Exclusive: Ronald Wimberly Channels ‘80s Martial Arts Excess in GratNin

Comics Features
Exclusive: Ronald Wimberly Channels ‘80s Martial Arts Excess in GratNin

Ronald Wimberly’s artwork is a protest against immobility.

Known for illustrating the 2007 comic biography of rapper M.F. Grimm, Sentences, and his dynamic reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet via Coney Island, The Prince of Cats, Wimberly’s newest foray perfectly suits his unmistakable aesthetic of speed and style. GratNin, short for Gratuitous Ninja, doesn’t cut or jolt or flip along the printed page—it cascades down a digital screen of limbs extended in kinetic combat and characters poised in firecracker tension.


Offered solely on the new comic book app St?la, GratNin presents the story of Gowanus kids embracing a legacy of martial-arts mysticism. It joins a cadre of other projects written and drawn exclusively for smartphones. Out today, the comic flows vertically at a ferocious pace to match Wimberly’s hyper-stylized modern mythology.

Though the artist’s work has graced a number of colorful projects in the last few years—including She-Hulk at Marvel and sci-fi epiphany Prophet at Image—2016 will see the release of new original projects from the Brooklyn creator, including the neo-gothic gentrification parable Sunset Park and alternative history Civil War epic, Slave Punk. Paste emailed with Wimberly to discuss the way of the ninja and creating comics for the smart phone.

Paste: Let’s start with the origins of the project. What’s the inspiration?
Ronald Wimberly: I grew up in the ‘80s, the end of the Showa era and the final act of Japan’s, post-war economic trouncing of America. I grew up surrounded by Japanese exports and cultural commodities. It was the decade of the Ninja. Ninja came to symbolize unstoppable, shrewd, subversive power. This obviously stuck with me.

Right before I dropped out in the 4th act of my time at Pratt, I joined the Static Fish, the Pratt Comic club. I had made one comic before I discovered [French artist Moebius’ graphic novel] Arzach. I decided my next comic would be silent. I would focus on storytelling. I couldn’t think of a subject. “Silence…action,” Gratuitous Ninja, GratNin for short, was born. It’s evolved over the years as a playground for me to work out different things. It’s finally solidified into what I’m doing for St?la.

GratNin Art by Ronad Wimberly

Paste: The majority of your works take place in Brooklyn, addressing specific locales. The Prince of Cats covered Coney Island, your upcoming project Sunset Park highlights gentrification in the titular area and now GratNin takes aim at Gowanus. Why is Brooklyn such a constant muse for you? Are these works in dialogue with one another? Do they share a universe?
Wimberly: I live in Brooklyn, baby. If I move, the stories will change. It’s why I’ve been reluctant to move; it’s easier this way. I hope to do some international stories, too. One day, I’d like to do a story about my hometown, Washington, D.C. Brooklyn was the home I chose. Most of my adult life stories take place in this theater. So when I write about things or imagine things, I work with the palette that I have. Writing can be hard enough, it’s easier to have something familiar or easily observable to start with, an underpainting, a melody to build on. From Prince of Cats on, all of my personal works take place in the same universe.

Paste: Looking into the last two questions, I definitely felt a pre-Giuliani Zero-Tolerance New York City on this project. Were you of age to ever visit the grindhouse theaters before they were gentrified away? What films or media made the biggest impact?
Wimberly: Lol, way too young for that. I got here in ‘97. And I was spending most of my time in Brooklyn. If I remember correctly, not long after, Giuliani would institute curfews in the area. THAT really changed the vibe. But by then, the “grindhouse theater” was “bootleg DVDs from Chinatown.” I think you’d have to be in your 50s, at least, to remember the Hi, Mom! days of 42nd street and such. I saw the old NY on the occasion my great gramma would take me on church trips to plays and such. I remembered thinking it looked like Ghostbusters.

For me, when I first got to NY, actually it was the summer of ‘96, I was visiting Pratt for portfolio review. Kids had just come out; that was influential. I was influenced by drinking beers and smoking blunts in the street. Around that time, I wasn’t really watching anime or grindhouse movies that much, but I grew up watching them on channel 20 or 50 in D.C. On my way home, crossing the Manhattan bridge, my Mom interrupted my Ron G tape I copped from the East Village. I took off my headphones. “Did you hear? A rapper got shot…,” she said. It was Biggie.

