I’ve read this comic over and again. I think I get the plot. I’m trying to get the plot. I promise you I’m trying to get the plot.
Perhaps it’s me.
You see, there’s this guy named Ninjak. On most days that would be enough to elicit a deep sigh. It’s 2018. It’s a weird time in the history of our nation. It’s a weird time in my life. A lot of people are afraid of a lot of things. And here we are talking about Ninjak.
I’m going to be completely honest here: I see nothing at all interesting in Ninjak. I didn’t see anything interesting in Ninjak in 1993 when the first incarnation of Valiant Comics coughed him up – co-created by Joe Quesada (and Mark Moretti), incidentally, if you’re looking for some trivia, in the first flush of them trying to convince the world that the company had any life outside the vision of its recently-ousted founder. I didn’t see anything interesting in Ninjak when they revived Valiant a few years back. For that matter, I didn’t see anything interesting with Valiant –
I didn’t see anything interesting in that entire approach to comics publishing. It’s never worked. It never takes.
You don’t just launch new comics lines based around vaguely remembered IP from decades in the past. It doesn’t work because the result always feel as prefab as that description sounds. Someone owns all the Valiant IP. It takes a lot of money to start a comics company. These comics are being produced because these IP are considered valuable and potentially lucrative by someone, somewhere. People really want these books to launch empires but there’s nothing here to quicken the pulse.
Ninjak – he’s tired. Really. The poor fellow is barely 25 and he looks haggard. He’s a spy, you see. Well, ninja super spy. He doesn’t have any powers, I don’t think. What does Wikipedia say?
Ninjak has no superhuman powers but has trained his body and is a master of ninjutsu, a group of martial skills that includes jujutsu (hand-to-hand fighting), bojutsu (staff fighting), and iaijutsu (drawing the sword. An aspect of ninjutsu is the ability of the shinobi, or master, to use any object as a weapon. Ninjak has a highly analytical and tactical mind, allowing him to foresee various scenarios and prepare for them. He is also a computer hacker and uses this skill to gather intelligence.
Now, I was going to leave it at that, but I think it’s necessary to report that the next paragraph on Ninjak’s powers and abilities begins:
Ninjak’s greatest asset is his powerful intellect. He is the smartest man in the world.
I just – like, is Ninjak’s mom staying up late to update his Wikipedia page? All the other super ninjas make such fun of my dear boy. He’s such a stable genius!
Look: Ninjak’s greatest asset is his powerful intellect. He is the smartest man in the world. I don’t know why I need to work any harder here. Ninjak is smart. He should be able to figure out a way to be interesting.
If it seems like I’m “taking the piss” out of our boy here – well, OK, I freely admit I am doing just that thing. I was here for Valiant the first time around. And I remember a few things about how that company worked and, perhaps more importantly how it didn’t.
Here’s the thing about Valiant: Valiant as it exists in 2018 is really only half a company. These characters – the hundreds of characters who make up the fictional firmament of the Valiant Comics Universe, long may it wave – are a group of IP without any real desperate need to exist in comics form. And I say that because Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe #1 acts as a kind of negative advertisement, influencing me not to purchase more Valiant Comics but to question the very existence of Valiant Comics. I’ve never read a promotional comic that did a worse job of selling its product.
I am not trying to get on the case of anyone involved in the making of this comic. It probably sounds like I hated this comic. And let’s be blunt: I did hate this comic. But I didn’t hate this comic because of anything these men did. I hated this comic because it was stuck trying to do something it could never possibly have done under any circumstances: make me care about Ninjak.
Why must there be a Ninjak? Let’s really dig into the question.
What you need to understand first is that it all starts with Jim Shooter.
It is I believe a statement of bare fact to assert that the only reason anyone ever cared about Valiant Comics in the first place was because Jim Shooter made people care about Valiant Comics. He made licensed comics out of Nintendo characters and professional wrestling before branching out to superheroes (sort of) with revivals of Silver Ave C-listers Magnus, Robot Fighter and Solar, Man of the Atom. Building a superhero universe using Magnus and Solar as your building blocks – Turok, Dinosaur Hunter wasn’t even reintroduced until a bit later – might not seem like the most promising start for any publisher. Somehow Shooter made it work. Those books, when he was writing them, were very popular, and those versions of the characters retain their fans.
