THE KICKSTAND: Ninjas, Hipsters and the End of the World

"It's like Calvin and Hobbes, if Hobbes was a ninja."

That's Josh Elder's elevator pitch for "Mail Order Ninja," a graphic novel series that was originally published by Tokyopop and that he is now going to bring back via Kickstarter. And what a long, strange trip it's been.

Elder, whose day job is as Account Director for the digital comics distributor iVerse, began working on "Mail Order Ninja" in 2002, inspired by the ads in old comics. He was a film major at Northwestern University at the time, so his original plan was to make it into a short film, but, he said, "I quickly realized two very salient facts:

  • Ninja are really expensive, certainly beyond what I could afford on a student film budget.
  • Most parents aren't willing to let their children hang out with a man dressed all in black wielding a sword."

After graduating from Northwestern, Elder wrote a script for a short "Mail Order Ninja" comic. At the time, he was going through chemotherapy for Hodgkin's Disease. "Writing 'Mail Order Ninja' helped lift my spirits during those dark days," he said, and he has had a strong emotional attachment to the story ever since.

"I had also made a pact with my friends and family that I would give up my dreams of comic stardom if I hadn't had something published by my 25th birthday," he said. "Which is why, at age 24, I cashed out my entire life's savings and used the money to hire Erich Owen and pay for a short, self-published run of 'Mail Order Ninja.'" On a lark, they entered it in Tokypop's fifth Rising Stars of Manga competition -- and they won first prize.

That changed everything. Elder signed a contract to produce a series of graphic novels for Tokyopop, and the first two volumes were published in 2006. It was also one of several Tokyopop properties that were serialized as Sunday newspaper comics in 2007.

The series never reached its third volume, however; Tokyopop went through a major reorganization in 2008 and canceled most of its non-Japanese series, including "Mail Order Ninja." Most of these series remain in limbo, as Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy retains partial rights to them. That's true of "Mail Order Ninja," too, but Levy has given Elder the green light to publish a new edition of the graphic novel and develop more stories based on the characters. "Stu has personally signed off on everything," Elder said. "He has been involved with every step of the process. He is still involved and of course controls other media rights, but I have his blessing to take this out into the world and see where it goes."

And where is it going? Elder is turning to Kickstarter to raise $6,000 to publish a new edition of "Mail Order Ninja" that will include the original first two volumes, the original "Rising Stars of Manga" story, a side story that was done for Reading With Pictures (another project Elder was involved with), and pin-ups by Jeffrey Brown, Janet Lee, and Christopher Schons. The book will also include a new story, "Beware the 7 Deadly Fans," written by Elder and illustrated by Tim Smith III, who has worked on Sonic X and the Hardy Boys graphic novels.

"Mail Order Ninja" won't end with the Kickstarter, though. Elder wants to continue it as a digital-first comic, although plans for that are still being finalized. Each chapter will stand alone, and he has lined up a number of artists, including "G-Man" creator Chris Giarrusso, and game artist Cef Grima to work on them. "Basically, it's an excuse to work with friends, do cool stories, and have fun," Elder said.

Now, let's step across the aisle to IndieGoGo, to look at an intriguing group project.

What's the Big Idea? A group of Canadian writers and artists are creating a homegrown anthology of Canadian superheroes.

Moving force: J. Torres, whose credits include "Alison Dare" and "Teen Titans Go!"

Selling point: The talent. Torres has assembled an outstanding group of Canadian creators, including Andy Belanger ("Kill Shakespeare"), J. Bone ("Super Friends"), Scott Chantler ("Two Generals"), Faith Erin Hicks ("Friends With Boys," "The Adventures of Superhero Girl"), and Eisner award winner Ramon Perez ("A Tale of Sand").

Premiums: The digital edition is a bit pricey, at $15; lower amounts get you a wallpaper by Bone ($5) and a postcard signed by Torres ($10). The hardcover print edition plus the digital edition are $35 in Canada, $40 in the U.S., $45 for the rest of the world. Bigger premiums include a beer with Belanger, a cup of coffee with Perez, original art from Tom Fowler, and a cameo in the next volume.

This caught my eye: The initial goal is enough to pay the production costs for the book plus a "small honorarium" to the creators. "Should we manage to raise more money, then we'll pay the creators more for their hard work and artistry" -- why doesn't every crowdfunding pitch include that sentence?

Goal: $20,000.

Deadline to pledge: November 5.

Okay, back over to Kickstarter. The numbers are down a bit this week, with only 104 current campaigns, a number of which are nearing their end. Here are a couple that look interesting.

What's the big idea? A full-color graphic novel about a hipster trying to get home after the apocalypse. It's already online as a webcomic; the Kickstarter will fund a print edition.

Moving force: Tony DeGerolamo, who runs two webcomics sites, The Webcomic Factory and Super Frat and is a former writer for Bongo Comics and Comedy Central. Co-writer Christian Beranek has worked for several publishers and was co-creator of Kingdom Comics for Disney. Artist Tom Kurzanski has done several comics for Viper as well as the Comic Book Project for Dark Horse and Columbia Teachers College.

Selling point: "Along the way he meets insane cops, radioactive zombies, strange truckers, legless strippers and mutant birds.  The book is full of pop culture references to some of your favorite apocalyptic movies." That pretty much does it for me.

Premiums: The entry-level pledge is $5, which gets you a PDF of the book plus a bonus PDF of Super Frat: Rush Week Collection. Decent. A copy of the book, which is a 60-page, full color hardcover, is $10, which is a very good price. Plus they throw in a button, a sticker, and another comic. Original art kicks in at the $99 level. A consultation with the creative team costs $1,000.

This caught my eye: For $250 you can get the Apocalyptic Nick Survival Pack, with a shoulder bag just like the one Nick has in the comic, the book, and "a bunch of surprises related to the comic, including a limited edition custom iPhone skin."

Goal: $3,095, which has already been reached.

Deadline to pledge: November 4.

What's the big idea? The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a stage play and podcast that features radio plays in the style of the 1930s, with titles like "Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars" and "Amelia Earhart: Fearless Flyer." The Kickstarter will fund a graphic novel anthology of stories based on the plays.

Moving force: The Thrilling Adventure Hour team is spearheaded by writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker.

Selling point: This is a natural for anyone who loves not only old radio plays but old movies in the tradition of Saturday serials, with plenty of action and strong characters.

Premiums: Five bucks for the digital comic, $25 for the print version plus a PDF. The premiums are clearly aimed at fans of the show; they include a playlist of the musical themes, actual marked-up scripts that were used by the show's staff, and admittedly bad art by the actors. And there's a DIY podcast kit, complete with script, sound effects, and a karaoke version of the theme song. For $250, some lucky backer can be an assistant editor on the book. Let's call this the Tom Sawyer painting the fence pledge; being an assistant editor is damn hard work. There's also a breakfast package, Buffy swag, and a crown. Really, reading the list of premiums is entertaining all by itself.

This caught my eye: Archaia will print and distribute the finished book.

Goal: $55,000, which has long been surpassed; they are on to the stretch goals, which include a webseries, a motion comic, and a concert film.

Deadline to pledge: November 7.

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