Mail Order Ninja Book 1

The writer intends this 96-page story to be all-ages comedy “like the classic Looney Tunes cartoons”. Unfortunately, that’s not the impression the opening scene gives. It’s closer to a superhero comic structure, with a humorless (and fairly violent) ninja action scene being revealed to be part of a manga Timothy is reading.

The action art is well-done, so much so that I found the first glimpse of Timothy freakish. He’s typically styled for a comedic manga kid, but in contrast to the previous relatively normal adults, he looks like a humanoid fish, all wide glassy eyes and huge shock of gravity-defying hair. (His snotty younger sister, a requisite accessory in these types of stories, looks the same, only with pigtails.)

Timothy’s a frequent target of bullies, so he orders a ninja from a toy company (?). The thing is, you knew this from the book’s premise and promotion, so why does it take 30 pages (a third of the book) to get there? It’s slow. A number of characters are introduced in the meantime, but I’d rather see them less obviously presented. (Each gets a focus panel and a quick “file card” description.) Let’s get to know them through the story instead.

Mail Order Ninja Book 1 cover
Mail Order Ninja
Book 1
Buy this book

As soon as the ninja does show up, the first chapter ends, which is good pacing. However, the next chapter starts by cutting away to the French stereotype who runs the factory that provides the mail order. Bad choice; it feels like padding. Introducing the segment with a black page that starts “The following is a paid advertisement…” might amuse someone who’d never seen the joke before, but like the segment itself, it feels like a recycled Saturday Night Live gag.

I think, contrary to the goal of creating something for all ages, I’m too old for this. I’ve seen the jokes before, the characters are obvious and flat, and not nearly enough happens. Aiming to be cartoon-like is admirable, but there’s not nearly enough energy here, so the comparison’s not valid.

And there’s a more worrisome element. The ninja takes out the bullies in a scene with an odd message: if they deserve it, it’s ok to use their tactics against them. Timothy extorts money out of them as payback for all the times they did it to him. What happened to “not sinking to their level”? To using one’s abilities for good? To setting a better example? Timothy hates the school’s rich girl because she uses her money to improve her position, but Timothy does the same thing with his new “toy”. How does this make him different from her? The hypocrisy is wearying, and I wouldn’t want to share this idea with kids.1

Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe this is pure escapism for the younger set, especially those who fantasize about some magical thing happening to make them king of the school without any work whatsoever on their part. I think there are many better choices for them to experience that enjoyment, though.

The original Mail Order Ninja short story won the grand prize in the fifth Rising Stars of Manga contest. The series is planned to consist of six volumes, and the second is due in December. It will also begin running as a newspaper strip in January.

1It very much reminded me of Bush and his neocons: “What we do is right because we’re right. If other people do the same thing, they’re wrong.” I put this down here because I don’t want to distract the review with politics, but it was the comparison that sprang to mind unbidden.

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16 Comments

  1. Annie Social

    Let me preface these comments by saying I have no ties to this book, the publisher, or any of the creators. I am just a person that read the book and enjoyed it.

    OK… now that that is out of the way…

    I typically enjoy your reviews. I think your positive reviews are often very enlightening. In fact, I have picked up many books based on your positive reviews. I like the fact that you bring a female perspective to comic book reviews. I also have to say, your negative reviews are getting sadly predictable.

    I mean no disrespect by this, but you seem to have an inability to recognize the inertia of character arcs. I see it in this review and I have seen it in several past reviews. This seems to be most common when you review the opening chapters of a series. You’ll often criticize the characters as being unlikable or unredeemable and then write off the whole title.

    To better illustrate this, I’d love to give a hypothetical example. When Bendis started writing Ultimate Spiderman, he “decompressed” the story to stretch out the origin over several issues. At one early point in the initial arc, Peter Parker — a young bullied student – was kind of a dick. He had just learned of his new powers and was using them for purely selfish reasons and refused to help the police apprehend a criminal.

    Like I said, this is hypothetical, but if you were to come to this story with virgin eyes, not knowing anything about Spiderman, I imagine your review would say something like:

    “What happened to “not sinking to their level”? To using one’s abilities for good? To setting a better example? How does this make him different from the bullies or the criminal? The hypocrisy is wearying, and I wouldn’t want to share this idea with kids.”

    You would stop reading there and post a negative review.

    You would miss out on the fact that Peter goes through a dramatic catharsis after learning his Uncle was killed by the man he selfishly refused to stop. You would miss the key point of the story — the heart and soul of the book — that teaches that with great power comes great responsibility. You would have missed out on a nice story of character redemption.

    I have not read any later volumes of MAIL ORDER NINJA, but how can you completely miss out on the fact that the story is going to parallel Peter Parker’s? That the main character is obviously going to learn his lesson (though probably without the death of a family member)? By creating flawed characters at the beginnings of stories, most writers are allowing for growth and change in these characters as the story progresses. They typically learn more about themselves and grow. Isn’t this one of the most fundamental elements of the grand storytelling tradition?

