Monday, February 18, 2008

Pirate vs. Ninja!

That's right - I said




One of the most proliferant memes on the internets, Pirate versus Ninja is high concept at its highest, a pop culture mash-up cum personality test that is more exciting than anything since the Captain Midnight-Spy Smasher crossover of 1943 and a heckuva lot more fun than a Myers-Briggs assessment.

And now, thanks to assiduous research a lucky Google hit, I believe I have uncovered the ur-document, the prime source, the unmoved mover of the whole megillah.

Unknown Soldier #254 - 256, August - Oct0ber 1981; DC Comics
Captain Fear by Dave Micheline, Walter Simonson, John Workman, and Carl Gafford.

Captain Fear was an 18th-century Pirate of the Caribbean with a twist. Beginning his career in Adventure Comics in 1973, he was a Carib Indian and leader of the indigenous people in the region who becomes a pirate and taunts and twits the Spanish hegemon much like Zorro in California (except that as an actual member of the oppressed people, instead of merely their champion, he gets to keep the booty for himself).

The good captain sailed around the periphery of the DC universe on a course so eccentric he was revived (with a distinctly Ricky Martin vibe) in Architecture & Morality along with other D-list characters representing The Obscure. Back in the summer of 1981, he had found a temporary home in the war title Unknown Soldier, competing for his six or seven pages with Dateline: Frontline (tales of a war correspondent) and miscellaneous non-serial fillers. His stories didn't even get titles, but this three-parter is significant for its ground-breaking theme.

A splash-page prelude establishes some sort of connection between the Battle of Sekigahara in Japan in 1600, the European War of Austrian Succession begun in 1741, and a 1748 confrontation between a Spanish warship and strangely unresponsive Dutch freighter. Fear and his crew of buccaneers interrupt the standoff, seizing the Spanish ship and taking the Dutch ship as their own prize.

Upon boarding the East India trading ship, they find the entire crew slain, by mysterious star-shaped weapons. Fear finds what he believes to be something of value - a scroll, apparently being guarded by a "yellow man." Fear takes the scroll and other booty and leaves a skeleton crew to guard the ship: sailors who are doomed, because the unseen assassin cuts them all down before revealing himself to the reader in this dramatic shot:

In the next installment, Fear takes the scroll, in the middle of the night, to the governor of the island of San Bastienne and, at swordpoint, forces the Spaniard to read it to him. (Why he didn't just find someone friendly is not explained - literacy must have been rare in those parts). The governor soon realizes the document is a "communique between dissident factions in Japan and the King of England" about a possible alliance. Realizing the value of the document in Europe, he offers to buy it from Fear, but their negotiations are interrupted by the ninja, who has tracked the scroll across the world for the Shogun and is sworn to retrieve it. What follows, is, of course, pirate versus ninja, presented here in all its muddy, mando-paper glory:

Ah, if only they had continued to fight until a clear winner was determined - the internets might have been spared so many pointless interesting arguments! But, alas, the governor's guards burst in at that moment, scattering the opponents.

The final chapter begins with two vessels, one piratical and one gubernatorial, moored together so Captain Fear and Governor Luis Castelone (who now has a name) can swap scroll for gold. Of course, the unscrupulous Spaniard attempts a double-cross, but Fear's life is saved - for the moment - by the ninja! Oh, how ironic!

It all goes south from there, as the governor's reinforcements arrive, Fear sets fire to the two ships with a pre-arranged booby-trap, and a melee breaks out in which the captain-san and the neen-ja find themselves on the same side. Oh, irony redux!

You can probably write the rest of this yourself: ninja is killed, Fear avenges his death by killing the governor, Fear gets his gold and leaves the scroll with the ninja on the burning ship, so the ninja can die having completed his mission for his master. Ah, the Bronze Age.

So, there you have it, perhaps the original Pirate vs. Ninja: pre-YouTube, pre-internet, pre-COIE even.

And the world would never be the same.


1. The (clear) covers were skimmed from GCD, as usual. The (crappy) interior scans are from the actual comics, now in the LSB.
2. That whole story took eighteen pages - and that includes the beginning-of-chapter recaps!
3. The best sound effect in the story is not that "SLLLATCH" of a ninja sword slicing a Spanish sailor, but actually the "SHRATCHAFOOM" of a pitch-and-kerosene soaked frigate exploding into flame.
4. Now that I think of it, we see the ninja shot by a volley gun and left on a burning ship, but never actually get his death confirmed. Perhaps we underestimate... a ninja! Maybe there's an even more obscure character waiting to be revived, eh?


The Fortress Keeper said...

I ... must ... get ... these ... comics!

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