A Joker, a Joker, and a Joker Walk Into a Bar

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Way back in the olden times (i.e. 2015), Batman asked the omnipotent Mobius Chair a couple of questions.  The first was him asking for the name of the man who killed his parents.  With his second question he sought the answer to an enigma (no, not the green one) that had plagued the Dark Knight for almost the entirety of his caped career:  What’s the Joker’s true name?  We wouldn’t know what the Mobius Chair told him for quite sometime after, but the year 2016 rolled around and DC was looking to revamp their whole line again.

We then find out the Chair told him there are three.  This promised to be one of the big mysteries of DC’s Rebirth.  Does he have three true names like some sort of deity or demon?  (Wouldn’t really be a first for him.)  Or the more probable question to ask, are there three Jokers running around?  If so, who are they?  Where did they come from?  The image at the top of the page shows Joker from the Golden Age, the seminal–if controversial–Killing Joke, and his last grand appearance in the New 52, Endgame.  Seemingly random appearances, but then, it looks like two of those three may be pretty important.

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We only had some vague murmurings referring to the mystery of the three Jokers, but here we are, in the year 2018, and DC finally gives us an image by the inimitable Jason Fabok.  We’re finally getting our answer to the three Jokers question.  The writer of the story, Geoff Johns, mentioned that Barbara Gordon (Batgirl), Jason Todd (Red Hood), and Bruce Wayne (uh, I think he’s Batman) would all be important to this story.  Just looking at the image tells us as much without Johns having to confirm it.  If you’re familiar enough with the comics, that is.

Let’s start with the Joker on the left.  He’s smiling, like Joker’s wont to do, while holding a bloody crowbar.  Coupled with those fairly classic threads, he’s definitely giving off vibes of A Death in the Family–the infamous story from the ’80s where the second Robin, the aforementioned Jason Todd, met his grisly end at the hands of the Clown Prince of Crime.

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One of the darkest days for the Bat-family, but it’s also one of the biggest victories Joker holds over the Batman.  So, now we see why Jason might have a role to play in Three Jokers.  Obviously, one of them has to be the one that killed Jason, but it’s a bit odd thinking that a Joker did the deed instead of the Joker.  Joker’s diplomatic immunity (it’s an odd story) allowed him to escape the kind of vengeance Batman sought to enact upon him, which may have very well ended with Batman killing his longtime foe.  Being such an important part of the Batman mythos, it’s easy to see why Johns and Fabok would want one of the three to evoke the image.  But now, let’s talk about that Joker who’s standing up.

That trenchcoat, that cane, that eye peeking through his fingers like it were a lens.  There’s only one thing we could be expected to infer from that.

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The Killing Joke.  Another great loss for Batman and his allies.  Barbara Gordon was shot and paralyzed at her home while her father, Commissioner James Gordon, was abducted and tortured.  All perpetrated by–guess who?–the Joker.  Batman eventually saves the day, but not before he and Joker share a special moment as the two laugh together in the rain–two mortal enemies for the briefest moment overwhelmed by the absurdity of their enmity.  Certainly a different take on Batman/Joker relationship at the end.

Despite the…um…problems with how Barbara Gordon was handled in the story, The Killing Joke remains a major part of both Batman’s canon and Barbara’s character.  What’s now odd to me is the image of the three Jokers implies that the Joker who killed Jason and the one who paralyzed Barbara are different ones.  I originally thought that each of the Jokers would be from a different Earth or continuities.  But, the two stories I’ve talked about happened within months of each other in 1988.  So, that’s interesting.

Also, Killing Joke is pertinent for another reason.

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Fabok’s image is most certainly an homage to the first panel of this page.  But, is it just an homage, or should we read deeper into it?  Since Batman is the one with the cards in the Three Jokers, will he be the one in Arkham Asylum in this story?  Does he go mad?  Or, could they be hinting at the three Jokers bit being a ruse?  I really don’t know.  Like I said, this is a big story for the Bat-family, so Fabok may just be using it to hammer home how important Three Jokers is.

And this brings us to the final Joker of the image.  He sits in the center staring at Batman.  At first, he didn’t look immediately familiar to me like the other two.  He brought to mind Lee Bermejo’s titular Joker, but that didn’t fit with the theme.  The other two dealt major blows the Batman.  The other two are in-continuity (at some point, at least).  The other two give clues by how they look (possibly).  So, I looked closer.  He’s got his fingers steepled in front and he seems to be older than the other two–more seasoned, if you will.  He doesn’t smile.  There’s an intensity to him not present in his cohorts.  That’s when I decided to go with my hunch and hunt down some information.

I was right.

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Center Joker is clearly meant to evoke the Golden Age Joker.  And that’s not just any old image of the OG.  That’s his very first in-story appearance.  Joker’s killed a man and stolen a diamond while taunting the police by predicting it on the radio.  This first story establishes Joker’s criminal genius, ruthlessness, calling cards, and signature weapon, Joker Venom.  He’s smart.  Much smarter than the police, and he’s cold enough to go to a gangster’s home and kill him while he has back-up.

I had actually never read “The Joker” before tonight.  I know it’s odd considering how much I love Batman and the Joker, but it’s true.  So, I definitely gotta give Johns and Fabok credit for getting me to do that.  It’s amazing how much of the character is presented there in a comic from 1940 that’s present to this day.

So now, one Joker killed Jason, one almost broke the Gordons, and the other has been there since the beginning.  We still have Doomsday Clock to get through, and Joker’s appearing in Scott Snyder’s Justice League.   He also just played a (possibly) big part in “breaking” the Bat in Tom King’s Batman run.  I don’t know if each of those Jokers are different or if it’s just one or two or…boy, this could get confusing.

