With the movie[now in wide release], I’m re-reading and re-loving Shirato Sanpei‘s second run of Kamui manga. The godfather of ninja comics debuted the character in 1964, then re-imagined the property as a more grown up and severe manga in the 80′s. Kamui Gaiden was a critical and financial hit, crossed-over into anime, and inspired [the live action film.] Eclipse Comics made history when they published a 37 issue run in the U.S. as The Legend of Kamui: A Genuine Ninja Story – the first such importation of a Japanese title to our shores.
Here are some terrific combat panels from that run. Sanpei really had a knack for movement, and loved these leaping and tumbling attacks. Despite the amount of dynamic action, you can still ‘read’ what is happening, clearly see the techniques at work and how the killing blows are delivered. Aspiring artists have plenty to learn here:
The grocery list of things I love about this series is long indeed. Kamui is the archetypal skilled loner on the run, trying to leave behind his warrior life but needing those resented skills to survive constant pursuit. It’s a great structure, and over it Sanpei laid some emotionally challenging stories. You could never get too attached to a character, never too comfortable with a setting.
I also love characters with limited arsenals used in increasingly innovative ways. Kamui’s signature short sword and reverse grip technique dispatched 90% of his enemies. A few kunai or shuriken here or there, sometimes a grapple line, were pretty much it.
Eclipse released 37 issues total, starting in 1987. It was late in the ninja craze here, and rarely did the signature black suit appear on covers, so the title may have failed to find the audience it deserved. These gems can be found cheap on eBay, even in complete runs.
The first translated story arc, an incredible parable of struggling fishermen and the inescapability of one’s destined trade, was later collected into two trade paperbacks by VIZ, with reduced art. I prefer the original [stand-alone issues], which often had liner notes on the historical subject matter or the artist’s craft.
The Dutch-language comic strip and graphic novel series Der Rode Ridder (The Red Knight) features a King Arthur-like crusading swordsman getting into all sorts of historical trouble, often thanks to the meddling of wizards like Merlin. The second era of Belgium’s version of Prince Valiant saw the adventures take a more fantasy and action stance, with the character battling hydras, the Loch Ness monster and yes, because it was 1985 and they wanted to sell the hell out of copies, NINJA!
Artist/writer Karel Biddeloo did some homework on shinobi but the results run hot and cold in that charming sort of way 80′s Western comics often achieved (see also this post on DC’s Kana). The costuming is close to Japanese conventions, but vague on some of the finer points, and then the weapons get strangely European in translation.
The rest of the Japanese characters range from samurai-ish, if you squint, to dowright stereotypical Chinese.
Although this was the only ninja-centric adventure, for more on the Red Knight there’s an official website here.
If I had a bigger pad, I’d do nothing but trawl used bookstores and paperback collector shows for vintage martial arts pulps. Fill an entire wall like it was an old Walden Books from Shopper’s World in Framingham. (apologies for the nostalgic homer ref)
Barring that, here’s some choice faves I’ve still picked up over the years, even with trying to keep my spending habits in check.
Feeding on what American audiences saw in Shogun, Ninja: Clan of Death was one of the early craze publications that propagated that notion of ninja as mercenary death cults.
A couple of the 16 or more macho revenge tomes written by Ric Meyers as ‘Wade Barker’ during the craze.
Curious there were never any hoods on these “Brett Wallace” covers. Thinking the publisher was pushing them more towards the long-standing Executioner/Destroyer older fan-base vs. us ninja-crazed kids.
And here’s some other, slightly off topic entries, but cool nonetheless:
There was a mini-wave of Western-Chambara crossovers both on bookshelves and theater screens in the late 70s-early 80s. Nothing that congealed as dynamically as the ninja boom, but significant entries like the superb Toshiro Mifune/Charles Bronson vehicle Red Sun and Tom (Billy Jack) Laughlin’s curious Goyokin remake The Master Gunfighterinspired all sorts cheap paperbacks.
The 70s Kung-Fu and Karate era had a lot more dime-rack paperback action that the 80s ninja boom. One could fill two walls with this stuff.
Get it? Super Man… Chu! See what they did there? This mid-70s Golden Harvest programmer had better poster art (used for the tie-in novelization above) than production values.
