Zen Intergalactic Ninja #2 is published by Archie Comics, and was released in 1992. This second chapter of a 3 issue mini series was produced via Archie’s ‘Adventure Series’ which are books specifically geared towards kids (aren’t all Archie books specifically geared towards kids?). This line of comics also published the first series I ever read as a child, and consequently, the series that got me hooked on comic books- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures. Much like TMNT Adventures, Zen focuses on conveying environmental issues in an entertaining way to kids; the main villain is named Lord Contaminous whose mission is to create a Kingdom of Contamination by destroying the environment, and it’s up to Zen and his compatriots to prevent him from doing so!
Zen was created by Steve Stern and Dan Cote, and while this issue is written by Stern the pencils are provided by Ross Andru with inks by Mike Esposito. Stephen Stern’s credits include Beowulf the Graphic Novel, the official comic book adaptation of the animated TV classic, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and the War of the Worlds and Shygirl graphic novels from Best Sellers Illustrated. Ross Andru’s biggest claim to fame would most likely be creating Marvel’s anti-hero, The Punisher in 1974. He did a 9 year run on Wonder Woman from 1958-1967 (beginning with issue #98), which at the time totally revolutionized the character. Andru also worked on DC’s war comics line in the 50′s and 60′s, drawing books like Our Army at War (which later became known as Sgt. Rock), GI Combat, and All American Men of War. Archie’s mini series of Zen the Intergalactic Ninja turned out to be his final project as he passed away in 1993. The art inZen is actually pretty cool as unlike kids comics nowadays, Andru’s clean, fine lines prevent it from looking too cartoony. Zen’sinker, Mike Esposito was classmates with Andru at the High School of Music and Art in New York City. It seems fitting that Ross’ final piece would be alongside his childhood buddy.
Ok, now onto the comic!
The issue begins with Zen, a blue skinned alien from outer space, training the child star of the book, Jeremy, on how to use a jet pack. He isn’t very good at it and this prompts a warning from Zen to the rest of his super team that they need to be in top shape if they hope to defeat the evil Lord Contaminous. The problem though, is that Zen seems to be the only competent hero as his compatriots come across as bumbling idiots. It may be because they’re all made out of recycled materials (remember this is a pro-environmentalism comic) who go by the names of Lawnranger, Pulp, Bottle Bandit, Lights-Out (he’s a robot), and another dude whose name isn’t mentioned in this issue but he seems to be made out of aluminum and throws can bombs. Yeah… aside from Zen, if I were living in an area under the protection of these guys, I’d feel safer in Gotham City. Lawnranger is probably the most awkward of the bunch as he talks like a retard and is the only member who doesn’t wear any pants. Which is odd because even the robot wears at least a pair of tighty-whities. Luckily though he’s made out of grass (but not the fun kind of grass) so he has no genitalia… either that or it’s just too small to see. Either way, he has a very strange moment with a bird that has landed on his hand, as he whispers “Pretty bird” to it which totally reminded me of the blind kid form the movie Dumb and Dumber. Yeah, it was a little weird.
Anywho, Lord Contaminous- who is a giant pink monster with skulls for knee caps- lives under the Earth’s crust along with his toxic henchmen Slick, Sulfura, Smogger, and Garbageman. Hey, it’s a kids book so it only makes sense that the bad guys are named after things that are harmful to the environment. In their quest for global toxification, the villains choose to commence their assault on The Big Apple (although wouldn’t it make more sense to take out some national parks first? I mean NYC is already a nasty cesspool, so why begin there?). Contaminous has his cronies build a truck which they need to get to the Earth’s surface in order to cause a raucous and draw Zen’s crew into a trap. He needs to get the Geocrystal from them before he can begin his world wide destruction as it is the only object that has the power to stop him, and Jeremy currently has it in his possession…
Meanwhile, Zen is teaching Jeremy to learn how to activate the power within the crystal. The young boy describes how the crystal’s powers work: “Y’see, the Earth’s alive- just like you’n me. The energy inside the planet- right under our feet- is called eco-power! When I hold the crystal and concentrate real hard, I can tap into the eco-power- like lightning thru a lightning rod!” Ok then. Suddenly, Zen and his team catch word that Contaminous is up to no good, and as they set off to confront the villain, they are intercepted by U.S. General Lorenz who is hell bent on taking Zen down because the alien told him to “Blow it out your ear.” I guess thems is fightin’ words to old washed up U.S. army guys!
This confrontation results in one of the sillier moments in the comic when Lorenz’s men are firing anti-aircraft guns at Zen’s awesome looking insect-like ship. Lorenz takes out a pistol to fire his own shots at the craft, when Zen lowers the vehicle down to the General’s hand and with some sort of antennae sticking out from the bottom, bumps the gun out of his hand. This allows the heroes to make their escape and head towards the real threat, Lord Contaminous. Now, how the incapacitating of Lorenz resulted in all of the other guns to cease fire on the ship is beyond me, and why Zen opted to pull off this crafty maneuver as opposed to just blasting the General also makes me scratch my head, but hey, it’s a kids book so I’ll roll with it. The issue ends after a brief confrontation between Zen and Contaminous’ men, as the villain shows that brute strength can overcome skill and guile…
The comic had some other ridiculous moments, like when Lorenz is looking at a computer image of Zen and Jeremy, stating that he doesn’t know who Jeremy is because he was unable to get a ‘clear view of the boy’… even though in the picture he’s viewing Jeremy is looking directly into the camera. Also, I’m not really sure what zen means on the planet where Zen is from, but in this issue the character has attributes that are totally contradictory to any zen practice. For instance, he’s very short tempered as after Lights-Out rescued Jeremy from plummeting to his death he exclaimed, “I saw that grandstand play- an’ I’m ticked off with both o’ya!” It seemed a little over the top considering the robot did just save the child’s life. He’s also constantly getting annoyed with his teammates, stating how they drive him nuts. Last I checked zen practicers avoided these hindering emotions through mindfulness, understanding the nature of impermanence, and accepting the suffering of all living beings.
Granted, this is only one issue from a kids’ mini series, as Zen has had many different incarnations during his comic book career, and whether his personality has remained the same in all of them is unknown to me. His first appearance was in Zen Intergalactic Ninja #1, published in 1989 by Zen Comics. The series ran for 6 issues, and then made another go with volumes 2 and 3, published by the same company in 1992 and 1993 respectively. After the mini by Archie ended, they published another (this time lasting 7 issues), and then the rights were passed on to Entity Comics who, according to the covers of the comics, gave the character a much more badass look. The character even appeared in the risque magazine, Heavy Metal, which is quite the stark contrast of genres when compared to Archie.
In 2008, Devil’s Due Publishing released a series of trade paperbacks collecting past issues of Zen as well as Zen Intergalactic Ninja #0 for $.99 cents in an attempt to relaunch the character. While the issue excited previous fans of the book, it would appear that not enough new readers jumped on the band wagon as no follow up issues were made. However, a web comic entitled Zen Bounty Hunter written by Stephen Stern and drawn by Bill Maus (Threshold) has recently been released, and if you’re interested you can read it by clicking here. The story gives a much more adult take on the character, and I think it bodes well for him. Also available to read on the website is the origin of Zen, also written by Stern and illustrated by Tatsuya Ishida (Sinfest). Some notable artists who have worked on Zen over the years include Mike Mignola (Hellboycreator) and Sam Kieth (The Maxx creator). Zen was also featured in a video game made by Konami for both the NES and Gameboy, and had an action figure line from Just Toys.
Overall, Archie’s Zen Intergalactic Ninja #2 was a fun read- it’s a typical good versus evil 90′s story that has fantastic art for a kids book. I’d like to get my hands on a copy of Zen’s appearance in Heavy Metal, because I really think this character would work better in a more bad ass setting.