I’m excited for Batman: Three Jokers.  Sure, Johns has a bad habit of ignoring a character’s established continuity and personality in order to favor his own story, but I’m genuinely curious to see where it’s all going.

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“Look into his eyes and tell yourself he’s just a man.”

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2018 Summer of Anime – Darling in the Franxx

25) Darling in the Franxx

That’s it.  That’s the show.

Hiro and Zero Two have been through a lot to find each other.  Evil scientists, induced amnesia, giant klaxosaurs, and misguided teammates are just some of the obstacles these crazy kids have dealt with in order to find love in a hopeless place.  They and the rest of the pilots from Plantation 13 are now the best chances humanity has left of defeating the klaxosaurs since their individuality allow them think more freely and their deepening emotions give them more strength.  Papa and APE see them more as threats, though, so now the kids must band together to not only survive the klaxosaurs, but to also defy the only authority they’ve ever known.

So, back when I first wrote about Darling in the Franxx, I heaped on some pretty high praise.  Said it was the “new savior of anime” and all that.  I, uh…would like to retract that praise.  Yes, I was enamored with the animation, mecha designs (I love Star Driver, after all), vague world-building, doggy style piloting mechanism, and crazy kids falling in love.  Some of those things never betrayed me, but that world-building, though.

I’m not going to fully spoil all the mysteries like what the klaxosaurs are, why the adults behave the way they do, why humanity lives in Plantations now, or why it takes male/female pairs to pilot the titular Franxx.  Just know that a lot of it is fairly underwhelming and revealed in one of the most awkward info-dump episodes of anything I’ve ever seen.  I’m all for an entire flashback episode if it actually fleshes out important characters or events (see the recently talked about Vivid Strike! on how to do that right) in a coherent or necessary manner.  It felt like Darling was holding onto this overly large bucket of exposition it wanted to trickle out to us, but then they dropped it and flooded us all at once.

I do think I’ll get into the big twist of the series, though, so continue at your own risk.  You’ve been warned.

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Then it’s time to jam.

Aliens.  Papa and his buddy are revealed to be aliens.  They’re called the VIRM.  I dunno, guess they’re vermin or something.  Now, I don’t want to say this is an inherently bad twist.  But, like the exposition episode, it was done in such a clunky, out-of-nowhere manner that the last few episodes felt like a completely different show.  It’s almost like in the production meetings the staff realized they didn’t know how to end it, but then one daring soul went, “Have any of you ever read Ender’s Game?”  And that was that.

Maybe the tone wasn’t right?  I mean, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is another mecha show with the alien twist, but that show’s brashness allowed it to feel like a natural thing.  And then you have Darling in the Franxx with its sexual metaphor piloting and it treats everything as so serious and dangerous, and that makes the shift so much more jarring.  Or maybe I’m just rambling.

But, even though I’ve done almost nothing but talk about Darling‘s failures, there are some props I need to give.  The animation is always a sight to behold, I love those mecha designs, and I always liked how different the klaxosaurs looked.  That stuff remained a consistent draw.  The characters were all mostly likable, too (emphasis on the mostly), and I was genuinely rooting for Hiro and Zero Two.  And yes, even though their relationship was sometimes such a focus as to be a detriment to the rest of the series, episode 13, “The Garden Where It All Began,” which details how Hiro and Zero Two originally met, is legitimately one of the best, most feels-worthy episodes of an anime I’ve seen.

Man, when I wrote about Darling in the Franxx only six episodes in, I thought it would be the breakout hit of the year.  But now, I think it’s just a 7 out of 10.  I know it’s odd that I praise some shows up to that score, but I sound disappointed giving it to Darling.  And that’s because I almost gave it a 6.  That’s how badly handled the last fourth of this show is.  What I liked about it, though, I really loved.  I can’t deny that.

2018 Summer of Anime – Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Part 2

21) Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Vivid

Heeeeey, you got your shounen anime in my magical girl anime!

Vivio Takamachi may be resurrected royalty from an ancient kingdom intended to control a powerful weapon, but that’s, well, in her past.  For four years she’s been the happily adopted daughter of Nanoha Takamachi and Fate T. Harlaown.  Now that she’s entering the fourth grade, her mothers and fighting coach, Nove Nakajima, agree it’s time for her to receive her own Intelligent Device–Sacred Heart.  And not a moment too soon!  Turns out, there’s actually a warrior by the name of Einhart Stratos attacking people on the streets at night using a Belkan martial art, and it’s beginning to look like Vivio is just the opponent this young girl has been searching for.

Welcome to Part 2, everybody!  I had to use some…nefarious means to watch this entry in the Nanoha franchise.  I sifted through every streaming service I could think of, and I could not find it.  Even Amazon Prime, which has the other four shows, did not have this one.  I assume we have Aniplex–AKA, the Anime Devil–to thank for this.  Or, it could be this is an incomplete adaptation of a manga and wasn’t received too well.  It’s probably the Anime Devil’s fault, though.

Yes, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Vivid is my least favorite of the five shows.  It’s so glaringly obvious to anyone it’s not finished–even if they aren’t aware it’s the first one to be adapted from a manga.  It’s also pretty jarring to go from the consistent emotional maturing of the first three series to…this.  Strikers ended with all of the protagonists putting their lives on the line and fighting tooth and nail to save as many lives as they possibly could.  Vivid opens up with Vivio receiving her Intelligent Device in the form of a stuffed bunny (which does actually hold a bit of emotional weight).  There’s certainly a tonal gap between the two.