GratNin Art by Ronad Wimberly

Paste: You tend to experiment with format and media type in your works. The Prince of Cats merged poetry with comics, you’ve said that Sunset Park will use the format of gothic novels. At first glance, GratNin seems to incorporate some grindhouse kung fu elements. Does this work innovate in a parallel manner?
Wimberly: If you’re asking about GratNin innovating in a parallel manner to Prince of Cats, yes, somewhat. I’m still figuring out my work process on St?la. It presents unique problems to solve. Drafting GratNin, I took on new formalist constraints along the way. Limiting myself to a certain amount of screen heights per episode, palette, defining page height, etc. I’ve even used some poetic repetition, but it’s nothing as strict as Prince of Cats.

With GratNin I’ve been looking at what Sanpei Shirato (The Legend of Kamui) did with the genre. Thinking about what he said about contemporary life with the ninja genre vs. what Masashi Kishimoto (Naruto) has said; playing with the tropes in both those and other ninja stories. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to try and make a new work in the tradition of Sanpei Shirato’s work while remaining true to my personal experience. How much do I want to flirt with pastiche? I keep a Tumblr feed of things I make, scan or find that are related to the themes in GratNin.

GratNin Art by Ronad Wimberly

Paste: One of the characters throws a “Proust Knuckle” (or is that the character?). Should we expect more martial art that combines iconic literary figures with fighting feats? How much do those literary figures’ themes represent the techniques/characters?
Wimberly: Sure. The character is a young chunin by the name of Mo. She’s kind of bookish; she has many interests. She is appropriating her sensei’s advanced techniques into her own style and renaming them without knowing the full effect of the original techniques; also, she can’t read many kanji and cannot understand the names of the techniques she’s stealing. The literary themes relate directly to the techniques and are named after their effects. But she also names techniques after other things. Fairly early on she uses a technique named after Andy Warhol.

Paste: GratNin, even in title alone, seems more thematically light-hearted than Sunset Park and Slave Punk. What’s this project allow you to articulate that the other ones don’t?
Wimberly: This project is very indulgent. This is an action comic influenced by shonen. It essentially has many of the same themes as Sunset Park, but it’s a different take on those themes. Something thematically unique to GratNin is that it deals with appropriation; It’s a way for me to have a conversation about appropriation in a way that didn’t happen with Prince of Cats but was sparked by the conversations I’d have about Prince of Cats.

Paste: Regarding appropriation, are you referring to the act more generally or in terms of manga specifically? What are your personal guidelines for respectful appropriation, or is that even the language to accurately address the situation? How does that apply to GratNin?
Wimberly: I was referring to the act more generally AND in terms of manga.

GratNin isn’t really a strict pastiche. I use some manga language as it’s useful. There are several mangaka whose work I respect, and since I’ve learned my craft mostly from experimentation and studying the work of artists I respect, I have, at least I hope, adapted the language of those mangaka to my language.

As for GratNin specifically, I have looked at Sanpei Shirato in how he used genre as a tool to address social issues. I am also interested in continuing or countering dialogues on race, sex, gender and ethics that I have found in shonen manga. My goal is to continue the discussion with the manga vernacular, though I often just slip into my own thing.

I don’t have guidelines for respectful appropriation. I just try and see the world as is and not as commodity. I try to put myself out there as honestly as possible. But the viewer sees the work through their lens. A picture of my mother could be pornography to someone else.

GratNin Art by Ronad Wimberly

Paste: Tell me about the process of designing comics for mobile only. Was there a huge adjustment from designing comics for print/desktop/responsive devices? Did you have to rethink concepts like the “infinite canvass”?
Wimberly: It’s been an evolving process. I did an infinite-ish canvas before for a GratNin story called “Loan Sharks,” so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. Coincidentally, I like East Asian art with flat aesthetic and perspective, so thinking about space in this way was fun for me. I don’t use the same sort of perspective, at least not yet, but I’ve had a lot of fun with this constraint.

I started out working more digitally, even considering working on my computer exclusively, but I gave in and went back to paper. I like the feel of it. It’s less efficient, but it’s an indulgence I keep for myself; it’s sensual. It helps me get through the process. I don’t particularly enjoy drawing on the computer yet. I made drawing on paper a reward for finishing my writing/breakdowns.

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