Time-hopping, Adrian Kinnaird

Helen and the Go-go Ninjas
Ant Sang and Michael Bennett
Penguin Random House, $30.00,
ISBN 9780143771241

A creative collaboration between a writer and artist is common in the world of comics and graphic novels. Celebrated collaborators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Goscinny and Uderzo, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, and many more have frequently combined their talents to create memorable graphic stories.

But that’s often not the case here in New Zealand. Given the relatively small size of the local cottage comic industry, the task of creating a graphic novel is usually the passion project of a single author. Without the financial incentives or industry demand seen in other global publishing markets, creating a graphic novel here involves a great deal of time and personal sacrifice. It’s a burden that’s often easier to carry alone, rather than spread amongst collaborators who might not share the same vision or determination to see a project through to completion – often years in the making.

So it’s a pleasant surprise to see two creative talents of considerable clout, cartoonist Ant Sang and writer/filmmaker Michael Bennett, come together to create an off-the-wall time travel adventure in the form of Helen and the Go-go Ninjas. Sang has already built a substantial body of work as a cartoonist with his own graphic novels, The Dharma Punks and Shaolin Burning. Teaming up with writer Bennett – best known for In Dark Places, a non-fiction account of the Teina Pora case – makes for an intriguing creative partnership. Helen and the Go-go Ninjas was originally based on an ambitious screenplay by Bennett (which would have no doubt cost millions to capture on film); Sang does a great job of translating the sci-fi story onto the printed page.

The narrative opens in the present day. Helen is a young woman in her 20s, doing her part to raise awareness for global warming by illegally unveiling a protest banner from an inner-city building. Arrested by the police, she is soon released into the custody of her scientist boyfriend, Marion. Their relationship is strained, though, as he is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough, while her interest in eco-activism is drawing unwanted attention. He walks out on her but, before Helen can really process this, she is abducted by DIY ninjas and transported to the year 2355 – a dystopian future, where civilisation has collapsed and nature is now reclaiming the ruins.

Helen soon discovers that Marion’s invention, Peace Balls, organic spheres that inhibit cognitive functions and which were intended as medical aids, have survived the effects of global warming and now control the remaining human population. To save humanity, Helen must join the underground movement of Go-go Ninjas and travel back in time to prevent Marion from ever creating the Peace Balls. As with any good time-hopping adventure, not everything goes to plan, and there are unexpected plot twists along the way.

Sang and Bennett do a fine job of adapting the screenplay into a graphic novel. The story is well-paced, taking its time to set up the characters and premise (always important in a time travel story, particularly when scenes may be revisited multiple times), before briskly moving into a more action-orientated adventure. As you’d expect from a screenwriter, Bennett’s dialogue is crisp and lean, letting Sang’s artwork tell the story through thoughtfully captured facial expressions and body language.

Progressing from his previous graphic novels, Sang’s art style appears less cluttered and more confident. Gone are the dark shadows of The Dharma Punks, as he opens up his line-work to produce a fully coloured book for the first time. While time-consuming, it’s a real treat to see Sang add an extra dimension to his work, giving each environment its own distinct colour palette. From the glowing pink neon of the Go-go Ninjas’ lair to the antiseptic present day, the bold colouring helps communicate the constantly shifting timeline and locations for the reader. [Full disclaimer: I assisted Ant Sang in colouring some selected pages, but had no prior knowledge of the story or artwork.]

While the story tackles a timely theme regarding the consequences of climate change, it also features a predominantly female and ethnically diverse cast, a refreshing change from the over-muscled Caucasian action hero we see in most Hollywood time travel movies of this nature. Digging a little deeper, the gender politics on display here couldn’t be more relevant right now in the #MeToo era. Within the story, a religious cult of men known as “The Riders” have created hearing aids to make themselves immune from the effects of the Peace Balls and use their freedom to enslave and impregnate the remaining women against their will. The “Peace Balls” have literally silenced and segregated the women to serve The Riders’ twisted ideology of a New World.

Living underground to avoid the reach of the Peace Balls, the Go-go Ninjas have embraced the remnants of a past culture (they learn Kung-Fu from watching old Bruce Lee films) and must literally reach back in time to undo the patriarchal nightmare they find themselves in. In a nice bit of plotting, the key to the Go-go Ninjas’ ability to time-travel is made possible by the Peace Balls themselves. This cause and effect is echoed throughout the story in subtle ways, and like the best time-hopping stories the solution is usually hiding in plain sight, waiting for the right combination of events for it to be finally revealed.

And that’s not to say there aren’t some genuine surprises along the way. Helen undergoes both personal and physical changes during the story, which play directly into the final chapter. As you would expect in a time-travel story, earlier events are revisited at different times and from different angles, which works due to some clever art staging. Late in the story, there’s also a decent heel-turn to keep readers off-balance. 

If there are any drawbacks here, the screenplay origins occasionally short-change some of the supporting characters who don’t get nearly as much “screen time” or development as Helen herself: she is the audience surrogate, and we rarely leave her side. Also, occasional plot points, that would pass quickly on screen, don’t always hold up to the scrutiny of repeated reading on the printed page. (How exactly does an object from the past stay linked to a very specific date and time of day?)

That said, Bennett and Sang successfully imply a deeper history for some of the characters in just a few panels and glances. One death in particular hints at a tragic connection between The Riders and the Go-go Ninjas. 

In the tradition of other great comics collaborations, this book has brought out the best in both authors, pushing them into unexpected territory. It’s a treat to see Sang drawing the twisted wreckage of a dystopian future, complete with overgrown forests and exotic wildlife (watch out for those tigers!), in vivid Technicolor. While Bennett’s tight plotting and economic scripting perfectly complements the performances Sang’s artwork brings to life.

Helen and the Go-go Ninjas deserves to find a wide audience and should particularly appeal to teenagers, speaking to the concerns they see in the world around them, from climate change to toxic masculinity. It doesn’t pull any punches, while never failing to entertain.

Adrian Kinnaird is the author of From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand’s Comics, a review of which can be found in the New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive.

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Posted in Graphic novel, Literature, Review
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