But, that’s not to say I don’t like Vivid.  Truth be told, I actually had a lot of fun watching it.  It continues the tradition of the previous season’s antagonists becoming friends and integrating into society, and I really liked seeing characters from the past training up a new crop of fighters.  Vivio, Einhart, and their peers are magical martial artists competing for titles and tournament wins.  It’s nice that the previous generations’s efforts have made the multiverse peaceful enough that magicians can train for sport instead of war.

The fan-service here is heavier than previous seasons, and that’s just squicky since the main cast is once again children.  They did make a good decision by giving the girls adult forms when they transform to not only alleviate the ooky fan-service, but also to make the fights more entertaining.  It’s just easier to watch adults fight each other than it is children (that’s a bigger asset in the next series).  And boy howdy, are them fights cool.  Even though the action scenes have transitioned from epic magical battles to magic martial arts fights, the quality of conflict is not lost.  I’m not gonna say the action’s terribly grounded, but it’s cool to see these established building-destroying powers adapted into hand-to-hand combat techniques.

And although the last fight of the season is pretty cool, it’s kinda weak since it’s between Einhart and supporting character Corona Timil.  (Sidebar: The creator of this series has got to be a Fast and Furious fan with naming characters Corona and Rio.)

So, this is a fun show.  Yeah, that fan-service is grody, it definitely needs another season or two, the character arcs are nowhere near as strong as the previous seasons, and I couldn’t help but miss the heavier themes and emotions that were sacrificed in favor of happy-go-lucky magical girl shenanigans.  But, those shenanigans did translate fairly well into a shounen battle series, and I do like seeing more aspects of Nanoha’s world.  The weakest entry is still a 7 for me.

22) Vivd Strike

She’s gonna Fuuka you up.

Fuuka Reventon hates martial arts.  As far as she’s concerned, that’s exactly what drastically altered her best friend, Rinne Berlinetta, and turned her into a heartless individual who uses her strength to hurt those who are weaker than her.  Fuuka changes her mind, however, when the Under-15 Strike Arts Champion, Einhart Stratos, takes a liking to her and brings her to the Nakajima Gym in order to train.  With the champ as her mentor, Nove Nakajima as her coach, and world-ranked top ten fighters Miura Rinaldi and Vivio Takamachi as training partners, Fuuka’s chances of becoming a contender and challenging her seemingly unstoppable former friend are starting to look pretty good.  Rinne is also constantly getting stronger, though, so there’s no telling who will be left standing when the two finally collide.

Vivid Strke! is similar to A’s in that it outclasses the previous season in almost every aspect.  Again, I enjoyed Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Vivid, but Vivid Strike! does everything better.  Fuuka is arguably a better lead than Vivio was, and her relationship with Rinne is more interesting than what we got to see of Vivio’s with Einhart.  Hell, I’d say Vivio is handled better here, and she’s mostly a supporting character.  A lot of that has to do with this show bringing the emotional maturity from the Nanoha-centric seasons and implanting it into this Vivid show.  Actually, my only major complaint is Nanoha and Fate are basically completely absent.  I get this isn’t even their daughter’s story, but still.

I mentioned this show returning to its roots with the heavier drama of the early seasons, and holy poop, does it get heavy.  Yes, Rinne is misguided in her views on power and strength, but you can’t help but sympathize with the girl when you find out about her life after she was adopted.  Her family was great, but everything outside of that just went to sh*t.  I don’t wanna spoil too much, so I’ll just say one of the most cathartic yet brutal scenes in this franchise has to do with Rinne handling a bully problem.  Also, the show kinda goes into different ways to deal with grief and how it should be handled differently with each person.

The fights are even better than the previous season’s, too.  Rinne is properly booked and established as this monster heel that cannot be stopped.  Going into the series, she’s only suffered one loss, and that was to Vivio on the judges’ scorecards.  I was legit worried when Rinne and Vivio had their rematch.  See, Rinne has a habit of breaking and/or retiring those who step into the ring with her, and Vivio is the first person with whom she’s ever had a score to settle.  And their encounter turned into one of my favorite fights in the franchise.  I’ve stated numerous times Hajime no Ippo is my favorite anime, so I marked out when Vivio used Flicker jabs and counters to wear down her much physically tougher opponent.  Also–Mahou Shoujo Dempsey Roll.  I will say no more.

Since I always have to talk about the final fights in these shows, I need to keep the streak going.  It’s a bit of a spoiler, but Fukka and Rinne’s big throwdown is essentially a street fight, and I.  Love.  It.  That was a proper blow-off to well-done build-up.  Great stuff.

With a better lead/rival relationship, fight scenes, drama, and an actual complete story, Vivid Strike! is a definite step up from Nanoha Vivid.  I’ll give it an 8, leaning toward an 8.5.  It’s right on up there with Strikers for me.

23) Triangle Heart Sweet Songs Forever

Triang to find the right angle on this. (Boy, those are some forced jokes.)

Kyouya Takamachi and his cousin Miyuki Takamachi are called away from their work training Hong Kong police in order to help protect their childhood friend Fiasse Crystela.  Fiasse is a world-renowned singer and headmistress of the Crystela Song School which is famous for its annual charity world tour.  Now that said tour is coming back up, Fiasse has been receiving threats from an unknown party, and her bodyguard Elise MacGaren really wants her to cancel this year’s tour.  The Takamachis are highly capable fighters, though, and despite Elise’s protests against brining in amateurs, the two martial artists prove themselves time and time again.  They’ll need all their training and then some, too, since it’s beginning to look like the one threatening Fiasse may very well be the same individual who killed Kyouya’s father years ago.

