Talkin’ ’bout Turtles
by Marshall James
To say I am a fan of the Ninja Turtles’ comic lines is a bit of an understatement. I mean, I’m not a crazy fan, one with hundreds of pieces of memorabilia, but when it comes to the comics, I want them all. I recently completed the relatively daunting task of assembling all of the original Mirage Studios run of the TMNT, plus their supplemental books (thanks eBay and regular employment) and am looking for the last dozen or so issues to complete volumes 2-4 of the series.
Given my rabid attention to the comic adventures of the mean green fighting teens, Jaysun asked me to be the cub reporter following their current comic from IDW which I am rabidly following. The book is fantastic, filled with a lot of the heart and humor we love with a rebooted but awesome origin and a grittier feel than the cartoon that most of us remember from our youth. The book seamlessly makes nods to both the dark original comics and the more lighthearted Archie series (which started as a direct adaptation of the cartoons but quickly veered away from it.) To throw in, the art and colors are phenomenal; the only better looking book I read is Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Saga.
So let me give you some collector/goober’s back info on the comics themselves: There have been six real attempts at a comic line for the TMNT. The original volume (called appropriately enough, volume 1) was published by Mirage Studios, the company started by the Turtles’ creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. This volume ran for 62 issues with several supplementary books, including Tales of the TMNT which acted as a kind of anthology for other writers to showcase stories that didn’t fall into a specific rigid point in the timeline.
The next volume was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures published by Archie Comics; it was in color and as mentioned before began as a direct adaptation of the cartoon but quickly switched to its own stories which slowly returned the turtles to a grittier feel. It ran for 72 issues, along with quarterly ‘Specials’ that mimicked the anthology nature of Tales of the TMNT. It also launched The Mighty Mutanimals, a same-universe spin-off following some of the other mutant animal heroes in the Archiverse (as it came to be called.)
During this time, Mirage relaunched the turtle book with Volume 2, in full color like the Archie run. This scared Archie into canceling their book but the damage to Vol. 2′s sales from having two competing color books (and soon a third) caused it to only reach 13 issues before shutting down.
Vol. 3 launched in black and white with Image Comics and continued the trend of ‘comic turtles are much darker and more violent than cartoon turtles’ but inflicted several major changes to the major characters (like turning Donatello into a cyborg and mutilating Raphael and Leonardo.) It lasted 23 issues and would later be rendered non-canon by Peter Laird (the book had been written with the intent of it picking up where Vol. 2 ended.)
Vol. 4 was launched by Peter Laird and Jim Lawson and a reformed Mirage to much fanfare. It picked up fifteen years after Vol. 2 omitting Vol. 3′s events entirely. The book ran for 30 physical issues with issue 31 appearing online before Peter Laird sold the franchise. It also relaunched Tales of the TMNT which ran for 70 issues.Kevin Eastman had already sold his stake in the turtles before Vol. 4 so that he could purchase Heavy Metal magazine. Eventually the TMNT license would find its way into the hands of Viacom and Nickelodeon.
Briefly, Dream Wave Comics had the rights to do a comic adaptation of the 2003 cartoon. The book only lasted 7 issues but was fully illustrated by the amazing LeSan.
Now after all that backstory, you might be saying, “Marshall, I love the TMNT but I can’t imagine trying to go back and absorb all that lore and stuff. Its overwhelming.” Luckily for you IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is completely new, a reboot to the franchise as Nickelodeon relaunches a new cartoon. IDW got Kevin Eastman on board to write and do layouts and covers for the new series and his guiding hand is definitely felt in the series. The book has been running for one year as of last month and is already smashing with lots of story threads to give the series lots of legs. So I will recap the storyline so far and give my thought on the books. SPOILERS AHEAD.
