The mid 80s was a nutty time for comic books. Alan Moore and Frank Miller had pretty much shut the door on the Bronze age, and the industry was falling all over itself to mistake 'complex characterization' for 'needlessly violent and probably wearing a dark coat.' Sales at the time were primarily generated by the demographic I represented at the time; stupid teenagers with pocket money who thought comic books were a wise investment strategy.* Also, ninjas were at the height of their relevance and popularity. It was a scary time.
In 1987 there were a few ways you could guarantee a book would sell at least the first issue. It could feature ninjas. It could have a title that followed the formula "Age+Affliction+Martial Arts Occupation+Animal." It could be Gritty. Or, it could have some sort of shiny, flashy, cover gimmick. As the combination of martial arts occupations and animals dwindled, ninjas and cover gimmicks became the mainstay. It's should be no surprise that 1987 is when I bought the first issue of Zen Intergalactic Ninja. It slacked off a little on the second rule, but it's generally understood that observing all four was pretty tacky anyway.** Not that Zen escaped being tacky.
The issue was held closed by a metallic blue sticker, it caught the eye from across the room and said "You'll have to ruin my collector's value if you want to read me. Better buy two!" If there was any doubt that this first issue would indeed have some value as a collectors item, a passage at the top of the page clearly states "COLLECTORS EDITION." This is followed by the confusing "Includes Never-Before-Seen Material." Quite frankly, never before seen material is something I rather expect from a first issue.***
The cover art features a naked blue man with questionable anatomy, and no mouth, holding a stick. He's scowling, I think, it's hard to tell with no mouth. Rendered against a solid black background in an air brush style that can loosely be described as "Not Good Enough For A Van" the cover manages to display little to no information about the setting, the story, the character, or why he's wielding a length of carved bathroom plumbing. You just gotta buy the book and break that shiny collectors seal.
Unfortunately, even after you do that, few of your questions will be answered.**** The setting turns out to be some kind of luddite swamp planet that has no signs technology or civilization other than a lady sitting in a glowing bubble. I don't expect alien planets to be festooned with spring break revelers waving their titties from a balcony or a Starbucks pastiche every 200 meters, but I think it's reasonable that any planet featuring a lady in a glowing orb protected by creatures with manufactured weapons have some rudimentary signs of industrial infrastructure. Maybe a sidewalk or something.
The story takes a staggering, but standard, 28 pages to detail a hike through a swamp, a few fight scenes and a negotiation for trade of precious jewelry. This all sounds reasonable until you discover that the fight scenes are generally concluded in 3 panels, and the negotiation consists of little more than a mugging, that again takes no more than three panels. Zen spends more time leaving his insectoid space ship and returning to it than he does anything else. Fortunately, to break the tedium of watching him hike, we're treated to Zen blasting out quality one liners like "Zen's Koan: Where there's bubbles, there's trouble!" This is a line that is so preposterous, on so many levels, that I feel the book should have been subtitled "I hate you."*****
The characterization of Zen is as thin and brittle as injera******, but not nearly as tasty. Reading this book you never really understand where Zen is coming from, or why. We get the vague idea that he does what he does as some sort of mercenary. Which is a pretty ninja thing to do, but not really very zen if you ask me. On the second to last page we're gifted with two whole panels of introspection that deliver most of the character's available motivation. Whatever he does, he's been doing it for three hundred years. Which, if you ask me, is a long time to be wandering swamp planets and beating up silent broads.
Bad story and shallow characters are nothing new for comic books though, not even in 1987. It's a popular fad among comic book writers to explore a popular character by making them unappealing and offensive to a degree that devoted fans of the character are driven to the internet to complain endlessly about just what color Bat-Man's shirt should be.******* Many of these comic books choose to balance the insipid stories with interesting art. Perhaps the beloved character, transformed from a noble crime fighter to a psychotic potty mouthed kidnapper, will stand in dramatic light and yell with gritted teeth and bulging neck veins. Kids love that shit.********
Zen Intergalactic Ninja is bolder than that though. This book doesn't need the crutch of art to foist its confusing dishwater story on the audience. In fact, the art appears to be something of a side issue. A minor element of the artistic statement the creators are attempting to make. So minor, that it may have been left as a task for a child. Or perhaps a well trained elephant with access to art supplies.
The entire book is illustrated with an air brush technique that takes liberty with perspective, anatomy and consistency to a degree that would make Rob Liefeld blush and mutter. Zen's head changes shape from panel to panel. His musculature is rendered in ways that are frightening and surely painful. The masking between elements appears to have been done with a garden spade. Each creature depicted appears to have an individual light source for every muscle and chitinous bulge. It's perhaps no surprise that the element most accurately and carefully rendered in this High School Art Fair style are the breasts of the unconscious antagonist. They are the sort of breasts that defy gravity and reality in the way only a teenager can believe and cosmetic science can produce.*********
I have it on some authority that Zen Intergalactic Ninja has reached a degree of cult status over the years, getting treatment from the likes of Mike Mignola, Sam Keith and Mike Esposito. Quite frankly, this astounds me. It's like drawing a smiley face on a broken brick and hurling it through your neighbor's window. Sure it has a pretty smile, but it still broke the vase that grandma's ashes were in.
Several years after this opus first issue was released, Steven Stern and Dan Cote, who created Zen, sold the property to Archie Comics and changed the focus of Zen from Hardened Space Ninja Mercenary Thief to Environmental Hero With A Message For Kids. From what I can tell, this was the defining moment in the publication history of the book. Remarkably, despite all of the problems, this book has, and in contrast to the general rule that 'anything claiming to be a collectors item is typically no such thing', the first issue of Zen Intergalactic Ninja retains a relatively high resale value. According to Comic Book Price Guide, my issue of Zen Intergalactic Ninja prices above $12.
From what I hear Zen had something of a revival in 2008 and Devil's Due Publishing said it was going to release a new ongoing series. The DDP website is mysteriously bereft of any information about a past, present, or future, Zen comic. Even the Zen Intergalactic Ninja official website makes no mention of it, so I can only presume that at some point last year DDP woke up from a coke fueled Vegas bender and realized they'd made a mistake. With any luck Zen is as dead as every other ninja from the 80s.
Except Sho Kosugi. He's cool.
*Pro tip: it's only an investment if you ever sell it.
**The 80s were a time of excess though.
***First collectors issue! 28 pages of reprinted art and a five page letter column!
****Note: The book will never explain how he keeps his stick attached to his back when he never wears a shirt.
*****I hesitate to call it dialogue, because it's never really clear if Zen is talking out loud.
******That's a tasty thin Ethiopian bread. Look it up.
*******I'm looking at you Frank Miller.
********Still looking at you Frank. Seriously, cut that shit out.
*********The misogynistic tendencies of comic art something that should be touched on in more detail later.