Cannon Busters: Black representation beyond social issue dramas

By: Nubia Jade Brice August 13, 20210 Comments
a promo image with the three main leads of Cannon Busters in action poses

Content Warning: Discussion of racial stereotyping/caricature

Oftentimes, the desire to resonate with a character based on what they look like is made to seem shallow, or even ungrateful within fan communities. You can repeat, “Representation matters,” until you’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t mean the creators are required to give it to you. After a while, you get so used to not seeing yourself accurately depicted in the media you watch, that you lap up even the smallest, usually stereotypical, BIPOC representations like water in the desert. After all, seeing a Black character that looks ripped straight from the illustrations of a minstrel show poster is better than no representation at all, right? As if having your physical features or cultural traditions used for comedic shtick and typecast caricatures has ever felt good to anyone. Not all representation is necessarily good representation. 

Cannon Busters, on the other hand, seemed to promise the kind of representation I was looking for. The whispers of an anime with a mostly-Black cast of characters piqued my curiosity immediately. Anime with multiple Black leads, though not unheard of, were rare. I had to know if this was a fluke, or an elaborate marketing ploy to bait viewers like me, who eagerly soaked up every ounce of non-stereotyped diversity they could get their hands on. What I discovered was so much more than that. The fun of Cannon Busters isn’t just its inclusiveness, but in the way it doesn’t take itself too seriously. 

I took interest in the series because I was Black, but the show doesn’t try to cash in on representation as a gimmick. It is merely a show that just so happens to have a mostly BIPOC cast, which can be rare to see in animation, let alone anime. At its heart, Cannon Busters is an epic adventure comedy that really didn’t see the traction it deserved after its debut. 

close up of Philly the Kid through robo-vision that says "NEW FRIEND"

Can We Be A Little More Original?: Moving Beyond Blatant Black Trauma Bait

When I first saw articles announcing Cannon Busters, my bar was set fairly low. The more I learned about it, the higher my expectations inched, until they were so high I couldn’t shut up about it. Early looks at the show promised a mix of science fiction and fantasy in a Western-like setting. So often people think representation means I want to see something “inherently Black,” like a civil rights-era drama, as if people of color don’t enjoy magic or time travel or mechs. The show offered everything I always wanted but could never get my hopes up for. 

There were steampunk elements and even a giant robot. It drew heavily from genres not often associated with BIPOC-driven stories and offered a refreshing take on them. Instead of taking these components and weaving them into a story about racial trauma, the series had fun with them, allowing the more fantastical elements to be the center of the story, instead of just part of it. 

While that alone was more than enough to get my attention, what really made Cannon Busters stand out was that it wasn’t only diverse in its character animation, but that the creator, LeSean Thomas, is African-American as well. With credits on popular series like The Legend of Korra, Black Dynamite and The Boondocks, he’s already proven himself to be an amazing talent, but his contributions to the industry do not get brought up nearly enough, especially in smaller communities of BIPOC anime fans. Until Cannon Busters, most people I knew were familiar with his work, but had never put a face or name to it. Luckily, shows like Cannon Busters are pushing his name to the forefront of conversations. 

Philly, Sam, and Caset sitting in a pink car against a desert backdrop

A Blast from the Past

The plot itself centers around Philly the Kid, an immortal outlaw on the run from numerous bounty hunters. His life has no direction and revolves almost entirely around his vices, until the day he’s “saved” by two relentless robots. S.A.M. is a naive, but deadly, special defense robot disguised as a harmless human. Her companion Casey Turnbuckle is a highly knowledgeable repair droid that can fix just about anything. In exchange for saving him, S.A.M. requests that Philly join them on their journey to find her friend, Prince Kelby. Philly’s not only reluctant, but flat out refuses. Despite his desperate attempts to lose the two bots, he winds up accompanying them in hopes he can manipulate the situation in his favor when he realizes this might be the perfect chance to avenge his parents.  

Part of what makes Cannon Busters fun is how it works as a pastiche, borrowing from other series spanning decades. Thomas is very open about his favorite shows and how they have influenced him, and how he refers back to them in his own works.

Two of the most visible influences are the space westerns Cowboy Bebop and Trigun, both of which ran on Toonami in the US. The premise of an outlaw and has companions spreading chaos as they wander through planets dominated by Western-style desert landscapes feels straight out of Trigun; and Casey’s intelligence, innocence, and curiosity resemble Cowboy Bebop’s Ed. The soundtrack is a mix of funky R&B jams reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop’s famed soundtrack as well. 

