Presumably as punishment for that time I gave Katana five stars, Comics Bulletin publisher Jason Sacks has assigned me to review a comic book called Ninjabitch. Let me say that again: Ninjabitch. Ninja. Bitch. Feudal Japanese mercenary + gendered insult because she's not a female dog. It's like that time someone tried to put out a comic called Whore except this time they're in no uncertain terms talking about a woman.
Normally I would have quietly ignored giving any sort of promotion to a comic with such a title, but I'm trying out this thing where I actually review the things I'm given and this comic is worth talking about (sorta), and anyway I need some chlorine in my pool of 3.5/5.0 reviews of cape comics. So here we are, me writing a review of something called Ninjabitch and you reading it (hopefully). It's too easy to dismiss it based on title alone — let's get into it and evaluate the worth of such a comic.
Originally a four-issue miniseries, Ninjabitch has been collected into a trade that's been subtitled "A Grindhouse Graphic Novel" which is shorthand for "This has a lot of violence in it; thanks for the new buzzword, Quentin Tarantino." Its plot is fairly simple, which I will recount to you here: there's an Unnamed Female Ninja slicing and dicing the various mafia figures in Pittsburgh and everyone in the criminal underworld is freaking out, so they hire a team of depraved female assassins to take her out. And, for some baffling reason, it's the year 2021, not that you'd notice because it doesn't actually have any bearing on the aesthetics of the story world. It could have easily been 2003 and not a single word in the script would need changing.
The first chapter of Ninjabitch is a pretty terrible first issue, and if you're self-publishing a violent action comic in a scene where a reader can easily buy such things from known commodities like Garth Ennis or Image Comics, you really gotta work for your audience. Part of that hustle involves really impressing a reader to the point where the want to go out of their way or more of your comic. Unfortunately, the first issue of this comic almost entirely consists of a bunch of guys in suits discussing the actions of Unnamed Female Ninja, they who they refer to by the eponymous moniker of "Ninjabitch."
The naming thing is a huge problem for me — unless you're some kind of Men's Rights Advocate (hahahahahahahaha), titling your comic Ninjabitch needs to come with a sense of awareness that I'm afraid this comic doesn't have. She's a character completely defined by her relationship to men — she wants to kill them for revenge, and also they gave her a name by which we identify her. I'd be a bit more okay with it if she cheekily gave herself that name or if one of her victims called her that to her face and she thought it'd be funny or defiant to actually use that name as her nom de guerre.
Questionable naming conventions aside, David DeVara's script is a bit too heavy on surface-level parroting of every crime movie ever, by which I mean there's a lot of cursing and some dizzying backstory of who all these criminals are and their relationship to "The Family." The worst way to start your comic series is probably to have a bunch of characters talk about the main character for an entire issue and then end on a cliffhanger of the main character just about to slice somebody's head off, as this comic does. The following issue opens in medias decapitation, which is a pretty decent way to start a comic book, but it's still a pretty weak installment, as the boardroom massacre is followed by an interminable diner scene that might be the first time I've read a comic that was colored in a "day for night" style (read: blue).
It's during the diner scene that the (uncredited) letterer switches things up and makes the balloons white text on black backgrounds, which I'd say makes it hard to read, but the entire book is hard to read regardless of text colors. That's because the lettering is often poorly rendered and awkwardly placed, in need of serious copy editing (read: riddled with typos) and makes some serious rookie mistakes like using an "i" without bars as the pronoun "I." Lettering is an invisible art and a more involved process than one might think, but it's also the easiest thing to make look professional as an indie creator because all you need is to do some research and get some practice in Adobe Illustrator. Getting that element right would have made Ninjabitch at least 30% more readable. If you can't take the seconds required to center your word cluster in its balloon, how likely is it that the rest of the comic is going to be okay?
The art is pretty decent, though. Harold Cupec — who, full disclosure, I just realized I'm Facebook friends with, for whatever that's worth (not much, I gather) — illustrated this a few years ago, but he's got a style that's fairly clear yet art-comix ugly. I'd love to see it employed for something a bit more avant garde and idiosyncratic than a comic called Ninjabitch. Maybe somebody like Matt Seneca can throw him a few bucks to do a couple pages of the next issue of Trap or something. His art has improved in the years since, and it feels unfair to judge the lesser parts of something a dude drew years ago. After issue one, Cupec bows out and Ben Barnett steps in to for the rest of the series, which is jarring at first because of his more animation-oriented style, but even he's pretty alright I guess — he doesn't seem quite ready for primetime, but he's got a burgeoning sub-Quit
ely thing going on, like a younger, unpolished Ramon Villalobos. There's a basic competence to the work and flashes of visual flair that could blossom into real talent if he keeps at it.
Ninjabitch only ever gets interesting in the fourth and final chapter, which is also kind of a bad final issue because nothing gets resolved in a satisfying way, under the assumption that there will be more issues in the works. But we get to find out Unnamed Female Ninja's origin and. OH. MAN. Before she even had a reason to seek revenge, she was already a deranged little girl who enjoyed killing animals in the backyard (not to mention her foster families' pets). After a stint in the army, where she went nuts and carved a couple terrorists to death in Afghanistan, she somehow became a covert ops ninja who went rogue and now poses as a katana-wielding ballerina when she isn't murdering guys, presumably with the same sword.
That's insane, and the fact that Unnamed Female Ninja basically displays the anti-social behavior associated with serial killers is an amazing revelation. And this isn't any kind of bad comics Stockholm Syndrome talking — there's almost a good story in Ninjabitch where it flips the script and reveals that the person we were meant to root for was actually more of a horror movie villain, albeit one whose motivations make her a mildly tragic villain. It's fun to watch a storyteller play with the audience's expectations. For example, one of the most interesting bits of Tarantino's Death Proof is at the very end where the power shifts, Stuntman Mike is reduced to a blubbering mess and you actually kind of feel bad for him even with the knowledge that he's an unapologetic murderer. This is really the only moment where I think Ninjabitch is actually on to something, and if DeVara was more interested in getting us to root for Unnamed Female Ninja instead of just showing her murdering people we don't really care about, that final issue could have been devastating.
Ninjabitch fails at accomplishing what it sets out to do, but I think it's a valuable comic as a lesson in what not to do in the self-published comics game. Readers have a lot of options in the mainstream, and putting out something that feels like inferior product just tells them that they were right to ignore this entire subset of comics that can be just as worthy. The mainstream has money and distribution on its side, so self-published creators need to work extra hard in every single aspect of the process. There's no excuse for making bad comics on your own.
For more on Ninjabitch, check out Diamondgoat Media.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his Tumblr. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.