Mail Order Ninja Volume 1
The writer, Joshua Elder, 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 of Mail Order Ninja 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 by Erich Owen 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.
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.