Since reviving Street Angel in 2017, Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca have used the series of one-offs to mess around with storytelling on every level, frequently switching styles and genres, chasing ideas down alleys and into gutters, and packing a ton of creative muscle into a relatively short frame. Their hero – Jesse Sanchez, homeless teenage ninja – has unique characteristics (the ninja thing, the homeless thing) but what drives her is exceedingly simple. Her needs don’t extend very far beyond just eating, as much eating as possible, whenever possible, but that simplicity allows Rugg and Maruca to shift her role from protagonist to foil and back depending on the story.
In Street Angel: Super Hero for a Day, for example, the climax of the A-story – teenager discovers mysterious alien ring that gives her superpowers – doesn’t even happen on the page. Instead, we follow Street Angel in the B-story as she digs through trash cans and takes a nap on the sidewalk. Other volumes possess a similar irony. In The Street Angel Gang, Angel City turns into a Bronx-like borough circa The Warriors where, Street Angel, a.k.a. Trash Can shows up to a gang initiation for the free pizza and gives us a window into a city at war with itself, complete with theme-costumed factions and double agents. The stories all crossover and fold in on themselves with metanarrative touches like trading cards and book club prompts (“What would your event be in the Street Gang Olympics?”) padding out the volumes and also sneakily adding context to Street Angel’s adventures. In the prison tale Street Angel Goes to Juvie, we get to see all the headlines and wanted posters dedicated to Street Angel a.k.a. Shiraz Thunderbird before she gets thrown into Alcatraz Jr.
In fact, some of the most fun Rugg and Maruca have is when they’re cheekily referencing an elaborate backstory for Street Angel that never gets shown in the books. Each successive volume seems to push the boundaries of what is possible in Street Angel’s world, and vs. Ninjatech is perhaps their most delightfully bonkers hardcover to date, going deeper into the Shiraz Thunderbird Expanded Universe than we’ve seen before. Typical Street Angel encounters tend to happen at, uh, street level: she gets into a fight after school or rescues a dog or goes trick-or-treating or finds a dead body in an alley – all things that could reasonably pop up in a homeless girl’s periphery on a given day. In Ninjatech, we start to see the larger infrastructure (“the ninja industrial complex”) of the world she inhabits. It’s like Rugg and Maruca’s season 3 of The Wire.
Yet, where the other Street Angel books tend to take a single approach — Super Hero for a Day’s pastel, 00s DC house look, for example, or Goes to Juvie’s use of repetition to upend the prison story when institutionalization turns out to be a good look for our hero — vs. Ninjatech careens between techniques until we fall backwards into the corporate heist. Rugg is a bit of a specialist in all styles; a student of the game. In vs. Ninjatech he transitions seamlessly from a psychedelic, impressionistic sequence where Jesse fights off a cellular-level ninja invasion to a stark, nearly black-and-white sequence of small panels that follow a marginal character through a side adventure. Throughout the series, Rugg and Maruca have created a world elastic enough to fit a huge range of genres; here, they leap back and forth between them within pages while still in total command of the through line.
Because Street Angel vs. Ninjatech feels so instinctual, there’s danger of it coming off as frivolous. But Rugg and Maruca don’t just make broad stylistic flourishes and run; they’re equally invested in the tiny details, and that’s where a lot of the humor of the series lives. Jokes are often hiding in plain sight: you might recognize a seemingly out-of-place character from her trading card back in Superhero for a Day; one of the Ninjatech employees is essentially Phyllis from The Office in a shinobi shozoku. This time they also adeptly weave the metanarrative stuff into the actual narrative, as a series of fake advertisements keep making their way into the action.
Those ads are glossy layouts for cutting-edge Ninjatech inventions and with Boy’s Life-esque classifieds for ninja basics at warehouse prices, and the contrast sneakily reinforces the street culture vs. corporate culture battle that forms the heart of the book. That same high/low split opens up a ton of possibilities for future Street Angel adventures. We’re used to seeing Jesse take on opponents within her own general purview, but here there’s something extremely satisfying in watching the scrappy upstart wreck shop against a wealthy behemoth. She's a hero. For the people.