If you’re reading this post, then that means I have managed to complete the first YA novel published under Rick Riordan Presents: Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger. But before we begin, we need to talk. No, I’m not breaking up with you! Anyway, the past two years have been really rough for me. COVID tore us apart physically, and the murder of George Floyd followed up on the mental side of things. The latter is what really broke me. Since his unfair death, some very influential, and politically extreme, individuals have been on a steady growth rate. And only a couple of months ago, I began to realize that almost my entire world—both I.R.L. and online—have been viewed through a lens provided by the political party that those aforementioned individuals follow. My parents insist that the followers of those people are few and far between. However, if they are really so few in numbers, how have they nonetheless influenced virtually every aspect of Western pop culture for the past two years? From South Park doing pandemic episodes, to childrens’ picture books teaching today’s generation how to be woke, the biggest conglomerates in the world now lick the boots of those people, regardless of their quantity. While I am struggling to comprehend life as I now understand it, one thing is certain: Ballad & Dagger will more than likely be the last novel of its kind I ever read.
In Ballad & Dagger, Mateo Matisse is a starving artist who just wants to play the piano. Sadly, fate has other plans for him. On a very special night for his little community in Brooklyn, someone announces that the long lost island of San Madrigal, where said community originated, will rise again. All it needs is the children who contain the three founding spirits’ souls. Naturally, Mateo is one of them. Oh, and some girl murders a guy for some reason.
Refreshingly enough, racism isn’t a big theme in this one. Or rather, you’re not constantly bludgeoned with it. The most brutal aspect of Ballad & Dagger is the fact that San Madrigal sank like Atlantis. As a result, the three big families that make up Brooklyn’s Little Madrigal are not inhabiting San Madrigal, and you’re supposed to feel miserable for them. The word “diaspora” is a favorite in the book, because apparently, the idea that home is where you’re surrounded by the people who love you is invalid.
In case you’ve read some of the action-packed books from Rick Riordan Presents, just keep in mind that Ballad & Dagger is more like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, in that it is way more slice-of-life oriented than other installments. While trying to find the two remaining demigods, Mateo lives his normal life, hanging out with his friend, Tams, and the famous folk rocker, Gerval. Without the occasional blurb of supernatural horror, it’s easy to forget there’s anything supernatural in the book.
Things do ramp up in the second half, though. Sh** hits the fan, to say the least, and Mateo’s little community starts crumbling out from under him. A lot of the sequences are legitimately powerful. However, you have to put up with a lot of fluff to get there.
My biggest problem was that I couldn’t connect to almost anyone. Mateo is one of two characters who felt engaging at all. As narrator, his feelings come in full force, and he ends up with quite a lot of baggage in the second half. The female lead, Chela Hidalgo, is the aforementioned girl who murdered the dude in the beginning, and she’s alright. She gets some legitimate character development, but is a pretty standard YA protagonist through and through. And yes, their transition from friends to lovers is as sudden as any YA romance novel (oh spoilers, as if it wasn’t obvious enough that a YA novel has romance).
Everyone else felt like a plot device. Tia Lucia was there to be the wise old lady, Anisette was there to be the political extremist b****, etc. Gerval plays a pretty pertinent role, but in the end, his character arc will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Saturday morning cartoon.
Sadly, I must also criticize the book’s worldbuilding. Riordan’s blurb says that San Madrigal is “as real as Wakanda or the Shire or Earthsea”, and I don’t get it at all. All that is divulged of the island, back when it wasn’t underwater, is that people worshiped the three gods who get trapped in the chosen ones’ bodies. Sure, its history plays a role in the plot, but that’s about it for the actual culture, beyond what you see preserved in Brooklyn. There is also next to no folklore present, except for some ghost who’s just there, and these weird mutant things.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
I do respect and admire Rick Riordan. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never gotten my fetish for Japanese culture and folk metal. However, almost every time I read one of the Presents books, I am utterly flummoxed at what he saw in it. Ballad & Dagger is a great read by the second half, but there are so many urban fantasies that are more than just fifty percent enjoyable. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I do know that I’m pretty much alone in my stance. Maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did!
