Some info from Yugoslavia

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Back in March of 2015 we posted some art, and plenty of speculation, about 80’s craze-era ninja comics from Yugoslavia, and now we have some first hand info on them, thanks to VN reader and student of the arts Navid Bulbulija:

Yugoslavia at that time had a huge (considering the size of the country) comics production. One of the leading figures being Branislav (Bane) Kerac, creator of Cat Claw.  I don’t believe Kerac ever drew for the ninja series, but he did have a picturesque ninja villain in the Cat Claw series. Yugoslavia at the time had a license for Tarzan, Disney characters, Tom & Jerry, and few other characters so the local authors were able to make a living drawing and writing comics.

The Ninja series, in the scans on your site, was drawn by local artists, and the main character is Leslie  Eldridge — the only non-japanese ninja (loosely based on Stephen K. Hayes). The character was based on the pulp novels published by the same publisher — Dečje Novine, Gornji Milanovac. They were writen by Derek Finegan (or, as the legend goes Brana Nikolić, Finegan being his pseudonim).

Navid included some scans from his personal collection, albeit in rough shape. To quote him “These were my first exposure to ninja. I was a collector of the ninja magazines and books as a kid, but most of them were destroyed in the war.” Being a collector of 80s ninja fare in a country that wasn’t torn up in a 6-way civil war is hard enough, I can’t imagine what fortune it took for these to survive not only the common childhood but a war zone to boot.

We hope to hear more from our new pal from the former Yugoslavia, where ninja fandom endures.

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VN REVISITED: A look at ZANPEI KUMOTORI manga

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Lots of new readers lately, and I always love delving into the archives, exposing folks to some of the great stuff we posted back in the early years, so here’s an EXPANDED revisit of an article originally from November of 2009:

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“It’s all for the taking. From the undergarments of countless beauties to the great buddha himself, an individual with the ability to snatch the clouds from the very sky!” (JManga)

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Takao Saito, best known as creator of Golgo 13, was also responsible for two ninja manga: Kage Gari in the 70’s (the Shadow Hunters, which also spawned two films), and Zanpei Kumotori in the 80’s. The latter featured a Sean Connery-esque shinobi getting into all sorts of mischief.

Here’s a few choice pages:

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Plenty of historically credible espionage techniques on display in this series, right alongside silly stuff like giant piloted kites.

For me, that mixture of fact and fantasy is one of the ninja idiom’s biggest appeals.

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Some good martial arts action, too. There’s a lot of weapons foreshortening in the artwork series-wide.

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Here, the savvy spy uses a marionette doppelgänger, while getting a little grabby with a defeated female bodyguard.

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Things could get wacky once in a while, too, with an occasional mutant supervillain or (in this case above) a GIANT Komodo dragon thrown into the mix.

Here’s some 2-color pages:

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How great is this composition!!!

I dig these title pages/ads and trade paperback collection covers, too:

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Zanpei Kumotori wasn’t exactly revolutionary or even a genre milestone, but it had a lot of that Golgo tone and swagger (you can just hear the jazz and funk soundtrack that a film adaptation would have had while flipping the pages), with enough meat-and-potatoes ninja action to be a hit for years.

Well worth the effort too track down…

Eastern Block ninja pulp

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There were a couple of sellers on eBay last month that had ninja-themed comics from what was formerly Yugoslavia. Sadly, I’m broke as hell for the foreseeable future and they were priced too high anyway, so I didn’t keep track of them. Hope they found a good home…

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I don’t recognize this art at all…

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This, however, is at least a partial reprint of Marvel’s DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG-FU magazine #23 from 1974, cover feature being THE KILLER ELITE, with a painting better than any action seen in that insulting abortion of a film.

One current seller, who goes by “poster_maniac_dux” (shipping out of Croatia) has some issues of EKS — intriguing mid-to-late-80’s magazine-sized B&W comics that mix Marvel, Phantom, Mandrake and other American comic reprints with what are unfamiliar (possibly Yugoslav-produced) ninja stories. I may be dead wrong here, perhaps these ninja pages are reprinted from some obscure 80s series from the U.S, Italy, France or maybe a 2000AD title from England I never saw.