This four-episode OVA is Triangle Heart: Sweet Songs Forever.  Now, if you are unfamiliar with Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (and mayhaps even if you are), you are probably wondering right now, “What the hell even is this?”  Well, you see, dear reader, this OVA is the sequel to the third entry in the eroge (look it up on your own time) series Triangle Heart, and it is also the first animated appearance of one Nanoha Takamachi.

Remember in Part 1 when I mentioned her siblings being martial artists?  This is the origin of that.  Nanoha was a minor character in Triangle Heart 3 who somehow became popular enough to merit her own magical girl sequel/spin-off video game.  Said game also became a hit, and well, the rest is history.  Won’t lie–Nanoha‘s origins as an eroge spin-off is one of the funniest things to me, and I had to check out how exactly they pulled off building a franchise out of such strange beginnings.

The OVA itself is fine.  Honestly, after powering through 76 episodes of Nanoha, Fate, Vivio, Fuuka, etc. and all their conflicts and adventures, four episodes of an early aughts  action/drama OVA was just the thing needed to dull the senses.  It’s such an oddity of a show, too.  Like, the fact that this exists as a strange sort of prequel to one of the biggest magical girl franchises out there amuses me to no end.  I know it’s not canon since Nanoha’s father is alive and well in the main shows, but I like to pretend some version of the stuff that happens in Triangle Heart happened in the main series (that’s a spin-off).

Other than the fact it exists, Triangle Heart: Sweet Songs Forever is kinda forgettable.  It’s a fine way to spend a couple hours if you’re craving some early aughts OVA goodness.  The characters are fine, the action is fine, the plot is fine, the resolution is fine, and so on and so forth.  Probably a 6 for me.  Like I said, the main draw is its ties to the all-encompassing righteousness of Nanoha.  If you’re all caught up on the other stuff, give it a gander.

Eighty episodes and a few thousand words later, and I’m done with Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha(Author’s note: Please don’t bring up the movies.)  I’m legitimately glad I decided to give the show a chance.  I have a new franchise to love, and now I get to sit here and hope Nanoha Vivid gets another season while Nanoha Force gets an anime.  Fingers crossed, people!

2018 Summer of Anime – Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Part 1

17) Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha

When Nanoha meets her Fate.

Nine-year old Nanoha Takamachi is your average elementary schooler.  She has a loving family, she has a couple of best friends, she has a good heart, and she’s just saved a talking ferret named Yuuno.  Turns out, Yuuno is actually an archaeologist from another world who’s come to our world seeking the 21 Jewel Seeds–artifacts which can give individuals unnatural power–that escaped from his dig-site in hopes of returning them to their resting place.  He’s been seriously wounded, though, and needs Nanoha’s aid to accomplish this task.  Yuuno gives her the Intelligent Device Raising Heart in order to help, and luckily enough, Nanoha displays a great aptitude for magic.  She’ll need it, too, as the mysterious magical girl Fate Testarossa and her companion Arf are also after the Jewel Seeds.  None of them fully comprehend the forces they’re dealing with or the adventure that lies ahead.

Goodness me.  Yes, that’s a “Part 1” you see up there.  Here’s the thing:  I wanted to watch an anime that’s generally outside my realm of entertainment.  I constantly seek to broaden my horizons, if you will.  So, I decided to check out a magical girl show–a genre more often than not directed toward a much younger female audience.  Now, I’m no stranger to these shows since Sailor Moon is quite possibly the first anime I ever saw on TV, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica is…an anime I have also watched.  But, I saw one as a kid and the other is about as far as you can get from the average magical girl show.  Heard that Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is one of the best of the genre and has some great action set pieces.  For some reason, I decided to go all in.  (Author’s note: Sawcy confirmed for All In, bay-bay!)  (Editor’s note:  Sawcy ain’t confirmed for sh*t.)  I watched six anime for this.  Thus, we have us a “Part 1.”

The main weakness of the first season of Nanoha is it starts off as a very cookie-cutter magical girl show:  Nice girl finds magical animal and receives powers in order to collect the things.  The first few episodes are a bit of a slog to get through.  It does help that there is some interesting tidbits with her family such as her father being covered in scars and having trained Nanoha’s older brother and sister in their family’s style of martial arts (I’ll be getting back to them in Part 2).  They still train, but now they, along with Nanoha’s hot anime mom, run a fairly popular bakery.  I dunno.  Maybe that’s par for the course in these magical girl shows, but it was kinda neat to me.

The show really picks up when Nanoha’s rival Fate shows up.  Fate, along with her familiar Arf, are out to collect the Jewel Seeds for Fate’s mom, Precia Testarossa.  Now, Fate does some pretty bad things throughout the season, but Nanoha refuses to simply fight her and constantly looks for a way to connect to the obviously troubled girl.  The dialogue is mostly whatever, but each of their encounters feels like a big deal thanks to this anime’s crew dedicating themselves to making the fight scenes awesome.  The emotion really gets through as each battle escalates further and further, culminating in Nanoha using a move she calls “Starlight Breaker,” and it…it’s one of my favorite attacks in anime.

Yeah, with the emotional maturity the show builds coupled and its surprisingly solid action scenes, I can definitely see why Nanoha became such a big franchise.  I would’ve stopped watching the whole series had this season not got me, but it did.  The final fate (no pun intended) of the Big Bad was a little meh, the opening episodes are weak, and I can’t fully get over nine-year-old girls being used for even mild fan-service.  Aside from that, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is a good show.  It’s a 7.5 for me.

19) Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's

You get “A’s” for effort.

Six months have passed since the Jewel Seeds incident, and Nanoha Takamachi is enjoying her peaceful life.  She and Fate are besties now and exchange video messages while waiting for Fate’s sentence to be up.  Fate’s turned over such a new leaf she even wants to join the Time-Space Administrative Bureau and work with Yuuno and her possible adoptive mother Captain Lindy Harlaown.  Just as she’s supposed to return, however, Nanoha is attacked by the seemingly ruthless Belkan knights who not only break Nanoha’s Raising Heart and Fate’s Bardiche, but they also almost completely drain Nanoha of her magic!  Our heroes find out the knights are trying to fill the immensely powerful Lost Logia known as the Book of Darkness for their mysterious master, and even though no one really knows what will happen when the Book is complete, with a name like that, it can’t be good.  Nanoha and Fate have to step up their respective games, though, if they want to fight these ancient warriors.  Once more unto the breach, dear friends, and save the world.

Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s is widely considered the best entry in the franchise, and I can definitely see why.  I’d certainly recommend the first season to anyone who wants to give the franchise a shot, but I’d constantly remind them it gets better.  I’m gonna go into more details, but just know right here and now that A’s does everything better than the first season.  The action, characters, story, emotion, world-building…everything.

There are no weak introductory episodes here.  The first episode has our main character getting beaten.  And not just plain ol’ beaten–she gets thoroughly trounced by Vita.  To say that I was shocked would be a bit of an understatement.  Sure, you gotta establish your new antagonists, but I was floored by how badly Vita whooped Nanoha’s ass.  And it wasn’t just her.  The other Wolkenritter Signum, Shamal, and Zafira all showed up to chew bubblegum and kick ass, but alas, they were seemingly out of bubblegum.  They also introduced the Belkan system of magic, which I love for a couple of reasons.

First, with multiple worlds being established, it makes sense there are multiple forms of magic.  Nanoha, Fate, and their allies base their powers on the Midchilda (Yuuno and the TSAB’s home world) system of magic, while the antagonists use something almost completely different.  Second, the Belkan system is so cool.  It’s like this cartridge system where they load magic bullets into their magic weapons to make them more magical.  Awesome moves become epic in those scenes where you see the weapon being cocked multiple times.  I love it.

The characters really become draws this season, too.  Nanoha already established her willingness to look at her enemies not only as opponents, but also as people with dreams and goals she isn’t aware of with how she treated and eventually befriended Fate.  It’s a surprisingly mature viewpoint I hadn’t expected, and her depth of heart and character (and badassery) only grows in A’s.  Fate, too, has gone from being a moody, unthinking weapon to a caring, thoughtful young girl who loves her friends and wants to help wherever she can.  We could learn from these two.

See, I had already decided the Belkan knights were irredeemable and needed to be stopped, but then we get to find out who they are and why they do what they do.  Their current master is another nine-year-old girl named Hayate Yagami.  Hayate is a wheelchair-bound orphan who lives by herself, and she’s dying…and she knows it.  And even though she’s aware that filling the Book of Darkness might save her life, she loves her guardians so much that the only thing she’s requested of them is to not fight.  These proud, honorable Knights have never felt such love in all their years being bound to the Book.  They want to do as she asks, but the thought of their new master slowly dying due to the Book draining her life doesn’t sit well with them.  As with Fate and her awful home situation in the first season, I began to feel for the Belkan knights.  Even rooted for them at certain points.

And that final confrontation.  Hell yeah.

So yeah, the second season of Nanoha may very well be the best.  It doesn’t have the weaknesses of the first season, and its strengths are even better.  I’m giving it a 9.  An honest to God surprise.

20) Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Strikers

To err is human; to Bust, Divine.

Fifteen-year-old Subaru Nakajima is a hot-blooded mage who wants nothing more than to save people like the woman who saved her years ago.  She and her best friend Teana Lanster are currently C-Ranked Mages in the Time-Space Administrative Bureau looking to move up to B-Rank.  Their test goes a little off the rails, but the two show promise and are recruited to join Lost Property Riot Force 6–a new, experimental squad formed by Hayate Yagami specifically to hunt the Lost Logia called Relics.  They, along with the young mages Erio Mondial and Caro Ru Lushe, accept and become the Forwards of Riot Force 6.  Erio and Caro are the Lightning Forwards led by none other than their adoptive mother Fate Testarossa Harlaown.  Subaru and Teana become the Stars Forwards led by the legendary “Ace of Aces” Nanoha Takamachi, the woman who saved Subaru and changed her life’s path.  Certain members of TSAB are intimidated by such an absurdly powerful squad, but Hayate has sensed a great threat looming, and she aims to put an end to it with her friends at her side.

I really love Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Strikers.  Objectively speaking, A’s is a better show.  Its character work is stronger, and the pacing is so much better.  Granted, Strikers is the first–and so far, only–26-episode series in the franchise, so I guess pacing issues were to be expected.  That said, I might wind up re-watching Strikers before A’s.  I dunno.  It’s weird!