There’s were six or seven books in this K’ing Kung-Fu series I think, with phenomenal covers by Barry Windsor-Smith. Check out a few more here.
Occasionally, what would normally be a 6×9 trade paperback sold out of Black Belt or Inside Kung-Fu would get re-packaged in mass-market paperback size. Made it easier for the Guardian Angels to carry them on the subway…
Shirato Sanpei‘s manga epic Ninja Bugeicho had dozens of characters, and hundreds more victims of these characters, too. Being a ninja comic, he could have gone the easy route and just hooded-up most of these people, lessening the burdens of both character design and repeat renderings.
Instead, he cranked out a huge load of distinct characters in a remarkably diverse variety of styles. From page-to-page and panel-to-panel, realism was mixed with cartoonishly absurd elements, minimalist blocky anatomies stared down more complex and elegantly organic aesthetics. Even the hoods had wide-ranging antics of their own.
Young vs. old, good vs. evil, warriors vs. laymen, samurai vs. serfs — the alterations of his style to set them apart sometimes made characters look imported from other artists’ books. But at the same time, it was all him and all worked in one ambitious graphic narrative.
Read up on Sanpei’s shinobi from a site that actually knows what it’s talking about, What is Manga.
It was August of 1981, a few months before Enter the Ninja would kick off the outright “boom.” The word “ninja” wasn’t a household term yet, but between Shogun on TV, Eric Van Lustbader (The Ninja was already a bestseller) and Andrew Adams’ historical writings in print, and Western market films like You Only Live Twice, The Killer Elite and The Octagon, it was already a hip buzzword for the action-fan-in-the-know.
And when a few old dogs of the war comics genre – namely editor Murray Boltinoff, writer Robert Kanigher and artist E. R. Cruz – learned a new shinobi trick, they were way ahead of the curve.
G.I.Combat was a title that went back to the early 1950s, published by a few different companies that were ultimately swallowed up by the entity now known as DC Comics, where it remained a throwback to the days of tommy guns and two-fisted ratzi-killin’ grunts through 1987. “The BIG War Book” as it was called, was a monthly anthology of battlefield carnage with The Haunted Tank as a frequent cover feature and SGT. Rock a routine guest. Back up stories would vary from tales of ‘Nam mercs to WWII Frogmen, and, starting with issue #232 KANA: THE HUMAN KILLING MACHINE!
Kana was actually part of a sub-anthology within the anthology. “O.S.S. Control” was a spy-master segment host (think Cryptkeeper with a secret filing cabinet) who recruited the warrior for his stable of outre and unlikely agents. Trained in the traditional shadow arts, Kana turned his back on his imperialistic government and fled Japan after his parents were executed for being friendly to Westerners. When the U.S. entered the war, Control put him to good use fighting his former country’s evil military in the Pacific campaign.
“World War II’s Most Startling Hero” was featured in 8-to-10 page adventures with titles like “The First Kamikaze,” “War Isn’t Color Blind” and “My Sergeant…The Executioner.” At first they were somewhat formulaic; a Pacific island mission would need a local scout or undercover saboteur. Partnered American soldiers unable to trust a ‘Jap’ would just assume shoot him in the back, until he saves their lives by taking out a jungle pill box with throwing knives or knocking out a man-eating shark with karate. Then he’d single handedly sink an enemy sub or take down a Zero with a blow gun, to no thanks, and stoically wait for the next shadow mission, unsung hero of the night.
Most of the martial arts action in the Kana stories was karate/kung-fu-based, filtered through commando action that could just as easily be British SAS as shinobi-based. The creative team had a general notion of ninjutsu, but it wasn’t until 1983 or so that they were crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, injecting a healthy degree of weapons fetish and Japanese terminology prevalent in other craze-era media. By this time, Frank Miller’s work in the smash-hit Wolverine mini-series was setting the high-water mark for ninja portrayals in American comics, so Kana’s creative crew were definitely trying to raise the bar. And they got some of it right… some.