And I say that fully cognizant of the fact that the Journal has not historically been known for its Shooter-boosting. The early 90s was a strange and eventful period in the history of American comic book publishing and one of the stranger artifacts is the fact that, at the height of Image Comics and the subsequent overcorrections from both Marvel and DC, the combined weight of which nearly sunk the entire industry in the process, somehow Jim Shooter’s weird little company doing weird versions of characters no one remembered and spinoffs thereof made a lot of money. And we know it made a lot of money because it was stolen out from under him.
The value of this theft is perhaps debatable. Shooter or Valiant had never owned Magnus, Solar, or Turok. The first two characters had been the cornerstone of the universe that spawned X-O Manowar, Bloodshot, and Ninjak. When Valiant (later Acclaim) quit publishing sometime in the nether end of the 90s the Valiant properties were uncoupled from the original Gold Key characters who had formed the basis of that universe. They haven’t been connected in any capacity since, and every attempt since has felt like trying to reboot the Legion without Superboy: that shit’ll never fly. There are major centers of gravity missing from these characters and their context, and without the dynamics Shooter established this universe appears to be a very low-stakes place.
They don’t do this for no good reason, they do this because the most lucrative properties in the world are “universes” of branching content owned by multinational corporations. It took Marvel and DC decades to properly weaponize the moneymaking potential of their IP catalogs, but they finally got it down pretty good, and it’s a racket a lot of people want in on. But it doesn’t work, or at least, not to the extent the people writing checks for these kinds of comics need to see in order for them to consider Valiant a decent return on their investment. It only works if you own Spider-Man and / or Batman.
If it seems like I’m stuck on this tangent here, it’s because this tangent is stuck right there in the title of the comic: Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe. There’s a degree of presumption to that title. Do I care who wins in a fight between these two entities? I don’t really know if I do. And therein lies the problem.
Superhero universes are actually less than the sum of the individual creations that comprise them. It’s a question of branding: it’s very hard to market a trademark as a concept. The Valiant Universe exists as a trademark prior to my (as a hypothetical reader) knowing the first thing about it. Before I have a single reason to care about any of the characters in it. That’s actually really bad. Universes only exist for the sake of marketing, but unless you have a group of characters people with whom people already have a preexisting relationship, any attempts to market them as an aggregate will pall and probably backfire.
Hey, you know that thing you know nothing about and as yet have no incentive to want to care about? Well, what if there was more of it?
A lot of people in comics completely misread the tea leaves in the early years of the millennium in regards to the direction the culture was going to take with superheroes. I include myself in that number. Superheroes were a fad that were going to leave a big crater in the comics industry when Hollywood moved on and the movies stopped making money. That . . . didn’t happen, there was no doomsday scenario where the direct market was wiped out by a bad summer of superhero films. They did a Justice League film that was in and out of theaters before I even registered its existence, and it didn’t make near as much money as the third Thor. Superheroes aren’t going anywhere. Just the idea that they ever would is starting to seem quaint – even if they don’t always make them at such a fever pitch, they’ve long since passed ubiquity and ended up at saturation. They’ve become evergreen in pop culture in a way that I don’t think anyone could have reasonably expected even as recently as the 1990s, especially those of us who learned to resent the genre for its stultifying effects on the industry and art form.
But the only reason anyone cares a whit about the “Marvel Universe” as anything other than a legal entity is because it has characters people really, really like. The Marvel Universe is popular because it has Spider-Man and Iron Man in it. It didn’t start with The Avengers. It would have flopped if it had.
The Valiant characters, however . . . don’t carry the same heft. What appeal a character like X-O Manowar might have (ancient warrior with a high tech suit of alien armor – that’s still a good high concept) seems partially nullified when the most pertinent information I have about the fellow is who his neighbor is. Hearing that he’s involved in the “Valiant Universe” as a concept makes me less interested in him, as I don’t want to have to be on the hook for all that crap.
Now . . . I should probably say. The book starts with a text page that lays out the company’s ambition for the project not as a creative endeavor but as a marketing ploy. I can’t personally think of a worse best foot forward to take with any prospective audience, but I’m also currently huddled under a blanket in a cold house because I’m back living with my parents in my late thirties. What the hell do I know about marketing? I thought Ice Cream for Bedwetters was a good title for a column.
