Ninja Master #5: Black Magician, by Wade Barker September, 1982 Warner Books Given that the Ninja Master series was an obvious cash-in on the success of Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja, I guess it was only a matter of time before an installment of the series ripped off the novel itself. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if someone took Lustbader’s book and trimmed off all the fat
Ninja Master #4: Million-Dollar Massacre, by Wade Barker May, 1982 Warner Books Ric Meyers returns to the Ninja Master series with an installment that isn’t as great as his first one, but it’s still pretty good – at least, once our author has remembered that he’s writing a bloody piece of ninjasploitation pulp. Before that Million-Dollar Massacre loses its footing in a sort of padded-out
Ninja Master #3: Borderland Of Hell, by Wade Barker
February, 1982 Warner Books
This third volume of the Ninja Master series comes off more like a sequel to the first volume than the previous one did, with hero Brett Wallace still getting his start as a mob-busting ninja, whereas in the previous novel he was already a one-man army. But then, that superior volume was courtesy Ric Meyers, and this one was written by some unknown author; it certainly doesn’t appear to be the same person who wrote #1: Vengeance Is His, as this writer is sure to keep the acton moving and definitely has a knack for delivering some full-bore sleaze and sadism.
In fact the author displays this posthaste, introducing us to Meiko, a pretty young Japanese-American stewardess who has been kidnapped by the depraved General Estrada and is now imprisoned in his barracks-style villa in Mexico. The opening chapter is particularly unsettling as Meiko is summarily humiliated in front of Estrada’s guests (including having her pubic hair shaved off), forced to go around to each man so he can feel her up, after which they take turns raping her!
Brett Wallace comes into it because Meiko is a friend of a friend…Rhea, the lady who runs the restaurant Brett owns, is friends with one of Meiko’s co-stewardesses. When the stewardess claims that Meiko has been missing for a month, she goes to Rhea for help, having heard about her American Ninja friend. (The airline meanwhile chalks it all off, figuring Meiko just ran off with one of the stewards!) Brett here is not the inhuman cipher of Meyers’s previous volume; he still enjoys the finer things in life, including a bit of goodbye casual sex with Rhea before heading out on the job. (The author by the way leaves the actual sex scenes vague for the most part, but he’s all over the buildup and lurid quotient.)
Borderland Of Hell is also more slow-going than the previous book (though not the tepid crawl that was volume #1). For the first half of the book Brett is in investigator mode, going around and talking to Meiko’s friends before heading to Mexico…where he proceeds to continue poking his nose around. He brings along Jeff, Brett’s young student who came into the fold in the first volume (before being pretty much ignored in the second one). The two have a bit of banter going on, with Jeff serving up the laughs as he hits on various women and Brett playing the straight man.
Occasionally the pair get in scuffles, and the author, like the nameless writer of the first volume, treats ninjutsu basically like karate; Brett will pull off fancy moves to take down his opponents, and seems very excited about using common everyday objects as weapons, such as a pair of shoelaces. But there are no ninja weapons or ninja costumes as in the previous book.
The author also fills up more pages with arbitrary flashbacks to Brett’s training back in Japan, where his sensei doles out the expected “wise man” philosophy. In between the investigation pieces and quick action scenes, the author will flash over to Meiko, serving up more lurid stuff as she’s further raped and degraded -- including an XXX-rated bit where she's forced into a lesbian act with a fellow kidnapee as Estrada and his men watch.
But as usual with these books that are overly padded, Borderland Of Hell delivers an anticlimatic finale. It all seems to be building up to something; Brett and Jeff discover that Estrada has an army of fifty goons, and that others have tried to break in and save his imprisoned women but all have failed. In fact Brett is overly concerned and fears he and Jeff might die – another big difference from the previous volume, where Brett had no fear (or hardly any other emotions). And meanwhile Meiko proves to be a stronger character than you’d think, planning her own escape, even if it means certain death if she’s captured again.
However when it all goes down, the author handles the climax in just a few unsatisfying pages. The goons, so built up as heavy oppostion, are perfunctorily dealt with by Brett and Jeff – the former once again using his damn shoelace! Forget about the weapons-and-ninja-armor kickass finale of the previous book. And on that same note, Brett here clearly needs assistance from Jeff, though the younger man isn’t anywhere near the fighter Brett is. Yet for all that, the way the author handles this finale you get the idea Brett didn’t need much help, after all. Even Estrada’s comeuppance is a let-down, Brett merely kicking him into a spear.
The author isn’t that bad, all told, and actually reminds me very much of Len Levinson. This person has the same handle on character, and also provides the same sort of goofy humor as well as some blood, guts, and sleaze. It appears that this person also wrote two more volumes of the Ninja Master series (volumes #5 and #7), trading off with Ric Meyers (who wrote volumes #2, 4, 6, and 8).
Ninja Master #2: Mountain Of Fear, by Wade Barker
November, 1981 Warner Books
The Ninja Master series improves in a major way with this installment. After the tepid bore that was Vengeance Is His, Mountain Of Fear comes as a definite jolt and is great throughout. We have Ric Meyers to thank, making his debut here as “Wade Barker;” who knows whatever happened to the first dude who used the house name, but thankfully he’s gone, and he isn’t missed. Warner Books should’ve hired Meyers from the start.
As mentioned in my review of Vengeance Is His, Meyers was brought in after the original guy had already penned his second volume, but the publisher felt it wasn’t fit to print. The title and cover were already done, and it shows, as the cover for Mountain Of Fear doesn’t have much to do with the actual manuscript Meyers turned in. Which isn’t a complaint; take a look at that cover and you expect a tale of some bare-chested guy beating the shit out of pitchfork-wielding hicks in some mine shaft.
Instead, Meyers delivers a super lurid tale about a former Nazi concentration camp doctor who has bought out a town in rural Virginia, where he and his perverted son rule with complete control; wayward females and orphans are captured and brought here, where, after being raped by the town’s “police” (who are really just convicts in uniform), they are sent up the mountain which looms in the center of town, where they are further raped and tortured by the Nazi’s son…before moving on down the line to the doctor himself, who experiments on them.
So we have here, obviously, the making of some truly sick and warped stuff. Meyers doesn’t fail when it comes to making the villains thoroughly evil and deserving of grisly deaths, and then he sets our series hero, Brett Wallace, upon them, so that we actually cheer as he eviscerates cops and slices out their brains…even torturing some in such a fashion that they know they are dying, and who their killer is.
Brett is also changed to drastic effect. Meyers must’ve read Vengeance Is His and tossed it aside in anger (like I almost did), as he spends the first quarter of the novel quickly disposing of all of the characterizations and series set-up that the previous author introduced. For one, young martial artist Jeff Archer, who was geared toward being Brett’s acolyte in the final pages of Vengeance Is His, is basically removed from the narrative, as is Rhea, the Japanese-American beauty who served as Brett’s occasional girlfriend. They’re still there to aid Brett in his vow to protect the innocent, but in much reduced roles than what a reader of the previous volume might have expected.
Brett has no time for such niceties, given that Meyers has remolded him into a grim sort of killing machine who almost makes Richard Camellion look like Mister Rogers. In the opening of Mountain Of Fear, after Brett is already on the scene in Virginia, he flashes back to his recent re-training in the art of ninjutsu. Meyers obviously realized that the carefree Brett of Vengeance Is His was not suitable material for an action protagonist, and thus has Brett’s former ninja trainers realize the same thing. After calling him out on his apparent “desire for death,” they return him to Japan where Brett dives back into ninja training, emerging more deadly than ever.
But in addition to his new and refined deadliness he’s also cast aside any sort of humanity. Gone is the David Sanborn-listening, Absolut vodka-drinking rake of the previous book, always seen around town with the latest popular bimbo on his arm. Now Brett goes to extreme lengths to be “no man,” as he often refers to himself. A human shadow, melding into crowds, only seen when he wants to be seen.
All of which serves to recreate Brett Wallace into the most devestating and deadly protagonist I’ve yet encountered in a men’s adventure series. Anything he touches he can turn into a weapon, and his skill is such that he can even gain mental holds over his opponents. I guess the only problem then is the villains he fights throughout Mountain Of Fear are no match for him. Sure, they’re brawny thugs who have gone to prison for murders and rapes and etc, and they come bearing down on Brett with shotguns and Uzis, but still. It’s kind of like in Airwolf when that “high-tech helicopter” would go up against twenty year-old Hueys or whatever.
Meyers weaves in the lurid stuff by opening the novel from the perspectives of two young black ladies from New York who run into a roving patrol of “cops” here in Tylerville, Virginia. This is just the start of the degredations women endure throughout the novel…one of them is insantly raped and the other manages to run away, only to find the locals are just as sadistic as the police. The whole town is guilty, something Brett quicky deduces – he’s come here, by the way, after studying various data reports of rapes on the east coast, stumbling over the apparent fact that something strange is going on in Tylerville.
Mountain Of Fear is yet more proof that the shorter these books are, the better. At 156 pages, it moves at a steady clip, never once falling into repetition or dullness. This is the first Meyers novel I’ve read and I have to say I’m impressed. He has a definite knack for creating sordid atmospheres, warped villains, and gory action scenes; this book is more violent than most others of its ilk, up there with GH Frosts’s legendary Army Of Devils.
Meyers certainly knows his martial arts stuff. He namedrops various ninja moves and weapons with abandon, but unlike the execrable Mace series by Joseph Rosenberger, he actually bothers to explain each term. Brett is a living weapon, but he also uses a host of weaponry, ancient and modern; unlike the characters in most ninja pulp, Brett has no problem with picking up a dropped firearm and blowing away some thugs, but mostly he uses his katana sword and other exotic weaponry. There’s also a cool scene at the climax where he straps armor over his ninja costume.
Where Meyers really excels is the inventiveness of Brett’s many kills. In this novel he kills people with shards of an ice cube (!), a drumkit cymbal, and even the tripod that held up the cymbals. But he sows the most damage with his traditional weaponry, particularly in the climax, with an armored Brett infiltrating the Nazi’s mountain fortress and chopping the shit out of legions of armed goons -- another scene reminiscent of Army Of Darnkess, even complete with ankle-deep pools of blood and gore. It comes off like Die Hard if it had starred Sho Kosugi and been directed by Paul Verhoeven. (Now that would’ve been a movie…)
The action scenes, as mentioned, are plentiful and gory, but it bugged me a bit that Meyers would write a lot of them from the perspective of the cops as Brett was killing them. In other words, we're in the perspectives of these convict cops as they go about their latest atrocity, then suddenly they're being hit by something and not knowing what’s happening, and then they're seeing Brett’s masked face a second before they die. I prefer action scenes to be relayed from the protagonists’s point of view, so we see what he’s doing and to whom. To be fair, though, Meyers moves away from the thug-perspective as the novel continues, and the majority of the thrilling climax is solely from Brett’s point of view.
I really enjoyed the book, and it makes me happy that Meyers eventually became “the” Wade Barker, though there are a few more volumes in this initial series that he did not write. Meyers wrote the entirety of the ensuing Year of the Ninja Master and War of the Ninja Master series, but as for the Ninja Master series, he only wrote this volume, #4: Million Dollar Massacre, #6: Death’s Door, and #8: Only The Good Die. (Million Dollar Massacre was apparently another case where the author of the first volume had turned in a manuscript that was rejected, and Meyers had to fill in, catering to the title and the already-completed cover.)
Ninja Master #1: Vengeance Is His, by Wade Barker
November, 1981 Warner Books
In the 1980s we were ninja crazy, especially kids my age. Sho Kosugi films, American Ninja, even a TV show (in the craptastic form of Master Ninja, starring Lee Van Cleef!), we loved them all. I remember going to the mall and checking, every other month, for the latest issue of Ninja magazine -- which always had these kick-ass painted covers of some ninja about to waste an unsuspecting samurai or whatever, but the innards of the mag were given over to glossy color photos of dudes in ninja gis throwing each other around in the countryside.