The mesh-netted sleeves are clearly from researching Japanese costuming, but their notion of shuko climbing/fighting claws is from Mars. I’m not sure how one even knows what a shuko is and still gets the portrayle of it so wrong… to the point where it’s a European knight’s gauntlet fer cryin’ out loud. This same story featured flashbacks to “samurais” [sic] whose armor looked more Mongolian or even Turkish than Japanese. So there was hot-and-cold running authenticity and credibility, but when they were right on, the results were just beautiful:
The last five Kana stories (scattered from issue #264, April 83 through #279, September 85) saw things take a strange, if not completely f’n brilliant turn that sadly seemed to doom the character with G.I. Combat‘s traditional audience. Through deep mystical meditation (again, a nugget of research and a heap of WTF), Kana honed the ability to send his soul/spirit tumbling through time, Quantum Leap-style!
This was the same year DC rebooted Western-era scarface Jonah Hex as a 21st century intergalactic ray-gun-slinger, so why not a time-tripping ninja? There was some serious potential here! A few stories were set in Kana’s own ancient past, yielding the origins of his clan’s ninja occupation and romantic interest ala Somewhere in Time. But then some cosmic event caused him to lose control of his powers mid-projection, and things got truly awesome:
Traditionally-geared shinobi flung out of WWII into the post-apocalyptic future where he fights biker gangs? SOLD!!!
Sadly, this was the last we ever saw of the WWII shadow warrior. Not only did Kana not have a future (or a FAR-future) but G.I Combat itself was cancelled in 1987. Dammit!!! Make TIME NINJA it’s own book and it would have been a monster hit back then. That shit would have made the jump to cartoons and action figures in a heartbeat.
So why didn’t it? Why is such a gem of the early ninja craze a mere footnote rather than a fan favorite that by now should be on it’s third or fourth reboot?
I think it comes down to adaptability, or lack thereof.
When I referred to G. I. Combat as a throwback, I meant it. Properties like SGT. Rock and The Haunted Tank were created by guys who were there, or at least lived during the World Wars and Korea, and those two-fisted men’s adventure magazine sensibilities pervaded everything they did. Judging from who was writing into the letters columns, I’d also bet they had as many older vet readers and active military adults as they did kids, so they were definitely speaking to a long-standing audience.
Kana may have been a new ninja character for the verynew 80s, but it was written by men in their late 60s, so the work had that voice from another era. Meanwhile other military-based books were embracing the mania at hand. The debut of Storm Shadow turned G.I. Joe into a red-ninja-infused blade-fest starting in March of 84, while Marvel’s other red ninja, The Hand, were regularly battling Wolverine and Daredevil. Further down the shelf, indie titles like Ninja High School, Whisper and Shuriken – books that were sooooo 80s – better represented contemporary art styles and costuming aestetics.
The Kana stories never relinquished their authentic military tone for the simpler 2-dimensional crutches of red ninja, gadget weapons and manga-derived superhero action of their peers, but that same poise and mature perspective probably didn’t resonate strongly with young readers. Not with competition like Snake Eyes out there. And let’s face it, if a kid had no interest in grenade-lobbin’ Leathernecks or a tank crew led by the ghost of Civil War general, he wasn’t going to waste a hard-earned mid-80s dollar just for short back-up story that happened to feature a ninja.
I like to think if Kana had become the cover feature, G.I. Combat could have run a few years longer. Or maybe the same move would just have isolated what was left of the old-guard readership that was keeping them afloat, and they would have ended up just as cancelled…
Maybe what Kana needed was a change in creative team and a mutation to something between Dr. Who, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and Kamandi, with shuriken. Speculation is pointless. All I know is **I** would have bought the HELL out of TIME NINJA!
KANA stories ran in G.I Combat issues 232, 237, 239, 246, 247, 252, 255, 264, 265, 266, 272 and 279, all of which can be scored dirt cheap on eBay (along with, for that matter, most of the other 80s ninja craze comics that didn’t feature Storm Shadow or turtles)
Earlier this year Marvel had a one-off vampire comic set in Japan’s feudal era. Was artist Goran Parlov just going for stylized over-folding of the material on this shadowy agent of a samurai vampire, or are we looking at some kind of mummy ninja?
I’m digging it! Even if this isn’t a literal bandage-wrapped ninja, it evokes classical Universal Monster and traditional ninja garb in equal amounts. Well done.
Interesting, villain-centric book covers featuring tokusatsu hero Masked Ninja Akagage. I guess if the character or book series is established enough, the different villain-du-jour becomes the selling point.