Metal has come a long way from leather-clad men with crazy hair. It’s a living entity that’s constantly growing, and has even come to welcome those in marginalized cultures. With all this color mixed in, the genre has exploded into a rainbow of infinite creativity. Let’s go over a small trickle of these diverse bands.
As a weeb, I have to start by discussing a Japanese band. Early on, all my music posts were exclusively about Japanese bands. And if I had to pick one for this post, it would be Wagakki Band.
Since the early 2010s, this group has combined the gentle beauty of traditional Japanese folk music with that of Western rock and metal. Despite the duality, this combo works really well. They’ve gotten enough acknowledgement to be allowed a collab with Amy Lee from Evanescence in 2020 (even though I think Wagakki Band is better than Evanescence and the honor should be Lee’s).
The problem is that they’re a bit inconsistent with their style. Even during the course of the same album, their musical style has ranged from folk metal to folk pop, the latter of which completely abandons Western instrumentation and has simplistic, easy melodies. Their newest work, 2021’s Starlight EP, is the lightest thing they have ever released. As they become more popular internationally, I worry that they will be forced to sell out and not be metal in the future. But I guess we’ll never know until their next full-length album comes out!
I was reluctant to listen to this band, considering the searing nature of their lyrics; however, I gave them a try. Living Colour, known for their first hit single ‘Cult of Personality’, is an iconic example of a band consisting entirely of Black men, which was very rare at the time, since a lot of metal bands only had White guys. Beyond that song is a discography spanning six full-length albums in an ongoing career of over three decades, and they’re working on new music right now.
The band combines funky fresh beats with hot n’ heavy metal. Naturally, a lot of the lyrics are sociopolitical commentaries on America, and—of course—racism is involved. The lyrics are brutally honest and, well, brutal. Living Colour is the only band to have me break out into uncontrollable sobbing. The song in question is ‘Flying’, their tribute to the 9/11 attacks. Of course, the rest of their stuff doesn’t slouch. Their newest album, Shade, is my favorite work from them thus far. Given the past couple years, expect their next outing to be brutal.
Due to my anxieties discussed in the New Year’s update, I might have BS’d myself into loving this band. In fact, you probably heard of them, since they are hugely popular worldwide (based on what I read about them). Regardless of if I should like this band, I’d rather listen to The Hu than any popstar.
The Hu are from Mongolia, and incorporate the corresponding folk traditions into their music. However, the fusion between Eastern and Western is very loose; there really aren’t any electric guitars at all. Despite that, the musical style—using the Mongolian instruments—is undeniably that of Western rock. Although considered metal, The Hu really aren’t “heavy.” The songs are very catchy, and definitely feel a lot more like Mongolian rock n’ roll than folk metal.
But for whatever reason, I find myself captivated by the band, even though, as a pure metalhead, I shouldn’t be. The singing techniques sound really cool, and the instruments are neat to boot. Maybe they’ll get heavier when they follow-up their debut album, The Gereg, but we’ll never know until that next album comes out!
I had zero African bands on my docket for the longest time. The only African band I had heard of was South Africa’s Vulvodynia, a super duper violent death metal outfit; no thanks! I wanted African folk metal, but there were slim pickings. Of those pickings was Tunisia’s Myrath, and while not exactly what I was looking for, I ended up developing an interest in them all the same.
Incorporating Middle Eastern instruments, Myrath is a brilliant progressive folk metal band, although they lean toward the Western end of the fusion. Their style gradually shifts toward power metal (as shown in the embedded MV) which might be off-putting for some, but the songs are still fire, so it really just shows the band’s versatility.
Alien Weaponry is one of the more recent examples of metal being used as an instrument to fight for civil rights, and quite a successful one at that. This New Zealand outfit is descended from said nation’s native people, the Maori. Sadly, New Zealand’s British-run government has been systematically stamping out what little of the Maori remain (read this article for more details). With metal, Alien Weaponry seeks to represent their heritage and raise awareness of racism.
