Ridiculous, but Grounded: Matt Kindt Talks ‘Ninjak’ and ‘Divinity’ [Interview]
The first issue of the new Ninjak series by writer Matt Kindt and artists Clay Mann and Butch Guice certainly embraces those preteen wish-fulfillment elements, but adds some surprising depth, too, with character flashbacks and quieter moments that dig deep into who this updated version of Colin King really is.
We sat down with Kindt to talk about how he struck a balance between the silly and the serious in the new series, as well as the trippy sci-fi action of Divinity, his new Valiant series with artist Trevor Hairsine, which debuted earlier this month.
ComicsAlliance: Unlike a lot of the other single-character Valiant books that have come out in the past couple years, Ninjak is already a well-established character thanks to his appearances in X-O Manowar and Unity. Given that quite a few readers are already familiar with this version of the character, how did you determine where to start?
Matt Kindt: Everything we’ve seen of Ninjak of so far has been in action. Here’s what he does. Here’s what he can do. It’s been his action persona. So then, to me, that leaves 50% of his life a mystery. Where does he come from? What makes him tick? What is he about? We know how he operates, we know his day job, but what about the rest? That was kind of where I started.
The other thing is, I hate origin stories. I hate when, in issue #1, you start off with a character and you have to establish who they are and how they got the way they are; their powers, how they get them. If he’s a ninja spy, how did he become a ninja spy? All that stuff. I hate that kind of story, where you get the story of their origin and then they go into action. I was trying to figure out a different way to approach everything, not just his character and what he’s about, but how we’re going to tell it. How can we do an origin story without it being like every origin story ever?
So I came up with an idea to play with the pacing of the story and how the information is doled out over time. It’s one of the things that’s been great working with Valiant. I remember talking to [Executive Editor] Warren [Simons] about it. From the beginning, he was like, “Don’t hold back. Just come up with whatever ideas you can come up with, as crazy as they are. Let’s make this book special, unique and different.” Basically, I feel like the stuff I’ve been doing, working with Warren, the line is just erased between a creator-owned book I’d do to make myself happy and a book I’m doing with Valiant. You know, what kind of Ninjak book would I like to read? What would that be like? I just sort of dumped every idea I had into it and came up with with issue #1.
CA: You mentioned that he’s both a ninja and a spy. The ninja stuff is very self-evident. The spy stuff is not quite as obvious. Readers who may be getting their first taste of this character may be surprised to see how spy-heavy the story is. Why did you decide to hone in on that element in this issue?
MK: A few different reasons. One is it’s a part of him we haven’t seen yet. We’ve seen him fighting X-O. The ninja stuff, like you said, is pretty obvious. He’s dressed like one. He has the weapons like one. I feel like the part we don’t get to see is his subtleties, the other stuff he brings to it. It’s not just being a ninja, or being a man of action. There’s some psychological stuff going on which he also uses just to survive in the world when he’s up against superpower bad guys or whatever.
The other thing is I’ve always been a big fan of espionage. All the stuff I’ve ever done, there’s usually something in there with a spy. Anywhere I can get it, I’ll squeeze some spy stuff in. With Ninjak, it’s already there. He is half spy/half ninja, so to me, he’s the ideal character. Since I was like, 12 years old I’ve thought, what are the two coolest things you could be? You could be a spy or you could be a ninja. Well, what if you’re both?
It’s sort of a back-and-forth between those two things. At the beginning, you get the modern-day ninja stuff, and then you get backup stories that show his training, the basic espionage skills he had to learn. Then, in the middle, you’re going to see how both of those combine. There are a bunch of twists that are going to be revealed over the first year where everything ties together, where his training as a spy ties into his modern-day shenanigans as a ninja.
CA: There’s absolutely that immediate appeal to a 12-year-old, but at the same time, I get the feeling that you’re trying to add some sophistication to this story. There are a few moments where you take some time to breathe, particularly in the briefing scene. The reader isn’t just being bombarded with whiz-bang action.
MK: I’m trying to strike this balance. It’s like, James Bond goes into do whatever he’s going to do, and the villain knows he’s called James Bond. It’s like, where’s the spy part? Why’s he called James Bond? At some point, did that become public knowledge? So I like having the scene where you see Colin at home, and he’s getting his mission, and it’s like, here’s your alter-ego. Here’s your cover story.
To me, Ninjak is the perfect funneling of everything I loved when I was 12, everything you wanted to be. but now I’m grown up, so I wonder, what would that be like in real life? That’s something I apply to every story I write. Okay, so he has ninja training, he has all these espionage skills, so what’s his real life like? Also, he lives in a castle, so [laughs]. It’s bizarre. There are a lot of fun, weird things that if you really look at it, it’s like, what’s that guy like? He’s got to be the most interesting man on the planet. He’s the one that should be in the beer commercials.
The most interesting man on Earth. I’m just trying to make him that. There is no cooler character in the Valiant Universe. I’m just trying to reveal it.
