Best Shots Advance Reviews: NINJA-K #1, FENCE #1

Valiant Entertainment November 2017 cover
Credit: Trevor Hairsine (Valiant Entertainment)
Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Ninja-K #1
Written by Christos Gage
Art by Tomas Giorello and Diego Rodriguez
Lettering by A Larger World Studios
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Don’t call him Ninjak anymore — his proper title is Ninja-K. With just a well-placed hyphen, Valiant is able to give their daring superspy a sense of legacy along with all his other tricks and gadgets, as writer Christos Gage and artist Tomas Giorello put Colin King through a web of conspiracies and deceit.

If Colin King is Ninja-K, what about Ninja-A and Ninja-B? What could have been a profoundly silly high concept on paper is executed nicely by Gage and company, evoking Brubaker and Fraction’s acclaimed Immortal Iron Fist run: whereas Ninja-A was an honest-to-goodness ninja from Japan, as you move down the line, you begin to see where the British elements creep up on the concept, as English-born Ninja-B begins to incorporate technology into the mix. Gage’s story begins with solemn, portentous narration delivering us all the necessary exposition, but he spices it up with some really pulpy elements, such as a double-page spread with Ninjas on motorcycles, Ninjas with giant cyber-cannons, even Ninjas involved in the space program. It’s wild stuff, and I hope that Gage can return to the old rivalry that the first two Ninjas fell into once Great Britain and Japan were on opposite sides of World War 2.

But once we get through the long secret history of MI-6’s Ninja program, we’re treated with an off-the-wall action sequence featuring the latest subject in the program, Colin King. Gage definitely gets the unique flavor of Ninja-K’s martial arts/tech fusion, with drone flashbangs and wrist flamethrowers giving readers some fun imagery. However, once that fight ends, the momentum of the story is sapped a bit as we settle into Colin’s status quo — his relationship troubles, for example, feel a little too James Bond-ian for us to really feel bad over it, while his interrogation of an MI-6 colleague feels a little exposition-heavy as it leads to a surprisingly abrupt ending, rather than building up the creepiness of an unseen assassin who’s been picking off this group of highly-trained ninjas.

After his triumphant turn bringing back X-O Manowar, it’s fitting that Tomas Giorello take the reins on Valiant’s other best-known character. Combined with Diego Rodriguez’s beautiful, painterly colorwork, Giorello has a style that’s very evocative of the Mann brothers, with a little bit of Kubert flair just to mix things up. It’s impressive to see how many different genres Giorello is able to borrow from, particularly in his double-page splash of the Ninja program initiates — Giorello delivers some very memorable imagery through much of his work, such as Ninja-D digging his wrist claws into a runaway missile or Ninja-K blasting a bad guy with his flamethrowers. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is able to regulate the temperature and energy of all of Giorello’s scenes nicely, reminding me a lot of Richard Isanove’s work in Marvel’s 1602.

With its extra-sized page count, you definitely will be getting your money’s worth with Ninja-K #1, a story that brings a sense of history and weight to the Ninjak mythos without feeling particularly self-conscious or silly. Perhaps this is due to the creative team taking this story so seriously, both in the narrative and in its gorgeous artwork. While there are a handful of rough edges and pacing issues in this first installment, Gage gets Colin King exactly where he needs him for what will likely be a no-holds-barred thriller.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Fence #1
Written by C.S. Pacat
Art by Johanna the Mad, Joana Lafuente
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by BOOM! Box
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Fence #1 is a microcosm of countless conversations happening within the comics community today: conversations about diversity on the page and amongst creators, about the role of publishers in facilitating that diversity, about the trend of introducing novelists for high-profile comics debuts. Novelist C.S. Pacat, whose debut Captive Prince trilogy centers around around a warrior prince turned captive ‘pleasure slave’ (a series I am unfamiliar with but found smashing success online before being picked up to published), delivers a weak and somewhat uncomfortable debut in tomorrow’s Fence #1. In promotional materials, Fence calls itself a successor to the likes of Check, Please! (a charming queer hockey webcomic by Ngozi Ukazu) and Yuri!!! on Ice (an exhuberant but emotionally gripping anime featuring ice skakters in love). Unfortunately, Fence #1 lacks the charm of either.

To begin with the stronger parts of the issue: Joana Lafuente is a solid colorist with an eye for when to add pops of color to brighten up monotonous scenes like a sea of white fencing uniforms., Jim Campbell delivers the same high quality work that’s come to be expected of him with BOOM titles, though the use of greys to indicate whispering gets so pale sometimes it’s hard on the eyes. Johanna the Mad is a skilled illustrator, and it will be exciting to see her learn and grow as an artist in comics specifically. But her strengths (for now) lie in full-page spreads, big moments that don’t rely heavily on physical or emotional closeness between characters.

Early pages in particular feature panels of closed-mouth, expressionless talking; in a moment where our protagonist, Nicholas, is being physically intimidated by a competing fencer, Nicholas has no expression at all. It would be nice, as well, to see a little more body diversity — yes, these are athletes, but athletes do not all have the same body shape. There are two fat people in this comic; one appears on one page as a shopkeeper, and one is the slovenly, gruff coach who sleeps his way through Nicholas’s first tournament. These choices are certainly not malicious, and likely aren’t intentional, but in a comic full of attractive, athletic teenage boys, these two characters certainly stand out.

Johanna’s art and layouts are also left to do much of the heavy lifting in the pace of the series: Pacat’s writing is heavy on quips and pithy exchanges, relying heavily on the age-old tropes of young adult fiction as if a hint from Pacat will prompt readers to fill in the blanks with all the emotional details they’ve gleaned from similar works (perhaps her own prose). Nicholas is a working class kid with a dream in a very expensive, niche hobby sport with a world-renowned and notoriously emotionally closed-off star athlete as its face.

The pitch is familiar, but Pacat’s prose in this debut issue is not particularly fresh: it feels as if rather being invested in Nicholas or his rival/presumed future love interest Seiji on their own, we’re supposed to be excited by all the moments we know from stories told before are coming next. Are we supposed to care about Nicholas, or the tension he’ll inevitably develop with this young man who humiliated him in a competition? Are we supposed to care about Nicholas when he starts a new school, or all the hijinks that we’ve come to expect when Nicholas finds out he has a (wink wink, nudge nudge) very surprising roommate?

Fence #1 doesn’t feel like a fun addition to a disappointingly sparse genre. It feels cynical, almost — here’s that comic about hot boys in love, by those people you like from other things. It feels as if someone spotted a template for printing money, and is testing out the first version of a find and replace line of similar titles. As a queer person myself, there’s a thin line between the joy of finding representation and the discomfort of being made painfully aware of your status as a ‘marketable’ demographic. Despite the dearth of queer content in the world, particularly in comics, there’s so much more out there now that Fence #1’s uneven, emotionless debut makes me feel as if even my meager alternatives are enough to allow me to give this a pass.

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