Unfortunately, I found them to be my second least favorite band on this post. The songs in which they incorporate their Maori language are great; they have a tribal and barbaric sound (which is exemplified by the fact that they perform with no shirts on). However, that’s only half the battle. A lot of their music is sung entirely in English, and when they do this, Alien Weaponry seems like a completely different beast. While the lyrical theme of racial injustice is still part of it (albeit in a different language), the all-English songs feel very contemporary and garden-variety by comparison. I usually do a three album rule if I can at least see potential for the band to grow (a rule that may or may not have been inspired by the notorious three episode rule for anime), so I’ll keep my eye on them for now. As it stands, Alien Weaponry is a pretty typical Western-style outfit with a Polynesian paint job.
Voice of Baceprot
This young Indonesian outfit seems to be the most popular band out of everyone on this post. Of course, they happen to be my least favorite as well. However, that’s not a particularly fair assessment since they have only two singles and several covers of early 2000s metal songs that I don’t like.
What makes them attractive is that they are seriously young; I think they’re still teens. They’re also all girls who practice Islam, which apparently forbids music (at least where they’re from). VOB has become insanely successful, not only gaining a large swathe of metal fans, but the favor of political figures as well. Their critics, on the other hand, are so passionate as to threaten the girls’ lives. I don’t mean they are Internet trolls; these people have made actual, cruel attempts to murder the members of VOB.
I wanna support them, but what they have put out so far doesn’t impress me. Voice of Baceprot sounds like a very basic hard rock band. Their lyrics are definitely heavy, but the music just doesn’t accommodate. Regardless of what I think, people love them, and I’m willing to bet that a potential full-length debut album will be the most anticipated metal debut of the decade; likely the one thing that can dethrone Spiritbox. You can give them a try I guess. If you watched the embedded music video, you’ll have already heard 50% of their discography anyway.
Okay, so this is the most unorthodox band I have on here. I have included Whispered only because I want to bring up the concept of “cultural appropriation”. Like Wagakki Band, Whispered incorporates Japanese folk into heavy metal. Unlike Wagakki Band, Whispered are from Finland.
I read up on cultural appropriation, and I’m afraid that Whispered might fall under it, and their very underground status is probably what’s kept them from any upheaval. The music is really good, basically a more extreme version of Wagakki Band, with that over-the-topness of European metal. It’s actually a really, really good band. I’d almost say they’re better than Wagakki Band. They incorporate the rare fusion of melodic death with power metal, and have taught me that Wizardthrone was not at all the first band to do it (in fact, Whispered would make a perfect replacement for them if they were to disband).
Whispered is taking its sweet time, with only three albums out in the course of a decade, and no set date for the fourth album has been confirmed. The lyrical themes are mostly bushido stuff, and sometimes cover Japanese mythology, but both check out based on my own knowledge of the culture.
I don’t really know the nuances of cultural appropriation. The first and foremost thing is that it’s supposed to be offensive, but how do you know for sure? When I read up on it, I saw one example of Justin Bieber being accused just for wearing dreadlocks. Maybe he was wearing it “wrong(?)”, but I don’t know how you can be racist by wearing a cool hairstyle. Whatever the case may be, I’m concerned that the current mindset on racism will make it so that only people of a given ethnicity can be inspired by the corresponding culture. That sounds like the opposite of what needs to be done to me.
Despite the massive burst of inclusive media, there’s still a long way to go. As I mentioned before, I wanted African folk metal, specifically that of West Africa; the kind that’s represented at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Animal Kingdom Lodge. Togo’s Arka’n Asrafokor is the first band that came up when I searched, and according to what I’ve read, they’re the only metal band from Togo to begin with.
Like many underground units, they need time. Since its formation in 2009, the band has only released one album—2019’s Zã Keli—under its old name, ARKA’N. The album isn’t just novel; it slaps. As it says on the tin, it is a fusion of metal, and those old-timey African vibes. Using English, French, and their native Ewe, there are a lot of different vocal performances you’ll hear. I particularly love when they harmonize in the latter.