When works of fiction really allow their characters to grow and change as people, it makes my heart go doki doki.  We met Nanoha, Fate, and Hayate as somewhat naive third-graders, but here we see them as highly capable adults.  I was so happy when I saw that Fate had actually taken in two children who’d been abandoned by their respective families.  Like, of course someone who was hated and used by the woman who raised her would grow into a person who couldn’t leave a lost child alone.  It made so much sense, but I didn’t expect it.  On the other hand, you have Nanoha who’s basically thrown herself into her work and now trains new recruits.  Both have grown into people we could see them becoming, and both are happy and fulfilled.  And they’re one of my favorite anime couples.

The show never comes right out and says that Nanoha and Fate are together, but there are enough implications we can infer that that’s the case.  The two of them are still ridiculously close and share a room and a bed in the Riot Force 6 barracks.  There’s even a little girl introduced about halfway through the series named Vivio who is taken in and looked after by the two.  So yeah, they basically wind up adopting and raising a kid together.  And I love it.  Their relationship is so rarely played up for titillation because it’s treated like it should be–normal.  These are two women who’ve meant so much to each other since they were children, they’ve grown up and entered a relationship.  And they complement each other so well.  I’m gonna stop talking about these two now, but good on the creators for allowing these characters a positive natural progression.

The new cast, too, are pretty cool themselves.  Subaru’s powers are especially cool with her magic rollerblades and gun-gauntlet thing, and her whole backstory with her family and situation was definitely a surprise.  Teana is a character whom I initially slept on.  She uses guns, but the creators found some neat ways to utilize that power.  The main thing that got me about her is her character arc.  I won’t give it away, but she winds up taking a couple kicks to her ego which allows her to grow without the show being too overt about it by the end.  Erio and Caro get their own times to shine, too, but they don’t get as much attention as Subaru and Teana.  Which is mostly fine.  They’re neat enough characters who already had their big life-altering experiences before the show when Fate adopted them.

And, for the first time since Precia, we get a truly despicable piece of excrement for an antagonist–Jail Scaglietti.  Actually, he’s worse than Fate’s mom since she fell into darkness trying to save someone.  Scaglietti is just a scumbag.  He’s picked his allies well, though.  The young summoner Lutecia Alpine helps him out despite the old knight Zest Garangaitz and Unison Device Agito trying to convince her otherwise.  These three are really cool and represent that misguided antagonist trope Nanoha loves so much.  Scaglietti’s actual servants–the Numbers–are a mixed bag of cool and awful.  Most fall into that group with Lutecia and friends, but then there are some–like Quattro–who are as bad as Scaglietti–like Quattro.  Despite my issues with the pacing, Strikers did a phenomenal job of building up the final confrontations with these enemies, and I could not wait to see our heroes triumph and the villains get their comeuppance–like Quattro.

And, again, it’s a little too drawn out, but the climactic fight is amazing.  Strikers has one of the most genuinely cathartic anime moments in this final fight when Nanoha damn near mercilessly takes out one of her opponents.  (Spoiler alert: It’s Quattro.)

I spent way too much time just talking about the characters in Strikers (and the other entries, as well), but I just love them so much.  It’s a large, diverse cast with quite a few we’ve seen grow up.  And even though I think A’s does most everything better, Strikers is a whole heap of fun that continues increasing the show’s penchants for drama and action.  I gotta give it an 8.5 out of 10.

There is a lot I didn’t get into with these first three, but let’s face it–this post has run on long enough.  In Part 2, I’ll be taking a look at two more vivid entries (see what I did there?) in this massive franchise along with one other…tangential show.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

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By now, I’m sure most of you are aware that Wednesday, July 4, 2018, saw the release of Batman #50.  Written by Tom King and illustrated by Mikel Janin along with seemingly every other artist DC could get hold of, it was the long-awaited wedding between Batman and Catwoman.  The possibility of this even happening in DC’s main continuity is unbelievable since comics have come under fire–rightfully so–for seemingly refusing to allow their big stars to grow and be happy.  DC notoriously broke up long-standing couples like Superman/Lois Lane and Barry Allen/Iris West when the New 52 kicked in (something they’re still working to rectify), and who can forget the infamous debacle of Spider-Man’s “One More Day” story?  This isn’t a new trend either.  You can look at Marvel mandating Jean Grey’s resurrection and Scott Summers abandoning his wife and child to reunite with his newly returned love, or DC deciding Donna Troy being married to a normal guy and having a normal child just wasn’t cool enough.

So, after Batman popped the question to Catwoman back in Batman #24 over a year ago, it’s fair to say those in favor of such change decided to be cautiously optimistic.  And with DC’s massive push of the event with all of the variant covers in the world, a string of lead-in one-shots, and over a year of build-up, it looked like the Bat and the Cat were finally tying the knot.  How’d it go?

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After hers and Batman’s harrowing encounter with Joker in Batman #’s 48-49 and talking it out with her oldest and best friend Holly Robinson in the hours before her wedding, Selina Kyle left Bruce Wayne at the figurative altar (they were going to be married on a rooftop by a drunk priest) and fled Gotham City.

Okay, so, there are a few things that spurred me to write this.  First off, DC giving the NY Times the scoop on this so they could spoil it over the weekend was a massive misstep on DC’s part.  Not only did the Times pull a jerk move with the title “It Just Wasn’t Meant to Be, Batman”, but DC should’ve realized letting people know the wedding wasn’t going to happen ahead of time would welcome backlash from readers and retailers alike.  Retailers believed people would no longer buy the issue after they ordered more copies than normal (which, with the messed up way comics work, DC probably doesn’t give a damn about), and readers felt like they had no reason to check it out.  Such an incredibly uncaring move on DC’s part.  I’ve even seen people removing Batman from their pull-lists since they feel this is more of the same old crap from a big comics publisher.  But, that’s the second thing that encouraged me to write this post.

