The Autumn of Asians Part 1: Shuriken! The American Manga That…Did

This is the first of what I hope will be a number of reviews and articles this fall dealing with What You Like About Asian Culture – ninjas, samurais, bad comics, bad films, bad Godfrey Ho films about comic samurais, etc.  Oh, and Korean death metal.  Expect a lot more from UR in the coming months as…UR actually gets updated!  IT’LL BE ASTOUNDING!  A UR UPDATE!  RARE!

It Came From The Comic Mill: Shuriken #6 (Victory Productions, April 1987)
The road to American manga started with this series, and aren’t you glad?

WOW!  AN UPDATE?  TO UR?  WHAT SORT OF BEFOULMENT IS THIS?  Seriously, though, I’ve been neglecting my duties as Reichsmaster of sweetposer.tk for far too long.  Lately, I’ve been looking at my referral logs and, when people don’t care for girlfeet or gay porn (and, by God, that’s what most fans of UR seem to want), they want to know about – strangely – comics of the 1980s and early 1990s.  Today, I begin to fulfill a promise I made to the readers of UR and talk about these comics.

Hell, I’ve got to do something to make people believe I didn’t lose interest in UR two years ago.  Inertia moves faster than this site.

The 1980s were interesting for the nascent and still relatively novel interest in Japanese manga.  This was in the days before companies like ADV, Tokyopop, Viz and Antarctic Press overflowed the market with any title they could nail down and dub.  Not that I hate manga, granted – the odd horror title and Hyper Police make for good reading, but the kids are supposed to be more into Shonen Jump’s One Shaman Dragon King Piece Ball NFL on NBC or whatever the perceived big trend is at the moment.  In the 1980s and 1990s, choices for manga were relatively limited – Akira, Golgo 13, Robotech, Barefoot Gen and whatever had made it into the American public’s consciousness at the time.  One has to remember that independent comics companies of the 1980s were more into funny animal comics, Cerebus the Aardvark, ripoffs of Cerebus the Aardvark, British imports, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ripoffs of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ninjas, poorly-done superhero comics and poorly-done superhero comics with ninjas in them.  Oh, and Tales From the Beanworld.  People were generally trying to cash in on whatever money was supposed to be in the comics explosion at the time.

For some reason, people also liked Dreadstar.  It was a strange time.

As for American manga – for you pedants, American comics done in the Japanese style, just so we’re clear on this – it’s still as much of a crapshoot as it was when I wrote about the topic in 1999.  (Note: I am not linking to the article.  No one needs to read about how much I hated Super Information Hijinks: Reality Check when I was 18.  Surprisingly, I namechecked Hyper Police in that article seven years before I read the damn thing.)  There’s Gold Digger and its thirty-seven variants, Ninja High School and whatever one-shots and series Marvel, DC and American-based manga presses put out, but American manga has always seemed like a niche market with a growth level not commensurate to the popularity of Japanese manga or even Korean manhwa.

In the mid-1980’s, one man tried to buck this prevailing trend.  That man was Reggie Byers, formerly of the American Robotech:Macross series, and Shuriken is his legacy.

Frankly, it’s not much of a legacy.  I’ve owned three Shuriken/The Blade of Shuriken comics for more than a decade.  In 1999, I thought Shuriken was awful, deriding Byers for being a born-again Christian and abandoning his manga style.  Seven years later, I can accept Byers’ lifestyle choice and current style, and seven years’ worth of maturity and broader understanding of the world of manga should have changed my feelings about Shuriken.

It doesn’t.  The comic’s still awful.  Time has not been kind to Shuriken.

The editorial for the April 1987 issue of Shuriken starts with an introduction to Byers’ Victory Productions (“printed at Solson Printing,” it says here), which put out Shuriken.  The comic at the time was being segmented for two psychographics.  The Blade of Shuriken, an Eternity Comics title, was for the shonen, or action-oriented crowd.  This Shuriken was for the shojo, or character-driven crowd.  Essentially, there was a comic for “boys” and a comic for “girls,” although there isn’t much difference between the two comics at all.  Around this time, Byers also handed over control of Shuriken to an associate, although Byers still drew, wrote and lettered this issue.  Andrew Murphy is credited as “guest inker” here.

Right away, lead character Kyoko Shidara is seen at a carnival, using her ninja skills to win a milk bottle game.  I call shenanigans.

Kyoko and friend Joan Harlowe celebrate their victory by comparing kewpie dolls.  Right away, Byers uses the time spent creating his comic to do something common to comics creators of the 1980s.


So, where’s the Usagi Yojimbo doll?

Yeah, that’s right.  Remember, this is the 1980s.  Everyone in self-publishing idolized Cerebus the Aardvark.  It was a tradition.  The off-model kewpie doll is compared to a Usagi Yojimbo doll as Byers draws every character slightly off and with ugly-looking facial outlines.

