As an adult, I am absolutely not prone to fads. (I bought that fidget spinner last week IRONICALLY, people.) But, as an adolescent, I was truly swept up in the 1980’s ninja craze.
I mentioned “Ninja” magazine here not too long ago — this was precisely the sort of periodical that fueled the misguided ambitions of tweens and young teenage boys everywhere. (We also had movies like “Enter The Ninja,” “Revenge of the Ninja” and the “American Ninja” series. If you’re a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, and you’ve seen the show skewer Lee Van Cleef’s “The Master” TV movie, that was an unfortunate product of the 1980’s ninja obsession.)
“Ninja” magazine was published by Condor Books between 1983 and 1995. I had a bunch of issues, including all those shown below, if memory serves. They were fun. Those covers you see doubled as pullout posters at the middle of each magazine. There were a lot of martial arts magazines like this. (I seem to remember a rival entitled “Ninjamania,” but Google isn’t much help with that.)
It must have been tough for the writers here to generate ideas. (They were writing a periodical magazine about what was basically supposed to be “an ancient art form.”) One of the go-to story ideas was to portray different kinds of historically dubious theme-ninjas. Hence the “Earth Ninja” and the “Fire Ninja” headlines you see on the covers below. There was even a modern “Rainbow Ninja” — some real, enterprising martial artist had emblazoned his traditional black outfit with rainbows across his chest. Even an impressionable kid liked me knew that was pretty dopey. It looked like something you would see today in a pride parade, and I can’t imagine it helped the ninja “blend into the shadows.”
I … wanted to become a ninja, when I was 12 or so. I figured I would have to eventually travel to Japan to do it. In the meantime, I studied my magazines, and constructed what weapons I could — including a pretty nifty crossbow (which I’m pretty sure historical ninja never used) and some surprisingly workable nun-chucks. (My “nunchaku” were crafted by two sawed-off lengths of broomstick, connected by a short chain.) My mother had forbidden me to purchase any of the ninja knives (“tanto”) or throwing stars (“shuriken”) from the ads at the back of every magazine, so I had to improvise. She did allow me to have a ninja mask, though.
Hey — I wasn’t the only one doing this. I had a lot of company — as evidenced by the demand for these products. The fellow members of my “ninja clan,” “The Nightcrawlers,” lived right on my suburban street. And the fad lasted a lot longer than parachute pants or hacky sacks, people. It actually lasted longer than Atari. And it arguably helped get kids reading or (God forbid) outside exercising.
Anyway, not all of “Ninja” magazine’s content was pure cheese. I actually remember reading a quite decent short story in one issue. It was called “The Sparrow that Feeds on Hawks.” It featured, perhaps predictably, a young boy who became a ninja in order to defeat a cruel group of adult samurai. But it was surprisingly thoughtful and well constructed for a what was essentially the 80’s equivalent of the 1950’s pulp magazines. If I ever find it on the Internet, I’ll link to it here.