Travis Johnson / March 12, 2019
Veteran comics writer Larry Hama is best known for his work on Marvel’s G.I. Joe franchise, where he took what could have been a cynical toy line marketing tie-in and created a dynamic and hugely popular universe where salty commandos do battle with snake-themed terrorists in a neverending covert ouroboros of action. A military veteran and accomplished martial artist, Hama brought a rare sense of authenticity to the proceedings. Sure, out-there characters like Cobra Commander, Serpentor, and Doctor Mindbender were running around sporting a variety of cloaks, cowls, and silly accents, but the G.I. Joe team itself, for the most part, at least, felt grounded, even as it dealt with completely over-the-top threats (G.I. Joe is basically “what if the U.S. military had to deal with Bond villains on the reg?”). Hama’s deep respect and sympathy for the boots-on-the-ground grunt is a big part of what makes the comic work, and it extended across ideological lines; a given member of the Joe team might find he had more in common with his opposite number in the Soviet Oktober Guard, or even the odd less blatantly evil Cobra operative, than the top brass sitting at the distant pinnacle of the chain of command. This attitude imbued the G.I. Joe series with a complexity and moral ambiguity that was rare in mainstream comics altogether, let alone cross-media tie-ins.
Yet for all its success—G.I. Joe ran for 155 issues from 1982 to 1994, and that’s not including spin-offs like G.I. Joe: Special Missions, G.I. Joe: European Missions, a separate title rebranded Action Force for the British market, and more—the series is not Hama’s most complex work, nor his most ambitious. That honor falls to an under-appreciated and to this day uncollected Marvel book he wrote for 16 issues from August 1989 until December 1990 with the unlikely title of Nth Man: The Ultimate Ninja (for the sake of completeness, Nth Man also appeared in a brief prologue story in Marvel Comics Presents #25, and guest starred in Excalibur #27. Neither are essential). The creative team included Ron Wagner on pencils (except for issue #8, with pencils by Dale Keown), Fred Fredericks on inks for all but one issue, Mark Chirello on colors, and Janice Chiang on letters, under the editorship of Bobbie Chase.
Early impressions indicated that Nth Man was going to be a story in the familiar Hama military adventure style. The first issue, titled “Recall,” opened with the ominous and intriguing caption “Over the outskirts of Moscow, six months after the start of World War III…” and thrust the reader into a high stakes, high casualty rescue mission, as a team of American Green Berets and Navy SEALS attempts to bust the titular Nth Man, aka John Doe (no, really), the CIA’s top assassin, out of KGB headquarters, where he’s been imprisoned for a year.
The reason for the mission? John is needed to assassinate Alfie O’Meagan, a powerful and insane psychic who, not very long ago, made the benign and terrifying choice to use his powers to eliminate all the nuclear weapons in the world—the reason why World War III is being waged by NATO and Warsaw Pact forces with conventional weapons, allowing Hama to deploy all the jargon, acronyms, and technical details he could want to, and explaining why the comic isn’t set in an irradiated wasteland. The complication? Much like Tetsuo and Kaneda in Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga epic Akira (a likely influence here), John and Alfie grew up in the same orphanage together, and though he may be a ruthless killer, John isn’t exactly keen to pull the trigger on his only childhood friend.
Tonally, with its overt military setting and characters and fraught geopolitical situation, Nth Man at first taste resembles any number of Cold War conflict fantasies, from the tabletop RPG Twilight 2000, to the John Milius film Red Dawn (1984), to Richard Austin’s The Guardians series of men’s adventure novels—familiar grist for kids of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s raised on a diet of Rambo movies, Saturday morning cartoons, and nuclear paranoia. It was immediately apparent that Nth Man was a darker and more mature exercise than G.I. Joe, which Hama was writing concurrently. If nothing else, being freed from the constraints of keeping action figures alive resulted in a higher body count, and the first issue’s strike team is shot to pieces rescuing our hero, leaving only gung-ho 19-year-old Green Beret Sergeant Deb Levin and kindly dentist/ninja master Doc Yagyu, John’s mentor, to join him for the next 15 issues.
