The Webcomics Ouevre of Mary Cagle

Since the launch of Kiwi Blitz in 2009, Mary Cagle (alias CubeWatermelon, which is an adorable moniker) has been hitting the internet with comic pages. She followed up Kiwi Blitz, a still-running comic about teenagers fighting crime with a giant avian robot, with Let’s Speak English, an autobiographical gag comic about her time teaching English in Japan, and most recently Sleepless Domain, a unique and delightful comic about Magical Girls who protect their city from monsters in the wee hours of the night. Her comics are notable for their gorgeous colors (LSE, which is uncolored, excepted), distinctive characters, and round cartoon style. Although none of these have exploded in popularity like some of the classic webcomics of old (although, really, what has? Has any webcomic really blown up since Homestuck took off like a rocket?), I discovered all three within about a year of each other, and I’ve enjoyed them greatly, which inspired me to do one big post reviewing all three.

I struggled to decide what order to discuss them in, because the order I read them in is completely different from the order of publication, and each one has colored my view of the one that I read next. In the end, I decided to review them in the order I found them in: Let’s Speak English, then Sleepless Domain, and then finally Kiwi Blitz.

Let’s Speak English

Beginning in 2014 and continuing for nearly two years, Let’s Speak English chronicles Mary Cagle’s time spent in Japan, teaching English to small children. At the time when I discovered this comic, I was in China doing much the same thing, so it spoke to me! China and Japan are obviously very different countries, but the exploits of her students were very relatable to me, and there are definitely some things in common about living as a foreigner in each country.

Like this.

Most of the strips are 4-panel vertical gag comics, although Cagle does occasionally go into larger pages with classic panel layouts when she wants to recount an experience or answer a question in more detail. The art is inked lineart – largely unshaded, except occasionally for effect – and heavily stylized. Characters’ eyes, in particular go from simple dots to more complex structures depending on the level of expression Cagle wants to get out of them. It works really well, and the art is on point in pretty much all respects.

My favorite part of the comic is the kids. Cagle perfectly captures the way kids can be charming and inappropriate at the same time, and how they love to play with language, even when their command of it is limited. Cagle’s students reminds me so much of my own.

While it is, primarily, a gag comic, there is something of an arc to it, although it’s a subtle one. Over the course of her time in Japan, she acclimates to the local culture and the gags become less about culture shock on her part and more about daily life. At the end, when it’s time to return to America, it’s bittersweet. This is probably illustrated most clearly through her relationship with her town’s mascot, the Nejiri Honnyo.

Let’s Speak English won’t blow your mind or change your life, it’s a fairly simply gag comic, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and just might give you a slight case of the feels. It’s also a quick and easy read, with only about 140 pages in total, most of them quick 4-panel reads. Check it out! You’ll have a good time.

Sleepless Domain

Sleepless Domain is Cagle’s most recent work, and my personal favorite of the three. It’s also the hardest to review, for one fairly simple reason: the plot takes a huge swerve at the end of the second chapter, and I can’t even tell you who the protagonist is without spoiling it. Doing a completely spoiler-free review of this comic would be an exercise in futility.

So I’m not going to. This review will not contain detailed spoilers, but will have enough information that you can probably take a guess at some big plot events. If you wish to go into Sleepless Domain entirely and completely unspoiled, skip the rest of this review and just take my word for it that Sleepless Domain “is a fantastic-looking, well-plotted, and thoroughly enjoyable magical girls comic that will give you several cases of the feels”, and then skip down to the Kiwi Blitz review and don’t read anything in between until you’ve read the comic itself.

If you’re willing to risk getting a little spoiled, read on. Potential spoilers begin here.

– Someone who is most definitely not okay

Sleepless Domain is set in a small, isolated city. The world outside of the city is infested with monsters, but by day the massive dome of the Outer Barrier keeps them out. At night, however, for about four hours, the barrier goes down, and monsters can get inside. During this time the buildings are covered with a smaller Inner Barrier, but monsters can break through that given time. What keeps the city safe are magical girls, young women granted magical powers, who stay up late…fighting evil, if you will, by moonlight.