    Sometimes it seems like if any creator front-loads a book with questionable protagonists, you are going to dislike it because the characters don’t immediately measure up to your criteria for enjoyment. You’ll make some strange assumptions and then write it off.

    Like I said earlier, you seem to have an inability to recognize the inertia of character arcs.

    I just want you to recognize this pattern and learn to better predict these things. Stop making assumptions about a series or a book based on your limited exposure to the first chapter. Start looking for patterns of potential catharsis instead of assuming incompetence on the part of the creators.

    You are under no obligations to do so, but I do think it would make your reviews more constructive and helpful to your faithful readers — readers like me.

  2. Your argument isn’t a new one, but I have to disagree. If someone has paid (in this case) $6 for a book, then they have every right to evaluate the section as it was sold and purchased. Superhero comic fans often argue “you can’t be negative about the story until it’s over” … but just how much money should be a reader be expected to pump into something that they’re not enjoying? 4 issues of a superhero comic these days is $12, which isn’t cheap.

    It would be nice to assume that everything gets magically improved in some future issue, but I’ve read so many bad (or just mediocre) comics that giving writers (especially on never-ending corporate franchises) the benefit of the doubt only leads to disappointment. If I’m not excited to read the next book, that’s fault on the part of the creator who hasn’t created that anticipation in me.

    If this had been a more typically sized Tokyopop book, then I’m sure that Timmy would have learned his lesson in the second half, and I suspect that that’s what happens in book two. But the publisher and creators can’t take their readers for granted… if they don’t like what they see in the part they’ve been sold, they aren’t likely to keep going in the hopes it gets better next time (in this case, six months later), not when there’s so much else out there that they might like better. You’ve got to make EACH chunk satisfying in a world of so much competition.

    This is also, by the way, why I tend to stay away from serialized issues these days. There are so many complete packages out there that are so much more satisfying.

    You’re also ignoring my other problems with the book, that it was slow and unfunny and flat. And when I reviewed Ultimate Spider-Man, I didn’t complain that Peter was a jerk; I complained that I wanted something truly new instead of all the same things happening the same way, and it would be nice if Bendis wasn’t so talky.

    Now, all that said, I will keep an eye out for future projects from Joshua Elder, because I think he has potential. I just think that the decision here to break the story where it did and package it this way was damaging to its presentation.

  3. I have to say, I had a similar reaction to this book. I didn’t really like the art style, and I thought the jokes were obvious and not very clever.

  4. [...] And this is a bit meta: Johanna Draper Carlson panned Mail Order Ninja earlier this week. The creator read the review and took it to The Engine. Interesting discussion follows. And later Johanna defends her review. [...]

  5. Joshua Elder

    I’ve already posted this other places, but it certainly bears repeating here:

    Dang-blasted Internet…

    Everytime I post anything anywhere I end up looking like a total jerk and upsetting folks for whom I have nothing but respect.

    I (obviously) don’t agree with everything Johanna said, but I respect her critical acumen a great deal which is why I sent her the book in the first place. She makes a lot of valid points, several of which will be addressed in the second volume, but in this instance I just don’t think she “gets it”.

    And that’s totally okay. I wrote the book for me, and if other people like it then that’s just gravy. Sometimes disinterested third parties see flaws that I would never notice and that’s why I value critical opinions of my own work. Johanna’s review has made me think long and hard about several things, and I greatly appreciate that.

    So yeah. I’m not happy with a negative review, but by posting to the Engine I wasn’t trying to necessarily even rebut Johanna. She has her opinion, and I can’t really argue against that. I was just trying to solicit other opinions both positive and negative so that I can become the best writer possible. And I didn’t mean to insulate myself by posting to the Creator’s Conference. It’s just my general posting locale, and I honestly didn’t consider the stifling effect it would have on actual dialog.

    So in summation: I think “Mail Order Ninja” rocks. Johanna disagrees. The world keeps spinning and all is right on both heaven and earth.

  6. To add to Joshua’s totally appreciated comments, in case anyone’s looking for more drive-by, Joshua and I are cool, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work in future. I don’t write for creators, I write only to explain how I reacted to a work, but I’m pleased that he found my comments of some help, whatever he chooses to take from them.

  7. Annie Social

    I’d like to clarify.

    I understand your comments regarding serialized comics and the consumer commitments involved in story arcs. That makes perfect sense.

    However my comments about your inability to appreciate stories with initially unlikable protagonists extend beyond this title.

    I believe that you have a tendency to make often inaccurate assumptions about characters and their arcs based on your initial impressions of characters, coupled with your personal biases.

