Friday, August 30, 2013

1987 and all that 013: the loudest ninjas ever

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Ninja High School #1-3 (Antarctic Press)
by Ben Dunn, Carlos Castro

My exposure to manga is extremely limited, at least relative to how much material is available. I have friends who are more serious about it, so I appreciate that world and have read a few great series, but it’s never been a serious part of my reading or collecting habits. My tastes just happen to lean differently. This is a brief but necessary lead-in to say that, in as much as it’s expressly parodying manga, I’m sure there are details or jokes in 'Ninja High School' that I didn't notice or get. But there’s such an overabundance of both details and jokes, I’m not sure how much it matters if you know which ones are directly referencing specific manga series/tropes and which aren't.

'Ninja High School' is overfull and manic, but I believe it’s mostly controlled chaos, intentionally hyper-stimulating. Writer/artist Ben Dunn favors absurdity and rapidity, skipping over things such as character development and logic so he can pack in more gags and/or action. Not that there’s no plot—it’s actually a fairly direct one, cleanly separated into three acts in its three issues, and making a deliberate point of addressing every loose thread, no matter how small, in its final few pages. But the plot is fundamentally ridiculous, beyond being fantastical in its content. It relies on nobody acting believably human, their motivations unconvincing and shallow, their emotions heightened to such extremes and changing so quickly that it’s difficult to invest in them for more than fleeting amusement. Again, I think this is Dunn’s goal, or at least one of them. He’s attempting to construct a narrative that does not weigh anything, and if that was indeed the plan, it’s a success. This is a funnel cake comic book: not especially substantive, but perfectly crisp and a lot of fun to consume.

The central plot of 'Ninja High School' revolves around a loveless love triangle. Two different young women are hell-bent on marrying Jeremy Feeple for different reasons, but for neither of them is it because they actually like Jeremy, at least not initially. The first one we meet is Itchy Koo, a ninja who wants to become the leader of her clan, but is told she must wed Jeremy (and only Jeremy) before she can fulfill that dream. Similarly, Princess Asrial, representative of some sort of intergalactic community called the Royal Conglomerate, is told by her superiors to marry Jeremy (and only Jeremy) as a first step toward bringing Earth into the Conglomerate, supposedly for the planet’s own good. Neither character is especially pleased about the situation, because Jeremy is an unremarkable boy, but the women’s disinterest does not dull their enthusiasm. They both make their intentions glaringly clear to Jeremy and one another, which leads to a lot of shouting and, ultimately, an official competition between them over who gets to be Jeremy’s wife.

What makes this already bizarre story especially silly is that almost everyone reacts to the ninja-vs.-alien situation as if it were an everyday occurrence. Jeremy is baffled and bothered by it, but even he doesn't protest too strongly, because the adults in his life tell him he has to accept that his fate is to marry one of these girls (and as a timid teenager, Jeremy listens to adults). It is a teacher, Professor Steamhead, who proposes that Itchy and Asrial compete, and when Jeremy looks to his mother for comfort or assistance or even just an explanation, all she tells him is that he has to respect the outcome of the contest. Rather than dig into the strangeness of these circumstances, Dunn has his characters go with the flow, and by extension asks the readers to do the same. If you start to poke at this story’s foundation, the whole thing will come toppling down; Dunn knows this, and is content with the narrative wobbling if it gives him more space for unadulterated goofiness.

For example, Professor Steamhead is more than just a funny name, it’s essentially a description of the character. The man is obsessed with steam, believing it to be the future of technology. He never delves into why he thinks that, or how it is that steam is supposed to accomplish anything, but he sticks to his guns, and even uses steam a few times during the series as a weapon or trap or similarly useful tool. The science behind this usage is questionable at best, but it’s always a fun visual to see him blast an unsuspecting bad guy.