The story focuses on a five-girl team of Magical Girls: Team Alchemical, each themed for a classic element, with the fifth element being Aether (apparently just pure magic). The first two chapters are mainly about intra-team drama. Alchemical Aether (real name Tessa Quinn), pink-colored and self-appointed leader of the team, clashes with red-themed Alchemical Fire (Sally), a hothead who doesn’t appreciate being left out of the spotlight, over team leadership. We’re given a tour of their personalities, their conflicts, and their powers, and it’s all quite charming.

It’s worth noting at this point that these first two chapters were not drawn by Mary Cagle herself, but rather by Oskar Vega. Cagle took over art duties beginning with chapter three. I don’t know the exact circumstances behind this shift, but whether deliberately or simply providentially, it winds up being quite appropriate, since the end of chapter two marks a major bend in the course of the series. Put simply, a Bad Thing happens at the end of chapter two, and dealing with this Bad Thing and its aftermath becomes the focus of the story. Plot, tone, and even protagonist change dramatically in chapter three, so it seems appropriate that the art style would change as well.

And, to be honest, it’s also for the best because Mary Cagle’s art is simply better for the series. I don’t mean to imply that Mr. Vega is not a talented artist; one glance at his Tumblr or DeviantArt will dispel that notion. But Cagle’s page composition, use of color, and overall look is much stronger, and her style better suited for the series. There’s something which simply looks off about how on Vega’s pages the edges of body and clothing are inked with relatively thick black lines while facial and hair features are lined in thin lightly-colored lines, and at times the composition of the page seems confused. Here’s one example:

Neither Sylvia nor Tessa appears to have moved, but Undine has vanished from the scene, with no implied motion to indicate where she’s gone. Furthermore, Sylvia is looking sideways off the page at…nothing, apparently. The natural urge for the reader to follow her sightline goes nowhere.

“That sounds really nitpicky!” you might be saying, and…honestly, yes. It kind of is. I am by no means trying to take a dump all over his work. The art in the first two chapters is weaker than what follows, but it is never worse than Fine, and is frequently better than that.

From chapter three on, however, with Cagle at the helm, the art is bloody fantastic. The action is always clear and dramatic, the shading is great despite some challenging – or at least tedious – subject matter (look at Undine’s hair), and the colors…oh man, the colors. I absolutely love what Cagle does with color in this series. Everything looks like a coherent stylistic package. Cagle’s style, with its round faces and features, suits the subject matter perfectly.

And yes, I did say that the protagonist changes. Although the protagonist slot is somewhat ambiguous in the first two chapters, in the aftermath of the Bad Thing a clear main character emerges: Undine, aka Alchemical Water, aka that soft-spoken black girl with the curly blue hair.

Undine is an incredible protagonist, and not just because she somehow took the main role while being the water-themed mahou (that never happens!). She is a textbook example of what I like to call an Emotional Shark: someone carrying a lot of hurt around, who deals with it by focusing like a laser on a task, job, or something else that she needs to accomplish. She thinks that if she stops and processes those emotions, that they’ll overwhelm her, so she refuses to stop and process it. She needs to keep swimming, or she’ll drown. It’s an interesting look on just about any character, but it’s an especially interesting one on a character as soft-spoken and polite as Undine. She puts everyone else before herself, not only because she’s a kind and generous person (she is) but because doing so means she never needs to take a good, hard look inward and address her own problems. Not only is this motivation immediately understandable, it also makes the moments when her feelings break through to the surface all the stronger.

(That this analogy is nautically-themed isn’t the only reason why it’s my go-to for discussing Undine, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.)

Please note that none of the above is ever explicitly stated by any character. Instead, it’s conveyed through a series of small gestures, little moments, and subtle images. It’s honestly a master class in how to build a character up, and it’s so fantastic to see it all coming together.

Lest you think Sleepless Domain is all tragedy and woe, however, I should be clear: its world is populated with colorful characters with distinctive designs, and it’s frequently quite funny. The Bad Thing is always there, in the background, but although it defines the series in many ways, it never overwhelms it.

Sleepless Domain feels like a series very much informed by the darker, more deconstructive magical girl series such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica, but it’s not trying to be one. It’s set in a world where bad stuff happens, but it resists the urge to be grim and chooses to be genuine and heartfelt instead. It is one of the webcomics I most look forward to reading each week, and I strongly advise you to pick it up as well.

