Days of Anime 2020: Four Leaf

2020 has been a big year for webtoons in the English-speaking scene. Just this year we’ve seen three anime co-productions between Webtoon (the branch of Korean search company Naver that specializes in producing scrollable comics optimized for phones) and Crunchyroll (the anime streaming site.) Tower of God. God of High School. Noblesse. All huge action series on Webtoon, all granted anime adaptations this year that did their best to condense a lot of story into something palatable. I can’t speak to Noblesse, which is still airing; but based on the folks I saw yelling on Twitter this year, I’d reckon Tower of God and God of High School did pretty well for themselves as Webtoon ambassadors.

At the same time, I’ve heard folks dismiss Webtoon as a platform completely based on their experience watching these shows. They blast Tower of God for its weird misogyny and trope-heavy story, yell at God of High School’s bad writing and trope-heavy story, moan about Noblesse’s leaden animation and its trope-heavy story. “If these are the most popular series on Webtoon,” they say, “Webtoon must not add up to much, right?” Well: it’s complicated. Webtoon and Crunchyroll chose these series for a reason. Tower of God especially is the closest the platform has to a Naruto or One Piece: an epic bildungsroman where the protagonist fights through a strange world and becomes stronger. Considering the enormous success of shounen fight comics abroad, it’s no surprise that the comics Webtoon and Crunchyroll picked to adapt were a lot like shounen fight comics.

But shounen fight comics only make up a small part of Webtoon’s output. There are hugely popular romantic comedies and dramas, like True Beauty and Cheese in the Trap, which themselves have been adapted into successful TV dramas. Delve a bit deeper on the site and you might find the darkly hilarious and sad Duty After School, or the excellent stand-alone series Your Letter. While Webtoon is a Korean property, the site features talent from around the world as well. The great Hades and Persephone retelling Lore Olympus, due for a TV adaptation via the Jim Henson Company, is drawn by a New Zealander. The charming middle-grade fantasy series Hooky, my sentimental favorite on the site, is drawn by an artist from Barcelona. And there’s plenty of great independent work in the Canvas section of the site, comics as scrappy as any independent webcomic you’d find on the internet.

You may not have heard of Four Leaf. It’s a Webtoon drawn by Lumaga, an artist located in Uruguay. It occupies one of the coveted Original slots, granted to hugely popular ongoing comics like Lore Olympus and True Beauty, but doesn’t hit the same spectacular numbers as those series on the regular. It’s a tricky comic to explain in that it has many moving pieces. It’s an isekai “travel to another world” story, where the protagonist Lupe is transported from their abusive mother to a world of magic and secrets. But it’s more concerned with Lupe’s growth as a person and their relationship to others than it is with being a simple power fantasy. There’s shades of a Madoka Magica-style conspiracy plot with magical girls warring for resources, too, but that part of the story keeps flickering on and off like a light switch.

I was recommended Four Leaf by a friend, who swore it had some of the best fight sequences of any Webtoon she’d read (she was right, it totally does!) I found the first season of the comic to be intriguing, but wearying: blessed with great cartoony art and some good ideas, but weighed down at times by exposition and a fear of letting the art carry the story. Even so I found myself blasting through to the end, carried along by Four Leaf’s twists and turns. At the end of its first part–or season, as they call it on Webtoon–I already found myself recommending it to friends, who became fans themselves.

The second season, though, is where I knew that I was in good hands. Right from the beginning there’s an immediate confidence that part one was building to by the end. The artist throws Lupe right into difficult emotional territory without compromise. They let the flow of the comic carry the story rather than rely too heavily on thought bubbles, making full use of Webtoon’s film strip quality. There’s even some sparing, but shocking, use of motion graphics! The second season also finds the comic taking a hard pivot from isekai mystery to character drama, developing much of its length to Lupe’s slow growth as they bond with family and friends. I can imagine some folks being put off by the paucity of action sequences considering they were some of the best parts of the first season, but frankly I’m glad the artist took the time to really ground us in Lupe’s perspective. If they were more of an observer in the first season, they are a fully fledged character in their own right by the end of the second.

Four Leaf isn’t perfect, of course. Personally I think Lupe’s “mother” threatens to unbalance the story whenever she appears, a harsh archetype who stands out among the series’s more laid-back cast. Even so, Four Leaf stands at not just a favorite webcomic, but one of my favorite kind of webcomics: one where you can see the artist improve exponentially as they draw, and draw. With Crunchyroll having recently been bought by Sony, I’m not exactly sure what the future holds for Webtoon productions (don’t take my word as gospel either–as a freelance writer at Crunchyroll News, I don’t know much about the direction of the company!) I imagine that if further series are made, they’d sooner adapt titles like UnOrdinary, that land in the shounen comic ballpark. Maybe they’d even pick a romantic comedy like True Beauty. I would certainly be very excited if, say, Your Letter was granted a movie via Kyoto Animation. But other than Hooky, maybe, Four Leaf is the kind of series I’d love to see adapted. It’s a great comic that deserves the popularity boost an anime series could bring. There’s opportunities for excellent action animation, but moodier scenes and stark emotion as well. Regardless, the comic is well worth a recommendation on its own. It’s a Webtoon underdog that wholly deserves your time.

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