normally favour. My all-time favourite comic book artists are people like Dave McKean and Alex Ross – artists who are far more painterly and…’fine arty,’ for lack of a better word. However, as a Tintin fan since childhood, I think McKelvie’s clear-line style owes a huge debt to Hérge and makes me all nostalgic and tingly when I see it. It’s also a deceptively hard style to pull off. If you’re someone like Frank Miller with an unrealistic – almost abstract – way of drawing, you can kind of get away with not being a master of anatomy. If you’re a clear-line artist like McKelvie, there’s nothing to hide behind, and of course, he doesn’t need to. His neat and slick approach perfectly meets and compliments Gillen’s similar stylistic execution of the story and dialogue.

McKelvie's GLORIOUS layouts

McKelvie’s GLORIOUS layouts

What I love the most about McKelvie’s artwork for YA in particular though is his layouts. I don’t hear people talking a lot about layouts when they talk about comic artists, but as an artist who is still learning her craft, I really appreciate seeing creative and unique layouts in a book. A layout can be more than just telling the story in a series of pictures – it can be a whole, cohesive idea. Going beyond just square boxes on a comic page takes guts, skill, and most importantly: passion. Someone who is passionate about what they do will always go that extra mile to show that passion off, and seeing a really wacky and fun layout when you turn the page is the earmark of an artist who loves what they do and is also having fun doing it, which makes you as a reader have fun looking at it.

I’ve read YA: Style > Substance twice to date, and there are very few books that I revisit besides well-worn copies of my childhood favourites, so for re-readability alone I recommend it, as well as the other collections – Alternative Cultures and Mic Drop at the Edge of Space and Time. And if you read and like those then please track down Phonogram, too. It needs more love.

Variant Cover by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Variant Cover by Bryan Lee O’Malley

FYI: For die-hard fans, my favourite YA variant issue cover to track down is the one by Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley (pictured right).

Written by Hannah Collins.

JUNK: Record of the Last Hero by Kia Asamiya

Originally Posted on Cosmic Anvil on Friday 29th August 2014.

The cover of JUNK grabbed me as soon as I laid eyes on it: “What is this, some kind of Gothic Power Rangers? Power Rangers: Goth Fury? Power Rangers: Watchmen-Batman-Rises?”

My curiosity was peaked – I had to read it. I was certainly not disappointed.

JUNK: Record of the Last Hero is a tale focused on Hiro Yuuki, a high school student who has become a shut in after being bullied at school. Barely leaving his room, his connections to the world have been narrowed down to his parents, his love interest Ryoko, and the Internet.

JUNK Cover Art

JUNK Cover Art

Online, Hiro stumbles across JUNK. There is no explanation as to what JUNK is exactly, but Hiro signs up anyway. JUNK turns out to be a project that attempts to increase human potential. JUNK Users become empowered by a suit that appears on them when activated. The manga takes a lot of inspiration from Superhero Tokusatsu shows like Super Sentai (Power Rangers), Ultraman, and Kamen Rider (or Masked Rider…anyone remember that?) JUNK, however, takes this genre and puts a dark twist on it. Think of what Frank Miller did to Batman in the 80s, Kia Asamiya has done the same but to the stereotypical Japanese Superhero Tokusatsu genre.

JUNK Page

JUNK Page

 Asamiya asks this: If a person with these powers existed in our world, how would the world react?

JUNK Page

JUNK Page

This isn’t a new concept. Many comic book writers in the 80s applied this question to a variety of Marvel, DC, and original characters, withWatchmen being the most notable. However, up until now I have never seen it applied to Japanese Superheroes. It’s cool as well to see the amount of destruction shown (that is of a typical Japanese Superhero show) has real world consequences, rather than it being A-OK in the next episode.

If I could sum up JUNK in one word, it would definitely be ‘dark’. Violence, sex, drugs… These are just a few of the vulgar and all too real themes that are in this manga. But JUNK also has strong overarching political satire. All good comic books/manga are satires in some shape or form, and JUNK does it to the extreme. That’s not to say that it’s short of laughs though – the characters are sarcastic and just as wacky as any other great Shōnen character. If you are looking for something new (well, it came out in 2004-2007, so relatively new!) and something with a twist on a genre you already love, then JUNK is a strong recommendation from me.

Written by Huw Williams.