According to my research, Zã Keli was very well-received when it came out, and most people who’ve listened to the band are already devoted fans. However, the fact still remained that I needed to Google Search this specific type of music for me to find them by happenstance. From what I read about them, the process of finding the necessary equipment was exceptionally difficult where they’re from, and that would probably explain why the album took so long to make. I hope that the stars will align with them in the future, because this is a band I want to see become more mainstream. While a lot of the diverse stuff in the mainstream emphasizes how great each culture is, they don’t really showcase either of those cultures “together”, if you catch my drift.
Unfortunately, it really seems that Arka’n Asrafokor is one of a kind, not just in Togo, but the world. Like I said, this is the only result I got for “African folk metal”, and that makes me feel sad. I wish this band takes over the world going into the 2020s. PLEASE.
We have a long road to travel to reach racial tolerance. In the meantime, these bands—and many more—are here to stay and won’t take no for an answer. Maybe someday, metal will remind us that we’re all human beings. If not, then pop will probably take that mantle instead. Hopefully, you’ll have been encouraged to broaden your horizon of music!
A lot of writers create slice-of-life dramas about identity, where a young’un has to fight the labels provided by society. But in my opinion, the theme of “identity” would be more urgently called into question if someone’s brain just decided to assume an entirely different personality within the same body. That’s what happens in My Dearest Self with Malice Aforethought, a royally messed up suspense manga.
In My Dearest Self with Malice Aforethought, the main protagonist, Eiji Urashima, is haunted by a dark past that’s about to bite him in the butt: he’s the son of LL, a serial killer. Eiji has been able to live a normal life, but he suddenly starts experiencing time-skips. The reason for this is B1, a split personality that seems to be more-or-less following in his father’s footsteps. Eiji now must find the truth behind, well, himself.
One thing to say about this manga is that it’s really suspenseful. Normally, a lot of these—such as Monster—revolve around finding the established main antagonist. That’s pretty difficult when the protagonist and antagonist share the same body. Eiji finds himself in various situations thanks to B1, and it’s engaging to see how he could possibly get out of them.
The characters are, sadly, not too spectacular. Eiji is your typical thriller protagonist, where he starts off as super timid, but ends up becoming more and more like B1 as he’s forced to do uncouth things in order to find the truth. A more interesting case is his girlfriend, Kyoka. She seems like the super-perfect waifu, but that quickly stops being the case. The most likeable (read as: “marketable”) character is this one loli named Rei Shimyoji. She’s that weird girl who’s super big-brain and knows how to do a lot of unconventional stuff that just so happens to be helpful in plot progression.
After the halfway point, Dearest Self takes the cynical route, where B1 is on center stage for the remainder of the series. At this point, it becomes a pretty typical cat-and-mouse chase as he tries to find the true culprit of the LL murders. It feels very Western because of the whole thing where he’s “just as evil as the murderer he’s trying to catch” and it’s supposed to be an allegory to how all humans are awful. The mystery element is still good, but for those suffering from cynicism like I am, it’s not the best route for a manga to take.
At the very least, it all wraps up nice and smoothly. Sadly, the true villain’s motive ends up being the typical thing where killing is the only thing that makes them happy; the perfect “I couldn’t come up with a motive by the publication deadline” motive. I mean, how much more can you ask for?
The art, for the most part, is what you’d expect from a modern thriller manga. The eyes are very detailed, and there are a lot of instances of crosshatching and distortion effects. The faces are very exaggerated, and lips are given a lot of emphasis.
Final Verdict: 8.85/10
My Dearest Self With Malice Aforethought ended up being a much better experience than I initially thought. It was short and engaging, without getting too convoluted (relatively speaking). I recommend it to suspense fans.
Despite me being a big weeb, I am more than willing to admit that cartoons are better than anime by a long shot, at least modern ones. However, a number of them tend to be a bit predictable. One day, due to the impulsive part of the brain that says “F*** it”, I decided to watch a Netflix show called She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, reviews of which said it had a lot of depth. However, I was hesitant because it’s a reboot. While I loved DuckTales 2017, I was able to appreciate it because I at least knew the characters from other Disney stuff. But with She-Ra… I never heard of the original 1980s cartoon to begin with. Oh well, here I am nonetheless!