Depending on what school of thought you believe, the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is either pure myth propagated by popular media or martial tradition traced back centuries in Japan. Well, if EITHER of those is true, then you’d think the short, straight bladed sword with square guard would show up in manga once in a while. But it doesn’t.
Depictions of ninja swords in manga are a mixed bag over the decades, but a lot of what you see are short, curved blades of the less-decorated variety, worn as often through the belt as they are on the back.
This might be little more than artistic preference. I think illustrators like Mitsuteru Yokoyama (above) and Shirato Sanpei liked drawing the curved blade, as it adds a sense of dynamic movement not necessarily there with a swinging straight blade.
It’s also important to keep in mind manga artists work on insane deadlines, so consistency of blade style can vary from panel to panel. One can find an isolated drawing or two with what looks like a straight sword, but that doesn’t exactly constitute a deliberate statement of sword preference.
Here’s a few samples of the manga ninja sword (or lack thereof):
WAIT! Osamu Tezuka‘s I Am Sarutobi (circa 1960) has a short, shealth-less, apparently straight blade! It also has a lead character with stubs for feet and eyes the size of grapefruits, so you can’t exactly lean on the exacting design here…
Kagemaru of Iga‘s curved blade (starting in 1961) seemed to change length depending on the panel layout and dramatic effect intended. This was one of the most influential properties of the 60s Japanese craze, but Yokoyama never made that strong a statement about sword style. The 1963 film adaptation used a standard katana.
Sanpei, however, was much more of a realist, especially later in his career. However both the mid 60s and early 80s incarnations of Kamui saw the character use nothing more exotic than a dressed-down wakizashi, although it was slung in the small of the back in a signature style. These panels are from the 80s Eclipse reprints, and may be partly indicative of why this superb, heady series never fully connected with mainstream ninja fans in the America. No black suit for the hero, no regulation ‘Ninja-To,’ so less visual shorthand to attract otherwise Kosugi-crazed shinobifiles.
Takao Saito‘s hit ninja properties also featured short, curved blades for their ninja. The 1969 shinobi massacre known as Kage Gari (The Shadow Hunters) is again all short curved swords, sometimes with square guards and worn on the back, but there is variety in there as well. Again, you also see some quickly rendered blades that’ll look straight at first glance.
Zanpei Kumotori (1976-78) dispensed with the sword entirely, in favor of a long tanto cribbed in the small of his back. LOVE that minimalist statement, reminiscent of Sasuke’s commando kit in Samurai Spy.
Goseki Kojima stuck to curved blades as well in the 1970 Lone Wolf and Cub series. These panels are a perfect example of perspective and speed of delivery making a curved sword look like straight for a second. This is why I don’t put a whole lot of faith in the “evidence” of old book illustrations pointing to the existence of the straight sword.
And here’s a similar look three decades later, a Kunoichi’s blade from the same team’s Path of the Assassin (Hanzo no Mon).
Now, I don’t have the most complete library of vintage ninja manga in north America or anything, but what I do have samples most of the significant series and stages of development, and the only thing I have that actually embraces the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is this 1993 series called Mujina by Aihara Koji. In an example of the snake biting its own tail, his ninja use the western craze-era notion of the regulation ninja sword, complete with catalog stock picture for reference. Eeewww…and it’s the long bladed, small guarded variety, too. This book is trying way too hard to be shocking and edgy, and the catalog ninja sword may be part of that misguided effort.
So, it wasn’t Japanese comics that cemented the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ into the our mindset, NOR did manga artists for the past half-century embrace the alleged martial arts history that should have been apparent in their own country.
FILM though… as we’ll see next post… is a lot more partisan an art form.
Takao Saito‘s rather fun manga Kage Gari was turned into a veeeery grim, nigh-emo film in 1972. Whereas the trio of vengeful “Shadow Hunters” in the books are sort of a jaunty, anti-shinobi three musketeers, in the film they are three gloomy-as-fuck self-loathing exterminators of anything in a black hood. And the body count is staggering…
Not that the blood-letting in the books is any less, but the characters aren’t as clinically depressed and uber-morose as their celluloid counterparts.
Yeah, if you want to see some ninja slaughtered and stacked up like chord wood, any form of Kage Gari is for you.