Trading Up: Cowboy Ninja Viking, Vol. 1

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Cowboy Ninja Viking is just as the title implies - it’s a story of one man who is all three. The book was, at first, an easy sell. The premise is so intriguing and, quite simply, fun, but then the question arose, can the book rise above its premise and become something more?

Written by AJ Lieberman and drawn by Riley Rossmo, Cowboy Ninja Viking is unlike most books you will find on the shelf. Its story surrounds a shadowy group of the U.S. government who have tried to make assassins out of multiple personality disorder patients. Each patient was chosen because they have three and only three distinct personalities. As you can guess, these personalities were then trained to fit specific roles, making these patients (known as “triplets”) lethal killing machines.

Duncan, the titular cowboy-ninja-viking triplet, is the supposed last triplet, as the rest were “destroyed” when a mission went awry. Duncan is called back into service in order to track down a threat to national security, but you quickly find out that many of the details of the triplet program were hidden from nearly everyone. Essentially, Duncan isn’t the only triplet left.

The plot at times feels rather standard. It’s an action film thrown a curveball, where the Matthew Damon-style assassin is replaced with three themed killers. The surprise of Lieberman’s writing was the dialogue. It’s witty and filled with pop culture references.

The humor is present throughout the book, and it even graces the back cover to this first volume. The multiple personalities of Duncan urge you, the reader, to buy this trade instead of the newest copy of Siege, as well as pointing out some of the selling points of the book.

Even more entertaining are the exchanges that take place between the multiple personalities. For instance, Duncan’s viking, ninja, and cowboy often bicker between themselves about their enemies or their stash of prescription psychotropics.

In a bit of genius, the book also has custom word balloons for each personality. If the ninja is speaking through Duncan, a katana extends from the word balloon. As the number of triplets increase, these custom balloons increase in number and creativity, and it becomes a game of figuring out which custom balloon belongs to which personality.

Having said that, these multiple personalities can also be a hindrance to the reading. As each character can contain several personalities, it can at times become difficult to keep track of who is who. At first, there is only Duncan to keep straight. As he is the title character, it’s a cinch. By the end of issue one, you learn there is a second triplet. Keeping two straight is not too difficult, but soon you find that there is a multitude of triplets, and figuring out who has the chef personality and who has the conquistador personality can become overwhelming. The reader has to take on the additional task of mapping these characters out, while also keeping track of who is on Duncan’s side and who is against him.

Riley Rossmo’s art may be the crowning glory of this book. I have never seen a comic drawn in such a style. It’s stylishly frenetic, perhaps adding to the theme of the psychologically disturbed.

Rossmo also adds his own color tones to the pages. Instead of being “traditionally” colored, each issue is given a color palette. Portions of the pages may be simply black and white, while splotches of color are thrown over characters or specific images. This gives the book a look all its own that can’t be adequately described here. You’ll have to go and look for yourself.

For those interested in the process of creating a comic, Lieberman has included original scripts in the trade. He introduces them by saying these scripts were early in the writing process, and you’ll be able to see how he moved from an early concept to the polished end result.

Cowboy Ninja Viking is not a quick read. Pages are loaded with word balloons, and, as stated before, you’ll have to take some time to associate each personality with their host. I had to read the book twice before I could really figure out the main plot, as Lieberman has a slightly non-linear story to tell here.

While you may not feel compelled to run to your local shop and pick up the newest issues or pre-order the next volume, you’ll happily offer this trade to a friend who’s looking for something new and different.

New and different this book is. Cowboy Ninja Viking isn’t afraid to take chances with different art styles or storytelling. It dares to be its own thing without fitting the conventions, and, for that, it deserves some applause.

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