If one thing really pins Nth Man to its historical period, it’s the series’ cheerful overuse of ninja tropes and window dressing—that subtitle, The Ultimate Ninja, has certainly not aged well, and was quietly replaced with the more evocative Beyond World War III starting with issue #11. The seeming appeal to the ninja fad is leavened by two things: firstly, Hama was (and is) one of he best writers of ninja-themed material in comics, thanks to his own background in martial arts; second, while Nth Man is replete with gritty action and martial arts mayhem, these elements are in service to ambitious aims. Originally conceived as a novelistic 24-issue limited series, Nth Man sees Hama really pushing himself, both conceptually and formally.
Speaking to Newsarama, Hama said of the series: “I think it was my answer to Watchmen. I just started with the premise of there actually being somebody with vast telekinetic powers, and thought about what if that person was a geeky kid?” But later in the same interview he avowed that he had “… [a] very sketchy idea of where it was all going. I knew it all folded back on itself in the rinse cycle, but didn’t know exactly how until I got there. I never knew how any issue was going to end until I got to the last page”—which, if nothing else, speaks well of the writer’s ability to keep a lot of plates spinning. Nth Man never feels improvised, though. Characters recur, minor events have major plot and thematic implications, and the themes are echoed and reinforced at every level of the narrative.
The book’s formal complexity is deeply influenced by its nominal villain, Hama’s “geeky kid,” Alfie O’Meagan (a deliberate semi-homonym for “Alpha Omega,” the beginning and the end). As we gradually learn through a series of flashbacks to 1968, when both Alfie and John were 10, the two boys were delivered to the Merrivale Home for Boys in Iowa as babies, handed over by a woman who proceeded to burst into flames, but not before she warned, “One of them is very, very good… and the other is very, very bad!!!” The mystery of their origin hangs over the entire series.
We are positioned, of course, to view Alfie as the bad, and John as the good, and in the numerous flashbacks to 1968, young John is altogether saintly—a calm, compassionate, self-sacrificing boy who protects the erratic, hyperactive, and often malicious Alfie from abuse at hands of the orphanage’s alcoholic manager, Mr Biggot, his accomplice, Nurse Gooch, and fellow orphans and bullies Huey and Turtle. How the benign young John Doe becomes the deadly assassin is a question Hama brings to us gradually across the entire span of the series, and the answer is central to the book’s resolution.
In 1968, Alfie’s nascent powers are beginning to manifest, largely in his ability to show himself and others visions of both the future and the past, the latter of which he calls his “Could-Bes.” Hama employs these powers as in-universe justifications to move the narrative back and forth in time, combining the conceit with imaginative panel progressions to highlight the thematic and narrative parallels in each time period.
Hama also draws on the pop culture ephemera of the ‘60s to put us in the period, although, for a comic, Nth Man shows a marked distrust of pop cultural obsessions (perhaps this element is more readily apparent in the current age and cultural climate, where obsessive, obnoxious fans seem to have colonized every corner of the internet). Alfie is a “Marvel Zombie”—a fan who collects The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man and delights in pretending to be Galactus and stomping John’s toy soldiers. He carries his obsessions into adulthood; in issue #6, when his powers are fully developed (one of Alfie’s abilities is being able to psychically improve his own gifts—an echo of AI singularity paranoia, perhaps?), he grows to giant size and magics up a Galactus costume before crushing real soldiers underfoot. In a notable contrast, issue #9 sees 10-year-old John reading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
The saintly John and the saturnine Alfie are the central binary opposition in a text that delights in binary oppositions. With its viscera exposed, Nth Man is a series of mirror images, both dark and light, ranging from the vast military-industrial machinery of the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. all the way down to the men on the ground. Alfie aside, John has another opposite number in the form of Colonel Vavara Novikova, head of the Spetsburo assassination program for the KGB, and a character who vacillates between enemy, professional rival, and love interest as the plot dictates. Novikova, a deadly femme fatale in the mold of G.I. Joe’s The Baroness, has her own opposite number in the form of Deb Levin, the all-American girl to Novikova’s ruthless ice queen, and a rival for John’s affections. Further down the supporting character ranks we have bespectacled, chain-smoking, laconic American crack-shot Sergeant Marvin Sargent, set against bespectacled, chain-smoking, laconic Russian crack-shot Captain Alexander Ivanovich Soloviev. Mirrors and parallels. The pattern repeats.
