The premise is super-simple, and laid out perfectly clearly in the three-word title: Mail Order Ninja (Tokyopop).
Perfectly ordinary fifth-grader Timmy has perfectly ordinary fifth-grader problems—a bratty little sister, unpopularity at school, a gang of bullies after his lunch money—but he has an unusual solution to them. An ad in a catalog brays, “Hey Kids!!! Would you like to own the world’s deadliest NINJA?!” It’s for a contest giving one lucky winner “exclusive exploitation rights to the legendary warrior Yoshida Jiro for an entire year!”
Two to three weeks later, a huge wooden crate get delivered to his home, a sword emerges from within, cutting a ninja shaped hole in it, and out steps Jiro.
Written by Joshua Elder and drawn by Erich Owen, Mail Order Ninja is an all-ages comic, but closer to the for-kids end of the spectrum—as an adult, I still found a lot to enjoy in the first volume of it, but it was clear it wasn’t written to address me in particular.
It’s sprinkled with lots of little gags—I liked the industrious bullies’ self-built toll booth, and the way the hench-kids’ hairstyles complimented one another—but the central joke is sticking a ninja into various domestic and school situation. Some of the riffs on that central, foundational joke are more successful than others, but chances are young readers won’t have heard some of the more clichéd ones enough to be tired of them.
Owen’s art is a pretty accomplished appropriation of manga style (and occasional manga techniques) to Western comics storytelling. Western artists adopting manga style often makes me awfully nervous, as in so many cases it tends to come from an economic or business calculation rather than an honest evolution of an artist’s craft, but that’s not the case with Owen—this is all around solid work.
Checking around the Internet, I see there’s only one other volume of the series, and I’m rather curious to see where it goes. Elder seems to have reached the logical conclusion of his story about halfway through this volume, and the second half brings up an escalation type of conflict, in which the school’s Queen Bee character—Timmy’s rival in a school election—gets her own mail order ninja, a ninja that happens to me Jiro’s archenemy.
I’m not certain the gag can be sustained twice as long as it was here, but, again, I’m not exactly the target audience here. I liked it, though, and I can certainly imagine having loved it if I read it when I was Timmy’s age.