The story of New York Comic Con has long been a move increasingly towards mainstream nerd culture. But what happens when that culture changes into one where comics have ascended?
For years now, I’ve associated this convention with prestige TV shows and superhero movies above all else. Comics are still paid lip service and the Artist Alley still brings some of the biggest names you can imagine, but my attendance and attention have waned over time. Even this year, I only went one day when in the past it would have been three or four. But when I was there, I couldn’t help but notice the remnants of New York Anime Festival, once upon a time absorbed into its bigger and more popular brother we call NYCC, emerging with new life.
It would be inaccurate to treat NYCC like an anime con, but the industry presence in the Exhibition Hall was very noticeable. Big booths for Gundam, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and various anime and manga companies littered the space. And when it came to cosplay, the amount of Demon Slayer, Jujutsu Kaisen, etc. was hard to ignore. There were plenty of other things (including some very excited folks in Cobra Kai uniforms eager to meet John Kreese’s actor, Martin Kove), yet it felt like Cool Japan stepped one foot out of a casket.
I have to wonder if this stems from the big boost anime and manga have gotten during the pandemic. Ever since COVID-19 forced major changes on how people live, one consequence was that people’s entertainment habits changed. Among these shifts were a massive increase in book sales, and among them graphic novels blew up. But among the boom of graphic novels, manga had ascended even further. Anime and manga are almost undeniably mainstream now (at least when it comes to certain major titles), and perhaps it’s only natural for the mainstream-chasing New York Comic Con to follow suit to some degree.
I’m one of those people who wrote off Cobra Kai back when it was first announced. I’ve always liked the movies well enough, and the premise of a series focused on original antagonist Johnny Lawrence seemed interesting, but I wasn’t sure there was much to explore in the Karate Kid universe. Years later, I’ve taken the plunge and binged all four seasons currently out—and I have to express just how impressed I am with how much love, care, and respect the show’s staff and cast clearly put into this.
Cobra Kai continues the story of The Karate Kid series. True to its name, however, this new series focuses on the rival from the first film, Johnny Lawrence. Ever since getting crane kicked in the face by Daniel LaRusso and losing the 1984 Under-18 All Valley Karate Tournament, Johnny’s life has been stuck in the past and on a downward spiral. The fact that he’s living paycheck to paycheck while Daniel has gained (minor) fame and fortune only rubs salt in the wound. But when a selfish Johnny inadvertently rescues his new next door neighbor’s teenage son, Miguel Diaz, from a group of bullies, he finds himself in the role of “Mr. Miyagi”-type mentor to this boy. Only, instead of dispensing wise proverbs, Johnny’s approach is more School of Hard Knocks and 80s metal references, albeit while attempting to remove the cruelest elements from the Cobra Kai karate he was taught.
The premise of Daniel’s old tormentor becoming a sensei who doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of how he was taught is intriguing in itself, but Cobra Kai does a remarkably solid job of taking the bits of depth present in Johnny in the original film (like how he had some sense of honor and limits to his antagonism) and expanding upon them. Essentially, what was once a largely two-dimensional character is fleshed out into a three-dimensional one.
The cast is split between adults and teens, with a roughly even focus on each group, giving a kind of inter-generational appeal to the series. Cobra Kai does a good job of outlying the contours of both the parents’ and kids’ respective concerns in their lives. Characters like Johnny and Daniel are able to use their experience to give valuable advice to the new generation, but there’s a limit to what they understand about what life is like for teens in an age of social media and greater social awareness.
Each season builds on the previous, adding twists and turns that highlight how the path to improvement is rarely problem-free. Sometimes the developments feel overly dramatic, as if they’re creating conflict for the sake of conflict—though that’s not surprising, given that Cobra Kai is an American-made drama about karate. Even if that element feels a little forced at times, though, the characters end up with interesting arcs where they learn and grow but also falter she stumble.
The themes of Cobra Kai are poignant and valuable, though they are anything but subtle. When Miguel needs to learn to take initiative in life beyond karate, he’s told by Johnny to remember the Cobra Kai mantra of “strike first.” When the inherent aggressiveness of Cobra Kai’s style starts to create as many problems as it solves, the show contrasts it with Daniel’s defensive Miyagi-Do karate. And when the show wants to explore the need for balance in both life and karate, the show talks at length about that too.
Ultimately, there are two important messages. First, it’s never too late to change for the better, but people need to change at their own pace. Second, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to finding confidence and balance. Some need to learn a Cobra Kai mindset, while others need the Miyagi-Do philosophy, and everyone eventually has to pick up at least a piece of each.
To say I’ve become a fan of Cobra Kai is a bit of an understatement. It’s far exceeded my expectations, and I genuinely look forward to each new chapter in the story of past and future generations of karate practitioners evolving physically, mentally, and emotionally.