Roku Rises & VALIANT Darque Knights – Ninjak Review

ninjak

Some more VALIANT comics reviews and thoughts, this time in the form of Ninjak, and much like how I collected separate issue reviews of VALIANT’s Divinity and collected them in one post (which I guess could work as a review for a first trade). Like Divinity, Ninjak is written by Matt Kindt where he joined by artist Clay Mann. Just a note, for the first issue I did more of a page by page brief bullet point stlye w/ my thoughts while the next 4 issues are more traditional style reviews. Enjoy.

Ninjak #1

Today I’m going through the first issue of Ninjak, the latest installment of VALIANT’s ‘Next’ branded titles, written by one of my favorite creators in comics, Matt Kindt, with art by Clay Mann and Butch Guice (on the back-up story). The first two issues of Imperium have been winners, and Divinity #1 is perhaps my favorite single VALIANT issue yet, also written by Kindt. I know Ninjak probably doesn’t top many fan favorite lists of VALIANT characters but I like the character a lot and have fond memories of not only a great classic VALIANT cameo 1st appearance but also beautiful art by Joe Quesada. I’m not going through every page just ones that catch my fancy.

Page 3: we are introduced to Roku (who I’ve added to the character files), a new character who is described to us as being pretty badass. It looks like she may have been wrapped up like a mummy as part of her incarceration. Literal bondage. I rolled and enjoyed everything here (especially the panel with one of the guards killing himself in the background), except the hair part of her abilities may have been one step farther than I wanted to go.

I think VALIANT has been industry leader level when it comes to diverse characters without having to make an announcement out of it, both regarding race and gender. I hope Roku sticks.

Roku is “six” in Japanese. So she is Agent Six.

Page 7: We are outside the prison the Russian built around Roku (because she was too dangerous to move). It’s QUITE extravagant from the glimpse we see.

Page 8: Ninjak apparently likes to get as close as possible to the blast radius of bombs he detonates.

Page 9–10: Colin King/Ninjak has always to me been somewhat of the Bruce Wayne/Batman archetype in VALIANT for me. In these page we not only get a glimpse of his wealth, but because that archetype is in my mind the flashback scene with Colin as a kid leaving a movie theater alone in a bad part of town felt like it could have been a block away from where the Waynes were gunned down and Batman was born. Indeed, the Waynes were coming from watching a movie as well: Zorro. The creation of Batman was influenced by a few elements, one of which was Zorro. One is led to draw the same conclusions with Ninjak, as young Colin is watching a martial arts film, something he clearly loves.

The beginning of the issue even diagrams his Bat Belt.

Page 11–12:

Ninjak has always had a great design (especially after the aforementioned Joe Quesada got a hold of him), but his name has always been pretty dumb. At the time it didn’t even feel like it served any purpose at all, since we were a few years past the ninja boom in entertainment. In this pages were learn there are or have been several Ninjas each with a letter designation Ninja-A through Ninja-K. Ninjak.

This is especially interesting because it opens the possibility of several new characters under those other designations. In fact, this first issue opens up a lot of slots for characters/antagonists, We learn about Weaponer, a clandestine global arms dealer/manufacturer has seven bosses, called The Shadow Seven.

We also learn that Roku is a high ranking member of Kannon’s (one of the bosses) organization. I’m unsure if Roku is a psiot or just geared up by Weaponer or both. We do learn that Weaponer has nanotech technology later in the issue.

Page 14–15: I feel like this is supposed to mean something, but the wolf emblem on what I’m assuming is a girl’s shirt that Colin is wearing that he confiscated from someone on his way back to meet Kannon as part of his test is shown prominently on three panels.

Page 16: we get Colin’s anti-Alfred.

Page 17: we see Roku again in her uniform.

The Lost Stories (back-up story)

Page 8: Last Laugh pub. Trying to make out the image.

We learn that as recently as ten years ago Colin was a spy but not a fighter. Movies also pop up again, film is really big to Colin, a probably fantasy escape that led him to want to go into the line of work he’s in, to live a fantasy. I mean… the guy even has his own castle.

Back to more alleys in this story too. The beatdown he catches here, which probably spurns him to train to become a fighter (his style obviously influenced by some of his childhood movies — he’s a rich tech’d out dude who chooses to carry a sword), is somewhat mirrored by the beatdown he gets from Kannon’s men as part of his initiation in the current storyline. The past Colin got beat up to cause a distraction and could do nothing but get beat up, the current Colin’s skills is shown by his control in not killing all of his assailants on pure instinct.