So, uh, the main protagonist starts out being raised as an orphan in… the bad guy place? I feel like that would’ve been too complicated in the ‘80s… Also, the “bad guy” group is called the Horde, and their leader is named “Hordak”, as in, the Horde. Ack. Seriously? Anyhoo, said protagonist, named Adora, ends up sneaking out with her anthropomorphic feline friend—creatively named Catra—to some forest where she finds a sword. After being told esoteric nonsense, our Adora-ble friend turns over a new leaf as the swole Princess She-Ra.
I should start by saying how awesome this show looks. The art is simple, but effective, with a wide variety of pleasing color palettes and anime-like particle effects. It looks a lot like an American graphic novel, which I normally don’t enjoy, but the animation helps bring life to something that would otherwise be lifeless. Similar to Avatar, the characters are very anatomically correct by cartoon standards.
Like The Dragon Prince, She-Ra 2018 follows a linear narrative right out of the gate. The show wastes no time getting interesting, as Adora swiftly realizes that the Horde has been shoving propaganda down her throat. Also, in case you couldn’t tell from Catra wearing a lot of red, she becomes the Zuko of this series when she finds out about the whole She-Ra thing. And speaking of She-Ra herself, Adora has to get acclimated with the power starting out.
As with about 90% of all American media for kids/teens, She-Ra 2018 has a pretty explicit theme of identity (which I can assume is not part of the original). Adora tends to be torn between her old life with kitty friend, and her new life with the people who are clearly the good guys. Plus, a lot of the residents of this world (which I forgot to mention is called Etheria) clearly know She-Ra as some kind of public figure. This puts pressure on Adora that is (as much as I hate saying it) something relatable to anyone who’s grown up in a first-world country; we all got told that we have to fix the entire world at least once as kids.
Despite my hearing that She-Ra 2018’s story had depth, it’s sadly not the case. Well, technically it does have depth to an extent. There is a lot to the story, yes, but it’s incredibly straightforward. Also, despite what they set up between Adora and Catra, there is still a clear good and evil side. Even though certain individuals within the horde get interesting character development, the Horde itself is just one-dimensionally evil for no reason. But you know what, a kids’ show is a kids’ show, and it’s not like I exactly enjoy those SUPER complicated stories in the first place.
Although it does nothing new, She-Ra 2018 reinvents the wheel quite well. It eases you in, but doesn’t waste time with random antics like most cartoons early on, yet giving you enough time to like the characters before sh*t hits the fan. Fortunately, there is enough humor to go around, even during the trying times. The humor is pretty much the standard for modern cartoons: witty comments and an awareness of its own running themes.
However, there’s a weird issue with season two. While She-Ra 2018 doesn’t waste time with cartoon antics early on, it starts doing just that in the second season. While there are some important developments sprinkled throughout, the second season does have its share of self-contained issues that have the usual lack of proper context. Fortunately, it is the second-shortest season, but it’s still the weakest nonetheless.
As good as the story is, it wouldn’t be crap without its likeable cast. Adora definitely has issues to work through, what with realizing that the empire she’s been serving is bad and all. Fortunately, these are all legitimate insecurities which aren’t even remotely on the level of smooth-brain of most cartoon protagonists (but that doesn’t mean she isn’t smooth-brained, period). The friends that she ditches Catra for end up being incredible supports. One of them is a glimmering princess named Glimmer. She starts off as a pretty typical “nakama”-type, but ends up going in an interesting direction later. Unfortunately, she ends up having a fair number of smooth-brain moments, even if they aren’t as bad as other cartoon characters. Plus, the unspecified limit to her magic is a plot detriment that becomes redundant until a certain point.
The other friend is the only male lead: an archer—an archer—named Bow. Yes, an archer named Bow. I checked IMDB and, indeed, that’s how his name is spelt. Not Bo, Boh, nor Boe; but Bow. His favorite band is probably Unleash the Archers (*laughs while slow-clapping*). Like Sokka from Avatar, he offers most of the comic relief, but he’s also very physically and technologically capable.
