By Rob Cave
Larry Hama and Ron Wagner’s Nth Man, The Ultimate Ninja #1 is not likely to be many people’s favourite comic book. I don’t mean that as a pejorative statement, reflecting on the quality of art or writing. I’m not even trying to imply that it necessarily sold poorly, initially at least. According to the spotty sales figures available, its first few issues sold better than the early issues of The Sandman. However, Nth Man did not make much of a cultural impact among comics readers, either upon publication or subsequently. Projected to be a 24-issue series, Nth Man was cancelled after just 16 instalments; a commercial failure that has never been collected or reprinted. Outside of a short promotional strip in Marvel Comics Presents and a single guest appearance in Excalibur #27, its characters were never seen again. But why did a comic with two creators, both of whom had recently enjoyed a solid run together on Marvel’s popular G.I. Joe comic, fail to find an audience for their own project?
I never read the first issue of Nth Man upon its initial release in mid-1989, but I did pick up a copy of issue 6 that had, almost a year later, found its way (along with a lot of other unsold newsstand comics) into a damp market stall in Pitsea, Essex for the princely sum of 15p a few months later. I’m not sure exactly what prompted me to add a copy to my “buy” pile. There were a lot of Nth Mans among the stacks of comics in the repurposed banana boxes. At the time, I took this as an indication of some level of popularity and that therefore this was a title worth at least trying out. The exact reverse was true – these were comics that had not sold, and that was why there were so many of them in the banana boxes.
Looking at this “fantastic 1st issue” today, it is clear from the outset that Nth Man is quite far from being a conventional superhero comic. From the book’s subtitle, “The Ultimate Ninja,” to Ron Wagner and Bob McLeod’s cover portraying the title character as a katana-spinning, AK-47-totting warrior king, the book seems set to deliver on a promise of more realistic violent action and adventure than other comics. Which makes it all-the-more jarring to discover that the character we see on the cover doesn’t even appear in the comic’s first 14 pages, and when he finally does turn up, it is as a prisoner, chained up in a KGB prison.
You see, “The Ultimate Ninja” is not really a hero, super or otherwise, but an orphan known as John Doe, who has been trained by the CIA from an early age to be the perfect assassin. Doe is apparently the only man who can take on the narrative’s true protagonist, the powerful telekinetic Alfie O’Meagan. Another orphan, O’Meagan makes no appearance in the issue outside of a headshot and some hasty exposition delivered by a distinctly un-Soviet sounding TV news anchor over several panels. Alfie’s name is a reference to the scale of his (super) power; he really is the Alpha and the Omega, get it? And to demonstrate his potency he has rendered inert all radioactive weapons and material on Earth.
Unfortunately, removing the world’s nuclear deterrents prompted the then-ongoing Cold War to quickly escalate into a hot war, albeit one fought with conventional arms and equipment. And that’s where the issue begins, with a caption that neatly sets up the stakes; “Over the outskirts of Moscow, six months after the start of World War III.” Alan Moore and John Totleben’s Miracleman #16, published later the same year, would feature a similar plot involving an all-powerful superbeing removing the world’s nuclear weapons. But while their narrative followed a movement towards a new utopia, Hama had a very different perspective, one grounded in military realism that reflected his own experience.
A third-generation Japanese American and Vietnam veteran, Hama served with the US Army Corps of Engineers. His first-hand knowledge of military equipment and tactics coupled with his interest in Japanese martial arts had informed his run on G.I. Joe, and Nth Man #1 places similar martial themes solidly in the narrative’s foreground, while the more fantastical superpower element of Alfie O’Meagan is left largely in the background.
The closest we get to superhuman abilities in the issue are John Doe’s considerable escapology and combat skills, which enable him to take down guards armed with just a spoon and a bowl; unlock his manacles; and even dodge bullets. However, these skills are portrayed as being part of Doe’s supreme abilities as a ninja. Outside of these, and his self-assured swagger, Doe comes across as quite insubstantial, more of a cipher than a fully formed character. He has no family, and apparently no life outside of his vocation as an assassin. His only attachment appears to be his former teacher, Doctor Yagyu, an old CIA operative who has been assigned to the rescue mission for his former pupil. Yagyu chastising Doe for being “sloppy” and his willingness to use Doe’s embarrassing childhood nickname “Peachy” is the closest thing to character development that Doe receives in the entire comic.