While novelistic in ambition, Nth Man is frequently poetic in tone, with Hama and his artists taking advantage of the bifurcated temporal structure and Alfie’s time-bending, loosely defined powers to present us with a number of striking images, such as when apples sliced for a pie in 1968 Iowa fall to the ground in a Russian field in 1989. Elsewhere, it’s the repeated contrast of small moments of beauty against a larger background of wartime horror and atrocity—issue #3 sees John put a bouquet of red roses in the hands of a dead Russian medic; pages later, Russian war orphans hack apart a wounded Chinese soldier as revenge for a massacre (which turns out to be U.S-ordered—Hama’s mistrust of upper echelon motives and methods again).
As the series progresses, things get even more surreal, and the timeline gets more jumbled. Alfie, filled with messianic fervor, flies off into space to find aliens to save who will hopefully be more grateful than the humans he has blessed with his benevolence. Smartly, Alfie never views himself as a villain—in his mind he’s a hero, but that mind is emotionally stunted. His oft-paraphrased rejoinder is, “The only limit to my power is the limit imposed… by my boundless compassion for all mankind!” He wants to be a hero, but pursues that goal in childish and simplistic ways, and is angry when he doesn’t get the praise he thinks he deserves.
Alfie’s adventures in space bring to the comic a more cosmic flavor, mirrored back on Earth with increasing weirdness as a mutated plague, resulting from the Great Powers rearming their missiles with biological rather than nuclear warheads, ravages the globe, and the long-dead Mr. Biggot and Nurse Gooch, resurrected as rotting zombies by Alfie in issue #11, become the heads of a religious cult devoted to him. It’s possible that these developments were a step too far from the military action promised by Nth Man’s early installments. The series was truncated from a projected 24 issues down to only 16—enough time for Hama to get to some kind of story resolution, if he was nimble enough. He was, employing a sudden one-year time skip between issues #14 and #15. Hama now brings most of his cast together as part of a combined Russian/U.S. military action against the “Moot Empire” comprised of people mutated by biological weapons and under the sway of Biggot and Gooch. Almost everyone shows up—even Huey, as it turns out, who is now a high-ranking Moot, although his old bullying buddy, Turtle, grew up to be a heroic Air Force fighter jock.
Echoing Stephen King’s 1978 The Stand (in a manner similar to how the sequences at the Merrivale Home in 1968 somewhat echoed King’s 1986 It), issues #15 and #16 make good of the inherent promise of going “Beyond World War III” just in time for the whole story to wrap up, finally answering the series’ two most pertinent questions: where did John and Alfie come from, and how did the nigh-angelic John Doe of 1968 become the professional killer of the book’s contemporary period? Quite simply, he did not.
The big reveal comes in issue #15: when they were teenagers, Alfie brought the undead Gooch and Biggot back in time to murder John, only to immediately regret his actions and resurrect him. The catch is that Alfie brings back John as he sees him: a more selfish and cynical character, and one capable of deception and violence. Ironically, this gives Doc Yagyu, John’s mentor and adoptive father, the ninja pupil he wanted, at the cost of the perfect boy he had. In the present, John, now imbued with Alfie’s power in order to defeat a cosmic menace that followed Alfie back to Earth, uses it to recreate himself as he once was and, not wanting to continue the inevitable ongoing battle with Alfie, transports them both back in time to Iowa, 1958, de-aging them to babies in a paradoxical time loop—they will always be found at the orphanage, grow and struggle until this point, travel back in time, and repeat the events. Novikova, in love with John, follows them, only to burst into flames when her infant self is born at the same time she arrives in 1958—an event foreshadowed way back in issue #5.
