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.

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