Ninjak #2

I really enjoyed the first issue of Ninjak and I’ve been excited to see the second issue of both it and Divinity, two VALIANT Next projects written by Matt Kindt, half of the writing team that brought us The VALIANT miniseries, which recently concluded and left a new status quo for the VALIANT universe.

My look at the first issue was a walkthrough but we are going to hit this one up more traditionally and we start on the streets of Japan which I think immediately should make one think about Kindt’s work in Rai, and if you didn’t from the beginning you should have when Colin and Kannon they entered an establishment called Club 4001. We are continuing Colin’s mission impossible-type infiltration of Weaponer, which seems to be going to bit too quickly, a bit too recklessly, but this is comic book pacing, and through it we get a few pages that must have been at the same time fun and annoying for Clay Mann to draw, as the club scenes are full of fun visuals, including a wait staff of monkeys, but also include others animals, which are historically seem not among the favorite things for a comic book artists to draw. The color work here really makes this part pop in particular. Colin is instructed to kill anybody in the club and through the process we are tuned into Ninjak’s preparation, skill, and the level of technology he’s able to bring to bear for a mission.

Like I noted in my review of the first issue, there is a lot of Batman in this Ninjak’s origins, but he’s gone past that street noir feeling (that we do get in the backup stories) and is a full blown bobby digital ninja spy. Right now, while Colin’s plan itself seems accelerated, the story Kindt’s telling seem methodical in pace, he explains things with a crime ridden internal monologue which he has a right to due to the unknown to us tech Ninjak employs, but in the future I think we definitely could see a quicker change of pace in that regard because we will come to learn that Ninjak is prepared, maybe with a little help of what are perhaps the most useful single page/panel equipment schematic pages I have seen in comics. That’s just a part of Kindt’s layers, his thinking out the character, but his partner in crime in Ninjak, Clay Mann has a clarity in his drawings and I think he could tell some of that story and easily assume some of that burden. This is a really beautifully drawn comic.

The butler did it.

We get a little bit more on Colin’s childhood and evil-Alfred. I’m interested to see how Kindt pays this off to make sprinkling it in matter. It’s a pretty familiar trope so I expect Kindt has a special purpose for it.

I spent some time talking about new VALIANT characters and I’m glad to see Roku back, and one of the great examples of what I was talking about with visual storytelling that Mann can convey is illustrated in a panel where her silhouette reveals her presence, then doesn’t, before she appears again to attack Ninjak. It will be interesting to see if Roku and Colin’s relationship will go on as he infiltrates Weaponer, as Ninjak and her battle again in the future. She was once against pointed out as unique in this issue when she was the only one in the club that could not be identified by Ninjak’s tech. Even with a duel and escape left to us as the cliffhanger, as when we get to the next issue we are still on the clock, Kindt still leaves us a scene we have to return to in a limited amount of time before Kannon wakes up, and even before that because he has to clean up the scene (the glass broke). It strikes me that Colin might have wanted to be seen, as there’s no real other reason to change into his Ninjak uniform unless it was a security measure.

The backup story shows us a much more confident Colin than from the previous issue. In the current story he reflected on missing the old days of simple assassinations and we get one here. But it isn’t. I have to admit seeing a bald female become the target it made me for a second think about the girl he’s fighting today with the crazy hair, not to mention there was no information on her, just like Roku, but it doesn’t seem to be a fit barring incredible circumstances. I hope this is yet another new character that Kindt has come up with for VALIANT. Trained in multiple, mystical, ancient death rites by a modern Mayan cult? It’s that easy, I’m interested.

I think it worth mentioning when dealing with characters coming off of books like Unity and The VALIANT is that those are practically event level books and circumstances and the downshift to reground characters in their own books has to occur. I think we see that with a recent issue of Unity being a Livewire solo issue, and as I pointed in Lemire’s relaunch of Bloodshot in Bloodshot Reborn #1 the same occurs. I think in all cases thus far we’ve shown each have their own adventures ahead, each have their own potential rogue galleries, and each can stand alone.
Ninjak is a clean book.

Ninjak #3

The first thing I thought when I opened the issue was this:

The boots are apt because Ninjak #3 is in movement almost the entire issue. It’s practically all battle between Colin and Roku, who definitely is becoming this character I can see as a constant rival for him. The hair thing is still kind of weird but I guess it gives her that one unique quality.

I mentioned in my review of Dead Drop #1 that I appreciated that issue because it put into focus that VALIANT books, even the ones I most love, are awfully talky. There’s a lot of captions.

I mean A LOT.

