With Elektra — arguably the progenitor of the comic book ninja craze in the 1980s — recently making her way to TV with Daredevil season two, we’ve been thinking about our favourite hidden warriors and their place in western comics history. Here’s the 15 best shinobi, heroes and villains alike, to have ever graced our comic books.
A quick note: To prevent a list full of, say, the entire cast of Naruto, this list focuses on ninja characters created for American and European comics. For more badass ninja from their country of origin (in various media), check out our past look at some of the best female shinobi and samurai around.
15) White Ninja
White Ninja barely makes this list, as he has only made one appearance in the Marvel universe, namely in Fear Itself #1. But he actually managed to go toe-to-toe with Spider-Man during his brief time in the spotlight, and could actually turn himself invisible on top of being a master of stealth, a technique that is surely very handy for a ninja.
Sadly, White Ninja ended up being a bit of a chump in the end. Hired by Baroness Zemo to steal a set of crystals that emitted a mist that could induce nightmarish visions, White Ninja used them in his battle with Spider-Man to gain the upper hand... until a breeze blew the mist into his own face, causing him to fall into a nearby gorge in a fit of delirium. So close, White Ninja.
14) Death Ninja
Poor Death Ninja. Maybe one of the most persevering shinobi on the list, this Ghost Rider foe went up against the Spirit of Vengeance and ended up being one of Ghost Rider’s first kills. He was then resurrected by another Ghost Rider villain, Centurious, and forbidden to die, making him more or less a zombie ninja.
Zombie ninja sounds cool, right? Not for Death Ninja, who just wanted to die. He tried several times to earn his soul back by claiming Ghost Rider’s own, but failed every single time before he was eventually blasted by a hellfire shotgun, a magical weapon capable of permanently destroying demonic entities, and granted eternal rest.
A member of the Blackhawks in DC’s New 52 reboot of the series, Nikki Nemzer was one of the team’s infiltration experts, and at one point she was given super-strength after being infused with nanotechnology by Mother Machine (a former member of the Blackhawks that went rogue). There wasn’t much more to Nikki — Blackhawks lasted just eight issues — but kudos to her for having the least creative hero name on the list, as “Kunoichi” is literally just the Japanese word for a female ninja.
It could be argued that Whisper was more of a faux-ninja rather than an actual ninja; Steven Grant’s heroine spent just as much time pretending to be an international assassin as she did utilising the ninjutsu techniques she was trained in as a child. But that’s what made her so fun. Whisper had pretty much no idea what she was doing, but could still take down international conspiracies and villains like it was no problem. No ninja was ever better at making it up as she went along.
Betsy Braddock isn’t just a mutant, but an extremely talented ninja... sort of. You see, Betsy (sister of the original Captain Britain) was originally an English girl born with telepathic powers, but when she was transferred from Marvel’s UK comics in Captain Britain into the US branch of the company, she became a major X-Men character. More uniquely, her soul was thrust into the body of ninja and minor X-hero Revanche, and the extremely not-Asian Besty was suddenly of Eastern Asian descent.
It’s hard to deny that a ninja with psychic blades as weapons is cool, but Betsy’s puzzled origins make her a weird, racially problematic figure that gets a few points knocked off for being a totally bizarre take on the “white ninja” trope.
10) Zen the Intergalactic Ninja
What’s cooler than a ninja? A ninja from outer space, naturally. Steve Stern and Dan Cote’s cult hero Zen came from Baltoon, a genetic experiment due to be terminated before one of the scientists rescued him and shipped him off to another planet. Zen was taken in by a clan of mysterious martial artists, who trained him to be the ultimate ninja for hire in the cosmos.
Zen’s rights traded hands multiple times during the ‘90s, with the character flitting from a semi-serious “edgy” mercenary to a more generic (and slightly goofy) hero. For all his cult success, most people probably know him from a pretty alright NES game released in 1993.
9) Shredder and the Foot Clan
Just like their mutant turtle foes, Shredder and his Foot Clan were originally created as a pastiche of the ninja-fascination trend kicked off by the arrival of the Hand in Marvel’s Daredevil comics. They evolved into their own unique identities as Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s series took off, especially after theTMNT franchise exploded in popularity with the release of the animated series. They were so popular they essentially became the Turtles’ primary foes, even though they weren’t in the comics. However, that’s never stopped them from being a pretty deadly group of ninjas, pastiche or otherwise.
8) Amiko Kobayashi
Amiko had a pretty miserable upbringing (her mother was killed when a giant dragon rampaged through Tokyo) before being taken in as the foster child of Wolverine and his then-fiancé Mariko Yashida. After Mariko’s assassination, she was put into foster care once more, but Wolverine pulled her out of the system when he discovered her new foster parents were abusing her. Eventually, Amiko learned her real mother was part of the Shosei clan, a clandestine group of ninja-like “Mystic Guardians” sworn to protect Japan. Amiko has joined the Shosei to further her training in the hopes that she could honour her foster father’s legacy as a hero.
