The greatest comics of all time don't appear on bestseller charts or canon lists or big-box bookstore shelves. They are the property of the back issue bins and thrift store crates and swap meet hawkers of America, living like the medium itself in the unremembered crags and pockets of publishing history...
Zen Intergalactic Ninja: Tour of the Universe Special - The Airbrush Art of Dan Cote, by Dan Cote with an introduction by Steve Stern. Cover dated 1995. Published by Entity Comics/Express Publications.
How acquired: A flash of shiny pink and silver caught my eye midway through a box of "special stuff" at the legendary, trash-strewn, dust-encrusted, Indian food-smelling SuperSecret Comics Warehouse in Brooklyn. The pink was the comic's own holographic foil cardstock cover (I love '90s comics), but the silver was a faded glint of metallic Sharpie tracings. Yes, folks, this is a signed copy -- albeit one signed by the dude who wrote the comic's introduction, with ink that's made more moves toward fading off than staying on since. This thing smells like Sharpie too, so overwhelmingly that I have to hold it at arms' length when I read it -- probably the result of the no doubt extremely hazardous chemicals used to produce such a shiny cover. Which, as you'll come to understand, is perfect.
Best single drawing:
The history lesson: Zen, the Intergalactic Ninja, is a classic late-20th century comics success story. Creator Steve Stern (the dude who signed my copy of this comic) and his brainless-but-charming alien warrior were lucky enough to capitalize on the success of not one but two wider movements in comics. Zen came out of the gate in 1987, surfing high on the wave of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-inspired black-and-white independent action comics, imbued with just enough artistic competence to survive when so many other forgotten properties bit the dust as the market for such material collapsed. A few years later, Zen's fortunes rose again, as Stern switched up the look of what was already an action-packed, dynamically drawn book to correspond more closely with the white-hot Image Comics aesthetic. There were Zen videogames, Zen toys -- hell, I had a Zen T-shirt as a kid -- and in 1995, nothing less than a comic book-format artists' monograph dedicated to the work of Zen's sublimely talented cover artist, Dan Cote. The story of Stern's decision to tap Cote to work on his book is one that demands retelling, so here it is from the horse's mouth, as seen in Stern's introduction:
"My first acquaintance with him was via the finely detailed pen-and-ink artwork his mother had on display in her office at Cote's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream. It had a captivating, Tolkeinesque quality to it that spoke volumes about its creator. ...
"I was totally unprepared for the portfolio of astonishing airbrushed art that Dan displayed. The visions contained therein, combined with Dan's enthusiasm for the comic book medium, rekindled my own love for comics -- a field I had left many years before. Thus Zen Intergalactic Ninja was born."
There's comedy to the story, and plenty of it: The guy not only first saw his future collaborator's work because his mom had it on display in her ice cream shop, but in the office of said shop! How did he get back there? But there's a strange kind of truth to it as well, something that's been lost to comics' move toward corporate control and mass-media tentpoling. How many successful comics get thrown together by two dudes who randomly meet at the ice cream shop, and how many by disinterested editors plugging email contacts together like mathematical formulas? Stern's story is a fascinating piece of comics-specific Americana, a fragment from a bygone era.
In today's more conservative publishing climate, an art special like this one would undoubtedly just reprint Cote's published covers; but thanks to some cosmic miracle, Cote was given free rein to exorcise his deepest inner visions. The result was something that exudes a corrosive beauty all its own. Not to mention that smell.
Why it's the greatest comic of all time: Given the trash culture origin of this comic, I can't imagine any modern reader coming to it prepared for the high intensity of the work contained within it. But the straight-ahead force of Cote's visual imagination and his nuanced, idiosyncratic way with the airbrush are enough to put his work on par with the kind of noise imagery that would set the world of art comics on its ear a decade later when it was collected in editor Sammy Harkham's seminal anthology Kramers Ergot. The outer-space setting of Zen's adventures is the perfect environment for an artist with Cote's visionary qualities to play against, allowing him to create a world with absolutely no ties to our own, full of colors and shapes and beings that this reality will never play host to. The color-seared deep-cosmos backgrounds Cote creates are highly accomplished abstract art in and of themselves, more than worthy of the gallery circuit, and it's indicative of Cote's sense of restraint that he often leaves them alone (as seen above) rather than plopping characters and action down on top of them. When those characters are allowed to enter the picture, however, it's just as impressive, fever-dreamed dragon men and chrome starships drawn with minimal linework and meticulous color detailing clashing up against backgrounds whose new-age visual power threatens to swallow them whole. It's pure imagination set down on the printed page.
No less engaging is Cote's unique way with sequencing a page of comics. Most of this issue consists of full-page pictures or double-page spreads, but when it goes sequential, it does so in a grand, painterly manner that matches the style of the drawings perfectly. Each individual panel is composed with the forethought and work ethic of a full painting, and rather than flow together in an uninterrupted stream like more conventional cartooning does, these pages expand the scope of the world they depict with every new panel. Hyperkinetic fight scenes are inset against full-spread backgrounds of bleeding suns or neon galactic mists, and space cruisers take on the completely abstracted quality of the starscapes they speed through.
The overall impression is one of a barely-glimpsed, senses-shattering world that this comic provides page-sized portals into. It's enhanced by the only words in the comic, which come not in the form of balloons or narrative captions, but typescripted sci-fi mantras hovering in blue chrome boxes over the pictures, giving abstruse hints at what the world of Zen comics is all about. A line credited to "THE MASTERS OF OM" (all caps) tells us to "move through space and time with the swiftness and purity of thought", while more "official guide to"-type text segments like "THE RYGULIANS... Among the fiercest warriors in the universe, this all-male race of cold and relentless killers replicates in vast cybernetic hives" feel more like surrealistic snippets of lost radio transmissions when they're put up against the lysergic vacuum of Cote's imagery. This is the real triumph of Cote's work: even in the context of a Zen Intergalactic Ninja comic, of all things, it makes an ironic, "look at this reading" the least interesting way to confront its content. Such is the uniqueness and grandeur of the visions this comic contains that we're forced to take them as serious statements. For 23 pages, airbrush art sheds its corny, nerdy points of origin to become something pure and beautiful Zen's world is made to look like the vastest and most compelling one in comics. If this book is the only tour of that universe you choose to take, there's no reason why you should ever think differently.
Cover price: Three dollars and ninety-five cents.