In a company where dreaming big is an everyday occurrence, NINJAK VS. THE VALIANT UNIVERSE might just set a new bar for ambition.
This project isn’t just a comic book – or, rather, it should be said, it didn’t just start as a comic book.
Almost two years ago, the Valiant team began internally mulling a complex question: What was the most compelling, most unorthodox way to get our characters in front of new fans?
The current incarnation of Valiant Comics has been publishing since 2012. I sincerely hope that they’ve been trying to figure out how to answer the riddle of marketing their product for longer than almost two years.
That’s when the idea was born: Valiant would independently produce a live-action, digital-first series introducing Valiant’s biggest and most enduring characters… A project that could exist outside the corporate media mainstream, independent of Valiant’s upcoming plans in film and television, and build a new gateway into the Valiant Universe outside of the traditional comic book store audience… A project that could serve a promotional vehicle for a new kind of comic book-based storytelling… A project that could only be called NINJAK VS. THE VALIANT UNIVERSE.
Now, I have no special insight other than someone who just reads a lot of comics. But what I have learned about Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe before reading one panel of the comic – what they themselves have volunteered to tell me – is that the company wishes that people were making movies of their comics, and they’re not, so they had to do it themselves. I’m not reading anything into it, they admit right there: this is happening outside “the corporate media mainstream,” because so far in six years of trying they have not even a demo roll to show for it. And they’ve sold a few comics but whenever I see this kind of outlay for any business that makes its primary nut by the direct market I can’t help but wonder how much of their initial venture capital they have left.
The next bit of the text page is hyping these movies by listing the actors and wrestlers involved. A job’s a job, none of them asked to be dragged in The Comics Journal for being attached, however tangentially, to this kind of jazz.
But NINJAK VS. THE VALIANT UNIVERSE was always much more than just a digital series. The story that now awaits before you on the comic book page is the other half of the equation – a first-of-its-a-kind attempt to bridge the worlds of live action and comics in a way that has never been attempted before.
(To remind you: Ninjak’s greatest asset is his powerful intellect.)
Bigger battles. Expanded scenes. And an evolving narrative that will be enhanced and augmented as the two halves of comics’ first truly multimedia event come fully into focus. As we dive headlong into this unprecedented adventure, longtime readers take note… Although the world you are about to encounter bears many similarities great and small to Valiant’s comic book universe, NINJAK VS. THE VALIANT UNIVERSE takes place in a world all its own… A world where Colin King is about to betray his friends, his allies, and his country… A world where he will be forced into a ruthless, no-holds-barred confrontation with all of Valiant’s most powerful heroes… A world where all of them might not make it out alive…
So, are we on the same page here? Valiant wanted movies of their characters. The gimmick here is that half the story is in the comics and half the story is in these videos? And it’s not even fully in continuity? I have no interest in watching any videos, and if drawing the line at watching these venture capital recruitment clips means I don’t get to work at the Journal anymore, that’s a price I will gladly pay.
It’s really hard to make money in the comic industry. It’s super hard for the company that owns Spider-Man and Donald Duck to make money in the American comics industry, so I can understand just how Valiant might struggle in that environment. The problem, I’m sure, isn’t one of initiative or even talent. Lots of talented people have done work on the current crop of Valiant books. But the fact is that these Valiant characters just do not have the pull. No one knows who these guys are. If you don’t know Valiant, if you weren’t around for Valiant 1.0 and don’t even have that level of familiarity, all you need to know is that it’s a bunch of guys you don’t know anything about doing things you’ve seen a thousand times before.
The problem is that someone with money looked at Valiant Comics as a comics-universe-in-a-box, prefab with all these characters who could each be the star of their own movie franchise. Prefab universes never work. Even the classic Valiant line-up wasn’t really prefab in the way we see now: it grew fast because Shooter was quick to recognize a demand and poised to take advantage, but there was no “Valiant Universe” until there was a proven demand for more of those characters.