CA: Let’s talk about the villains a little. There’s this sort of visceral, immediate reaction to the prisoner that Ninjak is assigned to free at the beginning of this, Roku, who is this really badass fighter who can set things on fire with her hair, which is a bananas idea. But at the same time, she works for this new version of Webnet, which returns from the ‘90s series, which is this highly complex organization that even Britain’s top spies can’t penetrate.
So on the one hand, you’ve got these fantastical bad guys, the sumo wrestler crime boss and a woman who can start fires with her hair—
MK: It sounds ridiculous [laughs].
CA: They’re in charge of this very complex international organization. Tonally, how do you figure that out?
MK: I don’t know that I figure it out. Every story I come up with, to me the fun is, well, what’s a crazy idea? Let’s have a ninja spy. What’s that really like? Okay, well, who could beat him? Who’s even crazier? Who has crazy powers, or has hair that does crazy stuff? I start out with a crazy idea, then just try to ground it. You know, what is she really like? What motivates her? Over the course of the series, you’ll see her come to life, and be fleshed out, and be real.
That’s what appeals to me. I like a fun, crazy, pulpy idea, but I also like to see it done in a way that’s interesting and realistic. That’s been my aesthetic my whole career so far: crazy idea, but carried out in a way that connects beyond bad guys just punching each other. I definitely want to have the bad guys punching each other, but let’s have them be real about it.
I think that’s the glory of comic books. You don’t have to reconcile a crazy idea. That’s what it is. The fun is seeing it play out. There are things you accept, and that’s the fun. I don’t have to get you to accept she can do these things. I just tell you she can, and then you see that she did [laughs]. And then the fun happens after.
CA: There are really three time periods here. In addition to the backups, the main story has this now-and-then structure, where we see Colin as a kid, going to a movie and being disciplined by a father figure. What was the thinking behind including two different kinds of flashbacks.
MK: It’s a way of getting to an origin story. I’m tired of reading them. I’m tired of seeing them in movies, so it was a challenge to make this interesting to me, as a reader, to tell his story in a way where we can find out how he got the way he is but not in a normal way, like, oh. his parents got killed, so he became this thing, or here’s what he’s going to do to react to that as a child. There’s no living person that has one defining moment that makes them who they are as a grown up, so in a way I’m trying to show how all these different things contributed to what he is.
The flashbacks to when he was a kid, his parents are actually gone. That’s his caretaker, the butler or the manservant that’s taking care of him, so there’s going to be that part of it adding to who he is. And then there’s the training when he’s younger, just trying to get into espionage and learning spy craft.
That’s what’s interesting to me, telling an origin that’s more nuanced, more shaded, than just his parents are killed and he’s avenging their deaths. I’m trying to do something a little more real, because Ninjak is sort of a crazy idea. It’s fantastical and it could be goofy, you know? I’m embracing those parts, but I’m trying to make it a little more interesting, a better origin story than has been done before
CA: There’s one visual in this first issue that’s kind of beautifully, hilariously out-of-sync, where Ninjak is out of his costume and, through circumstances, he was forced to find other clothes, and his other clothes are way too small. How much of this series is just going to be you finding ways to put the ultimate badass character in the most embarrassing situations?
MK: It’s funny. Again, I think I’m just trying to play off all the cliches of the genre. The bad guy is making the undercover good guy go through this initiation, which is usually like, “Kill this guy to prove you’re loyal.” I’m just trying to think of twists on that. What could be weird? So yeah, he takes his clothes, drops him off somewhere, and he has to find his way back. I don’t show it, but it alludes to the fact that he stole some jeans from a teenage kid, and a t-shirt somewhere else, and rode a bicycle back.
With all the pretentious stuff I just said about nuanced characters and all these different timelines contributing to the adult he is, there’s still going to be lots of fighting and explosions and karaoke scenes.
CA: Speaking of things that upend expectations, let’s pivot to talking about Divinity. I was really surprised by what kind of story you’re telling there. It’s not your typical Valiant book, or superhero story. It’s very sci-fi. What was your inspiration?
MK: The genesis of the idea came from writing Unity. I was complaining to Warren, my editor, that I wanted to do some cosmic stories. Let’s get this team into outer space. We have this powerful team of superheroes, the most powerful people in the universe on a team together, and it’s like, what can we get them together to fight that a SWAT team can’t beat? Threats around the world are things Seal Team 6 can go handle, so what do you do with this elite team? Who do you send them after? That was sort of the genesis of the idea.
I was pitching Warren different ideas. I don’t know if it was in response to that or what happened. I know he called me up one day, and he was like, “I don’t have an idea. I have a title. How about Divinity?” And I was like, “For what?” And he said, “I don’t know. Divinity.” I was like, “Okay, let me think about it.”
It was right before Heroes Con last year. On the way there, I was thinking about the idea, the character and the scenario, and how it could be this great story arc we could have in Unity where it’s like, okay, here’s somebody where if you put all the best heroes together, it’s like, that may not be enough. I came back from Heroes and called Warren. I typed the whole thing up and gave it to him. It was like, here’s this character, somebody that Unity might have trouble with, because, you know, they’re so powered and so strong, it takes something big to challenge them. I was like, this guy can do it. This guy can do anything.