Reggie Byers does a self-insertion next and draws himself into the comic.  Sure, the character’s only named “Reggie” and does nothing except duck a throwing star, but it’s still a self-insertion.  One of the interesting things about Reggie Byers is that, like Gold Digger creator/franchiser Fred Perry, he is black.  A black man drawing manga (hell, being in the comics industry in general) isn’t a common thing, but it doesn’t change my impression of Shuriken.  It took me years to figure out that there are black characters in Shuriken since almost every ancillary character looks the same.  Byers takes the time to do some shading on “Reggie’s” sweater and foreshadow ninja action, though.  Strange priorities, Byers.

The comic goes back to Pittsburgh police officer Doug Jordan, Marlowe and Shidara talking about camouflage.  Apparently Shidara has dyed her hair blond.  Marlowe lets slip that Shidara has “enemies”, arousing Jordan’s suspicions.  This leads to some mutual ass-covering and Shidara’s internal monologue about quitting the corrupt security firm she works for.  I was actually paying more attention to the band T-shirts, hidden reference to another Victory Productions title (I’m not spoiling the “surprise” for you people – oh, what the hell, it’s Shrike) and a “HIMOM!” hidden in a blade of grass.  Glad to see Byers isn’t easily bored.

The action kicks off in earnest as Weird Al Yankovic in an Anthrax shirt beans a random punk with a ball.  Ah, but the punk is not “random” at all!  As the punk grimaces at Weird Al (oh, sorry, “Neil”) Shidara hears a scream.  Cue fight scene.


“YOU ARE THE KILLER!” “YES, AND YOU ARE THE NEXT ONE I SHALL KILL”

This is why I can’t take Shuriken seriously.  A punk character in Stinko Man 20X6 pose and Bigg Nife proving his worthiness as “the great organization’s biggest and best assassin” by killing an random bystander who beaned him with a baseball?  Makes sense.  This leads to Shuriken punching out Max (“created by Gary Williams!” as if anyone really knows or cares who he is – I know, it’s self-publishing, but still).  The punch seems to propel Max past three onlookers as the fight scene proper begins.  Remember, this is the character-driven Shuriken.


IN THE NAME OF THE MOON THE PITTSBURGH POLICE DEPARTMENT I SHALL PUNISH YOU!

Yeah, character-driven.  I know.  The fight scene is a bit protracted, of course – CHARACTER-DRIVEN Max throws some CHARACTER-DRIVEN throwing stars at Shuriken, leading to Shuriken and Max throwing CHARACTER-DRIVEN weapons at each other and Shuriken ending the short and uneventful fight with a CHARACTER-DRIVEN kick to Max’s sternum.  Out come the CHARACTER-DRIVEN police to arrest Max and Shidara.  SHOJO MANGA!

The onlookers defend Shidara.  A sexist cop is put in his place.  Marlowe fears for Shidara while Jordan gets angry at Shidara for fighting the punk.  Jordan is put in his place.  A poorly-done epilogue appears where Shuriken asks for, and receives, a resignation from her corrupt security firm.  So ends another cross-hatched, adequately-realized chapter in the life of Shuriken.  You can smell the “Shuriken might be assassinated by her former employer” angle from space.

I guess Shuriken isn’t as bad as I thought it was back when I first bought these comics.  The artwork isn’t that good, and there’s way too much reliance on standard “action lines” and clichés like the angry punk, ninjas throwing around weaponry right in front of people (without masks, yet), and the standard dialogue that seems to come from a Godfrey Ho film.  Removing the manga-style trappings and better-than-average attention to small details, Shuriken is a standard American ninja comic.  It’s still better than Ninja High School, mind.

Up next is Andrew Murphy’s backup feature, “Firebringer.”  Even though Murphy’s artwork is much better than Byers’, the comic seems like the sort of standard “man on Earth is actually son of God” stuff that one would have seen in Cerebus the Aardvark‘s back pages in the early 1980s.  Apparently Victor’s mother is the Goddess Koltos, stuff about the Panthearchy, God King, that sort of thing.  It’s pretentious and derivative, but what wasn’t in the 1980s.

Finally, we come to some ads for Syn’ik and Shrike, plus some Shuriken pinups.  They’re so thrilling I could fart.

Could Shuriken see print in the world of today?  Probably not.  Nothing against Byers or his love of self-publishing, but the world of American manga has advanced far too much artistically for this to make much of a dent in the world of modern-day, aren’t-gradients-cool comics.  The world of comics has deteriorated far too much for self-publishing to be as commercially viable anymore.  Shuriken is a product of its time – one of the first, not-entirely-successful salvos in trying to establish a manga community in North America.  I’ll like Reggie Byers for at least trying – and even pioneering – a proper manga comic, but Shuriken will never be more than a relic of a bygone era.  Maybe that’s just as well.  At least Reggie Byers never did The Bushido Blade of Zatoichi Walrus, so he at least has that going for him.

Cameron Archer

Cameron Archer

Owner/Writer at Gloryosky
Cameron Archer runs this site, and is a freelance arts writer. He has contributed to Canadian Screenwriter since 2011. He is a CMG Freelance member.
Cameron Archer