So the circumstances behind which Valiant prospered the first time around were exceptional – a combination of a number of factors that are never likely to recur unless the people who buy them recognize what Shooter saw back in the early 90s: old IP that has been out of the public eye has no intrinsic value. He kept a lot about Magnus because the character had, as they say, “good bones,” but threw away almost everything significant about Solar because the character as he had existed was a weirdo cipher. If there were Solar purists complaining about the revamp at the time, they weren’t getting their letters published in Wizard. Whether or not a reboot is particularly loyal to the original is no indicator of whether or not a reboot is any good, but the degree to which reboots are dictated by corporate house styles usually indicate the degree to which any unnecessary rough edges have been avoided. There’s a lot of well-digested and worried-over design work here.
There’s no use trying to sell people on the Valiant Universe as a concept that carries any value. Some of these characters may indeed have good bones – X-O Manowar is, as I mentioned above, a great concept in want of a classic run. Archer & Armstrong were created by Barry Windsor-Smith, and to be fair their book has traditionally been one of the more well-regarded in Valiant’s stable. But there’s no room for any of these ideas to breathe because everything is just setting up the next thing. And everything is being presented with such tasteful professionalism that it all ends up tasting like nothing at all. This is a fictional universe colored in the transparent blues and pallid flesh tones of office park halogen bulbs.
So here we arrive at over 2800 words into this article and I haven’t even mentioned the comic itself. That’s a conscious decision. The comic here is an afterthought to itself. I almost don’t even want to discuss the book because the people involved in its production certainly very much produced the comic book that the people who wanted this comic book made wanted them to make. Eliot Rahal’s story does a workmanlike job setting up a dodgy premise: the world’s greatest super-spy – the aforementioned Ninjak – gets punked by the kind of nefarious organization you just can’t avoid in these comics, and then after getting blackmailed by said organization who have taken someone or another hostage, agrees to steal some really powerful MacGuffin. All of which means that the people who want said MacGuffin to be unstolen then call in everyone else (the titular “Valiant Universe”) to go after said super-ninja.
Do you see the problem? The world’s greatest super ninja was punked by what appeared to be half-a-dozen other presumably slightly less super ninjas led by a woman with red hair who wasn’t Marvel Comics’ Medusa of the Inhumans but who was killing people with prehensile tentacles of red hair and comic book people only know how to draw one female face. If you want to stop Ninjak all you need is like a dozen other super-ninjas, the comic itself shows us this, it doesn’t seem like a situation that should necessarily entail the involvement of (checks comic) a really pale guy on a motorcycle in a muscle shirt and some dude bowhunting in the woods. In case you didn’t know that the people writing this book got their understanding of international espionage from reading other comics, someone even says, “Put out a burn notice on Ninjak.”
They can’t do that. Ninjak’s greatest asset is his powerful intellect!
Now, here’s a very important thing: this comic is drawn by two people. One of those people is Joe Bennett, who drew Amazing Spider-Man for a bit in the 90s, which should tell you that the guy probably knows how to draw at least a semi-readable comic. That’s no guarantee at all of whether or not the comic is any good, but at least a guarantee of some degree of familiarity with the basics of panel composition – and sure enough, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with most of the book, besides it being generally an uninspired property. The other person drawing this book is Belardino Brabo. I don’t know the circumstances behind the substitution, but these usually occur because books like this (event tie-ins) absolutely cannot fall behind on production. Parts of the book were obviously drawn in more of a hurry than others.
There’s a page a little over halfway through the book, after Ninjak’s been blackmailed, where he’s trying to break into a secret facility. There’s a woman with a gun aimed at an elevator door, which is how these things always work. She’s standing holding the gun in a way that seems to imply either that the floor in that hallway is at a thirty-degree angle or she’s walking sideways into the carpet. It looks like her hip has come dislocated. It’s an achingly poor drawing stuck in the middle of the book. It’s not the kind of drawing you let go out in a comic unless you absolutely have no choice about publishing whatever you have in hand at the moment. And this is their best possible foot forward, as the comic itself tried to tell us.
So . . . we’re left with the question Valiant itself started with. If you recall, they asked about “the most compelling, most unorthodox way to get our characters in front of new fans?” Apparently at no point did it occur to them to just make a good comic book. That would be, perhaps, a bridge too far.