I, too, felt jaded when I read the spoilers the day before Batman #50 came out.  I was just so disappointed when I thought about a writer I admire for his ability to challenge the status quo and standard operating procedures of superhero comics backpedaling on such a potentially massive moment in comic history in order to play it safe.  But then I actually read the issue.  And then I thought about it some more.  We’re at the halfway point in this story.

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King has said a few times he has 100 issues of Batman in him.  And now, more than ever, I really believe him.  The layout of Batman #50 is mostly two pages of Janin’s sequentials detailing Batman and Catwoman’s present actions split up by two pages of pin-ups from a murderers’ row of Bat-artists depicting various moments shared by the Bat and the Cat in the past.  The pin-ups all have words from the two letters Batman and Catwoman wrote each other that they never finished, and I can only assume these were meant to be wedding vows.  King might’ve gotten a bit too flowery with both of them writing about the other’s eyes, but I think it works here.  Especially when you consider this is all about the love between them.

Even when Catwoman leaves Batman and Gotham City, this issue hammers home just how much these two mean to each other.  These are two people who are meant to be together and can only find true happiness in the other.  King makes you believe in the term “soulmates” while reading Batman #50.  Which is why it hurts so much when Selina runs off.  Catwoman is devastated by her decision.  But Batman?  Well…

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Yeah.  This panel is a huge deal.  This isn’t just one masterful stroke of Bane’s by getting Holly to convince Selina to break Batman’s heart.  This…this is something bigger.  Suddenly, King’s run looks like a completely different beast.  Bane is flanked by Riddler, Joker, Psycho Pirate, Gotham Girl, Scarface, the Ventriloquist, Hugo Strange, Skeets, and the Batman of Flashpoint.  Every last one of them has played a major part in King’s run on the book.  And now, you have to assume they’ve been playing major parts in Bane’s plot to finally break the Bat.

My mind is racing trying to figure out what all has been planned.  With Gotham Girl and Hugo Strange present, this plan may very well go back to the beginning of Tom King’s run in Batman #1.  Actually, chronologically speaking, Bane’s long game may be even longer.  Riddler and Joker being there brings to mind the War of Jokes and Riddles from Batman #’s 25-32, which takes place during Batman’s second year.  Bane is one of the few heavy hitters from Batman’s rogues’ gallery who took no part in it.  Yeah, Bane might not have been around at that time, but was he still somehow behind it?  Skeets’s presence brings that Booster Gold arc into a whole new light, too.  At first, I thought it was some convenient, if morbid, way to get Booster into the upcoming Heroes in Crisis story (and it still kinda is).  Now, though, it looks like even that had Bane’s fingerprints on it.  And I don’t know where to begin with the Flashpoint Batman being in this panel.  Is that really Thomas Wayne?  Is it someone else?  If so, who?  Hush?  Punch?  Bronze Tiger?  Gotham?

Batman #50 blew my mind.  I don’t think a comic has gotten me like this since Wally West returned at the beginning of DC Rebirth.  Then again, Tom King and all the magnificent artists, inkers, colorists, and letterers who have joined him have consistently impressed me with their storytelling on DC’s flagship title.  I have loved this book for 50 issues, and I eagerly await the next 50.  Especially now that it looks like the Big Bad isn’t Joker or Ra’s al Ghul.  If Bane really is reclaiming his throne as Batman’s greatest foe, then the Dark Knight has his work more than cut out for him.  After all, Bane has broken the Bat before.  Can he do it again?

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2018 Summer of Anime – Armed Girl’s Machiavellism

14) Armed Girl's Machiavellianism

Is this…is this the anime version of “The Prince”?

Private Aichi Symbiosis Academy was once an all-girls’ school.  When boys were finally allowed to join the school, the female student body requested that they be allowed to carry weapons to protect themselves from the dangerous males.  The Supreme Five Swords–a group of the most powerful student warriors–was then formed to maintain the peace and present every male student with an ultimatum: Either drop out or become a girl to coexist.  This status quo has been maintained for generations…until Nomura Fudou–a delinquent who beat over 40 opponents in one brawl–transfers in and chooses neither option, preferring peace and quiet instead.  The Supreme Five Swords do not accept Nomura’s answer, so now Nomura must fend off increasingly strong opponents while striving for the freedom he desires so much.

Man, I was really feeling a harem show.  There’s another one I almost watched, but it’s a sequel and I don’t know if I’m ready to dive back into that world.  In trying to find a substitute, I happened upon Armed Girl’s Machiavellism.  The harem shenanigans are not too terribly present here.  Honestly, that’s probably a good thing.  Helps it stand out a bit.  Only two (or three) of the female leads wind up blatantly in love with the main guy.  It surprised me in a positive way.  Actually, that’s how the whole series is.

So, I really like the combat in AGM.  I am wholeheartedly aware how phoned-in and cheap the animation is in between the first and final fights of the series, but I still liked all the fights.  This may sound like absurdly high praise, but the encounters reminded me of comedic takes on Hunter x Hunter and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.  Sure, a couple do come down to who’s just straight up the stronger fighter, but most victors in the series are determined by their knowledge of their opponent’s fighting style or some singular tactic that would only work in that fight.  The best example of the latter is present in Nomura’s fight against Satori Tamaba, who decides to fight him while completely nude.  I won’t spoil how Nomura turns the tables on this Best Girl; just know it’s both surprising and humorous.

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Knowing is half the battle.

