Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

We Are a Hedge

Posted by Don MacPherson on December 4th, 2006

Mail Order Ninja Vol. 1 & 2
Writer: Joshua Elder
Artist: Erich Owen
Letters: Lucas Rivera
Editor: Paul Morrissey
Publisher: Tokyopop
Price: $5.99 US/$7.99 CAN (per book)

After reading the first two volumes of this new American-produced title, I was struck by one overriding thought: it’s rather juvenile. I mean that in both the positive and negative connotations of the term. There’s a youthful energy to the characters, and on the surface, there’s an innocence at play that’s appealing (but quickly dispelled). But writer Joshua Elder’s script is inconsistent, switching between a zany comedy mode to straightforward action. Furthermore, the premise and story fail to follow any kind of internal sense of logic. Manga fans will be pleased, however, with artist Erich Owen’s Japanese-inspired artwork. It’s sharp and clean. He handles the choreography of action scenes quite well, and I rather enjoyed his eye for character design.

Timmy McAllister is a regular kid who enjoys life in the sleepy town of Cherry Creek and loves reading manga, especially one about his favorite ninja hero, Yoshida Jiro. What he hates, though, are bullies, and by chance, he wins a catalog contest and gets his own mail-order ninja, Jiro himself! Timmy soon becomes the most popular kid at L. Frank Baum Elementary School, much to the chagrin of rich girl Felicity Huntington. She doesn’t take too kindly to being ousted from her social position, but she soon places an order from the same weird catalog. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s always the purportedly mystical artifact her rich daddy smuggled back home after a trip to China.

Owen’s art hits all the right manga marks. There’s a more traditional approach to anatomy when it comes to his depiction o adult characters, but the kids are all wide-eyed and cute. Timmy’s look boasts a lot of personality, and there’s a hint of mischievousness in his spiky-haired design. He handles the motion of the ninja action quite adeptly. Actually, that aspect of the art is so strong that when the ninja action turns silly later in Vol. 2, the action and comedy find themselves in direct conflict.

The cover artwork is a bit disappointing. Jiro’s eyebrow on the cover of Vol. 1 looks like a piece of black licorice, and it’s distracting. Furthermore, the color scheme for the covers is far too muted. This book should jump off the shelves with a primary color scheme that’s in keeping with the exuberance to be found within each volume.

I also have to take issue with the format. These digest books are far thinner than most of the manga fare I’ve seen before, and the nature of Elder’s script makes for rather quick reads. Furthermore, these two books tell a single story, and I don’t see why it wasn’t released as a single volume. It would have made for a more satisfying read. Vol. 1 really only sets the stage for an actual story. The core conflict is relegated to the second book.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I rented Cars. Usually, I like to catch Pixar movies on the big screen, but I just wasn’t all that taken with the early promotional efforts for the flick. After watching it, I realized what the problem was: I didn’t buy the central premise of a world populated by talking vehicles. I know that talking cars are impossible, just as are the talking toys, super-heroes and anthropomorphic insects from other Pixar flicks. But those other movies all followed a certain set of rules, and I was able to suspend disbelief to enjoy the characters and concepts. But not so with Cars. The fact of the matter is that without people, the cars had no purpose or even possibility. No effort was made to bring logic (albeit fantastic logic) to the concept.

My point is this: I had a similar reaction to the storytelling in Mail Order Ninja. In a world in which anyone can order a ninja bodyguard, an army or even a monster, it makes no sense that only two characters — Tommy and Felicity — bother to do so. Furthermore, the Clan of the White Dragon seem intent on destroying the heroic Jiro, but only in the confines of Timmy’s manga books or on Felicity’s orders. There are other instances of such breaks in the logic — the books’ internal workings, not real-world logic — of Mail Order Ninja.

What bothered me the most about Mail Order Ninja were the characters. Upon reflection, there’s nary a single character in the book I really liked. In Vol. 1, Timmy is self-absorbed and basically turns into what he hates: a bully. His cute little sister is reprehensible in the first book, selling out her brother to the meanest brute in school. Felicity and company are understandably irksome, but even her bookish, abused assistant transforms into a distasteful figure. I don’t care for how the lovestruck teacher lets her students run wild either. Several characters achieve some redemption in the second volume, but not to a degree that I really felt as though I was on their side. A quick perusal of the first book makes it seem as though Mail Order Ninja would be appropriate for younger readers, but I think it sends the wrong messages with this wish-fulfillment premise. 4/10

Note: Those confused by the title for this review/blog post need to read early issues of Ben Edlund’s The Tick. You’ll thank me.