Of course, the show isn’t called She-Ra and the Princesses of Power for nothing; i.e. there are other princesses. From the valleygirl Mermista, to the nerdy-ass Entrapta (the names of whom I’m probably spelling wrong), each princess is good at one thing, and they do that thing to the Nth degree. Also supporting the main heroes are the chuunibyou pirate Sea Hawk, and the sassy horse Swiftwind.
In order to make the show good, however, you need antagonists that are equally as likeable as the protagonists. But despite how big the army is, there aren’t that many people important enough to have names. Fortunately, quality supersedes quantity here. Take Best Girl Scorpia, for example. She’s basically a ten-year-old trapped in a ridiculously swole body, and is almost always enjoyable to see. A bit higher up the ladder is Shadow Weaver, who is—sadly—your typical Saturday morning cartoon villain, who’s all like “I’m bad and stuff”. She does get character development, but it’s quite literally something you’ve seen before. At the TOP of that ladder is the aforementioned Hordak. He seems unremarkable at first, but it turns out that there are a lot of other sides to him.
Last and yes, definitely, absolutely not least is who I can only assume is everyone’s favorite character: Kitty-witty Catra. She’s like Zuko and Azula in one, busty cat body. As Adora’s childhood friend, she becomes very livid very fast when Adora is all “Hey, I like these other people instead”. But for Catra, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… uh, wait, that phrase doesn’t work here. Basically, she uses that anger as fuel to become the biggest bi—wait, she’s a cat. She becomes the biggest, er… *asks Google what a female cat is* Molly (apparently) in the Horde.
However, her character arc is way more complicated than that. In fact, I was legitimately impressed by Catra. As the series goes on, she battles very clashing emotions and insecurities. I’m willing to bet that she would’ve just been some twinkie who said brilliant one-liners such as “Hey Adora, cat got your tongue?” in the old show. But on the other side of the coin, she can just be written off as “an angsty emo kid” like Sasuke from Naruto. She-Ra 2018 needs a re-watch just so you can really take in exactly what causes Catra to go awry and when; you’ll need to understand how people work REALLY well in order to get why (and if it makes any sense).
If you couldn’t tell, the whole show revolves around a single love triangle: Adora, Glimmer, and Catra. Since the show’s done, there is at least an answer to that now, but I imagine that the fandom was very toxic while She-Ra 2018 was still airing. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Throughout the show, I felt like there was a massive multitude of potential ships, made evident through various context clues, such as Glimmer being jealous when Bow goes to a party with another girl. So no matter what happens, there will be at least five different reasons for you to unconditionally hate this show. Fortunately, they don’t drop the ball and have every ship either sunk or unaccounted for; there ARE clear winners, you just have to do the unthinkable and deal with it.
And for the record, this show is really good at not feeling like a reboot at all (which is a compliment). In DuckTales, I had a pretty good hunch of who was carried over. But in She-Ra 2018, everyone felt so modern that I have no idea if anyone was carried over at all. It could’ve been everyone, or even no one. I can only assume that everyone is carried over because of how uncreative their names are.
If there is any real, substantial flaw with the show—minus its god-awful opening sequence, nakama-powered Deus ex Machinas, and abundance of fake deaths—I felt like Etheria itself was faulty. The setpieces are very pleasing to look at, but there’s no real sense of space in this show. As far as I’m concerned, the different kingdoms feel like they’re within a hop, skip, and a jump from each other. There’s also one character whose existence is implied early on but they never actually appear in the show. Furthermore, there’s no reason to care about anyplace. They make you give so many f***s about Bright Moon, but there is literally nothing there but the castle and its whopping six occupants. But you know what, it beats filler episodes where the cast stops at nondescript villages that never show up again to solve self-contained Saturday morning cartoon antics!
