Black Clover is an ongoing battle-Shonen manga/anime by Tabata Yuki and chronicles the adventures of a Chibi-Chad named Asta, a young peasant born without any magical power in a world where magic is everything.
Shonen Jump has serialized Black Clover since February 2015, which is around the time I sorely needed a new anime to fill the void that Naruto’s finale and Bleach’s demise left behind. I’d managed to catch up to One Piece in a month-long binge, leaving me desperate for anything about big dreams and the power of friendship.
Initially, my go-to anime vloggers declared the Black Clover anime nearly unwatchable due to Asta’s constant screaming. After watching the first episode, I seriously worried about the vocal health of Asta’s voice actor but continued watching. There was something about the two twin protagonists, Asta and Yuno, competing for the same goal right from the start that felt warmly familiar (reminiscent of Gon and Killua’s dynamic from Hunter x Hunter) and the magic system was fun and flexible. I was in.
As Asta sets off on his adventure to become the Wizard King (Fantasy Hokage), he meets one of his first senpai (junior mentors), the fiery delinquent Magna Swing, a fellow peasant and member of the Black Bulls magic knight squad. He’s set up as a likable but average-strength character whose initial role was that of Asta’s personal Uber (flying on brooms requires magic and Asta has none) and goes on to have a couple of badass moments as the heroes face off against each arc’s big bad. All in all, pretty standard character progression for a battle-Shonen anime.
And then these lunatics show up.
The introduction of the Spade Kingdom and the Dark Triad initiated one of my favorite anime tropes: the time skip. Our beloved squad of delinquents, the Black Bulls, go off to train so they can hope to face off against the Spade Kingdom Arc’s big bads: Vanica, Dante, and Zenon. These are all extremely powerful mages whose strength is on par with devils, the supernatural villains pulling the strings behind the scenes, and they themselves are possessed by three of the highest-ranking devils from the underworld. To power scale this properly, it took a post-time skip Asta and a full power captain Yami, the ultimate Sigma Chad and my personal hero, to take down Dante (pictured above, center).
What’s important to note here is that prior to Dante’s appearance, all of the Black Bulls embarked on some sort of training, including Magna, to face off against these antagonists. Despite being a peasant with low mana, Magna was able to tap into a power that was considered beyond his reach. Was it by breaking through his limits or conveniently powering up to the level of the story’s protagonists?
Magna felt the need to get stronger at all costs in order to keep up with his personal rival, Luck Volta, and to avoid being a burden to the rest of the Black Bulls (classic anime motivation). He was willing to do anything to get stronger, even study. It was revealed to readers in a flashback that Magna began his magical education by begging the Black Bull’s resident leather daddy, Zora, for tutelage during the time skip.
Magna’s first lesson was that that the world wasn’t fair. Monsters existed and he, a peasant, could never hope to overpower these walking demigods with brute force alone. Instead, he’d have to innovate. And innovate he does!
Black Clover writer Tabata Yuki created a fluid, fun, and functional solution for Magna’s problem. Instead of getting a Deus-Ex Powerup, Magna, through the magic of studying and hard work, learned to layer small little magical runes, which only those with low mana would ever think to do, over the course of months, to create a single-use spell designed specifically to counter one of the Dark Triad. What was the spell? Soul Chain Deathmatch aka Magical Socialism. Magna’s spell forced Dante to split his magic evenly with Magna, leveling the playing field for the remainder of the fight. The level of satisfaction that I got from seeing Magna, former magical Uber driver, pound the arc’s big bad, the one that pushed Asta and Yami beyond their limits, a villain that embodies the magical inequality of the Black Clover world was, muah! Chef’s kiss.
In order to understand the gravity of this creative choice, we’re going to need to revisit a classic character from one of the most popular anime in history, Tien Shinhan from Dragon Ball.
Why Tien Sucks
Within the Dragon Ball universe, Tien is a character that spends most of his time training in the mountains. He has his own dojo and was a self-declared rival to Goku. Humble beginnings. What happened?
Tien didn’t always suck. In Dragon Ball, he was pretty dope, actually. Tien and Goku were caught in between their respective masters’ personal squabbles, the Crane school versus the Turtle school. This pitted Tien against Goku as his fated rival. Tien was the first character to introduce flying to the series, just like Magna, and served as a vehicle to establish the scope of the world. He went from cold-hearted assassin to trusted ally and reliable member of Goku’s crew, classic enemies to friends.
But Dragon Ball Z changed everything.
It was clear that, based on Tien’s lack of screen time or powerups, Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama had no further character development planned for Tien Shinhan. It is completely unreasonable to expect Tien to take on any of the Dragon Ball Z arc villains because there was no effort put to make it even possible. Tien learned, in a very real way, that he was not the hero of his story.
The Magical 1%
On an episode of the Writing Excuses Podcast, writer Max Gladstone talks about worldbuilding and how many genre settings seem to revolve around whatever gifted, magical, or otherwise special sort of people heroes and villains happen to be–aka The Magical 1%. Another example is the Jedi order, for instance. Consider, then, the plight of the “regular” people, like Han Solo or Tien Shinhan. It can be scary existing in a world where you’re not one of the seven people in the universe who has a destiny or demigod-level strength. The world suddenly becomes a horror setting where beings of boundless power go around erasing people and blowing up mountains over personal squabbles.
How does a writer work within these tropes in ways that make stories better, that serve their existing characters? The solution is to get creative.
Keeping your plot promises, pushing your magic systems, and including story arcs for your side characters are all ways to strengthen your world-building. Really, you’re treating your world-building as a character, expanding the depth of your world as the story progresses. This steady development allows the space for your side characters to grow enough to even impact the main plot.
Most people consider Samwise the everyman of the Lord of The Rings, the character we could all relate to. He was a gardener with a crush on a local gal who got swept up in some bigtime trouble. What if Samwise, through the course of the story, worked on mastering ancient Elven magic that was fueled by the power of empathy and loyalty? Magic powerful enough to sock Sauron in the fiery face and put him down for good? It could have lead to a moment like this: