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Welcome, one and all, to the first installment of Gym Leaders RATED, the series where I’m going to be taking the gym leaders of the Pokémon anime to task and figuring out just how good they are at their job… whatever a gym leader’s job actually is (we might need to figure that out as we go). 

Kanto Gym Badges

I’ll be rating gym leaders according to my four S’s:

  • Strategy – how good is this leader at actual battles?  Do they have a well put-together team (within the restrictions of their type specialisation)?  Do they use their Pokémon’s moves in creative ways?  Do they exploit their opponents’ weaknesses?
  • Style – is this gym leader cool?  Are they at home in their role?  Do their challengers admire them?  Do they have charisma, panache, a certain je ne sais quoi?  In short, are they fetch?
  • Standing – is this gym leader respected in the community?  Do they take their responsibilities seriously?  Are they well-liked outside of their official role?  Do they put others’ needs before their own?
  • Structure – what is the gym like?  Does it feel like somewhere that Pokémon of the leader’s specialty type would hang out?  Does it have unique and interesting training facilities?  Is it an awesome secret volcano lair?

Please remember that these ratings are only my opinions, however please also remember that here at PokéJungle all of our opinions are objectively correct.

There’s no better place to begin than the beginning, so let’s take a look at our first ever gym leader…

Brock

Specialization: Rock
Signature Pokémon: Onix
Badge: Boulder

Strategy: 2/5

Most of the Kanto and Johto gym leaders from the early years of the Pokémon anime simply don’t have the strategic aptitude or creativity that their counterparts in later seasons do.  It’s going to be a few seasons before we start seeing leaders with really top-notch ratings in this category.  Having said that, Brock isn’t an abysmal strategist, despite using two Pokémon with fairly similar roles and straightforward abilities. 

In their first battle, Brock uses Onix’s Bind attack to keep Ash from recalling Pikachu, who can’t hurt Onix.  This pushes Ash to end the battle immediately to protect his partner, even though he could in principle use a second Pokémon.  It’s not an outrageously creative plan, but, to Brock’s credit, this is easily the highest-level strategic thinking any trainer has shown so far at this early point in the Kanto storyline, and plays to both Ash’s tactical and psychological weaknesses. 

Further in Brock’s favour, Ash still couldn’t beat him even after cheating outrageously by supercharging Pikachu, and only defeated Onix because of a freak accident with the gym’s sprinkler system (come to think of it, I’m not sure if they ever have a real rematch). Of course, this all might have turned out very differently if Ash had ever realised that Butterfree can learn Psychic attacks…

Style: 1/5

Brock in Fire Red/Leaf Green.

Brock doesn’t have the distinctive personal style that a lot of gym leaders do; his clothes are pretty ordinary, his hair is a real human hair colour, and his manner towards beautiful women varies from pathetic to downright creepy.  The real shortcoming with Brock’s style, though, is the way he conducts himself as a gym leader.

In his gym battles with Ash, Brock comes across as a bit of a mean-spirited bully, repeatedly taunting Ash for his naïveté and the weakness of his Pokémon.  Rewatching the episode after seeing so much more of him during his travels with Ash, his attitude here seems pretty out-of-character for Brock, who is normally mild-mannered and compassionate.  We can tell from the rest of the episode, though, that he’s like this because he thinks being a gym leader means he has to try to be something he’s not. 

Once he’s freed from that responsibility, he quickly transforms full-time into the caring older brother figure we see when he’s at home with his younger siblings – a persona which, ironically, would have suited a gym leader a lot better than the cold and stoic face he initially shows to Ash (maybe he was trying to play to the stereotypes of his favoured element?).

Standing: 4/5

Brock in Pokémon Masters.

Running a Pokémon gym is not Brock’s calling, but he does it anyway out of a sense of duty, and even after giving up his position he remains deeply invested in the future of Pewter Gym, as we see in episodes from later seasons that cover his visits home.  Brock’s father Flint and mother Lola have a noncommittal, almost flippant attitude to running the gym that frequently upsets not only Brock but his countless siblings as well.  When a Pokémon League inspection goes badly and it looks like the gym will be shut down, they immediately make plans to convert the building into a general store, to their children’s horror.  It’s Brock and his younger brother, Forrest, who fight the decision.  For them, it’s a matter of honour – of upholding the gym’s reputation and legacy as a hub for the region’s Rock-type trainers. 

Once Brock returns to Pewter City for good – no longer as gym leader himself, but supporting Forrest in that role – he becomes a veritable pillar of the community, volunteering his time and expertise to help the local Nurse Joy care for the town’s Pokémon.  He has a greater sense of responsibility to his community than any of the other Kanto gym leaders aside from maybe Erika; the only black mark against him is that it’s only by resigning his position that he really comes into his own as a gym leader.

Structure: 4/5

The Pewter Gym, after being subjected to Team Rocket’s poor sense of style.

The main façade of the Pewter Gym is a single giant rock, while its interior is dark and foreboding.  The architecture is a mixture of huge blocks of dressed stone and straight-up boulders.  Brock himself seems to spend his work days sitting in the lotus position on a dais, waiting for trainers to challenge him.  In the dark.  Considering what his home life is like, this is probably the only time he gets to sleep.  I poke fun, but the bare, sober style of the Pewter Gym is clearly very important to Brock, since there are not one but two whole episodes that focus on malicious attempts to take over the gym’s decorative scheme.

The first is by Brock’s own mother, Lola, who turns the main battlefield into a swimming pool to accommodate her beloved Water Pokémon and paints every plain surface with lively stripes and spots in yellow and pink.  The second is by Team Rocket, who pose as interior designers and convince Flint and Lola to let them redecorate the gym, in order to… well… well, I watched the episode just a few hours ago and honestly I have no idea what they were trying to do, but it’s Team Rocket; it probably made no sense anyway.  In both cases, Brock takes the new decorations as a direct attack on the gym’s dignity and its distinctive Rock-type character (obviously the pool doesn’t help, but he also clearly hates the idea of making the gym in any way lighter or softer).  The Pewter Gym looks the way it does because Brock, and later Forrest, think it says something about the characteristics of their chosen type: simplicity, stoicism, restraint.

Final Rating: 2.75/5

Brock’s… not a good gym leader.  But he knows that!  He’s doing his best, okay?  He’s just a guy who wants to take care of Pokémon, stuck between a nest of fifteen squalling infants and a family business that the town depends on.  He provides a necessary service under trying circumstances, and ultimately grooms his brother to become a better leader than he ever was.  In the end, he could have done a lot worse.

Episodes cited:

  • EP 005, Showdown in Pewter City
  • SS 01, A Family That Battles Together, Stays Together
  • AG 177, Grating Spaces
  • SS 25, Nibi Gym – The Greatest Crisis Ever! (N.B. – no official English dub of this episode exists)

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Pokémaniac Chris
Chris is a lifelong Pokémaniac from New Zealand, currently living in Ohio, where he is pursuing a doctorate in Roman archaeology. When not ranting incoherently about Pokémon, he can usually be found researching the Roman glass industry or baking needlessly elaborate cakes. He is the author of numerous questionably useful analytic and critical articles on his blog Pokémaniacal (pokemaniacal.com), which readers have called “a…. blog,” “how could you do this pokemon [sic]” and “wrong.”