In terms of plot, Nth Man covers a remarkably wide field in the course of its 16 issues, traversing vast swathes of time and space. However, in terms of theme, the series keeps coming back to one core question—nature vs. nurture, another of Hama’s beloved binaries. Rather than thrash out the question in the story and arrive at some kind of conclusion, Nth Man instead presents us with two characters who each embody one element of the binary. John Doe—the original John Doe—is Nature. His core characteristics are unchangeable. He is a compassionate pacifist, possessed of boundless empathy and essential goodness and, as the comic goes out of its way to show, no amount of beatings at the hands of Biggot or Huey, no amount of betrayals and cruelties from Alfie, can rob him of that.
A key sequence demonstrating this occurs in issue #13, after the Merrivale Home burns down and Alfie is adopted by kindly farming couple the O’Meagans. John goes off to California with Doc Yagyu to ostensibly learn to be a ninja. There, he discovers that Doc keeps his own dead son’s room, filled with all the accoutrements of an American boyhood, under lock and key, while John himself sleeps on a futon in a bare room. Rather than rail at the unfairness of it, John understands and accepts Yagyu’s immense pain over the loss of his child—an act of compassion that is simply Christlike.
It’s worth reflecting on the fact that this John is not the hero of our story for much of Nth Man’s run: the protagonist we follow is a corrupted copy of the original. It’s a bold subversion of the “do whatever it takes” military professional that normally populates these kinds of stories. Simply by possessing the characteristics that make for a typical actual hero, John 2.0 is, by Nth Man’s lights, inherently lesser; his capacity for violence makes him so. The original John not only had no capacity for violence, he could never be capable of committing harm. He is Nature. He is Order.
Alfie, in direct contrast, is Nurture. He is Chaos—a capricious and mercurial being ever at the whims of both his own unstable mind and the world around him. Alfie can only react. His actions while at the orphanage, such as when he kills the cook’s kitten, are learned actions: he has been shown cruelty, and so he visits cruelty on others. When, while living with the O’Meagans, he kills some chickens and is comforted rather than punished, he is overwhelmed by the kindness shown to him. As he says in Issue #10:
But Alfie is wholly subject to the circumstances he finds himself in, and those circumstances generally include the U.S. military apparatus trying to figure out how to use or deal with a being of his incredible power. His primal wound is the death of his adoptive parents when he was 16, an event that led to his killing of John in grief. Later in issue #10, he learns that the O’Meagans were in fact not killed; they were CIA agents ordered to pose as prospective adoptees, a revelation that sends him over the edge and sets up the endgame of the entire series.
Order and chaos, nature and nurture, war and peace, life and death, love and hate—all big, powerful, primal themes. Hama uses the image of a rinse cycle repeatedly both in the comic and when he’s spoken about it publicly, but the image that comes most fully to mind is the Yin and Yang: cyclical but parallel, balanced but oppositional. It’s a remarkable work from a writer at the peak of his powers, standing as both an artifact of its time and a perfect encapsulation of the themes and concerns that engage the mind behind it. In that light, it’s frustrating that the series remains a footnote in Hama’s career: it’s never been reprinted since its initial run, and remains unavailable digitally. That’s a shame. The Nth Man is ripe for rediscovery, its hour come ‘round again. As ever.
Travis Johnson is a writer and critic based in Sydney, Australia. He specializes in genre fare, but spreads a wide net. Thus, he catches a lot of strange fish. Find most of his work at Celluloid and Whiskey. Tweet him at @CelluloidWhisky.