Anyway, I think at the time I was aware of the Ninja Master series, but it was difficult to find. I think I also assumed it was based on the similarly-named Master Ninja TV show, but nothing could be further from the fact. Actually, the template of the series is similar to the show, in that it's about a ninja master traveling around the US and righting wrongs, but the protagonist and the way things go down are wildly different.
Our hero is Brett Wallace, who first appears in the novel with a different last name. He's home from studying philosophy and martial arts in Japan, and with him he's brought his gorgeous Japanese wife, who is pregnant. After a lavish party at his dad's mansion, Brett drives a drunk guest home, and returns to find his family slaughtered in gory fashion. It's eventually learned that a trio of bikers were behind it, high out of their minds and just looking for some fun. Brett tries to let the justice system do its job, but this being a men's adventure novel, Justice is portrayed as a two-dollar crack whore, useless and ineffective.
After a year of planning his attack and funneling his money into various accounts, as well as re-naming himself "Brett Wallace," Brett springs his trap on the bikers and kills 'em real good with some martial arts. After which he heads to Japan to take up this old master on an offer the man made to Brett years before: an offer to make Brett a ninja. Flash forward (literally) nine years later, and Brett is now a ninja badass, one of the "top five" ninjas in the world. This flash-forward is so goofy as to be hilarious, but to be honest the last thing I'd want to read is a long novel filled with ninja training techniques and etc.
Brett sets up a new life for himself in San Francisco, even scoring a new beautiful girl in his life: Rhea, a Japanese lady whose uncle was a ninja. In between frequent sexual escapades, Brett opens a SanFran restaurant and makes Rhea his chief cook, using the restaurant as a cover for his hidden wealth. Now he is free to do what he has returned to America for: to travel about and use his ninja skills to aid the weak!
But man, it's all so plodding and boring. This novel is filled to the brim with characters sitting around as they drink and talk about shit that has nothing to do with anything. Dialog about where they want to go eat dinner and what the place serves. It's obvious too that the author has no clear idea what a "ninja" is; reading Vengeance Is His, you'd get the idea that a ninja isn't much different from a karate master. Brett uses no weapons, no shadowy skills, and of course doesn't even wear a ninja gi.
There's a group of punks killing elderly residents of an inner-city borough in Los Angeles, and after hobknobbing with the residents Brett figures out who they are. Man, it takes a long time for this to happen. To get there you have to navigate through more chitchat, including an endless trip to a karate school run by some local elders. And of course more trips to various restaurants. Finally Brett closes in on the gang, but instead of the ninja massacre I wanted, with Brett killing hordes of the bastards with ninjutsu steel, he instead takes out the leaders one by one, the "action" scenes incredibly brief and hamfisted.
Reading this, you'd figure that the Ninja Master series would be dead in the water. And apparently it almost was. "Wade Barker" was a house name, one that eventually became associated solely with author Ric Meyers. But according to this post on VintageNinja.com, Meyers did not write Vengeance Is His or the seventh volume of the series, Skin Swindle. Meyers states in his post that the guy who did write Vengeance Is His also turned in a second volume, but Warner Books felt that it was "unpublishable." Hell, I think this one was unpublishable!
What's odd though is that parts of Vengeance Is His are well-written, but well-written in a style not beneficial to the men's adventure genre. What I'm saying is, the author was trying too hard to turn out a "regular" novel, not realizing the pulp nature of the genre. Also, this author name-drops more than any other men's adventure writer I've yet read: Brett listens to the jazz stylings of Keith Jarrett and David Sanborn, he drinks Absolut Vodka (a lot of it), the hooker who lives in the apartment beneath him wears Rolling Stone T-shirts, and on and on. There's even a veiled reference to then-popular Bo Derek ("the perfect ten herself").
The few action scenes, as mentioned, are brief. Brett usually uses some fast moves to take out his opponents, and in one cool sequence he wastes a dude with a pencil. But the book could've been so much better. There's a distinct lack of tension or drama, and a sort of pallid tone envelops it. There is though quite a bit of sex, which veers into the humorous purple-prosed territory. But anyway, the Ninja Master we meet here isn't all that tough, and would certainly get his ass handed to him by, say, Mondo.