Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ninja Master #1: Vengeance Is His

Ninja Master #1: Vengeance Is His, by Wade Barker
November, 1981 Warner Books

In the 1980s we were ninja crazy, especially kids my age. Sho Kosugi films, American Ninja, even a TV show (in the craptastic form of Master Ninja, starring Lee Van Cleef!), we loved them all. I remember going to the mall and checking, every other month, for the latest issue of Ninja magazine -- which always had these kick-ass painted covers of some ninja about to waste an unsuspecting samurai or whatever, but the innards of the mag were given over to glossy color photos of dudes in ninja gis throwing each other around in the countryside.

Anyway, I think at the time I was aware of the Ninja Master series, but it was difficult to find. I think I also assumed it was based on the similarly-named Master Ninja TV show, but nothing could be further from the fact. Actually, the template of the series is similar to the show, in that it's about a ninja master traveling around the US and righting wrongs, but the protagonist and the way things go down are wildly different.

Our hero is Brett Wallace, who first appears in the novel with a different last name. He's home from studying philosophy and martial arts in Japan, and with him he's brought his gorgeous Japanese wife, who is pregnant. After a lavish party at his dad's mansion, Brett drives a drunk guest home, and returns to find his family slaughtered in gory fashion. It's eventually learned that a trio of bikers were behind it, high out of their minds and just looking for some fun. Brett tries to let the justice system do its job, but this being a men's adventure novel, Justice is portrayed as a two-dollar crack whore, useless and ineffective.

After a year of planning his attack and funneling his money into various accounts, as well as re-naming himself "Brett Wallace," Brett springs his trap on the bikers and kills 'em real good with some martial arts. After which he heads to Japan to take up this old master on an offer the man made to Brett years before: an offer to make Brett a ninja. Flash forward (literally) nine years later, and Brett is now a ninja badass, one of the "top five" ninjas in the world. This flash-forward is so goofy as to be hilarious, but to be honest the last thing I'd want to read is a long novel filled with ninja training techniques and etc.

Brett sets up a new life for himself in San Francisco, even scoring a new beautiful girl in his life: Rhea, a Japanese lady whose uncle was a ninja. In between frequent sexual escapades, Brett opens a SanFran restaurant and makes Rhea his chief cook, using the restaurant as a cover for his hidden wealth. Now he is free to do what he has returned to America for: to travel about and use his ninja skills to aid the weak!

But man, it's all so plodding and boring. This novel is filled to the brim with characters sitting around as they drink and talk about shit that has nothing to do with anything. Dialog about where they want to go eat dinner and what the place serves. It's obvious too that the author has no clear idea what a "ninja" is; reading Vengeance Is His, you'd get the idea that a ninja isn't much different from a karate master. Brett uses no weapons, no shadowy skills, and of course doesn't even wear a ninja gi.

There's a group of punks killing elderly residents of an inner-city borough in Los Angeles, and after hobknobbing with the residents Brett figures out who they are. Man, it takes a long time for this to happen. To get there you have to navigate through more chitchat, including an endless trip to a karate school run by some local elders. And of course more trips to various restaurants. Finally Brett closes in on the gang, but instead of the ninja massacre I wanted, with Brett killing hordes of the bastards with ninjutsu steel, he instead takes out the leaders one by one, the "action" scenes incredibly brief and hamfisted.

Reading this, you'd figure that the Ninja Master series would be dead in the water. And apparently it almost was. "Wade Barker" was a house name, one that eventually became associated solely with author Ric Meyers. But according to this post on, Meyers did not write Vengeance Is His or the seventh volume of the series, Skin Swindle. Meyers states in his post that the guy who did write Vengeance Is His also turned in a second volume, but Warner Books felt that it was "unpublishable." Hell, I think this one was unpublishable!

What's odd though is that parts of Vengeance Is His are well-written, but well-written in a style not beneficial to the men's adventure genre. What I'm saying is, the author was trying too hard to turn out a "regular" novel, not realizing the pulp nature of the genre. Also, this author name-drops more than any other men's adventure writer I've yet read: Brett listens to the jazz stylings of Keith Jarrett and David Sanborn, he drinks Absolut Vodka (a lot of it), the hooker who lives in the apartment beneath him wears Rolling Stone T-shirts, and on and on. There's even a veiled reference to then-popular Bo Derek ("the perfect ten herself").

The few action scenes, as mentioned, are brief. Brett usually uses some fast moves to take out his opponents, and in one cool sequence he wastes a dude with a pencil. But the book could've been so much better. There's a distinct lack of tension or drama, and a sort of pallid tone envelops it. There is though quite a bit of sex, which veers into the humorous purple-prosed territory. But anyway, the Ninja Master we meet here isn't all that tough, and would certainly get his ass handed to him by, say, Mondo.


Tex said...

Um. The Master starred Lee Van Cleef (AND Sho Kosugi.) You're getting it confused with the doubled-up-to-make-a-fake-movie compilation films of the late 80s (Master Ninja.)

Of course, the Master Ninja series of "movies" became more famous thanks to this...

And dig that crazy Master Ninja Theme Song...

(so sad that he remembers this, he's tossing out his Ninja headband from the 80s)

Joe Kenney said...