7) Kirigi and The Hand
The ninja clan that started it all! Daredevil’s longtime foes ended up playing a major part in the reinvention of Daredevil as hero under the guiding hand of Frank Miller. Over the years, many villains have been connected with the far-reaching ninja criminal organisation, but one of their most notable operatives (aside from a certain female assassin we’ll get to later) but Kirigi was the first one readers ever encountered, all the way back in 1981. A once legendary ninja, he was raised from the dead to be the Hand’s agent, granting him supernatural powers, including superhuman strength and a resistance to pain, on top of his mastery in the ninja arts. He was so good, the Hand keeps reviving him to keep fighting for them, even after Elektra decapitated him.
6) Lady Shiva
Considered one of the finest (if not the finest) martial artists in the entirety of the DC universe, Lady Shiva has flitted between kung-fu master heroine and League of Assassin ninja-for-hire several times during her long history — especially in the New 52, where she became a master of armed combat as well as unarmed fighting.
She’s been many things in her career, but she’s always been a complete badass first and foremost. She’s even kicked Batman’s butt a few times for good measure, and even helped retrain him after Bane broke his back in the famous “Knightfall” arc. Although she’s been defeated occasionally in her long career, only former Batgirl Cassandra Cain (and, long story short, Shiva’s daughter) has ever bested Shiva in one-on-one combat.
Although it’s debatable as to whether or not Sin City’s Miho was a samurai, ninja, or neither, the one thing that cannot be denied was her ferocity in combat. The ardent protector of Old Town and its prostitutes in several of Frank Miller’s Sin City yarns, Miho was a master of stealth and a variety of weapons, dancing around her opponents and jabbing at them from the shadows before moving in for the kill. Silent and incredibly deadly, Miho pretty much murdered every man that ever crossed her, save for Dwight McCarthy, who once saved her life in a fight with some gangsters.
Ninjak — real name Colin King — is pretty much the ultimate “badass normal” of Valiant Comics. A former mercenary for hire turned MI6 agent, Ninjak is one of the smartest people in the world, an Olympic-level athlete, and a master of ninjutsu, as well as both modern weaponry and martial arts. He uses his great abilities as one of the few non-powered heroes of the Unity squad in the Valiant universe, and can easily handle powered villains due to his finely honed abilities and extensive training. If Batman was British (and also an actual ninja), he’d be Ninjak.
3) The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
OK, the heroes in a half-shell might not be the deadliest or the most brutal ninjas on this list, but it’s hard to deny their importance in the realm of comic book ninjas. Originally created as a pastiche of the self-serious comic book ninja craze that had been spurred by the likes of Daredevil and G.I. Joe, the TMNT were four normal turtles mutated into bipedal sentient creatures by a chemical spillage.
Trained in the art of ninjutsu by Splinter, a mutant rat once owned by a master ninja murdered by the Foot clan, the Ninja Turtles were a tool for Splinter to get vengeance for his master in the original Mirage comics. The cartoon adaptation transformed the self-serious originals into pizza-loving, goofball heroes, and their popularity skyrocketed. Originally, though, they were pretty badass warriors, even if they were intended as a mockery of comic book ninjas.
2) Elektra Natchios
Sure, we’ve mentioned the Hand already, but Elektra stands on her own as one of the greatest ninja assassins in comic books, if not the most iconic. Having flitted between hero and villain ever since Frank Miller created her, Elektra was initially trained by Stick as a member of the Chaste, the Hand’s rival ninja faction, before giving into her darker side and joining the Hand as their master assassin. After engaging in a romantic relationship with Daredevil, Elektra perished at the hands of Bullseye, only to be resurrected (much to Miller’s chagrin) and has since flitted about the Marvel comics world as a warrior for hire.
1) Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes, and the Arashikage Clan
G.I. Joe is teeming with ninja characters, most of them usually associated with the Arashikage Clan, to the point that if we listed them separately this list would probably be 10 times as long. But although they were introduced after Elektra and the Hand were, they were just as important in helping Marvel turn ninjas into a hugely popular comic book trope in the 1980s. Well, more specifically, their two most famous members helped make ninjas famous in comic book culture: Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes.
Bitter rivals during their ninja training, Storm Shadow (who came from a long line of Arashikage assassins) and Snake Eyes (a former commando) eventually found themselves at odds when Storm Shadow was framed for the murder of their teacher, the Hard Master. Storm Shadow joined Cobra to figure out who was really behind the murder, but it put him up against Snake Eyes and the Joes, before he eventually uncovered the mystery and joined the Joes officially.
Their relationship formed the backbone of many of Marvel’s best G.I. Joe comics, making Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes two of the most popular characters in the entire franchise — and pretty much the iconic masked face of the series’ vast band of ninja heroes.