Philling aiming a gun with glowing tattoos on his arm and a huge robot behind him

With so much going for it, it’s hard to understand why Cannon Busters received little attention despite drawing from such beloved series. If one were going off story and motifs alone, one would think this series would resonate with many anime veterans. As a fan of these older classics myself, it is easy to see the similarities, but it doesn’t feel like a complete ripoff. Cannon Busters isn’t trying to be these shows, yet it’s still similar to the series I loved, just with characters who look like me. 

Philly the Kid carries the series well as the protagonist, with his brash and rough-around-the-edges personality. It’s hard not to think of him as a more ethnic version of Spike Spiegel with his tall, lanky frame, unkempt bushel of hair, business casual outfit, and affinity for cigarettes. 

It’s nice to see a show take a chance on having leads of color and do it successfully. They don’t have to put any of the usual Black identifiers in the show for viewers to know his race. His skin isn’t pitch black with oversized lips just a few shades too bright like Blackluster from One Punch Man. He doesn’t speak in pidgin like Killa in the Dragon Ball Z dub. His race isn’t the driving force behind his character, or anyone else’s. They are just characters in a fantasy universe who happen to be Black. The characters are allowed to lead their story without being a gimmick or feeling like some sort of calculated, shallow inclusion. 

The character designers on Cannon Busters put a lot of work into giving them diverse appearances outside of just rainbow hair and eyes. There’s a huge amount of variety in body type, race, and even unique cultural aspects like hairstyles, without ever using racial stereotypes to illustrate the characters’ ethnicities. S.A.M has brown skin with bushy blonde hair while Prince Kelby has locs adorned with gold bands befitting royalty. There’s even a minor character with vitiligo. Even within people of the same race, genetics vary greatly, and the way Cannon Busters utilizes that only makes the designs that much more memorable. 

Sam and Kelby looking up at the night sky

Profit vs Progression: Challenging the Idea that Black Doesn’t Sell Well 

There seems to be an expectation that stories about Black characters include serious narratives about discrimination or Black struggles, but not every story about a person of color has to depict some controversial tragedy for it to be interesting. It’s exhausting to see tragedy and struggle on the news all day, and then come home and find more of the same in my entertainment; sometimes it’s nice to unwind and immerse myself in a fantasy universe. To see a Black character at the forefront of these types of whimsical adventures is to remind myself that there is more out to our culture than what’s presented in Oscarbait dramas, and Cannon Busters’s quirky, yet heartfelt story never felt like it was trying too hard to be serious or edgy. 

Despite the mixed reviews, Cannon Busters is still a major win for the Black community, highlighting the importance of diversity in the anime industry. In the last few years, companies like Funimation have finally begun to utilize Black talent more, and Zeno Robinson recently won a Crunchyroll Award for his performance as Hawks. Shows like Carole & Tuesday, Megalobox and Boruto have put BIPOC characters and/or voice actors at the forefront of their series, really branching out and proving we can be more than just side characters and plot devices. Cannon Busters takes it a step further by having a Black creator and artist in an industry that isn’t exactly known for its diverse workforce. It’s encouraging to see how times are changing and embracing up-and-coming talent. 

This sort of inclusion has paved the way for studios like D’Art Shtajio, the first Black-run anime studio, or new series like Yasuke, about the first African samurai, or to garner the attention that they deserve. Considering Thomas is also the creative mind behind Yasuke, it’s not surprising to see the same fantastical tropes that make Cannon Busters so much fun featured in that as well. I enjoyed watching Thomas take a risk and put a more whimsical spin on a historical story that doesn’t have many recorded details. Critics took to it well, and Thomas continues to prove that there is a market for these types of mixed genre stories with BIPOC leads and cultural influences. 

While Cannon Busters isn’t without its own flaws, it’s still entertaining. It definitely deserved more attention than it received. The show is perfect for casual watching, and the majority of the fun comes from how nostalgic it is for older anime fans. It’s also a major step in the right direction for both BIPOC creators and audiences. Here’s hoping that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that we can expect a broader range of stories in the future. I would love to explore a multitude of genres through BIPOC lenses. If nothing else, Cannon Busters proves there’s definitely a fanbase for more diverse stories and leads as long as creators are willing to tell them.

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