The world of high-stakes espionage and assassins is one of constant action; of always looking over one’s shoulder and never letting down your guard lest a rival take you out to stake their claim as the best of the best. A cat-and-mouse life where thrilling gunfights wait around every corner makes for an exciting setup for a story…or it would if it wasn’t sort of a tired trope at this point. After decades of Spy-vs-Spy high concept action stories, the tropes of sexy, well-trained assassins having a go at each other against exotic backgrounds in increasingly ludicrous set pieces have just kind of become stale. I say this because it leads us to Killers, a well told, well rendered story featuring elite ninja assassins fighting each other over a mystic McGuffin that treads too familiar territory to really stand out.
The story, ostensibly, is a spinoff of the Ninjak series. If you, like me, were only tangentially familiar with the exploits of Colin King, you may be surprised to learn that Ninjak was more accurately Ninja-K. Turns out, MI6 was running it’s own Ninja Programme, in which it took special agents capable of using their own chi to perform super-heroic feats (think more like “the 5 deadly venoms” than the Avengers) and trained them as assassins. Most of the agents have been decommissioned, faked their own death, what have you, but – and stop me if you’ve heard this one – someone is trying to take out the surviving ninjas forcing them to battle each other and the mysterious forces that be in order to save themselves. One issue in, it looks like the book will be a bit of an ensemble piece, with Ninja’s G and J, who seem to be on a collision course based on a misunderstanding – as all inevitable team ups tend to start. You’ll be surprised to learn that these aren’t your typical ninjas, are both sexy, urbane professionals who thought they left the life behind but retain their deadly skills. What’s that? Oh that’s how most of these assassin stories go? Yeah, that’s sort of my problem with this debut issue.
What we have here is a competently told, well-drawn book that just feels entirely too familiar. Yes, both of our protagonists are black, and one is gay, but those elements of the characters are merely window dressing to what, unfortunately, is a rather mundane story. The action is good, but the concept is just a bit droll. It’s not to say that formulaic things can’t be great, but it’s important to know what kind of book you’re getting into. This is a series that certainly posits itself as more “Bourne Identity” than “Smoking Aces.” The pages can often be text heavy, the colors are a touch more muted and subdued, and the set pieces (thus far) are more like interesting backdrops than lived in scene. The issue’s best action sequence takes place in a bustling Italian fish market, but it could just as easily happened in a bookstore, or a grocer – it’s just kind of there. It’s not bad, of course, it’s actually got some pretty well-paced panel work, but it’s personality is a touch too serious is what I’m getting at. This is an action book, but not a madcap action book.
The art in Killers is another point of contention as it can be quite hit and miss. In the opening sequence alone, one character’s face is a different age in almost every panel. Similarly the character of Shuriken dresses as an anachronistic school girl who everyone mistakes for a child, but closeups on her face reveal decidedly adult features. In that case it is meant to be part of the character’s mystique, but it feels more like iffy design. I do have to highlight the positives of Fernando Dagnino’s pencils, as he does have moments of brilliance as well. The look on Desdemona’s face at the end of the opening sequence shows great pathos, the application of Roger’s powers are pretty cool, and I enjoyed several segments of the fish market action sequence. I’m not as big a fan of the colors from Jose Villarubia, as the subdued color palette means that nothing really pops. Even splashes of brighter colors, such as when Ninja J powers up fill the frame with this awkward floaty green that creates more unease than awe – and not in a way where I can definitively say the effect is an intentional one.
Overall, Killers is not a bad book. Far from it, actually. There’s potential and plenty of room to grow this story into something more than it’s opening chapter has shown. For now, however, this opening salvo feels a bit like a collection of assassin tropes stapled together. As the series matures, hopefully it finds its voice and stands on its own as the unique piece of art is has the potential to be. For now, though, it’s just another book about ninja assassins.
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