Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cowboy Ninja Viking #1-4

Image Comics, 23 or 24 pages each, $ 3.50 each

Writer: A. J. Lieberman
Artist: Riley Rossmo
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Cover designer: Dave Casey

Nominally, Cowboy Ninja Viking is about characters with multiple personalities. But as it turns out, one personality per character would have been a good start for this Bourne knock-off with a lot of window dressing.

On the surface, the series does strive for something different. The notion of highly trained assassins with three competing personalities is patently ridiculous, but if you roll with the silliness, get your hands dirty and do the work, there's still every chance you might end up with a good comic—see Chew, for instance.

In Cowboy Ninja Viking, writer A. J. Lieberman doesn't do the work.

There's not a single character in this book with something resembling a personality, let alone three of them. Most of the time, the characters remain mind-numbingly flat stereotypes. And in the few moments they don't, they say and do things that bear no resemblance to human behavior. There's a fine line between being delightfully over-the-top and completely destroying the reader's suspension of disbelief. Mr. Lieberman's script frequently ignores it.

The selling point of the book are the so-called "Triplets," of course—government-trained agents with codenames like Pirate Gladiator Oceanographer or Cowboy Ninja Viking.

But the multiple-personality shtick is no more than a one-note gimmick in the story, relegated to superficial elements like eccentric weaponry, funny speech balloons and headshots showing the characters in cowboy hats or helmets.

How sad is it that the creators manage to get 12 of those guys together in a remote cabin in Austria at one point, and it ends up being one of the most boring and inconsequential scenes in the comic? Four issues into the series, there's still no sense that any of the characters are motivated by anything in particular. As a result, everything anyone does seems capricious and random, with no context to calibrate what it means.

This lack of attention extends to the structure. Many scenes seem to exist not because they accomplish anything for the plot or the characters, but to rattle off a few mostly cheap gags.

While Riley Rossmo's style gives the story a distinctive and original look, the creators' storytelling is disorienting and amateurish, overall, with layouts that frequently lack clarity and often fail to establish any sense of place or scale.

Some of the panel-to-panel decisions are downright bizarre; you'd think the major villain's arrival in a big fighter plane would be one of those scenes that warrant an image that's bigger than a medium-size postage stamp in an action comic, but evidently not; to be honest, I missed the jet entirely the first time I started the scene, which left me wondering what the characters were reacting to.

Sometimes speech bubbles belonging to different characters melt together, and other times there are bubbles that aren't pointing anywhere. The art reproduction in issue #1 is blurry and grainy in parts. The text could have used another proofreading pass or two, and not just because of the spelling and punctuation errors; in one double-page spread towards the end of issue #4, there are two major contradictions in the dialogue.

Rather than the quirky romp I was hoping for, Cowboy Ninja Viking turns out to be a poorly and, worse, often carelessly told mess whose characters suffer from zero-personality disorder, times three.

To be frank, this is the sloppiest and most amateurish comic I've seen from Image in a long time.

Grade: D-

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