    I have seen you do this with serialized issues, serialized GNs, and complete OGNs.

    It seems like if a book or issue is going to start off with a protagonist doing things you don’t agree with, you often ignore the possibility of it being a tale of redemption and growth, and start making assumptions that often get proven unfounded.

    I didn’t realize you had reviewed ULTIMATE SPIDERMAN because it isn’t on your site anymore. In fact, many of the reviews I am thinking of aren’t up anymore. It is too bad that much of your archive isn’t still around.

    Oh well… Like I said, I have been reading your site for a long time. I will continue to do so. Maybe I’ll speak up the next time I see you doing this.

  8. [...] Queenie Chan discusses the challenges of writing a three-volume series. As a reader, I like three volumes, but I can see where it can force a writer to stretch a story unnaturally to fit the format. She comments that readers expect closure from each volume of a global manga, while they have different expectations of a Japanese manga because they know it is published one chapter at a time. I would add that the fact that Japanese manga come out every three or four months, as opposed to one volume a year, makes cliffhangers and loose threads more bearable. Anyway, check this out as it’s a useful counterpoint to Christopher Butcher’s review of Fool’s Gold and Johanna’s review of Mail Order Ninja (and subsequent commentary.) [...]

  9. [...] What’s he talking about? Well, probably something like what Johanna Draper Carlson had to deal with recently. It all started when she reviewed Tokyopop’s Mail Order Ninja and found it wanting, before finding the following in her comments section: I mean no disrespect by this, but you seem to have an inability to recognize the inertia of character arcs. I see it in this review and I have seen it in several past reviews. This seems to be most common when you review the opening chapters of a series. You’ll often criticize the characters as being unlikable or unredeemable and then write off the whole title… Sometimes it seems like if any creator front-loads a book with questionable protagonists, you are going to dislike it because the characters don’t immediately measure up to your criteria for enjoyment. You’ll make some strange assumptions and then write it off. [...]

  10. [...] Graeme McMillan at the Newsarama blog sums up some recent net drama in a post titled Note to reviewers: Stay away from Tokyopop. Which is overreaction, but that’s part of his point, that lots of people seem to overreact when it comes to Tpop’s OEL books. Joshua Elder shows up in the comments to offer free review copies of Mail Order Ninja in order to prove his point that I’m the only person who disliked it. [...]

  11. Cranky-chan

    Personally, I like Mail Order Ninja. Just a corny little story fit for preteens. If you want to read the first two chapters, there should be a preview at its page on Tokyopop. And yes, it did show what he did to the bullies. But anyway, it’s targeted towards kids and preteens. I do think the part where his ninja beat up the bullies was inappropriate. You can judge that yourselves if you ever read it. The world of Mail Order Ninja is a fun world. You can bring a ninja with a sword to school, break dress code, and violently beat up bullies on your way to school.

    The story features a variety of characters in it’s plot. There’s Timothy (Timmy) James McAllister, the nerd hero of the manga. Obviously, there is the “Mail Order Ninja” Jiro Yoshida. Felicity Dominique Huntington, the spoiled rich prep of the story. Brock Breckenridge, the fat bully that harrasses Timmy. Remus and Romulus Wolfe, identical male twins and also Brock’s lackeys. Lindsay McAllister, Timmy’s evil sister. And a lot more.

    But that’s just my opinion on Mail Order Ninja.

  12. [...] Review of Mail Order Ninja at Comics Worth Reading Elder complains at The Engine Elder’s reply to criticism of his comments Newsarama Blog coverage, including Elder’s offer of free copies of Mail Order Ninja to anyone who will review it Elder becomes reviewer for Sun-Times [...]

  13. well from what i’ve read from the sunday newspaper i think it’s really funny. Although i’ll admit that the characters r very cliched. i kinda wish i saved those comics from the newspaper…. any1 know where i can find them?

  14. Ty,

    We’ll be collecting all the strips eventually. Though the first 10 or were actually reprints from MON volume 1.

  15. I’m a little late to the party, but for the record, My 11-year old daughter and my 8-year-old son are both crazy about MON. They totally get it, and the pacing works for them. All of us love the humor and the pacing; the references that go over their heads are the ones that delight ME. It’s the one comic in the Sunday paper that we all read, and it’s the one book (well, two books, actually) that we all looked forward to reading.

  16. Not to hijack the thread or anything, but I’m very glad to hear that, Mike. And you and your kids should drop me an e-mail at elder1938@ureach.com to let me know what they think and what they’d like to see in future volumes.

    Oh, and if they dig MON they should check out my issue of “The Batman Strikes” #36 due out in August. It’s based on the current cartoon and is utterly appropriate for those age groups. I just got the pencils for the last half of the book and they’re stupendous. And I put a lot of humor in there so the MON fans should enjoy the heck out of it.

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