The comedic aspect of the show is mostly just there.  Like, I was always charmed by the outlandish characters and their actions coupled with their relatively grounded fighting styles.  A lot of the other jokes I’ve either just seen done better elsewhere or didn’t react to.  I know all the dudes being forced to wear makeup is supposed to be funny, but I found it pretty shruggable.  Some of the humor derived from that clash of styles was okay, like when a couple of the guys thought the shower was haunted.  For the most part, though, it just didn’t do it for me.  I know it’s supposed to demonstrate how the female students became the monsters they feared the boys would be, but it came off halfhearted.

The characters are all mostly easily likable (mmm, delicious adverbs).  I mentioned Satori being Best Girl, but that comes with a bit of an asterisk.  ‘Cuz, I also really love Kirukiru Amou.  Yes, they’re probably the two most inhuman characters, but…I don’t have a defense.  I do wish Rin Onigawara and Mary Kikakujou were more different since they’re the first two to fall for Nomura.  Their personalities kinda become their crushes, and it feels like they get nerfed because of it.  They are different–don’t get me wrong.  Some cooler things could’ve probably been done with Rin’s mask and Mary not being entirely fluent in Japanese.  Warabi Hanasaka is hella cool, and it would’ve been great to see more of Tsukuyo Inaba (she just wants friends!).  I also appreciate Nomura’s brashness and mischievous streak.  Makes him stand out as more of a character than a self-insert protagonist.

I’m genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Armed Girl’s Machiavellism.  I really do think it’s a 7.5 show for me.  There’s a lot keeping it from breaking into that upper echelon, but if it can get a bigger budget for a second season while ironing out the problems with its humor and fleshing out the main characters more, then I’d be down for that in a heartbeat.

2018 Summer of Anime – Shuten Doji

12) Shuten Douji

Oh, I thought you said, “My Little Oni.”

In a battle that crossed time and space, a large blue oni named Senki fought off his own kind to deliver a baby boy to the young couple of Ryuichiro and Kyoko Shiba.  Although hesitant at first, they accept the child and receive Senki’s warning that he’ll return in 15 years to reclaim the child.  They give him the name Jiro Shutendo and raise him as their own.  He grows into a strangely eyebrowed, handsome young man plagued by visions of demons coming after him at all times.  He believes them to be just bad dreams at first, but his parents realize the awful truth:  The world of the oni is soon to re-enter their lives, and they’ll have to do everything they can if they want to keep their family together.

I do believe I mentioned I wasn’t through with Go Nagai this summer.  Yes, I’m talking about the one and only with another OVA adaptation of one of his works I happen to own.  The 4-episode Shuten Doji, or Shutendoji, or Shoe Ten Dough G (no, not that last one–not that last one at all), is an odd duck.  On one hand, it reminds me a lot of Devilman with our young hero’s fate being tied to demonic forces while innocent people all around him get absolutely effing wrecked, but on the other hand, it’s a relatively more upbeat tale which includes more than a few aspects of science fiction–like time travel and cyborgs.  Yeah…it’s weird.

I don’t want to say the sudden genre blending and shifts is a negative, but it’s certainly jarring.  Like I mentioned in the opening paragraph, Senki is fighting some oni in the very beginning of the show in what I believe is the Heian period.  At one point they slam each other into the mountain, but then they wind up bursting out of the wing of some spaceship.  Yeah.  It blows up and sets off a chain reaction among the other ships, but by this time, Senki and his opponent have wound up in modern day Japan.  I legit had to rewind a few times because I thought I missed something.  So, consider this a heads up.  The third episode is the biggest step away from the supernatural stuff as we get an episode that feels like Alien but starring the Terminator.  Once again, this isn’t a detraction.  If anything, it keeps the show a bit more fresh.

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“I love you…”  “We barely know each other.”  “So much.”

Other than the demons and sci-fi stuff, you have your other Go Nagai staples.  Demons and humans alike are massacred with blood spewing everywhere.  Almost every named female character gets naked at some point with special shout-out to love interest Miyuki Shiratori who somehow manages to get naked and be put in distress every episode.  The manly men who are here to save the day get manly men sideburns.  Such glorious sideburns.  And there are some weird eyebrows here, y’all.  Like, Jiro’s don’t look especially strange until you notice they keep going and hang off his face.  I know suspending disbelief for hairstyles is first day stuff in Anime 101, but I constantly found myself just staring at them.

The characters are…characters.  You got your noble demons Goki and Senki, your troubled hero Jiro, your girl Miyuki, etc.  It irks me that there aren’t that many notable characters here.  This is Go Nagai!  I’m supposed to remember these people!  I sadly feel like most will fade from memory in short order, though.  Well, the redshirts might stick with me a smidge.  Oh, I did like Jiro’s parents.  They actually stuck around and were more pivotal to the plot than I expected.  Good on you, Go Nagai.

Hmm.  I think I’ve exhausted all my talking points for Shuten Doji (this is what my DVD says, so that’s what I’m going with).  It just doesn’t stand out that much from the countless other Go Nagai adaptations out there, and I’ve only seen a handful (okay, it’s definitely more memorable than Black Lion).  The characters fulfill their roles, the demons look like demons, there’s a lot of blood, there are many boobies, and stuff happens.  I know I sound pretty down right now–and I kinda am–but I did enjoy this.  There are some genuinely unique things that surprised me here, the sci-fi elements help more than hinder, and the soundtrack is actually pretty neat.  I’m pretty fine with giving this a 6 out of 10.  It’s not the first Go Nagai show you should check out, but don’t make it your last either.