Kiwi Blitz

Kiwi Blitz is about a near future where the police are so underfunded that the hyperactive teenage daughter of a robotics magnate gets to be Batman in a mecha shaped like an adorable bird. Oh, and there was also a robot uprising in Japan and androids are now illegal, but said robotics magnate is keeping one hidden for a friend, and she helps fight crime. And also there’s a crime ring made up of genetically modified people with animal themes? And a murderous cyborg with serious issues? And also her mom maybe tried to murder her dad?

Yeah, Kiwi Blitz is kind of a mess.

This isn’t that surprising, given how old it is. It began all the way back in 2009, and it feels about that old. It definitely has the feel of a goofy first effort that just kept going as the writer matured and improved. Cagle’s folded some depth on top of these characters retroactively, but it feels a bit tacked on, and not a planned development. If Sleepless Domain is tight, tight, tight, and Let’s Speak English is wonderfully unpretentious, Kiwi Blitz is best characterized by messiness and its lack of a coherent world concept.

That’s not to suggest that it’s bad, mind you. Just unfocused. The moment to moment beats are still fun, and since Mary Cagle’s been making it constantly for the past eight years, you can see her art, coloring, writing, and page composition all steadily improve as she goes. Steffi is a fun character whose obnoxiousness is made perfectly tolerable by the fact that other characters around her react accordingly to it, and I actually adore Chandra, aka The Raccoon, a young animal-themed master thief who winds up befriending and crushing on Steffi. Chandra’s great, and her Issues feel a bit more organic than other characters do.

Just…don’t go into it expecting a particularly coherent narrative, because it’s not that. It’s a fun mess, but it’s still a mess. To be honest, I kind of like the main cast’s cameo versions in Sleepless Domain a bit more than I like them here!

I’d recommend Kiwi Blitz for the Mary Cagle connoisseur. If you’ve been through her other comics and crave more, this will give you more of her trademark humor, storytelling, and art (once you wade through the early, comparatively rougher stuff). But if it’s your first time engaging with her work, I’d much rather point you towards Sleepless Domain or even Let’s Speak English, both of which hold together better, and which both certainly make a better first impression.

Why I’m Not Convinced By ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’s Historical Context

There’s snow on the ground, the sound of bells in the air, a turkey in the oven. Trees are inside of houses, instead of outside where they belong. Yes, it’s that time of year again: time for the annual controversy over a seasonal tune from 1944. Yep, it’s Baby It’s Cold Outside thinkpiece season once again. Is the song a romantic call-and-response ballad? Or is it a harrowing tale of date rape? Everybody vote on their phones!

Look, here’s the truth: I hate Baby It’s Cold Outside. But I don’t hate it for being about date rape (although I definitely do fall in the ‘this sounds pretty rapey’ camp). I hate it for the same reason I hate most Alanis Morrisette songs: for being tuneless and meandering. It baffles me that a song this terrible has become a widespread part of the seasonal playlist. As such, I’m not going to waste my time engaging with it by breaking down the exact terms of the debate around it, especially when so many other people have already done the legwork for me; if you don’t already know why people feel the way they do about it, read these annotated lyrics on Vox which break down fairly well how the two sides tend to read its controversial lyrics.

But I do feel compelled to engage in one area, because it touches on a broader point. Those who feel compelled to defend the song always fall back on one thing: historical context.

See, this woman is staying late, unchaperoned, at a dude’s house. In the 1940’s, that’s the kind of thing Good Girls aren’t supposed to do — and she wants people to think she’s a good girl.

And even more specifically:

Historical context matters a lot here. “What’s in this drink?” used to be a stock joke to which the punchline was basically, “Nothing, not even much alcohol.”

And honestly, it’s kind of impossible to defend the song’s lyrics while also paying attention to them without falling back on historical context because…I mean, it’s a song about a man pressuring a woman into sex. Without attaching historical context to it, there’s not a lot of wiggle room out from under that. And the historical context argument is a fairly strong one…or it would be, if I cared about the historical context. In this case, I really don’t.

If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Historical Context’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.

