The Ninjas We Know (And Those We Don’t See)

Let’s face it –– ninjas are awesome.

I hadn’t thought about this fact for a while, honestly, but the majority of kids, men-children and adults are fascinated by these fully masked assassins who stalk in stealth and kill with a quiet katana-swipe to the throat, and vanish in a cloud of smoke. This is only one kind of ninja that the 1980s and ‘90s passed down to my generation, and I thought I’d take a little trip down memory lane outlining the ninjas I know, and a few of those I don’t.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo were an immensely important part of my childhood. If I looked long and hard at these heroes in a half shell today, I still might not be able to pinpoint exactly what it was about them that shell-shocked me to the point that I absolutely had to own every piece of TMNT merchandise I could get my allowance money on.

It wasn’t just the super successful cartoon that started in 1987 and signed off in 1996 after ten amazing seasons of Splinter, Shredder, Krang and the gang; it wasn’t just the Playmates toy line that complemented the series so well that I had to own every single figure, including Usagi Yojimbo and (gulp!) Panda Khan; and despite a pretty terrible first attempt at a NES game, I was in it for the win because I was a fan of the original Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird comic book series by Mirage Studios that started it all off in 1984 –– and in bold black & white glory.

The first appearance of Leo, Don, Raph and Mike.
The first appearance of Leo, Don, Raph and Mike.

Ninja Kid. In 1986, Bandai released this NES title. I can’t recall how I got a copy, though it may have been a gift from my Dad or my siblings. All I remember is playing it nonstop once I got it. From throwing shuriken to getting stuck on some purple ooze dripping from a ceiling as you rode on a kite, Ninja Kid had to survive so he could defeat the evil forces of Demon Island. I’m not sure if I ever beat the game, but I’ve got a copy coming soon from Ebay, so I’ll let you know how it goes.

Ninja Kid "flying a kite" –– one of the coolest things about this game.
Ninja Kid “flying a kite” –– one of the most awesome things about this NES classic.

Ninjak. For those of you who remember Valiant Comics, you’ll remember Mark Moretti and Joe Quesada’s Ninjak, which will be brought back to comic shop shelves in his own series once again in this year. Much like Valiant Entertainment, Ninjak has gone through a renaissance from his initial appears in X-O Manowar and into the Unity story arc. But there was something about Quesada’s artwork that defined not only Valiant Comics, but the comic book art of the time. The Ninjak of the 1990s represents an entire zeitgeist of action-packed comic books. The Age of Image. The Valiant Era. It was all so meta it was scary, and we didn’t even have a word for it back then.

From Ninjak #1 (1994)
From the opening pages of Ninjak #1 (1994)

Jinx. Now if you were to guess who my favorite G.I. Joe action figure was as a kid and you guessed the obvious –– Snake Eyes or Storm Shadow –– you’d be wrong. I never even owned those two, especially since I wasn’t much a fan of G.I. Joe outside of the cartoon. But I did own Jinx, a crimson-clad ninja lady, who came with a hefty Reese Witherspoon/Wild-style backpack that held who knows what besides her twin katana blades. The wannabe Jinx from G.I. Joe: Retaliation? A far cry from the original Rawhide, that’s for sure!

The original Jinx in all her crimson glory.
The original Jinx in all her crimson G.I. glory.

Black Dragon & White Dragon. Do any of you remember the ridiculously short-lived 1986 cartoon Rambo: Force of Freedom from First Blood author David Morrell? If so, you’ll remember these twin ninja brothers: White Dragon, who uses his skills to aid John Rambo in the fight against S.A.V.A.G.E., and Black Dragon, who sells his skills as the world’s greatest assassin to the highest bidder.

Lady Shiva. While Batman Begins gave us a glimpse into the hidden world of the League of Assassins and Arrow plays around in this sandbox as well. I always go back to the original gangsta –– Lady Shiva. And I’m not talking about the latest incarnations, I’m talking about the Lady Shiva of the 1980s. To this day I have every panel etched in my brain of the fight scene between her and the Dark Knight in Batman #427, which still holds up in my mind as one of the best fight sequences every penciled by the Bat-master Jim Aparo.

Ah, the good ol' days when comics used sound effects.
Ah, the good ol’ days when comics used sound effects.

Now, there were some ninjas I didn’t have the luxury of knowing much about back in my younger days. I’ve already mentioned the most well-known ninjas of any toy line, but while I know Ninja Kid for the NES, I did not know about the more popular 1989 game Ninja Gaiden, released by Tecmo, which spawned two successful sequels each with some pretty rad subtitles –– The Dark Sword of Chaos and The Ancient Ship of Doom. And while we’re talking about NES, I think it only fair to mention Kid Niki: Radical Ninja, which was released by Data East in 1987.

Kid Niki Famicom box art. 'Cause everything's cooler in Japanese.
Kid Niki: Radical Ninja Famicom box art. ‘Cause everything’s better in Japanese.

And I think I owe it to my Taoist sensibilities to mention Zen, Intergalactic Ninja, which I was never much a fan of the comic series from the late ‘80s, and I never played the NES or Game Boy cartridges, either. But I did get to meet creators Steve Stern and Dan Cote at New York Comic-Con in 2013, where I picked up a 3-D issue that came complete with old anaglyph red/cyan glasses, and every image in that black and white book jumped to life beautifully, making me wish I’d taken this particular ninja a bit more seriously when I was a kid. I mean, looking back, the action figure wasn’t all that bad.

The action figure looks so much more serious than the comics.
The Zen action figure looks so much cooler than he does in the comics.

Why am I writing about Ninjas as my first post of 2015, you ask? Well, no reason, really, except that I just started writing a ninja assassin into my third novel, Sebastian Holden, P.I. in An Unlikely Liaison with the Living Dead. (Tentative title.) And I did so simply because late in December, I took a little trip to Video Games New York to browse around their amazing selection of NES, SNES, Genesis –– heck, just about every game you’ve ever seen on every system –– that no one seems to want. Well, I stumbled on Ninja Kid hidden in between Top Gun and Top Secret Episode. And when once my memories of this game had been completely taken from me like a ninja after hitting its mark, in that moment, all those lost memories came splashing back into me on seeing that cover.

That’s when it hit me.

I wanna write a ninja assassin into one of my novels, I thought to myself. Then I said it to myself out loud, ‘cause I have a tendency to talk to myself. A lot. I said to myself, “I wanna write a ninja assassin into one of my novels.”

So I did. ‘Cause you never know just where the right inspiration will strike. And you have to be prepared at all times to take it.

*         *         *

These are my ninjas of yesterday, climbing the walls of my subconscious and slashing open the vaults they hid themselves behind without my knowledge. What are some of your ninjas? Jot them down in the comments below –– I’d love to read about them!

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