Ninjak starts loud, like a ’80s heavy metal song: heavy on the bass, with screaming guitars and furious drums that drag you along, kicking and screaming in ecstasy as you try to make out a few of the lyrics as they are howled at you. There’s guns and sex, and there’s handsome men and beautiful women hunted by people with guns, and those people with guns in turn are hunted by a badass ninja dressed in purple – yes, purple – with giant golden gloves that look really fucking badass.
That ninja is called (for reasons never really explained) Ninjak, and his adventures are a wild mix of James Bond, Bruce Lee, Batman and Japanese ninja dramas. They’re wacky, over-the-top, heavy metal action that has an amazing lead guitarist for the first few chapters.
The full run of Ninjak reprinted in this Valiant Masters volume was written and frequently illustrated by the rock sold Mark Moretti, who knows how to find a good beat and keep to it. The first three issues are illustrated by Joe Quesada in some of his earliest work in comics. And Joey Q does a spectacularly strange job with his issues. Then coming off the mega-popular Batman: Sword of Azrael (which placed him in the list of Wizard Top 10 Artists for several months), Quesada takes an oblique, impressionistic approach to his issues that is strongly influenced by Alfonse Mucha.
The issues Quesada draws are very 1990s, and in that context it’s easy to see why he became a breakout star. There are many elements and influences from Quesada’s peers in those issues, with his stories featuring surreal and seemingly improvised layouts along with an illustrative slickness that sometimes reminds me of that era’s Jim Lee and sometimes of Todd McFarlane (there’s a panel that seems to copy McFarlane’s famous image of Spider-Man swinging on a web with his body in an impossible position; in another scene, someone who looks a lot like Spawn has a tiny walk-on at a costume party).
Those first three issues are a wild ride. They’re dynamic and bold, with extraordinarily emotive characters in nearly every scene; it’s easy to see why the fans went crazy over this stuff because it’s like the super-hero version of crack. (I mean that in a good way, of course.)
But what makes Quesada special on this series is also what makes him wrong for Valiant Comics in general. His sort of flashy art just didn’t fit Valiant Comics circa 1993, when the conservative Don Perlin was art director, and his staff of artists delivered thoroughly solid artwork emphasized storytelling clarity over flash. The flashy artists belonged at Image and the solid guys, the ones who could create establishing shots and deliver six-panel grids, worked at Valiant.
So Quesada was gone after issue 3 (he started his own company for a few years along with partner Jimmy Palmiotti before creating the Marvel Knights line and then taking over Marvel), and Moretti moved into the artistic chores as well as the writing chores. Quickly the series went from being an outlier at Valiant to being more or less a standard Valiant series. To my eyes, that helped make Ninjak better.
See, when Quesada was drawing the series there seemed to be a great deal of emphasis on creation through obfuscation, or in other words, the attempt to tell a story that forced the reader to fill in a lot of the gaps. At times Quesada seemed to take pride in making decisions that caused the reader to scratch his head and wonder what was happening on each page. While I love that in many comics, it seems ill-suited to the early ’90s Valiant ethos here, and it’s good for Ninjak to become more of a typical Valiant comic.
That’s true in part because a typical Valiant comic is a special comic, especially in the context of its era. Valiant always emphasized storytelling over flash, and the real world over a fantasy world, even when there were super-heroes involved. Thus the two-part crossover story reprinted in Valiant Masters: Ninjak that guest-stars X-O Manowar (kind of a more brutal Tony Stark as he’s shown here) emphasizes friendship and professionalism in the heroes over the need to show whose dick is largest or score points against each other.
Under Moretti, the oblique angles and forced perspectives that Quesada used were de-emphasized in favor of more straight-on of over-the-shoulder views. Under Moretti, characters seldom broke out of their panels (an effect Quesada loved in his issues) so that the reader could always follow the action. Because the reader could follow the action, the fight scenes were also more exciting. The stakes felt higher because it was easy to follow what happened. There was less of a sense of deus ex machina under Moretti; the real was emphasized in a way that fit the series and the Valiant line better.
The thing is, Ninjak perfectly fits in as yet another ground-level hero series from Valiant. One of the most intriguing aspects of Valiant is that their comics often felt like they could be episodes of 1990s TV series, with issues of Bloodshot in particular reading like something that would run on NBC on Friday nights (Bloodshot makes an effective cameo in this series, in fact). Ninjak was probably too violent and possibly too confusing for TV, but this story of British ninja warrior Colin King is ideal for the comic pages.
Young Colin has a complicated backstory that’s told in the back of this volume and involves a master super-villain who’s one of the ugliest men ever to appear in a comic book story (and who chews the scenery in almost every scene he appears in), and parents who fall in love quickly and move to England, and powerful forces in opposition and a whole panoply of additional plot threads that could keep Moretti supplied with story points for years before running out.
Ninjak is a winner of a comic. For all my complaints about them, the issues drawn by Joe Quesada are a wild, breathtaking, almost surreal burst of fresh air that feels exhilarating. When Quesada leaves and Moretti, the comic shifts into a slightly lower gear but then moves into a gear that wasn’t immediately obvious. That small step backwards unleashed a world of potential.
I’m still not sure why Colin King calls himself Ninjak, or why he wears a purple costume with giant golden gauntlets, but this ninja comic kicks all kinds of ass.