Final Verdict: 8.7/10
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power ended up being a much better cartoon than I expected, even though I prefer The Dragon Prince (assuming its remaining seasons are just as good as the early ones). I’m especially glad that it wasn’t just ham-fisted P.C. Feminist propaganda; they actually put in the effort necessary to convey it through context. I can’t remotely imagine how the old She-Ra would’ve fared by comparison, let alone imagine what the plot would’ve been. I recommend She-Ra 2018 if you like magical girl shows but want a bit more class than what Sailor Moon offers.
P.S. with Spoilers
I thoroughly enjoyed this show, but I feel mixed about the ending. Sure, it’s good that they resolve everything cleanly and cohesively. However, the fact that the Adora and Catra ship actually got to sail felt like pandering. Their love is definitely not shoehorned in at the end; it’s readily apparent since the very first episode as long as you know how writing works. Look, I’m saying this without looking up other reviews of the show, but I feel like they ended Catra’s character arc that way just to pander to a fandom that would’ve otherwise berated them. If they planned it to be that way from the start, then cool. But man, though, it just so happens that the biggest ship actually sails? Since when does that ever happen?
I have a confession to make. Steven Universe, which I only finished just recently, is the first Cartoon Network show I have ever watched. I never watched Dexter’s Lab, Powerpuff Girls, Pickle Rick… nothing! I didn’t even watch anime on Adult Swim. So, with that out of the way, let’s check out Steven Universe!
It seems that Steven Universe just throws you in, right from season one, episode one. Basically, the titular Steven is a half-human, half-gem-boy; a product of his late mother, Rose Quartz, and this fat old guy named Greg. He lives with three gem ladies- Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl (AND STEVEN! Sorry… had to reference the opening)- and they protect the world from monsters and stuff.
If you couldn’t tell, Steven Universe is confusing. In my process of watching the show, I realized that the episodes seem famously difficult to watch in chronological order. The episodes weren’t just aired slightly out of order, but streaming services additionally have a number of massive continuity errors with the way they’re listed. Fortunately, the wiki has an episode list (in addition to a very comprehensive Reddit post) that you can use. Hulu is by far the best place to watch it, because it has the episodes listed individually, and not in two-episode sets, which avoids a bulk of the ordering issues.
But even if you watch it in the proper order (which I presume I did?), it really does throw you right into everything with no context, like I said before. Speaking of context, it’s almost as if the show expects you to figure out what’s going on THROUGH the context of what happens. I feel like that’s too much of an expectation for a cartoon, especially since 2010s cartoons have more involved narratives. But hey, the first few episodes do a good job at establishing a basic aspect of the premise, and how the series works in general.
Disregarding the confusion with the watching order, how good is Steven Universe anyway? Well, for starters, it is perhaps the slowest burn that I’ve seen in a cartoon. The first season more or less has all my problems with season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender; a lot of self-contained narratives, and not a lot of core narrative. The first episode set with a real sense of plot progression is episodes 25 and 26, but after that, it’s business as usual for a while.
One thing I noticed in Steven Universe was that I didn’t exactly find it funny. A lot of the humor, other than stuff from the gem ladies, is kind of flat. Apart from a couple of blips of cleverness, I didn’t exactly laugh all that much. But maybe… the show was not meant to be funny.
The big surprise is that Steven Universe has a bizarrely engaging core narrative. When the show actually tries to ramp it up, it’s a darn good time. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that they build up to when it comes to Rose Quartz’s backstory, as well as the lore of the gems themselves. The show also builds a more and more involved narrative over time. My biggest problem with it is that the gem world ends up being this super-dystopian society where there’s no free will, and they end up being all like “Wow, Earth and humans are so special and wonderful, my world sucks!” It bothered me as someone who doesn’t want to believe that humanity is unique in the cosmos, but in the end, it’s not that big of a deal.
Steven Universe also tackles one of the most relatable themes in human existence: identity. The most interesting mechanic of the gems is their ability to fuse with each other, creating new and powerful gems with their own fused personalities. In addition to that, Steven is technically his own mother, whose past ends up getting… rather tumultuous. Plus, there are multiple of the same gems that exist at one time. The show begs asking questions about “what is the self” and all that pretentious junk, but Steven Universe kind of just shows the fusion for what it is instead of waxing its own poetic.