And I guess there is method involved, offering us a look inside Colin processing even while literally having no ground to walk on, and fighting someone who looks to at least be his equal. I get that but I also understand visual storytelling and I feel like I could get a lot of this by simply seeing it. Mann might not be a top shelf storyteller but he draws with clarity. Take Batman, I understand that not only is he a operative of the highest order but I also know he’s incredibly wealthy. For instance, I assume his grappling hook is better than mine, further, I don’t think it’s a crazy assumption that anyone who has need of something like a grappling hook at the job buys one that works really well. Seems like a smart buy.

When I read Ninjak though and reflect on past issues, particularly his flashback scenes, I think I either get it, or invented a reason in my head that’s part of my VALIANT is perfect protocol. Colin is playing a game. This is a kid that because of his upbringing is kind of a weirdo, but not only that, acts on it. He sets traps for his butler, a kind of bizarro and potentially sadistic and disturbing Cato/Clouseau relationship. He lives in castle, he has cool toys and gadgets which he upgrades and has bios for, he is transfixed by martial arts movies — Magnum PI is a fantasy for some, but not if you’re Colin who can have that life, not so much. He has to be somewhere at a certain time to beat a level — it’s as if he’s playing a game. He is headed toward the boss. He’s in a story. Kindt even added a story piece in the last issue of Ninjak.

If you ever read Kurt Busiek’s Ninjak, the game aspect was a real thing.

I used to have a recurring dream where I could fly.

Almost.

I would be able to take these big, leaping jumps… and then I’d have to will myself into the air… but I could never do it.

There’s also a scene with Colin as a kid hunting around his estate, hiding from Alain, which reminded me of a scene in Divinity #3 when Abrams placed the individual members Unity in their own little time/reality bubbles and Ninjak was the most well adjusted. Just another level for Colin.

The backup story struck me as a bit telegraphed but it was probably purposeful, and as usual there are tips to the current story (the quote above). I suspect they will be memories showing us how he became as competent as he is, as well as how flawed he is, and how flawed he would have to be to be who he is. He has to break rules to have intimacy.

Still, Ninjak is pretty entertaining and I’m left wanting to see him achieve new stages — this game apparently has 7 levels — and new Weaponeer bosses.

I’m not sure what’s up next, I’d assume Kannon would need Roku and Ninjak to team-up (Co-Op?) in a power play of his own, but I’m guessing people who read future solicitations would know more than me. We ended on a cutscene.

Ninjak #4

This won’t be a review and you will learn nothing about what occurs in this issue from me. In the recent past I have gone on at length raving about Matt Kindt and Trevor Hairsine’s work on Divinity for VALIANT. I, more often than not, gleefully stumble trying to find the nature of and meaning of a new god in a new comic book (and possible future cinematic) universe, both in their initial stages of existing. Ninjak #4 though? I don’t even want to talk about this issue. And I really won’t. Not because of the same reason I didn’t talk about Dead Drop #2. I loved this, and you have to experience it.

You won’t be able to telegraph it.

The ending of the last issue left us with that was more or less a standard cliffhanger. We get our fight between two characters for most of the issue culminating in a moment of truth. It was Daredevil battling Elektra, getting away, and still finding out the Kingspin was a step ahead. Not only that… The Kingspin is not a throw away character that I might have been led to believe at first, merely the initial early level boss in a Weaponeer game, though he may still be that. The Daredevil analogy is one I found hard to ignore because it went from a Miller story to kind of a Noncenti story. On the surface, to the unlearned, people may think of that as a negative trajectory, but for people who do know, Noncenti brought something that still stands as pretty special even in the shadow of Miller. Kindt, with art by group consisting of Juan Jose Ryp, Clay Mann, & Marguerite Sauvage, took a comic I was enjoying well enough already, this solo & seemingly direct, more personal, story and turned it, in a single issue, into a book that not only offers us a front row seat of the origin of what might be an archenemy, but also weaves it into the tapestry of the VALIANT universe, with Kindt wielding and mixing VALIANT’s genre diversity as threads. It echoes other stories you’ve read in previous Ninjak backstories, but it’s just an echo, just something in your head as you stay committed to what’s going on in the issue you area reading because you can’t believe where it’s going, or rather, where this came from.