Any help in ID-ing this shinobi content would be greatly appreciated.

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The covers are a real mixed bag, some cribbing art from movie posters, others looking like paintings from video game packaging or Ninja magazine.

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NINJA MISSION anyone?

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Some nice interiors:

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Dying to know more about the character and art above and below! The more I look at this art in particular, the more I’m leaning towards these being Italian reprints…

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This cover looks positively Howard Chaylin-like.

A switch in character design and art here. Love the header band of art on top. The presence of such leads me to believe this stuff is reprinted from something that was originally published at a different aspect ratio than the magazine format here.

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A Russian seller had this tangental gem for sale, a Cyrillic ninjutsu manual with a bootleg Sho Kosugi cover and interior art that looks lifted from a variety of sources — martial arts magazines from the states, gaming manuals, mail order catalogs, etc.

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I love finding ninja craze stuff from Europe, especially stuff this niche. Greece had a similar spike in ninja merch at the same time. As common as Euro-edition movie posters and lobby cards are (like the below), the comics are a rarer breed, but equally worthy of preserving.

I’d preserve them myself if the prices were lower. C’mon guys, rareness doesn’t always equal value or demand, give a ninja a break…

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Some ARASHI manga goodness…

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I may just love the illustrated version of Henshin Ninja Arashi more than the much better known tokusatsu version…

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Kamen Rider and Cybog 009 creator Shotaro Ishinomori‘s manga slightly preceded the Toei TV show, although what would have had more production lead time, a TV series or a manga publication? Bit of a chicken-and-egg deal there…

Either way, the B&W page yielded a much darker and more savage transforming hero, with creatures more akin to yukio-e demons than sponge-suited monsters-of-the-week. 

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I really love his use of silhouettes with the outré hero design, too. He’s often as monstrous as the beasts he’s protecting us from.

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Everything in the manga was just one or two steps more demented and spooky…

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Violent as hell, too!

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Such awesome stuff. And there a half-million scanlations of this classic out there too, so go find it! Well worth your time…

…as are several past features we’ve done on Henshin Ninja Arashi!

Ninja by Belgians in KOGARATSU

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You find some real gems in the dollar boxes and discount bins of comic book stores sometimes. This was a recent find, the early 80s chambara graphic novel series Kogaratsu by the Belgian creative team of Serge ‘Bosse’ Bosmans and Marc ‘Michetz’ Degroide. A company called Comcat Comics translated this ninja-riddled tale in the early 90s, well after the craze, which may account for its premature cancellation in the US and UK.

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The artwork and storytelling certainly weren’t lacking, and while the English-language Volume 1 isn’t as ninja-heavy as its cover promises, what is there is superbly executed.

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These guys definitely did their homework, as the costuming, gear and curved swords are right out of Japanese books and films.

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This tale of a ronin’s love gone wrong was originally serialized in a magazine called Spirou.

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13 collections followed, looking to be of the typically superior European print and binding quality.

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I may search these out, as the art is pretty damned great. There are quite a few scanlations online if you poke around, too.

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Artist Michetz also did various art plates, posters, prints, portfolios, etc., many featuring erotic swordswomen. These are all over eBay, but pricey alas.

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As is this fantastic ninja print! This could be worth the exchange rate and international shipping though…

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VN REVISITED: Airborne combat in LEGEND OF KAMUI

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Originally published June 2009

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:

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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.

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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.

DER RODE RIDDER vs. the ninja

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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!

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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.

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The rest of the Japanese characters range from samurai-ish, if you squint, to dowright stereotypical Chinese.

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Although this was the only ninja-centric adventure, for more on the Red Knight there’s an official website here.

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Martial Arts Paperbacks

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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.

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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.

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A couple of the 16 or more macho revenge tomes written by Ric Meyers as ‘Wade Barker’ during the craze.

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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.

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And here’s some other, slightly off topic entries, but cool nonetheless:

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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 Gunfighter inspired all sorts cheap paperbacks.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Shirato Sanpei… NOT lazy.

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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.

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Read up on Sanpei’s shinobi from a site that actually knows what it’s talking about, What is Manga.

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