By Matt Kindt, Stephen Segovia, Ryan Winn, Juan Hose Ryp, Ulises Arreola, and Dave Sharpe
Ninjak and Fitzy? Why, they’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl. Okay, yes, a fishbowl of unimaginable violence and lies, but an apt metaphor nonetheless. Since its debut, Ninjak as scripted by Matt Kindt has been heavily focused on the search for identity in a world of deceit and loss. Everyone is looking for that missing something to help make them whole and sometimes that missing something is greed or a lust for power, and sometimes that missing something is something far simpler if not far more elusive. “The Shadow War” arc has focused on these divergent paths to becoming whole and in turn has reflected aspects of our titular emotionally detached hero and Ninjak #8 is as strong as its predecessors on the story front, but unfortunately has its legs completely knocked out from under it by lackluster and incongruent art. It’s a shame too because this is a surprisingly densely layered story at work and one that carefully chooses its subtlety amidst a sea of ninja espionage and supernatural monk training.
The search for identity undergone by this issue’s Shadow-Seven-guest-star-of-the-week is some beautiful, if not on the nose, character work. Literally reborn time and again, Fitzy awakes earlier than expect only to come face to face with his past and the evil hand that’s guided it thus far. Kindt makes Fitzy instantly compelling as he establishes him as the narrator re-living his own horrific moment of self-realization. Fitzy goes on to recount how he was determined to be the first of his brethren to define himself by his own rules. It’s strikingly similar and almost certainly intentionally an allusion to Shelley’s Frankenstein in how it plays out; creation realizes his own abnormal existence, rejects his creator, travels world to better self and create own identity, hunts down creator. It’s a fun twist and this über-modern Prometheus makes a wonderful counterbalance both to his more evilly-inclined Shadow Seven running mates, and to Ninjak himself in how they view the world in starkness.
The fact that Kindt has this issue skip over the physical altercation is and how that’s revealed is stellar stuff and allows for the thematic elements to shine bright. Ninjak lives in the shadows and as such, there are varying levels of obscurity. It’s not all black and white as Fitzy sees the world, though both these assassins are looking to define themselves by finding their missing pieces. In Ninjak’s case, Kindt continues to unravel the reasons behind his inability/refusal to connect with anyone. After all, it’s the surest way to get injured. A quiet exchange with his mother speaks volumes about the emotional toll this spy business has and the weight of responsibility it demands. What is Colin looking for? What is he afraid of? Happiness? Perhaps. Kindt is elegantly tying everything together, from the multiple narratives to the over-the-top ridiculous science-fiction and supernatural horrors, and it’s a pleasure to watch him weave.
Here’s the thing: even though the idea of being in the shadows is a pretty large part of this book’s thematic explorations, that doesn’t mean that it has to be literally obscured on the page. Every artist involved with this book is talented and we’ve seen them each succeed in various capacities in the past, especially Ulises Arreola. However, this issue is a bit of a visual mess that doesn’t tonally mesh with the script or even with its various components. Stephen Segovia is a fine draftsman and renders forms perfectly well, but the degree to which character’s faces (specifically Fitzy’s) is shrouded throughout serves only to remove any sense of emotional expression, even if the intent was to highlight the mysterious “unknown-by-anyone-including-himself” man. It could be that Winn’s inks were overwrought, despite his wonderful track record, but whatever the case, the issue is dark and lacking in detail in several places, not the least of which are a dearth of backgrounds (we’ll get to this in a second). Segovia’s closer in style to Clay Mann than any of the other artists that’ve contributed to this title, but lacks the sleek finish or dynamism of Mann’s pencils. Characters feel stiff which only serves to heighten the silhouette effect caused by the unnecessarily heavy shadows, but to his credit, the scene between young Colin and his mother is handled with care and attention and effectively generates the intended emotional resonance. On the whole, everything feels stunted and there’s a lack of comfortable flow from one panel to the next outside of a nice opening sequence in the lab. Part of that is the nature of the script, sure, but this outing lacked a flair of any sort and for a book as stylish as Ninjak, that’s practically unheard of.
On the other end of the spectrum (and well, of the cover too) is the backup story illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp and it is gorgeous. It’s more of the same lush, tactile goodness we saw from him in the excellent issue 4 and he paces the story like a dream. Never one to skimp on details, his textured world moves with fervor and rests with clever angles and cuts. And the fight sequence replete with overlapping panels and figures breaking over and through every border with reckless abandon? *Mwah* To be fair, there’s blank backgrounds here too, but they serve to draw a natural focus to the forceful motion taking place. With a keen eye for scale and a deftness for manipulating time, one hopes there’ll be plenty more Ryp in Ninjak’s future.
Ulises Arreola’s heavy use of effects in the form of lens-flares paired wonderfully with the smooth art of Clay Mann and made for an appropriately sleek aesthetic of excess. Here though, Arreola’s similar choices on top of the flatter, stiffer work of Segovia, the colors felt dramatically dissonant and quizzically unbalanced. Arreola does some great things despite this, including a wonderfully atmospheric use of light at the undead monk’s temple, but due to dearth of drawn backgrounds, is forced to add texture to several panels that simply don’t match what’s happening in the foreground on either a pragmatic or thematic level. There’s also the addition of a textured effect to many backgrounds that resembles distorted mesh (something akin to hatch marks) that hinders more than it helps. When paired with Ryp for The Lost Files installment, Arreola is back to his usual adept self. The palette is clean and illuminated, with all of Ryp’s natural texturing enhanced.
Tales of the lost and of those searching for who they are even as they run away from it coupled with bombast and swagger, Ninjak remains both as cool and as deceptively intricate as ever. This issue suffers from a poor artistic pairing, as each of those creators are unquestionably talented, but simply couldn’t quite get on the same page here. It holds Ninjak #8 from being truly great, but be assured that the clever mix of horror, science fiction, and espionage is well worth your time as we dig ever deeper into the psyche of that hurt little British boy who grew up to be the foremost ninja assassin who takes out guys with chimpanzee butlers. Getting to write sentences like that is worth the price of admission alone.