That might sound like heresy coming from someone with a graduate degree in literature. Surely we always care about historical context, right? Well, if we were treating the song like a piece of history to be closely examined, of course would. But if that’s all Baby It’s Cold Outside was, we wouldn’t have annual bumper crops of outrage over it. Academics would no doubt continue to argue over it, as is our wont, but the debate wouldn’t make the editorial page of every major newspaper (as it does at least once every year without fail) because there would be no mainstream audience for it. Nobody would care.

Here in the real world, though, people do care. A lot. And here’s why: because Baby It’s Cold Outside‘s permanent place in the holiday playlist makes it perpetually current. Every year, it is piped into radio stations and shopping malls as-is. Every year, famous singers like Michael Bublé record and publish new versions of it, generally without changing a syllable of the lyrics. When people complain that Baby It’s Cold Outside‘s lyrics, they aren’t complaining about Baby It’s Cold Outside, the song from the mid-1940s. They’re complaining about Baby It’s Cold Outside, the ongoing cultural phenomenon.

And of course we all know why we keep regurgitating it every year.

In the 1940s, maybe the song was, as people have suggested, actually a sexually liberating piece for women. But the song hasn’t just sat in the archive since that time, it’s been continually revisited. Every year in December we return to the song and mindlessly reproduce it once again, renewing its pop-culture relevance for another year. The result is that the song has been unmoored from its place in history. If you took a random sample of 100 people who know the song well enough to sing along with it, I would be amazed if even ten of them could tell you it was written by Frank Loesser. Or that it was written in 1944. Hell, I’d be astonished if ten people in that sample could even correctly identify the decade it comes from! The historical context behind the lyrics doesn’t matter because what the song meant in 1944 isn’t really relevant to what it means now. Historical context is only a defense if the piece is historical. For most of the work academics of English and other cultural critics do, that’s just assumed, but it doesn’t apply to cases like these.

The song’s lyrics may have remained the same over the past 72 years, but the world around it hasn’t. When Frank Loesser put pen to page and wrote Baby It’s Cold Outside his lyrics may not have signified rape to his listeners, but for a lot of people they sure do now. And historical context only explains why Loesser created it as he did; not why we continue to recreate it every holiday season.

Hitman Review

Hitman: Enter a World of Assassination

I’m not going to beat around the bush: I love the new Hitman game. It is an absolutely fantastic return to form for the series after the deeply flawed Absolution. It combined the things Absolution did right with an infusion of the series’ core gameplay flow, and some of the best level design in the series thus far. If you’re a fan of the series, or are looking for a jumping-on point, you should definitely buy it.

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Hitman: Absolution Review

Hitman: Absolution

Important Note: the contents of this post were written in 2014 for a series of tumblr posts analyzing Hitman: Absolution and why it failed so hard. I intend to refer to it heavily in my upcoming review of 2016’s Hitman: Season One, and am not particularly happy with how tumblr handles long text posts, so I’m republishing it here and reformatting it into a single post.

01. Introduction

The latest title in IO Interactive’s long-running and much-acclaimed Hitman series, Hitman: Absolution, was fairly controversial on release. Although it reviewed about as well as previous entries into the series (it brought in high-seventies to low-eighties on Metacritic, depending on the platform, whereas Hitman: Blood Money rated low-eighties; Hitman 2: Silent Assassin came in in the high-eighties range but was also released all the way back in 2002, so the numbers may not be perfect comparable), many devotees of the series were profoundly disappointed, even angry, about changes made to the series’ formula, to the point that IO Interactive started the development of the next Hitman title with an open letter promising a return to form. But in the meantime, it’s worth looking back at Absolution, a few years after its release, and asking: was it really as bad as all that? Was it really as broken as its detractors claimed it to be?

Spoiler alert: Yeah, it kind of was. What’s more interesting is why. Closer examination reveals that although some of the game’s problems were unique to it, many others were not. Rather, these flaws were minimized by the level design in previous games, whereas in Absolution the levels emphasized these faults and made them stand out. In this post, I will be looking at the game in three areas (Narrative, Game Systems, and Level Design) to try and clearly express what sets Absolution apart from its predecessors and why it comes up short in the process. Click on the read more for an introduction to my perspective and the context in which I will be writing.