Dammit Tex, you're right! You know, I actually looked forward to watching The Master as a kid, mostly due to the scattered appearances of Sho Kosugi. For whatever reason I thought that gold fringe thing he wore over his ninja mask was cool. I should mention I was 10 at the time. Now it just looks stupid. Even then though I thought the show was pretty damn lame.

But yeah, didn't do my fact-checking on the title, mostly because, as irony would have it, I just watched those two MST3K "Master Ninja" episodes the month before last. Of the two, I thought the second one was the best (the one that featured an episode with George Lazenby). But watching them had me thinking the title of the original show itself was "Master Ninja," forgetting the show had just been called "The Master."

My favorite line in both of those MST3K episodes was Joel's: "There's no Kosugi like SHO Kosugi." Also anytime Crow mimicked Timothy Van Patten's dullard voice was pretty great.

Jack Badelaire said...

I've read ViH and I believe the fifth book in this series, which I can't remember. The original Ninja Master book run is pretty mediocre.

However, I also have the four War of the Ninja Master books, and I love these. Ric Meyers creates some really interesting stories with this particular arc of books, and some of the fights are really pretty cool. The book set in Paris (the Khoga Ritual, I think) is my favorite, featuring a couple of non-ninja hitmen. Overall one of my favorite action/adventure series, and one of the reasons I got into the study / celebration of "post-modern pulp" to begin with.

Joe Kenney said...

Hey Jack, thanks for the comment. I hope to someday read all of these "Ninja Master" books, including the "Year" and the "War" series. I did manage to get all of the first series, even though each copy is beaten to hell.

francisco said...

and in one cool sequence he wastes a dude with a pencil

ehem... what's your definition of cool?

other things, have you read the ninja fiction of Eric Van Lustbader? interesting enough?

have you seen the martial arts show from the first 90's Raven? darker and serious than the series with Lee Van Cleef, althought I only see very few episodes of this, but underrated and it only lasts seven episodes or so

Joe Kenney said...

Francisco...I mean "cool" in that we FINALLY got to see a little bit of ninja bad-assness in that scene!

I actually have Lustbader's "Ninja" and have had it for a few decades. I know waaay back when I tried to read it, but just couldn't get into it at the time. It's actually more "trash fiction" than an action novel, with more of a focus on sex and etc. Last year I did try to read Lustbader's novel "Sirens," but it was so overwritten as to be hilarious. When I was 15 or so I read his novel "Zero," which I really enjoyed at the time.

Also, I've never heard of the show Raven...I'll look it up!

muskrat said...

I went through the same Ninja phase during the same time. Sho Kosugi in Revenge Of The Ninja did it for me. That geyser of heartblood at the end still kicks ass. Beats anything in Kill Bill.

Joe, yer reviews are out of sight. You should write the definitive trash fiction book. Great stuff, chief.

francisco said...

Jonathan Raven, played by Jeffrey Meeker, is pursued by a ninja sect the black dragons, he is in Hawaii where he is a kind of detective helped by an aged Lee Majors, although they spend most of the time in a yacht taking sunbaths, but the action is cool and more or less realistic although the show lasted ven less than The master

by the way this Revenge of the ninja is the second of the Cannon trilogy taht started with Enter the ninja with Franco Nero?

Jack Badelaire said...

Lustbader's Ninja books are...kinda awful in my opinion. I feel they were written by someone who thought a ninja character (especially the inevitable 'half-breed ninja' or 'caucasian ninja' that we're always tuck with) would be a cool protagonist for some kind of "sexy thriller".

I read the first two books in college, and while they were entertaining and kinda steamy (there's a lesbian bath scene that's downright disturbing), I don't think I'd ever bother to re-read them now.

Joe Kenney said...

Muskrat -- Thanks for the comment! I really appreciate it. Revenge of the Ninja was by far my favorite too. I keep meaning to rewatch it one of these days. I recently watched Sho Kosugi's 1985 movie "Nine Deaths of the Ninja" for the first time, and it was friggin' awesome -- a spot-on spoof of '80s action and ninja movies, MADE in the '80s! It's available uncut and in widescreen on the DVD set "Maximum Action."

Francisco -- thanks for giving more info on the Raven show. I still need to check it out.

Jack -- Cool to hear you read those Ninja books...all I remember is the first one opened with some dude dying in a grindhouse theater after he'd been hit by some ninja poison or something. As for Lustbader's "steamy" writing, check out this awesome review of Lustbader's 1981 novel "Sirens" from the New York Times...after discovering the review last year, I immediately purchased a copy of the book, which really IS as "bad smut" as the NYT reviewer claims:

Jack Badelaire said...

Just read that review. Hilarious! "Throaty Roar" needs to become a meme for bad writing.

Lustbader actually attempted a sci-fi series many years ago. It was a kind of post-apocalyptic story with underground communities and a savage surface world. I remember reading the first book and thinking it was okay, but that was back...almost twenty years ago. I doubt it wouldn't stand up to my older, more critical eye today.

ArcLight said...

I'm glad I read the "War" and "Year" books before I tracked down the original series. I'm glad I have the originals, but I think if I'd picked up ViH first I would've stopped right there.

Enjoyed the heck out of THE RAVEN and wish it'd lasted longer.