...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.
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 führer 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.
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.