By Matt Kindt, Clay Mann, Butch Guice, Ulises Arreola, Seth Mann, Brian Thies, and Dave Sharpe
Word to the wise, never leave your swords in the bathroom, eh? Ninjak #5 is as sleek and surreptitious as ever, with graceful action sequences and flashes of young Colin’s mischievous schemas, but the narrative is surprisingly disjointed to the point of feeling rushed. Considering the heights that the last issue reached as a perfectly timed, mythology-laden, Roku-centric diversion from the present-day complications, perhaps it’s fair that there would be something of a letdown as we get reacquainted with the super spy theatrics. There’s plenty to enjoy here (exploding heels!) and the adrenaline never lets up, save to remind you of the insanity of Colin’s childhood, so while there’s some plot dissonance, it still brings the too-cool-for-school aesthetics that’ve satisfied up until this point.
Matt Kindt is playing a long game with this title and while it may seem here like he’s a tad too eager to get to the next stage of Ninjak-evolution, he’s clearly confident in the parts of insanity that create the greater sum of fun. This issue is a little less layered than the previous issues, with the thematic ties between the triad of time periods being less taught. Primarily, it hones in on Ninjak’s character and highlights his unyielding sense of determination borne from a childhood of overcoming secrets and brute force (his parents and Alain, respectively) to be rewarded for his calculating machinations. Kindt provides a mirror to Ninjak’s current, sumo-sized threat with his past, brick wall of a butler sized threat. Defeating either, as we see, is hardly a matter of hitting harder or simply moving faster; it’s a matter of thinking fast and knowing where to hit. While we’ve yet to see how the past battle of will between young Master Colin and Alain plays out, we do see Kannon’s takedown and how it pales in comparison to the sheer force of Ninja’s tenacity. There’s little doubt how driven Ninjak is, and the clever bits come from Kindt doling out via multiple threads, just what it is that drives him.
Sadly, all that indomitable spirit on display (along with the sharp-as-hell visuals) move a step too quickly to fully believe in. Kannon calls of Roku to face Ninjak alone, only to…totally disappear after Ninjak’s victory? She was watching it unfold, why she allows the man she was only moments ago desperate to kill simply walk away are something of a mystery while reading. Kindt does hint at a type of mind control being in play, which is intentionally ambiguous, but having a panel showing her staying on scene to watch a battle without having a panel showing her depart leaves a level of ambiguity as to exactly what happened that results in Ninjak’s anti-climactic victory. This is followed by a time jump that asks the reader to fill in more blanks than a Mad-Libs. It’s fine and hardly difficult to piece together, but it’s jarring and lessons the impact of the first few issues by having it swiftly dealt with. The story seems almost more interested in setting up the greater threat of the Shadow Seven before fully closing the book on our initial threat and so it swiftly forges ahead. Combined with an essentially surface layer plot this go round, there’s less to be wowed by even if it still is an enjoyable ride.
Kindt’s strength of intertwining multiple narrative threads, with accompanying thematic reflections, is best seen in the opening page equipment-description and in the back-up story of Colin’s “year-one” espionage. He’s subject to mental and physical pain, something that always seems to be a part of his life, and then he manipulates them to best serve his own ends, which in turn create layers of guilt. Kindt lays out Ninjak’s protection and shielding from deeper types of emotional attack on the credits page and goes on to show us glimpses of how that armor developed in the back matter. It’s a nice symmetry with all manner of crazy sexy cool action in the pages between them.
Clay Mann’s pencils hit hard when needed and gracefully wisp about in the interim. Kannon’s forceful blows and the perspective Mann frames them in are a great example of the cinematic eye he has on this title. The opening pages present the action like a dance, with each step in tempo to the overall violent rhythm. The angled panels make sharp cuts across the page mirroring Roku’s razored locks while creating a sense of acceleration simultaneously. This doesn’t mean that the quitter moments lack a sense of momentum, but they feel appropriately cut together like a vivid memory with constant cuts to close-ups. There’s a one page sequence that feels more like an overlapping splash with a three panel zoom in on Alain’s face over the establishing foreground of an assertive young Colin that wonderfully reinforces how menacing a character he is. Mann’s style, especially when combined with his brother’s dutifully sharp inks, is reminiscent of that 90’s Jim Lee aesthetic, but with an intelligent level of restraint. His figures carry heft, their silhouettes are graceful, and while they rely on a level of hatching for texture, it’s utilized more often than not with care to highlight scuffs and lacerations as opposed to simply….being there. There’s nary a background that’s left blank (the bottom of a pool being a totally acceptable exception) Mann’s sense of balance on each page is as sleek as his figurework. It’s a pretty package that surprises in the level of detail and tone, especially the quieter sequence of Ninjak leaving a note at a dead drop that belies the grander action blockbuster it initially appears as.
Butch Guice, with tidy inks courtesy of Brian Thies, continues to deliver the more noir-infused visuals on the back up story. If the preceeding pages were all superhero ridiculousness (in a good way) then these aren’t just street level by comparison; they’re downright subterranean. Guice stages the action like a prize fight where every blow wallops and then lingers just long enough for maximum impact. It’s dark, yes, but the gloomier mood is on-point and matches Kindt’s intent to contrast each period of Ninjak’s life atop each other. In many ways, this grounded spy grit from Guice and Thies is a tease to what could justifiably be a standalone title all it its own, but there’s clearly a larger game being played wherein the divergent tones will reveal themselves to be part of Ninjak’s multifaceted psyche.
Arreola’s colors again match their surroundings, allowing for the high gloss chrome of the main story to almost blindingly shine and the subdued cools of the backup to weigh heavy on the page. While the more digital flares have typically fit the over the top craziness of monkey butler nightclubs and ninja sword-sharp hair fights, there are a few moments where they do feel overdone this issue. The aforementioned pool scene incorporates high frequency green hues to a degree that one almost needs shades to flip through the three page sequence. Arreola’s almost intentionally made everything glimmer, reinforcing the cool confidence of our untouchably sleek protagonist, but there are limits to the glare. The dour mood the backup is wonderfully subdued and implies shadow without drowning anything in darkness. It’s a subtly applied cold to a character feeling emotionally frozen.
Perhaps a little too anxious to show how impressive a hand it still has to play, Ninjak #5 suffers a little from rushing to the first arc finish line. Some big circumstantial revelations are revealed in the flashback, but the typical symbolic imagery and themes aren’t as prevalent as they had been, suffice to reinforce the hardening of Colin’s resolve. Kindt, Mann, Guice, Arreola, et al ensure there’s lots of ninja ebullience to revel in here and coming off the phenomenal fourth issue was certainly going to be a challenge, but there’s no reason to abandon a book as confident and as cunning as its cocksure star.