I sent the pitch in to Warren and he liked it, and he said, “Let’s make it its own thing.” So it became its own thing and I was able to focus more on Divinity as a character and give him a lot more time than he might have had as just a villain in Unity. That’s the long, boring ways that ideas happen. A lot of things coming together and then the idea coming out of that. But basically, I just wanted to do something cosmic and with space, a little more sci-fi, to just get off planet because I’d been writing so much stuff that’s grounded.
CA: This first issue goes on a strange journey, because it starts out as this very focused, personal story about Abram Adams, and then it expands and expands into something very trippy by the end. For me, at least, I kind of had to page back through to figure out what was happening. Were you trying to sort of pull the rug out from the reader?
MK: Yeah, I guess so. There are three or four different plotlines going. They pay off, but with anything I write, I’m trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. I’m trying to keep the reader interested. With this one in particular, I have a luxury where I can write the whole thing all at once. So there’s this thing in issue #4 that will tie into issue #1, and weave through #2 and #3, so it’s sectioned in a way that I would write a graphic novel. The pieces all fit together, but you’re basically reading a first chapter.
I’d say it’s a bit of a challenging read for a first chapter, but all this stuff pays off. Everything becomes clear. I think that’s also the challenge. I write Ninjak and Unity, the Valiant books, but then I’m writing my own things. How do I write in a different way, where everything doesn’t read the same? So it isn’t like, oh, this is a Matt Kindt book, and this is the thing he always does. I’m trying to unique from Ninjak, which is unique from Unity, which is unique from anything else I’ve done.
Part of it is storytelling and part of it is character-driven. This character basically has godlike powers and can do whatever he wants. How he views time and how he experiences time, what his motivations are, all that stuff dictates how I can tell the story, or give me ideas for how to tell the story. I don’t have to tell it like, this happened, which led to this, then this, A, B, C, D. I can go A to D, and then back to B and C. It’s all in service of the story.
Ultimately, it’s all built so that when you get to issue #3 and the beginning of issue #4, you’re like, “Oh my God.” It’ll be more impactful to reveal the story in a way other than, here’s this guy, and he came back to Earth and here’s what he can do. I’m just trying to make it interesting and also try to make you feel something.
CA: You talked about the kernel of Divinity’s story being that he was going to be a villain for Unity, but so much of this first issue is getting the reader inside his head and getting to know him as this young man with aspirations. It’s not always the way a villain is presented in comics. Do you view him as a villain, or do you see him as something else?
MK: I don’t see him as a villain. I think you can have an opposing viewpoint and not be a villain. He can be the person who Unity is fighting against, and he’s not necessarily a bad guy. They have opposing viewpoints. They think differently about things. It’s that idea that a villain doesn’t know he’s a villain. He’s the good guy in his story. I try to write bad characters, or characters that are villainous, in that way. What would make a person do this?
With him, I didn’t even have to go that far. I don’t think he is a villain. He never was. In Unity, he may have been the antagonist for Unity, but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think he was a villain.
If anything, one of the issues I was having fun playing with was this idea of is Unity justified in doing what they’re doing to Divinity? This guy comes to Earth and he’s benevolent, and he’s not really hurting anybody. Do Unity and the government and MI6 have the right to shut this guy down simply because he has the ability to do whatever he wants? If he’s not doing anything wrong, do you have the right to step in and take him out or try to contain him, or do you wait until he does something bad, and then it’s too late?
I think that’s one of the things that is sort of the core of the story. What’s right to do here? Do you wait to see what someone’s intentions are or do you strike first to prevent something from happening that may never happen, or may happen and be a disaster? That’s sort of the fun that happens in issues #2 and #3.
CA: There’s this thing in the newer Valiant books where there’s a sort of fluidity to being a villain or a hero. X-O Manowar has played both roles. Harada has been both. There are few out-and-out, definitive villains. Do you think there’s something about Valiant itself that enables that fluidity in a way that other superhero universes don’t have?
MK: I think that’s an intentional directive that’s driven by editorial and the company itself. We’re grounding all this stuff in things that have been around for a while. I think the whole, great idea of Valiant is not, hey, a third superhero company. We don’t need that. The difference between the Valiant Universe and the other ones are the nuances. Warren was talking about, one time — and I don’t know if it was Jim Shooter’s original idea — how the Valiant Universe is just our universe rotated 10 degrees. You just tilt it a little bit. It’s still the world we recognize, but it’s slightly different. That makes all the difference.
The villain can be a villain here, but it’s all point of view and perspective. But just like in the real world, there are real villains. There are really bad, evil people out there, but there are also gray areas, where it’s like, well, are you for or against a lot of different issues that are going on? There’s Dr. Silk, who’s pure evil, and he’s a total villain in the Valiant Universe, so they exist in the Valiant world, but there’s also Harada or even Divinity, who depending on what side you take, you could argue is a villain or a hero.
CA: I love the idea that you could tilt the world 10 degrees and we’d get people who can set things on fire with their hair and ninja spies.
MK: [Laughs] If you tilted it 50 degrees, what would we have?
Preview: Ninjak #1 by Matt Kindt and Clay Mann: