Comics Time: Ninja

Ninja

Brian Chippendale, writer/artist

PictureBox, 2006

128 pages, hardcover

$34.95

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Starting off a review of a Brian Chippendale comic by talking a plot seems like the laziest most wrongheaded way to start off a review of a Brian Chippendale comic, like an unwitting parody of all the lame comics criticism that other comics critics criticize for focusing on writing rather than art. Shouldn’t I be saying something about markmaking or snake-style layouts? Maybe, but much more so than with Chippendale’s Maggots, the creation of which predated and the publication of which followed this book, the plot of Ninja matters. Not just as a driver for the imagery, but to Chippendale, and to me.

The book starts with these silly little comics about a ninja–basically, fighting against Cobra from GI Joe–that Chippendale drew when he was 11. They look like a child artist’s representation of a sidescrolling Nintendo game, like Ninja Gaiden: After breaking into a bad-guy base, the ninja will move forward or up or down and discover a new opponent, and we watch as he figures out a way to defeat or avoid each enemy. Most of these strips end when the ninja, having stolen some valuables from the evildoers, successfully escapes from their lair and returns to his home (complete with its incongruously normal front door). What Chippendale does in this collection is every so often insert a brand-new, recently drawn strip between the stuff he drew as a kid, fleshing out the Ninja’s home life and world at large. Meanwhile, in the world of the kid strips, the bad guys become less involved with…whatever it was they were up to before the Ninja showed up, and more and more fixated on capturing and killing the Ninja in retribution for all the havoc he’s caused them.

The problem for Chippendale is that his younger self was apparently less dedicated to making art than his grown-up incarnation–like many kids who spent their youths creating their own, enthusiastically derivative fantasy worlds to play in, he eventually ran out of steam, and his final Ninja strip from that era is unfinished. The solution? A new penultimate strip, in which the bad guys build a doomsday device that gets out of control and begins absorbing reality as we know it. Now, when 11-year-old Chippendale’s last Ninja strip abruptly cuts off mid-page, leaving rows of blank panels unfilled beneath it, it’s not just a kid losing interest and putting his pencil down to go play Nintendo or skateboard–it’s the end of a world as we know it.

Cut to 18 years later, and to the bulk of the book. Now, in typical Fort Thunder fashion (prefigured to an astonishing degree by the space-based action of the kid stuff) we explore the city of Grain and its surroundings, where the Ninja and his enemies once lived. Only now, with the Ninja gone and his “killing villains for fun and profit” activities curtailed, the city’s gone to hell. Not the openly dictatorial hell that the old Bad Guys might have ushered in–they seem to have been consumed by their own device, unless I missed something–but a quotidian nightmare of corrupt public officials, rapacious corporate raiders, callous resource thieves, brutal cops, and relentless, even violent, gentrification and homogenization. Everyone may still look like refugees from Super Mario or the Masters of the Universe, and the level of violence and dimension-hopping and overall weirdness remains consistent with that, but in essence their concerns are the same as those of an artist who returns home from a tour with his noise-rock band to discover the place he’d lived and worked in for years had chains on the doors so the city could raze it and install a supermarket parking lot.

Of course none of this is super-apparent from the get-go. I spent a decent amount of time waiting for the Ninja to show up again after the 18-year jump, storming back into town to take it back. But as we watch Chippendale’s little groups of characters–good, bad, and ugly alike–go about their zany business, it becomes apparent that there’s a build to the eventual reveal of “What happened to the Ninja?” to rival any slow-burn mystery-villain storyline Marvel or DC have done this decade. And once you find out, the solution is elegantly simple, childlike, charming, and utterly inspiring. I’m not going to spoil it, but suffice it to say I closed this book feeling better about humanity than I’ve felt in quite some time. Maybe there is a solution after all.

Okay, so, the art. The collage material is an eye-candy orgy as you’d expect, one of the purest distillations of that aspect of Chippendale and the whole Providence scene’s output as I’ve seen so far, though for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what role it was playing in the narrative–it didn’t seem to pop up at logical reality-warping breaks, like when the Bad Guys’ machine ran amok and caused a House of M style fade to white–until I read in PictureBox’s synopsis of the book that they’re just chapter breaks. More immediately grokkable and impressive to me were the many, many bravura moments in the comics themselves–painstakingly delineated Dore-style deserts, a city covered completely in OCD stripes, characters becoming aware of a spy camera filming them in a scene simultaneously “shot” from their perspective and that of the camera, two scenes taking place at the same time but on different vibrational planes suddenly smooshed together in strips as though they were pieced together from two separate shredded documents, a brutal torture sequence and hot sex scene both showing up in the book’s final act. And Chippendales back-and-forth panel flow is so addictive (and much more consistent than in Maggots) that I found myself trying to read other comics that way after finishing Ninja. There’s a certain magic to these elements that feeds into and plays off of the narrative even when it doesn’t have any strict narrative cause, like any great spectacle.

But ultimately this is a book about an idea: the need to persevere in your pursuit of fun, which in most of the ways that matter is a synonym for Good with a capital g. Sometimes, compromise may be necessary–after all, the Ninja was slicing up bad guys not just because in the world of the comic it’s the right thing to do, but for their loot; and (still trying to avoid being spoilery, though this may skirt the edge) his ultimate fate does not necessarily provide a happy ending for everyone. But you can reclaim the comics you made when you were a kid and build them up into a statement on where you are as a grown-up without sacrificing the buoyant illogic and unfettered imagination that came through originally. You can hang on to the important things you found in your arts-commune idyll even when the outside world finally smashes down the walls around you. You can still think ninjas are cool.

One Response to Comics Time: Ninja

  1. nrh says:

    Hey — thanks for writing this review. This book is a dear favorite of mine, got me through strange times, and it genuinely warms my heart to hear someone describe as well as you have.

    My one question: not that it’s essential to reading these books or anything, but have you ever seen Chippendale play a solo show? Because the specific emotions generated by those concerts, and the overwhelming senses of melancholy, joy, and (especially) community you get from being there have really helped me understand the stakes of what his stories are about.