Comic relief
    Photo courtesy of Josh Elder / North by Northwestern

    During the seven months his life was in jeopardy, Northwestern graduate Josh Elder wrote a nationally syndicated comic.

    The ’02 grad has come a long way from the day he was diagnosed with cancer nine years ago. Since then, he has worked every aspect of the comic book industry, from interning with DC Comics, to reviewing graphic novels for the Chicago Sun-Times, to putting his own comic ideas on paper. Recently, he moved to Los Angeles to become director of publishing at Legendary Comics, where he oversees production and runs all publishing operations.

    In his work with comics, Elder has run the gamut of major U.S. media hubs, in cities including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. However, he first found his fit in the comic world at Northwestern while studying film.

    “I said to my friend one day, ‘What if you could get a ninja out of those … crazy old ads they used to have [in the back of comic books]?’” says Elder. “And my friend said, ‘Dude, that’s the best idea you ever had,’ and he was right.”

     As an RTVF major, Elder’s passion for screenwriting led him to draft what was originally planned as a short film about a boy who orders a bona-fide, sword-toting ninja from the back of a comic book. Elder soon realized his short film wasn’t going to work for two reasons: Ninjas are expensive, Elder says, and parents might be wary of letting their children play with college students and sharp weapons.

    “So, with the film option as a practical reality off the table, I thought, well, why don’t I just do it as a comic?” Elder says.

    Elder’s ninja comic idea settled in his mind and matured throughout his college years into a concrete story called Mail Order Ninja.

    The Mail Order Ninja script took shape at an unlikely time. Elder drafted it soon after his college career ended, while coping with the aftershock of an unexpected and sudden cancer diagnosis. A doctor at Searle Hall found the cancer about a month before Elder graduated.

    Elder, complaining of chest pains in the Searle clinic one day, left soon after with a shadow on his chest X-ray and, later, a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease, a type of lymphoma. His last column for the Daily Northwestern detailed his feelings on facing a disease with a real possibility of death.

    “I was diagnosed with it Thursday, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Elder wrote in the column, published May 29, 2002 and titled “Recent diagnosis bad for the body, good for the soul.” 

    Elder had no idea what was going to happen in the future, or if he’d have one. He was facing a disease with roughly an 80 percent recovery rate, and at the same time, readying himself to leave the safe haven of college for a harsher world of adults and employment.

    In a way, Elder’s disease was a motivator for his artistic ambitions. The script for Mail Order Ninja, soon to be successful, took shape between hospital visits and through months of painful treatment.

    “[I knew] that I’d make something that would outlive me, if that’s what it came down to, but at the same time, I was confident I would live to see it come to fruition,” says Elder.

    Though he did have to shave his head and “all that fun stuff,” Elder says his hair has come back in nicely since then. It was a long seven months, but he’s been in complete remission for nine years now.

    Elder hired illustrator Eric Owen to help bring his comic vision to life. On the edge of self-publishing Mail Order Ninja, he entered the comic, on a whim, into a contest for aspiring American graphic novel writers called Rising Stars of Manga. Mail Order Ninja won the grand prize, including a slot in the contest’s fifth anthology of winning comics. The contest, held by manga and English-language graphic novel publishing company TOKYOPOP, resulted in a book deal for Elder’s work and a syndication deal soon after. Mail Order Ninja ran in the Sunday editions of over 50 U.S. newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe, from January to June of 2007.

    Elder says after Mail Order Ninja’s success, he became a sort of comic “ambassador” in his work as a public speaker, publisher and writer. Comics taught Elder how to read when he was four years old, and decades later, Elder’s own comic creation, Mail Order Ninja, has been his final stepping stone into the professional world of comics.


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