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WCO #233: Little Guardians

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Fantasy is rooted a little bit in actual history. Most of the time, this means the European Middle Ages. Knights in shining armor, kings and queens, towering castles, and legends of dragons and elves. King Arthur stuff. However, there are tons of challenges in setting things at a certain era. As fantasy writer Poul Anderson once elaborated in his essay “On Thud and Blunder,” “Beneath the magic, derring-do, and other glamour, an imaginary world has to work right. In particular, a pre-industrial society, which is what virtually all hf uses for a setting, differs from ours today in countless ways.”

One of the things that writers often do is just ignore the historical nuisances. Don’t worry about people’s hair not looking perfect; just assume that everyone has access to soap, mirrors, and plumbing. Pay no attention that there are no city lights; our heroes can travel by night just as easily as by day. One of the biggest historical running blocks are the roles of women. Joan of Arc aside, women in the Middle Ages were typically not trained to be warriors. It was dudes. But, since in these days it’s not in the writer’s or the reader’s best interest that the adventurers be one big sausage party, fantasy authors tend to either ignore or minimize male chauvinism. Lady warriors just show up dressed in trousers made for men, and the townspeople rarely bat an eye.

The limited opportunities for women, though, is the driving narrative in Ed Cho and Lee Cherolis’ Little Guardians. The story centers around two characters: Subira, an unassuming shopkeeper’s daughter who has great potential, and Idem, an unlucky boy who’s training to be the next Guardian.

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Our story begins with two children who are switched at birth, much like that ABC Family drama, “Pretty Little Liars.” One of the kids is deaf, and the other kid is a graffiti artist…. No, wait. Wrong. Rewind! We start by establishing the world of Little Guardians, where demons roam the land, and the only thing that stands between them and the tiny little village is Tane. Tane is a trained Guardian, and he disassembles demons Shadow of the Colossus style and then stores them in his Pokeball.

One night, he has to go out on a demon-fighting run while his wife gives birth to the next Guardian. Predictably, the wife dies at the hospital. Unfortunately, a great horror awaits the doctor: the newborn is a girl! The mantle of Guardian has always been passed from father to son. Delivering a daughter could potentially throw everything in disarray. Another child, though was born on the same night, this one the son of a shopkeeper. Secretly, the doctor and his nurse arrange to switch the babies in order to preserve the future of the village.

And so the children grow in roles contrary to their lineage. Subira is doomed to watch over a shop that she can never inherit. Her brother is a lazy layabout, and her parents are fairly dismissive of her. Her father only cares that she sweeps the floor, and her mother, sensing that she’s not really her daughter, barely acknowledges her.

In my opinion, it’s also a little over the top. They are seriously approaching the Cinderella’s step-family levels of dislikability here. It wouldn’t be quite as noticeable if the other characters quite as one-dimensional.

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Life isn’t a peach for the son of the Guardian, either. Idem has no natural aptitude at demon fighting. He struggles at sparring. During the town’s Zucchini Festival, he unwittingly unleashes a torrent of demon bugs while trying to impress his friends. Worse yet, when confronted by a demon that gives voice to his frustrations, Tane reveals that he has no confidence in his adopted son.

Inadvertently, Cho and Cherolis may have stumbled upon one of the most debated conflicts in human history: free will versus destiny. How much of our life is determined by our natural talents, and how much of it is determined by our own drive? The way the story is set up, we are naturally to root for Subira. After all, she’s the one who could have had a far more glorious life if it were not for the unfair restrictions imposed by society. And yet… there’s something to Idem’s journey as well. The most triumphant moment in Little Guardians to date may be when, after pages and pages of failure, Idem manages to overcome his initial inadequacies and bag himself a demon. Is there something of a mythic quality to the old adage, “You can accomplish anything as long as you put your mind to it”? Perhaps. But it still makes for a heck of a story.

Things soon turn around for Subira, though. First, during a demon attack, she’s protected from harm by a fairly big ghost cat. Secondly, Soma blows into town. She has the same skills as a Guardian — which including summoning spirit animals and hand-to-hand combat skills — but being a woman, she in not one officially. (Nervous villagers peg her to be a witch.) However, she’s arrived to solicit help from Tane. A demon army is coming, organized like that have never been in the past. She seeks to bring together the twelve Guardians from all the villages to form a resistance, and she wants Tane to lead. While Tane is not dismissive of Soma’s story, he feels he cannot abandon his village.

However, Soma also makes another discovery in the village. Like Qui Gon Jinn running into the Littlest Pod Racer among the sands of Alderaan, Soma discovers Subira and senses in her a strong connection to the spirit world. Subira’s path to her true destiny begins.

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The combination of Lee Cherolis’ art and Ed Cho’s storytelling pull off a nifty balance. Stretches of Little Guardians are filled keen action sequences that are well paced but never feel overlong. At the same time, the webcomic has a cheeky sense of humor, accentuated by Cherolis’ command of exaggerated facial expressions.

There’s a fun subplot in Chapter 1, for example, where a possessed farmer inadvertently crushes his wife with his prized zucchini. He’s on the outs at first when he sends her to the hospital. However, after a demon horde threatens her later, the farmer becomes once again an unstoppable juggernaut, saving her life by delivering haymakers to a bunch of demon insects, which in turn keeps him out of the doghouse. In retrospect, this little story was pretty inessential. It tells us little of either of Subira or Idem’s hero’s journey. However, it does keep the story light-hearted. Even more importantly, it significantly fleshes out the world of Little Guardians beyond the confines of a little soap opera.

In fact, huge chunks of Little Guardians are told from outside the perspective of the main characters. It seems to be a major theme with the webcomic. The prologue about the baby switch is recounted by the nurse, who makes record of the tale in an incriminating journal. Other times, a bard recounts the story of Tane’s great battle with a demon to tavern dwellers who are struggling to pay attention.

Later, we’re treated to the point of view of thieves, who are built up to be something of a big deal. They get a big battle scene and everything. They may also be Little Guardians‘ most “pointless” of narrative anchors. Their battle is with a merchant named Verdo the Whole-Saler. He has no effect on the story whatsoever … except to jack up the prices at the store where Subira works, leading to a fun little gag where Subira’s dad manages to turn this into an even bigger business opportunity. Still, the pointlessness of our thieves is emphasized when they are brushed aside by our heroes as minor nuisances at the end of the chapter. It’s subtle, but I think this is all a pretty meta joke played by Cho and Cherolis. “So, you think these guys are important, huh? WRONG!”

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It makes for a pretty vibrant world, though. Not everyone’s going to be some sort of supercool warrior, after all. There are farmers, thieves, shopkeepers, bards, conmen, and barkeeps. While epic adventures swirl around them, it doesn’t mean that they too don’t have interesting stories in their own right.

And that’s a big part of why I find Little Guardians so charming. The hero’s journey stuff is a little standard. Yet Cherolis and Cho are giving me enough tantalizing glimpses of the world they’re building that I wouldn’t mind dropping by for a visit every so often.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on November 18, 2013, in 5 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, all ages webcomic, fantasy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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