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Power Rangers Retrospective Part Five: Oh Jesus Christ

So, first things first: I’ve put a bunch of thought into what I’m going to do with this series, in light of the revelation that there are sixty episodes in the first season of this show. I really don’t feel like dedicating upwards to a year to doing Power Rangers recaps just to cover the first season. This has been fun, but I don’t care about Power Rangers that much, and it’s already starting to feel a bit samey.

So what I’m going to do is that this will be the end of me covering every episode in the series. That’s a good ten-episode retrospective, that’s not bad at all. I am, however, going to keep watching it, and I’ll come back and do recaps for episodes which strike me as particularly interesting/bad/important.

But first, we have to get through two more episodes. And oh boy. The first one is…it’s definitely a thing.

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Gaming Hot Takes: Round 1

Everyone who spends any amount of money on Steam is liable to wind up with a bunch of games they never play. I’m certainly no exception to that. And I’ve decided to turn it into a feature! Using the Wheelhaus, I’ve rolled up five games in my Steam library which I’ve never so much as touched, and given each of them half an hour of my time. I’ll play exactly half an hour of each, and write up my thoughts. The only condition on which I’ll stop early is if for whatever reason, I just can’t get the damn thing to work and 5-10 minutes of troubleshooting doesn’t solve it, in which case I’ll skip it and roll a new one.

Although I normally don’t like scored reviews, I am going to give each of these games a score on a scale from 0-5. This score reflects one thing and one thing only: how likely I am to play the game again. 0 means the game didn’t work at all, 1 means it’s shit and I’ll never touch it again, 2 means I probably won’t play it again, 3 means I might, but don’t feel strongly about it, 4 means I likely will come back to it, and 5 means it’s awesome and I plan to complete it.

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Scorpion: Ethernet Cables on a Plane

We interrupt your regularly scheduled Power Rangers to bring you something truly special. My friend forced me to watch this, and now I feel obligated to share it with you as well, so that you too can comprehend my suffering. For your consideration, I present the dumbest thing I’ve watched this year: the first episode of Scorpion.

No, uh.

scorpion_logo_backplate1

Right, that one. Although actually, that first one feels thematically appropriate.

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In Defense of Tomb Raider’s Quick Time Events

The Tomb Raider reboot from 2013 was fairly controversial for a couple of different reasons, many of which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever read internet commentary about any reboot of a classic games franchise, no matter how well-made. There were two major points of criticism that rang fairly true, though: the game has massive ludonarrative dissonance (I’ll explain what that means in a moment), and the game has too many damn quick time events.

I’m not interested in defending the game from the first charge, because it is a real problem. But I do take exception with the second one, because not only are there fewer QTEs than most people think, the game actually uses them in an interesting way to reinforce Lara’s growth throughout the game.

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Power Rangers Retrospective Part Four: Putties in White Vans

Whew, we’re finally back. Illness and back problems kept this post back for a week but we’re back in the Mighty Morphin’ swing of things! This week, we have no one but TWO monsters specializing in kidnapping children. That kind week, I guess.

Also, Jesus Christ, I didn’t realize how many episodes this fucking show had. Season one apparently has sixty fucking episodes. Holy shit! I had been planning to do the first season at least but wow I might have to reconsider that. That is way too many episodes.

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How I Would Fix Man of Steel

Many people have many different feelings about Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman film, Man of Steel, but this is my blog so we’re mostly here to discuss my feelings so let me tell you what I think of the movie:

I spent the whole movie alternating between boredom and offense. And not because I don’t like Superman! I love Superman. But Zack Snyder’s vision for Superman is colorless, drab, and almost entirely devoid to the inspirational values that define Superman. And all of that is before you get into my nitpicks with how the film was made, like how even totally static scenes are shot with more shaky-cam than all of the Bourne movies put together.

None of this is news, though. A lot of ink’s been spilled over the past three years about how the movie has problems, and while it does have its defenders, the general consensus seems to be the it’s not a very good Superman film. I’m interested in doing something a little different, though: I want to talk about how I would fix it, without radically changing the plot and without going back to technical nitpicks. There are two points where the story is severely broken, and fixing these would go a long way towards fixing the movie as a whole.

These points are Jonathan Kent and The Death of Zod.

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