Friday, December 5, 2014

Recommended Reading for 12/5: Cowboy Ninja Viking

A couple weeks ago, it was announced that Chris Pratt, this year's breakout star thanks to his work voicing Emmet in The Lego Movie and playing Star Lord in a little movie called Guardians of the Galaxy, would be starring in a film adaptation of a fairly obscure Image comic from 2009-2010, Cowboy Ninja Viking. I had that moment of comic fan hipster pride, as, "I read that comic when it was coming out." And I remembered enjoying the heck out of it, but it was some years ago, and memories can be fuzzy. Fortunately, I have ready access to more of my collection now that certain plans are coming together (that I will be writing about in the near future as they reach fruition), so I was able to find my copies, and as it turns out, it's actually even better than I remember.

The high concept on this book is brilliant in its madness and simplicity. A genius and arrogant psychologist and the US government worked together to use, "experimental past life regression therapies, (&) pioneering pharmacological enhancements" to take people with multiple personalities and let the prime personality channel the abilities of the others to make deadly assassins. As any reasonable person might imagine, this ends poorly. Six years later, when the series begins, though, it looks like these Triplets, thus named because each person has three alternate personalities with a specific set of skills, are back, and so the original doctor must find the one Triplet he knows he can trust and track down the others.

If you couldn't figure it out from that paragraph, the titles of the comic references that particular Triplet. Duncan was the success of the project, basically making him the most stable of a group of highly unstable psychopaths, which is like saying this one poison will kill you quicker than the others. Duncan himself is a fairly normal seeming guy, not threatening and not even very noticeable. But with his other personalities in his head, well he's not normal at all. And one of the charms of the way the book is written is that each of the Triplets' different personalities are really that: personalities. These aren't just different versions of the same guy, but are very distinct. Cowboy, for instance, pictures himself as a ladies man and is always on the hunt for, shall we say, companionship, and he has no issue with providing compensation for it. Viking is a pretty typical viking, who figures everything can be solved with his axe. And Ninja tends to spout platitudes and philosophy, which frustrates the hell out of the others. But they're all super deadly, and Duncan has no problem channeling them to fight evil. Or anyone that bugs him. So, yeah, crazy.

I will tell you flat out, Duncan won the Triplet lottery. As we see other Triplets, we see that the personalities aren't all quite as useful in combat as Duncan's three. Grear, for instance, Dunca's ex-wife, is Sniper Martial Artist Chef. That last one is kind of persnickety about people bashing her food, and wields a mean frying pan, but not optimal in combat. Or there's Yoshitiki Ammo, who is Pirate Gladiator Oceanographer. Steed Malbranque is Navy SEAL Hitman Roadie; not useful on that last one, but he has some great stories. And there are fourteen of these characters total! I won't sit here and list what they all can do, despite it being a ton of fun, because we never see exactly what all of them can do. But I will say Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan are in there, as are archers, a highlander, and a hairdresser.

There is a supporting cast in the comic that aren't Triplets too. Sara Nix is Duncan's partner and handler. She's almost heart breakingly normal, or at least desires to be on some level. She was working for Dr. Sebastian Ghislain,the man who designed the Triplet program and who we'll get to in a minute, and was about to move on to a bigger job in three days (which she never fails to point out when things get hairy, in the same way Dante in Clerks says he "isn't supposed to be here today.") when the Triplets resurfaced and she was sucked into Duncan's orbit. Nix is efficient, intelligent, and likes Duncan. And Duncan clearly develops feelings for her quickly, and although he won't tell her, his quiet love for her and desire to protect her is part of his motivation to keep going with all this insanity.

Dr. Sebastian Ghislain is my favorite character in the comic who isn't a Triplet. He is a wealthy,completely self-centered, arrogant, womanizing drunk, who also happens to be a brilliant psychologist; picture Tony Stark at the beginning of Iron Man if he was a shrink and not a weapons designer. When we first meet him, he is about to bed a model, and his penchant for the ladies and his inability to say anything but exactly what he thinks at that moment gets him, and by extension his team, into a few problems over the course of the series. But he does actually seem to care about the Triplets, and wants to do right by them, even if it's right only in the way he thinks is right. Which cannot be said for Johann Blaq, Ghislain's former assistant, who faked his own death and spent years secretly perfecting the Triplet process so he could release the Triplets, who had been locked up after the project failed, and turn them into a cabal of mercenaries under his command. Blaq is the series' principle antagonist, and you can tell he's evil by his facial hair. Dude has seriously evil mustache/pointy beard combo.

The plot of the series starts off with the Triplets resurfacing, and Ghislain recruiting Duncan and Nix to help him try to solve the problem, getting back involved with the US government, and confronting Blaq. And when the new Triplet program gets its first government mission, well things just get worse. The book is full of crazy action, great characterization, and some really funny bits. Duncan and his three personalities bickering is hilarious, and many of the other Triplets have some pretty funny personalities, especially Steed's roadie. Ghislain is also funny in that, "I'm going to say exactly what I think and damn the consequences," way. I will warn those who are squeamish, the violence is pretty graphic, with body parts flying; when you've got katanas and viking axes as principal weapons, limbs and heads tend to roll.

Riley Rossmo, on of my favorite artists in comics, provided the art for the entire series. This was early in his career, after Proof but before Green Wake and Bedlam. Rossmo does wonderful things that add to the feel of the book and helps makes what could be a somewhat confusing concept work. Panels shift from one personality to the next as they converse, making it easy to keep straight who is talking. While there are some splash pages mixed in, most of them have quite a few panels, which allows for some really crazy page layouts, as well as a great sense of action. The designs for all the Triplets different personalities are also clever; Rossmo makes it easy to figure out exactly what each Triplet can do from simple visual cues, since in most cases the personality is only seen from chest up.

But I would be remiss in not pointing out that Rossmo is aided in this by letterer Clayton Cowles. Cowles designed specific shaped word bubbles for each Triplet personality with a specific symbol or object attached to it or passing through it, something that represents exactly who that personality is. It's a great conceit, helping differentiate who is speaking when multiple personalities are conversing in the same panel, and shows exactly how much a good letterer can help make a book work.

A couple more notes on style and form. The comic is in color, but not full color as used in most comics. Each page has usually a one color tone over it, designed by Rossmo. It makes the book look very stylish and unique. It was also one of the books Image used it's "Golden Age Format" meaning it's slightly off size from what you usually get, being slightly longer and wider than a standard comic, and has very few to no ads per issue. It was a really nice format, and it was a shame it didn't catch on. I would have liked to see more off-the-beaten-path projects use it.

Sadly, only ten issues of Cowboy Ninja Viking were published. Not only that, but issue ten ends with a page that has at the top, "Twelve Issues Later," so it felt like the creators had plenty more lined up. Hopefully, if the movie does come around, we'll get a return for Duncan and the rest, and some answers to the mysteries that ending left dangling. But, hanging plot lines or not, if you enjoy fun action and whacky characters, you should track down Cowboy Ninja Viking.

The ten issues of Cowboy Ninja Viking were collected into two trades or one deluxe hardcover. While all are currently out of stock on Amazon, the second trade is still in print, as is the hardcover, and are orderable through Diamond, so if your comic shop doesn't have it on the shelf, they should be able to get it for you.

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