Speaking of bad guys, the primary villains of this book are probably the clearest evidence that Dunn is not shooting for anything remotely grounded. Though at first the main conflict of 'Ninja High School' is the fight for Jeremy’s hand, there is also a B-plot that blossoms into the primary narrative by the last issue, about another ninja who wants to marry Itchy Koo. He is Rivalsan Lendo, head the Rival Ninja Clan. Though Lendo himself is a fairly nondescript angry young man, his organization and its members are outrageous and ridiculous, from their unsubtle name to their base of operations turning into a building-sized weapon to their overtly Nazi aesthetic. Lendo doesn't have a Nazi look, but most of his lackeys have German names and accents, and they dress like they’re in the SS. Eventually, this evil gang kidnaps Jeremy and brainwashes him, at which point he sports full-on f├╝hrer attire and decides he wants to rule the world, an extreme shift in personality that lasts only a few pages. The Nazi elements are ill-fitting and overdone on purpose, the simplest available shorthand for, “These characters are evil.” Dunn never calls undue attention to it, but instead lets the contrasting imagery speak for itself, humorously out of place in the setting in which it’s contained.

Between the outlandish plots, cartoonish style, and broad characters possessing even broader emotions, Dunn manages to fit multiple jokes of various sizes and levels of success on every page. This isn't just a spoof on manga, it’s an exercise in overcrowding comedy, attempting to walk the razor-thin line between hilarious and obnoxious. There’s a definite risk being run in this series that the non-stop stream of silliness could grow tiresome or grating, but it hits the sweet spot more often than not. Well-placed sound effects that literally describe the action they accompany---Imbed! Uproot! Leap!---always got a laugh out of me. As did Arnie, an almost-silent, almost-mindless character who exists only so the big action sequences can include someone musclebound. And though Jeremy isn't the world’s most complex protagonist, his endearing sincerity and trying-to-please-everyone passivity make him at least likable enough to carry such an airy tale. Itchy Koo and Princess Asrial are oversimplified and oversexualized, but I assume this comes from a place of satire, as opposed to any genuine male chauvinism on Dunn’s part. I’m familiar enough with manga to know that scantily-clad vixens are not uncommon, and Dunn has some fun with that by heightening it and aiming it at an emotionally ill-equipped teenaged boy. The women throw themselves at Jeremy strategically, not because that’s who they really are but because they figure it’s the best way to accomplish their missions. Jeremy, for his part, is too immature to respond to their advances with anything but blustering bewilderment, and it leads to a lot of humor at his expense, rather than at the expense of his suitors.

Along those same lines, the moment that solidified for me that 'Ninja High School' knew what it was doing all along came toward the very end of the final issue. Seeing that Rival Ninja Clan has transformed Jeremy into a mini-Hitler, Itchy Koo uses some sort of presumably ancient ninja magic to enter Jeremy’s mind and free him of Lendo’s brainwashing. It’s a pretty bad ass and important moment for Itchy, requiring her to use techniques outside her usual fighting skills to save the day. She proves the true extent of her power and heroism, and in doing so, she positions herself for the first time as someone deserving of the leadership responsibilities she’s been after all along. Then like one page later, Lendo grabs her in the claw of a giant suit of robot armor that he apparently owns, and she devolves into a stereotypical damsel in distress, screaming, “Jeremy!! Save me!!” at the top of her lungs. And how does our hero free his maiden from the villain’s metallic monster? By hitting it with a big rock. The divide between these two rescues is so massive, and Itchy’s transformation from capable heroine to hysterical victim so sudden and out of character, it seems impossible that it would be unintentional. Dunn is laughing (and encouraging his readers to laugh along with him) at the helpless young girl archetype by casting Itchy in that role mere moments after she proves that she’s anything but helpless.

Perhaps I give Dunn too much credit. Could be that he wanted 'Ninja High School' to be a hard-hitting, thought-provoking piece of great comic book literature, and somehow produced this laugh fest instead. But the attitude of the book feels like it’s consistently one of not taking itself seriously, of recognizing its underlying lack of realism and choosing to show it off. It’s childlike, focusing on play instead of progress, creativity over reason, and comedy above all else. Some things are sacrificed by taking this approach; there’s no one in this series I relate to, the stakes are never any higher than the future of one boy’s love life, and the rare scenes that seem like they could be places of genuine drama are forced to become jokes in order to fit. All of this comes together to create a story that’s difficult to care too deeply about yet exceedingly easy to enjoy.

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