More than in any cartoon I’ve watched, I was seriously caught off guard by the characters. Steven starts off as your typical, overly-optimistic kid. But after a while, he ends up involved in some of the best and most emotional scenes in the series. However, he is kind of a Gary Sue. One running theme with the show is that he resolves a lot of conflicts verbally. While it does fit with the core themes of the story, as someone who had finished Kimetsu no Yaiba– with its overly righteous main protagonist that everyone, even his enemies, loves- I was a bit bothered by Steven when he’d wax sentimental mumbo jumbo.
Steven’s father, Greg, is also a great character who’s constantly had to live with the loss of Rose Quartz. The lead female human is a girl named Connie. She initially comes off as that “outcast girl who has the main character walk into her life and BOOM! all girls want to be her”, but her relationship with Steven is a lot cuter than that contrived romance. She ended up growing on me more than I thought she would. There are also a wide variety of other townsfolk, from Ronaldo the conspiracy theorist, to the enigmatic Onion, who all have memorable personalities.
But the real gems of the show are, well, the gems. Pearl seems cool and collected, but she has some serious O.C.D. Amethyst is the fun, rambunctious one who also happens to be an outlier of the trio. And Best Girl Garnet is very deadpan, but sometimes has some of the best one-liners. However, underneath their hard outer shells (pun intended) are some surprisingly well-fleshed out characters. They go through some serious issues, and unlike other cartoons, it actually felt engaging to, well, engage in their character arcs.
But they’re not the only gems. After season one, we see some new faces, such as Lapis Lazuli and Peridot. Lapis is kind of the tortured waifu who needs to be taught happiness by the main character, and is probably my least favorite gem. Peridot is a typical tsundere, but it’s funny to see her misinterpret aspects of human culture. There are many other gems, but. I won’t mention them because they don’t show up until over halfway through the story.
When it comes to visuals, Steven Universe is very appealing. The fights are well-animated, and everyone has memorable character design. The one complaint I have with this aspect is that people’s nostrils look kind of like slits instead of nostrils. But hey, a nitpick is a nitpick.
And speaking of nitpicks, I’m about to destroy my reputation in one fell swoop. Steven Universe has a good amount of musical numbers. And to be honest… I’m not a big fan of most of them. I know I just said something awful, but hey, I said “most”. There were a couple of songs that I liked, but I won’t name them, specifically because I don’t know what any of their names actually are (for the record, at least one of the songs I do like is the fan-favorite in the series).
But if you noticed the title of this post, you’d know that Steven Universe is not over, even if you finish the final episode of the main series. Set two years after the finale (and thanks goodness it is; Steven’s voice doesn’t sound whiny anymore), Steven Universe: The Movie initially comes off as cash-savvy filler, but has just as much plot relevance as the main story. Overall, it’s a fun movie that also has some of the better (and more abundant) musical numbers in the series. It can theoretically be skipped, but one of its characters appears late in Steven Universe Future, the concluding mini-series of the franchise.
Following the movie, Future attempts to bring final closure to Steven’s character arc, and teaches a number of additional life lessons. It tackles a lot of his emotional insecurities as his powers start becoming as unstable as his mental state. It starts off kind of hit-or-miss, but it ramps up to the highest emotional state in the entirety of the series. It’s kind of stupid that (at this time) the only way to watch Future all the way through is to buy it on Amazon Prime Video, but it’s well worth spending, provided that you sufficiently enjoyed the main series.
Final Verdict (Average of all Media): 8.5/10
Normally, I cannot stand narratives that deal with timeless, “relatable” themes like growing up and identity. But Steven Universe tackles them in a thoughtful and honest way that isn’t merely just mooching off of people who want to see themselves in a fictional setting. I’ve grown to be able to respect Cartoon Network because of their willingness to air a show like Steven Universe. And if it weren’t for the end of COVID-19, I probably would’ve tried watching stuff like Rick and Morty. But alas, it was not meant to be; TV isn’t my primary calling after all. Anyways, I recommend Steven Universe to those who want a different cartoon, one that isn’t there just to numb your children with fart jokes.