By Matt Kindt, Juan José Ryp, Clay Mann, Marguerite Sauvage, Ulises Arreola, Butch Guice, Seth Mann, Brian Thies, and Dave Sharpe
Transformation, identity, and goodness, gracious, great locks of fire! Matt Kindt and a slew of artists take the spotlight off of the titular ninja spy and deliver the best issue to date of Ninjak with issue #4. A story atop a story atop a story, once again weaving a multitude of narratives together in an elegantly layered circle, Ninjak #4 gives readers a glimpse into the mythical history of Roku and it’s every bit as compelling and beautiful as one might hope. It’s a rebirth on a quest for identity that begins with the planting of a human seed and ends in a bloody climb with past lives and demons left in a new being’s wake.
Kindt frames this flashback tale around our present set of circumstances of Ninjak being confronted with his cover blown and in turn provides the mysterious Roku with dimensions as seen through prismatic folklore. It reads rhythmically and constantly builds on top of itself, starting with Roku narrating her difficulty for remembering names and then having her former master recall his own transformative experience, only to switch again to Roku dictating what came next while relating the events to a tale her mother used to tell to her. That’s three or four levels of narrative with the children’s story being used as a mirroring device to Roku’s tribulations and simultaneously delivering all that thematic goodness that makes this particular issue so rich.
It’s Kafka meets Homer meets modern superhero comics. With the impaling of a stake, Roku begins to shed memories and physical traits alike and she morphs into something new in classical hero’s journey fashion. Kindt takes this wonderfully absurd character, this assassin with razor sharp psychokinetic hair, and uses her to ask, ‘what’s in a name? ‘ Starting in the grave of her past life she is born again and must claw herself through the underworld’s every challenge; fear, cold, hunger, exhaustion, confusion, and yes, even evil Oni with insatiable appetites. She sheds memories and with them her past life as she gains greater sentience of every aspect of her being, but shadows remain. In many ways, Kindt assures us that as she transforms into something grander birthed from a body of memories, she’s still undead in many ways. Unable to see her own reflection, for there is no one to see, Roku’s story is one of the nature of identity itself. In the end, perhaps a name in and of itself is the least important.
The art duty is split three ways in the main story this issue between Clay Mann’s framing pages, Marguerite Sauvage’s interspersed storybook panels and Ryp carry the heavy load. Great googly moogly, that Juan José Ryp can really create worlds. The caverns of the underworld labyrinth are infused with life and energy even as they remain ominously stagnant. When it comes to texturing, Ryp is meticulous and every fiber of Roku’s bandages, every living strand of her hair, every stalactite, and every fold of Oni belly are tactile on the page. Each surface’s texture is unique and while nothing goes unnoticed by his pencil, nothing is even close to being overdone. Ryp keeps the narrative trek on point in his layouts, keeping everything flowing towards the right, away from home and onwards towards the light. His panel layouts reflect the journey and the page-length, six panel shards found on one page both mirror the sharp angles of the deadly rocks as well as heighten the ups and downs of Roku’s journey as she slowly gets lost deeper and deeper in perspective. It’s a nice break from the super-sleek pencils we’ve had from Clay Mann thus far, fantastic though they are, and instills a sense of myth as though the paper of the pages themselves have aged and wrinkled just a bit. Filled with striations and cracks and craggy pocks, Ryp’s style is exactly what was needed to deliver a harrowing trip. Ninjak’s world is sexy and smooth, but Roku’s, thanks to Ryp, is harsh and full of palpable grit.
Mann contributes only two pages this issue and it’s his usual action-oriented sleekness, while Sauvage’s handful of panels are intentionally whimsical and storybook, with especially charming patterns to be found in clouds and bedrock. Bringing all of this together is the chameleon of color, Ulises Arreola who lays down whatever the story needs. On Mann, it’s over-top-top vibrancy flare; with Sauvage, it’s muted pastels; and with Ryp, it’s rich yet subtly textured. Much like Kindt’s script, Arreola’s color-juggling is layered and controlled with palettes to match the tone of the particular tale at hand while sewing it all together so nothing looks askew. The myriad of colors applied to the caverns themselves is intricate, with cools framing the blazing warmth of the centered figures. Backgrounds constantly change, but each serve to highlight rather than distract and each tone resonating with requisite horror or eerie tranquility. Three artists, one colorist: one unified blend.
This issue’s B-story, much like the A-story, foregoes looking into Ninjak’s early spy days and instead looks at the origin of the larger than life Kwannon. Butch Guice and Brian Thies deliver their signature ink-heavy, mood-heavy style, but retain the compelling storytelling that makes these back-ups feel just as dense as the front material. This is a great, almost solemn, tale that mixes the espionage style with a mysticism that lands with a resounding and effective thud.
Stories within stories, that’s been the surprising and satisfying undercurrent throughout this run and Ninjak #4 marks the most overt use of this while delivering something wholly unique. Roku is far more than just a 90’s inspired villain with an extreme power-set; no, she’s experienced a metamorphosis on a grand scale. Kindt and company have crafted a search for what it is that makes us who we are through the lens of folklore, both ancient and modern. The symbolic dances with the literal and we’re left to question precisely happened in this quest for self through the underworld. In the end, like names, it’s all made up, but Ninjak #4 stands tall atop the detritus of the past with stellar art and charmingly complex structuring.