Apparently, Doe was on a mission to kill one Vavara Novikova, a Colonel of the Soviet Bureau of Assassinations. The moral or tactical justification for an American assassin to assassinate a member of the Soviet bureau of assassinations is never really explored (well, there is a war on), nor is Novikova’s penchant for wearing evening gowns that regularly give the reader a flash of her stocking tops. Of course, Novikova should feel comfortable wearing whatever she damn pleases, and she does have gloriously camp taste in hammer and sickle earrings, but her glamorous presence does seem out of sync with the comic’s ostensible commitment to military realism.
She gets a few moments in which she demonstrates flashes of competence – guessing the true objective of the American attack, for example – but elsewhere she appears little more than a comic foil to Doe’s smart aleck self-confidence, while also providing a hint of sex appeal to… well outside of the reader it is not particularly obvious. By the issue’s climax, Novikova has been captured and humiliated by Doe, who forces a non-consensual kiss on her before tossing her out of a car and into a puddle. His apparent aim is for her to be shot as a traitor by her superiors for kissing the enemy and facilitating his escape. Whether intended as a joke or not, the moment falls flat and makes for a vaguely dissatisfying conclusion to a first issue.
Where the comic is more successful is in its attempts to show the violent consequences of war. Many American soldiers are wounded and killed on panel, but since most lack names or backstories, the impact of their deaths is minimal. Wagner was clearly limited in what he could depict in a book that bears the seal of the Comics Code Authority. We see faces contorted in pain, and some particularly violent panels are tinged red by colourist Mark Chiarello, but injuries are left largely abstract and without overt blood or gore. Any casualties don’t stick around for long. The result is a strange dissonance between concept and execution; a book that seems to want to explore more mature content but is not quite able to deliver.
Bereft of graphic mature content, Hama falls back on military jargon and detailed geographic information to deliver the comic’s verisimilitude. But the jargon and its explanations don’t always work on the page. One panel contains a note explaining three different pieces of military terminology, including that “TOW launchers” are “Tube-launched, Optically-directed, Wire-guided missiles.” But informing the reader of the meaning of an acronym for a piece of equipment does little to explain to a civilian its use and utility in a firefight. Meanwhile, the geographic content is largely provided by Sargent Debra Lavin, who is described as “third-generation CIA. Her parents were with Moscow Station. She grew up there.” Her first-hand knowledge apparently includes the existence of various secret tunnels and is more useful than a map… although that is exactly what she is depicted as relying on to provide directions from the landing zone to their objective at the Central Committee Building.
Ultimately, Nth Man #1 is an interesting failure; an ambitious book that sought to take narrative risks, but whose lofty goals went further than its publisher was willing to fully embrace. Hama’s interest in bringing a greater sense of realism and authenticity to comics is evident in both his work as an editor on The Nam, Marvel’s comic covering the US involvement in the Vietnam War, and his work on The Wolfpack, a book about a well-trained but ragtag team of street-smart teens patrolling the streets of the Bronx. But the strictures of the Comics Code Authority in many ways sought to reduce realism in comics, particularly in its portrayal of violence; crime.
Ironically, Marvel was cleaving close to the Code at exactly the time that its main rival, DC Comics, was beginning to discover the creative and commercial benefits of not submitting some of its books to the organization. Had Nth Man been released a few years later, or had it been put out by some other publisher unencumbered by the rules of the Comics Code Authority, its content and legacy may well have been very different. As it stands, the book serves as an artefact of its time, one that echoes the concerns of the Cold War as well an attempt by its creative team to craft a comic aimed at a slightly more mature readership, one that appreciated realism over the escapist fantasies of superhero comics. It also serves to document the impact of the Comics Code at a time when such constraints were on the brink of disappearing forever.
On a personal note, I didn’t pick up any more issues of Nth Man from that stall in Pitsea market back in 1990. Its story did not make sense to my 12-year-old self. I had little understanding of the Cold War and wasn’t overly interested in military realism. I was also unsure of what to make of Novikova and her “creamy thighs” (a phrase from issue #6 that nonetheless has stuck in my head for over 33 years now). It was all very confusing and discomforting, unlike the more familiar content of superhero comics.
Returning to Nth Man now, the series’ narrative idiosyncrasies are what make it more interesting and intriguing. All these years later, and with decades of necessary cultural context now absorbed, I find myself eager to seek out the rest of the series in the back issue bins the next time I’m having a good rummage.
Nth Man, The Ultimate Ninja #1 “Recall”
Writer: Larry Hama
Artist: Ron Wagner
Inker: Bob McLeod
Colourist: Mark Chiarello
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Rob Cave is a writer and editor who can be found on twitter here!
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