Before comic book prices became this constantly live updated stat that it is today that shared space with my sportscenter stats brain I used to flip through print comic book price guides, and among the few notations you had, a secondary one to “1st appearance” was “o:”, for origin. It’s not too important today as comic book prices aren’t really associated with story or content but it’s what I thought of as I read Ninjak #4, which gave me this throwback concept even as the story went next level, both going above and beyond, and coming from the depths of a personal hell. Origins of secondary characters are rare just because of the comic climate. First, rarely is a comic universe in development, meaning you don’t get many opportunities to see the initial population of one. VALIANT has been back for a few years now, but mostly we’ve seen the characters we knew from ’90s reinterpreted. Second, top creators either through wisdom or a lack confidence in themselves as creators probably don’t share their best ideas for non-creator owned assets. This means you will often get great characters and supporting cast in single books, but rarely will you get more, rarely will the toys play with each other on the same field. VALIANT has great creators who even if giving us their B-effort, it’s still great. Roku, Mary-Maria, Abram Adams — boss players in boss books.

Matt Kindt did something that I think is kind of spectacular here. First, he took us on a journey nobody could fathom from the previous issue’s conclusion, turning a very sweet and perfectly enjoyable even if still familiar espionage story into a supernatural semi-epic tale. He set up a possible archnemesis and turned the aforementioned Kannon from what could have been just a step in a story, into a story himself. These characters whose names aren’t the title of the book have history, they are interesting, and they become subject to reader questions and curiosity. We leave this issue lookong forward to Ninjak #5, but asking questions about Roku and Kannon.

Back when I did my piece on the new faces to look out for in VALIANT movies we didn’t have Ninjak out yet, otherwise Roku would have definitely made the list. A few issues in and we now have VALIANT’s favorite ginger with a solo cover appearance in Ninjak #4, dual guns cross her heart. Roku has been very prominent from jump, being Colin’s target from the very first issue of Matt Kindt’s relaunch of Ninjak, where I immediately liked her though I thought the hair thing was a little odd. Kindt could have stayed with that, allowing the character to have this one aspect of flavor in an otherwise grounded world, but instead doubled down, and crossed her and Kannon’s path with two of the most extra players in the VALIANT universe plus more. Not enough? Beyond offering us bits of history of the Ninjak cast, I think he also gives us the Harbinger #1 prequel.

All of that but Ninjak is not forgotten. Even just the term Ninjak has obvious Japanese connotations, but as a half-japanese/half-amazing reader I’ve always puzzled over the connection with Colin, even though we’ve had the ever popular Wolverine or Snake Eyes, other gaijin who has extensive ties to the motherland. When I first read Ninjak #1 I was aware of Kindt’s name choice of Kannon and assumed he might be more than he seemed, and obviously Roku is a basic Japanese term, so I love the mythology Kindt is spinning. Not just regarding the supernatural aspect, the Oni, and possibly a Noppera-bō (though Roku seems to call that last one an Oni as well), but of Colin himself. Roku accuses Colin, and I don’t think she means from the first issue. She recognizes him. He promotes her memories to flood back to her. She smells him like she did the demon. We now know where Roku came from, or at least what she perceives of what she came from, how does Colin fit into that? We learn Roku’s full name, or at least the one she chose for herself, and it is also related to Japanese or asian folklore. There is a duality here because I want to call Roku many things, the daughter of the demon, the Darque Knight, or something similar but she actually kills her own demons. She consumes them. She descended and then climbed back up.

What also struck me was that while writers and artists were creating this labyrinth of a literary back story was what was literally being shown without comment because of the story. Roku is an impossibly hot redhead, with that good hair, who is walking around in literal bondage to pass a test given to her by a bunch of dudes. And coming out of that… VALIANT has a leading lady.

More Roku. Now.

Ninjak #5

Coming off the fantastic twist, expansion, and elevation of the Ninjak series that was last issue’s glorious Roku origin, Matt Kindt and Clay Mann manage to bring us back while not disappointing, shifting back into gear to our confrontation with uber read headed assassin and VALIANT’s E. Honda, Kannon, and Ninjak’s mission to infiltrate Weaponeer. I need this because the Ninjak I most recently saw, in VALIANT’s Book of the Death #1, was really underwhelming. Back to that in a moment.

I don’t have a tremendous amount to say about the issue because while there is definitely revelation, it’s such a seamless continuation of the end of Ninjak #3 you find yourself kind of just riding with it… maybe in the sweet Ninjakmobile that belongs to Colin’s parents, that resembles Ninjak’s colors, especially his classic duds. Also, I just read it once while I had a few minutes in-between planes.

I think Batman comparisons are pretty common and easy when it comes to Ninjak but we might actually be seeing Damian. This is not a kid motivated by, at least at first, some tragedy, he’s a bored kid with limitless resources left alone by his parents looking for shit to do. Where Batman was created out of necessity to cope, Ninjak feels more and more like, and I’ve mentioned this before, still playing out a fantasy. One that went away from childish fantasy tropes to what usually comes next — we want to be Bond. A ninja Bond. After that?

