Zen, The Intergalactic Ninja
The toys, comics, and video games of Captain Planet's eco-friendly alien counterpart.
Zen the Intergalactic Ninja. Who's that, you ask? For those unfamiliar with Zen, he was a character that had the potential to rival Captain Planet for eco-friendly merchandising in the early '90s. Sadly, our blue galaxy-hopping friend never made it quite that far. Actually, he didn't make it far at all.
Ironically, Zen's humble beginnings are very close to that of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Both stem from the realm of independent comics. Originally created by Steve Stern and Dan Cote, Zen first appeared in #1 of Zen, Intergalactic Ninja in 1987, published through the very independent label of Zen Comics Publishing. By the early '90s, Archie Comics, under their Archie Adventure Series, licensed Zen for their own series. For those who don't know, Archie Comics also published a run of Ninja Turtles comics in the early '90s that toned down the violence from Eastman and Laird's original black-and-white comics, but also toned down the comedic flair of the animated series, settling on something strangely in-between the two.
In 1990 Ted Turner's creation, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, had made it to the airwaves. While many don't regard the show too fondly today, it remarkably made it through six seasons, a short-lived comic, a series of video games, a toyline, and was nearly made into a live-action movie.
With the success of Captain Planet and the 'save the earth' theme of the early '90s, Archie Comics directed their newly acquired license, Zen - The Intergalactic Ninja, to defending the earth from the self-styled scourge of the environment, Lord Contaminous.
Archie Comics published a three-part mini-series of the Zen comics, which wraps up the Lord Contaminous storyline.
As with Captain Planet, it was no secret that Archie Comics' Zen was very, and I mean very, environmentally conscious. In fact, by the end of the first issue, Zen is teamed-up with a gang of mismatched allies born from - get this - the Recyclotron - a machine that apparently recycles junk to make super heroes.
While Captain Planet was far more preachy when it came to the environmental message, Zen tried to get his message across in a less blatant manner - though the presence of the Recyclotron is hard to forget and a bit heavy handed for its own good. However, it's easier to forgive a bald, blue alien with no mouth who claims to be a ninja, after all, every kid knows that aliens and ninjas are cool - so recycling must be cool too! Zen himself never spouts any 'earth saving' jargon. In fact, he claims that he's a soldier of fortune and only arrives on the planet for a salvaging mission to reclaim something called the geocrystal.
Just Toys was responsible for the brief Zen toyline, which was relegated to only six figures. Zen and Lord Contaminous figures were a given. The others consisted of: Jeremy Baker, the first earthling Zen meets and subsequently teams up with. Can-It, a pro-recycling hero made from the Recyclotron and formed out of - you guessed it, cans! Lights Out, like Can-It is some make-shift hero made out of who-knows-what. Though, in the comic, he claims to be able to function energy-efficiently. Of course, how that would help against a hulking beast like Lord Contaminous is questionable. In fact, all the guys from the Recyclotron are pretty useless. And finally, the last figure released was of Garbageman, one of Contaminous' grunts who looked like Marvel's The Thing covered over with...uh...garbage.
Zen's spacecraft the Hypership and Contaminous' aptly named vehicle, The Contaminator, were featured in toy ads, but it's not clear if they were ever released.
Archie Comics went on to do a second three-issue mini-series of Zen, but the Zen line of Archie Comics ends there.
Based off the comics, a Nintendo NES game and a Game Boy game were released, both roughly following the comics.
It's safe to say that neither the comics, toys, or video games were all that successful. Though, Zen was popular enough to also warrant a vinyl model kit.
It's too bad Zen never received the cartoon treatment, because his charm far outweighed that of Captain Planet, who may have had his hand in the lackluster results of Zen's career. I guess in the early '90s there was only room for one anti-pollution hero.
By '94 Stern and Cota had renewed the Zen comics, now published by independent label Eternity, with a makeover. Zen was now more buff and given an edgier, darker look.
After the mid '90s series of comics came to an end, Zen's avid fans (they are out there in some distant galaxy) received a series of short stories in novella form.
In the late '00s a new Zen comic was published by Devil's Due (the company responsible for the return of the G.I. Joe comics). And the talk of a live-action movie made the rounds, though nothing has ever become of it.
With the world the way it is, maybe we need Zen now more than ever. After all, who would you rather have save the planet? Some flying guy who's summoned by a set of rings that look like they came out of a Cracker Jack box, or a badass neon blue ninja with a photon staff?