Maybe death cults?

His mom looks like Baroness from G.I. Joe, so much so I started googling if Destro ever unmasked because I wanted to see if he looked like Ninjak’s pops, who we also meet in this issue. I want to see this Ninjak’s sleeves rolled up because I’m almost positive both he, Roku and maybe even Kannon have the same Arashikage ink. At the very least we are made to feel there is a connection between all three of them.

Not only do we meet them but apparently Ninjak’s parents are spies or agents of some sort, perhaps part of or were against Weaponeer, which would explain Ninjak’s almost obsession with not only infiltrating Weaponeer but also marking to later eliminate anyone associated with them. They were rich as hell. Ninjak does not want to tell Kannon or Roku who he is which, sure, makes sense just in general, but the emphasis on them asking and him not wanting to reply makes me feel like maybe Kannon would know his parents. Ninjak knows these guys or at least had similar training, perhaps at a different sect of the same organization, because we know Ninjak himself has stated he has trained with an undead monk (from Kindt’s Divinity #3). I’m guessing that’s a pretty exclusive club.

There’s also the possibility that Colin’s scent is familiar because they know his family and that Colin might have learned from them? This may explain was Roku and Kannon’s style are familiar to him, and vice versa, but not quite. An incomplete training or one that evolved later in life? It’s also possible that there is both a Kannon and Roku connection that are separate from each other, especially if you are into the Roku is Angeline (from the previous back-up stories) camp — Roku used to be blonde pre-Darque, and has green eyes. It’s just hard for me to believe that Colin doesn’t recognize here, especially when we see in the backstory that it becomes his mission to avenge her. I’m also not sure why Roku was called off and why that doesn’t seem to be much of a concern to Colin, though Kindt typically picks up questions like this in following issues.

I keep going back to this Shadow Seven that apparently runs Weaponeer. In solicitations they are described as “shinobi” which suggest they might have similar general training we see in Ninjak, Roku, and Kannon. The title of my review of Ninjak #4 was “Darque Knight Rises”, and we know that Master Darque is not only primed to be significant in VALIANT’s Book of Death but also is significant to Roku’s origin and thus the Shadow Seven. If Ninjak has had similar training I wonder if someone is pulling his strings without him knowing even as we are led to believe he’s in control. I don’t know if I should write-off the horrible characterization of Ninjak in Book of Death #1 to Venditti not being familiar with the character or character dynamic, or maybe he just simply needed that odd moment to move the story, but we do know Darque wants Tama and Gilad done away with.

I’m also looking at the puzzle Colin breaks to get into his parent’s secret stash. It’s incomplete wording in the comic but I wonder if it says “fides omnia vincit”, which I think should be “omnia vincit fides”, but roughly means faith conquers all. It’s also hard to ignore that Matt Kindt probably has read the original Ninjak run from VALIANT and the twist involving Weaponeer, which was that Colin was Weaponeer #1.

I also have this nagging feeling that with Darque, Shadowman seems primed to return in a big way, and possibly be in the way of several VALIANT characters. We saw him appear in the collage of future paths for Bloodshot in the VALIANT FCBD story (old school version), and he’s a character you need to bring back in the action, and I wonder if we will see him in Ninjak or Book of the Death, hunting Gilad. There’s been an alarming, perhaps too purposeful feeling, absence of Shadowman news of any sort, excluding a Shadowman character in one panel of the Book of Death #1, fighting on the side of Gilad and the heroes. You couple that with VALIANT letting out the Master Darque involvement in Book of Death really early, and we might see Shadowman. If nothing else, Book of Death, feels like it could be a great spot to reboot Shadowman because VALIANT left that character a hot mess and I love me some Shadowman.

I really, really, really, loved last month’s issue, my favorite comic with Ninjak as the title ever, and one of the handful of best VALIANT comics I’ve read. I love the different art styles on it (and Juan Jose Ryp’s work in Legends of the Geomancer might be my favorite art in the new VALIANT universe period) but equally I really love that Clay Mann is the status quo artist on the title. He’s clean, everything clear, it feels like a mainstream comic book. He even gave Colin a serious awesome chain to floss that he wears on the train (that must have got stolen because it was absent in the very next panel).

Oh, and we see the use of a dead drop here, but I simply can’t do it, VALIANT. Dead Drop #2 was a series killer for me. It was almost a universe destroyer. Let’s not do that again.

Ever.