The series began with a 5-issue arc that established a reboot of the franchise and concluded with the Turtles’ new origin. This kind of storytelling is the kind you can only really do with established characters like the TMNT, where we pretty much all know the previous variations on their origins (pet-rat-of-a-ninja-master/the-ninja-master-himself finds itself in the sewers of New York with some pet turtles, they get mutagen dumped on them, they all become anthropomorphic and he teaches them the way of the ninja.) In the IDW-verse, the turtles and Splinter are established early on as lab animals at StockGen, Baxter Stockman’s company. At this company is plucky intern/college co-ed April O’neil, which is a great callback to April’s life in the original Mirage books before the cartoon turned her into a reporter. April is actually taking a class on renaissance masters and is the one who names the turtles, while Splinter is named after the ‘mind splintering’ drug they are testing on him to boost his intelligence. Even as a rat he becomes aware of the nefarious schemes of Stockman of which April is naively unaware.
When ninjas from the Foot Clan break into the lab and nearly kill April while stealing the turtles and several other experimental chemicals, Splinter follows. He attacks a ninja in the face, forcing him to drop the bag with the turtles and the mutagen into an alley. This book introduces Old Hob, a cat who was mutated in the same incident as the turtles. Splinter awakens to find Hob attempting to make off with one of the turtles for supper. He attacks and forces Hob to fling the turtle away; Splinter is unable to find him before he must gather the three other turtles in a bag and escape into the sewers. He awakens to find himself and the turtles anthropomorphized, with Raphael missing.
Eighteen months pass and the turtles are ninja prodigies now, a curiosity which will be explained soon enough. They still seek Raphael, their missing brother Splinter insists exists. They clash with an anthropomorphized Old Hob who is under the employ of Baxter Stockman now to recover Splinter so the psychotropic drug he was injected with can be extracted. You see, Baxter is facing increasing pressure from General Krang who has contracted the mutagen research to him. You remember Krang, right? The talking brain in a robot body? Well he’s back and waging a war with the Neutrinos (more great callbacks, this time to the cartoon) and needs that mutagen and splinter drug NOW!
Meanwhile, Raphael has wandered the streets as an amnesiac mutant hobo. He intervenes as a teenage son is beaten by his alcoholic father. That boy? Casey Jones. From that point on, Raph and Casey regularly hit the town busting skulls. This leads them into confrontation with Old Hob and when hope seems lost, the other Turtles arrive, rescue them and reunite Raph with his father, Splinter.
Funny, that word: ‘father.’ In the old media the turtles called Splinter their father even though they couldn’t possibly be related. We accepted it as a reverential term for their sensei. Eastman decided that wasn’t good enough and I love what he did with it next. With the family reunited Splinter explains why they are family and why their ninja skills came so easily to them: in feudal Japan, the Foot Clan was a powerful force, with Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Saki at its head. Saki wanted the Foot to become less honorable mercenaries and more organized criminals, a move Yoshi would not abide. He left the Foot and was branded a traitor. His wife was murdered for it and his four young sons would have been as well had he not arrived home in time. He took his sons and fled into the mountains, spending the next ten years teaching them the ways of the ninja. It was not enough when Saki finally found them, and Yoshi was forced to watch as his teenage son were executed. Just before he himself was decapitated, Yoshi prayed to be allowed a chance at honorable vengeance.
That’s right, the TMNT and Splinter are reincarnated ninja from feudal Japan. Awesome.
In the next major story arc, it is revealed that the Foot are in conflict with Krang’s forces. The TMNT witness the Foot slaughter a variety of hired fighters from Krang and even encounter another new mutant character, Alopex, a female mutant snow fox revealed to be a ninja of the Foot Clan. Apparently, not all the mutagen was dropped on that fateful night. Stockman presents Hob with an army of little robot Mousers to hunt down Splinter (hooray for Mousers returning.) He is successful but before they can extract Splinter’s blood, he is kidnapped again, this time by the Foot.
In the meantime, Casey has met April, trading self-defense lessons for tutoring, and it is during this time she meets the turtles she helped name and joins the team, putting them up in her old antique shop (a nice callback to the Mirage comic and the live-action movies.) The TMNT, along with Casey and the Purple Dragon gang (a bunch of street thugs which appear as generic heavies in every incarnation of the Turtles) find the Foot stronghold. Inside, Oroku Karai presents Splinter to her grandfather, Master Shredder. In a dawning moment of realization, Shredder reveals himself to be Oroku Saki reincarnated and realizes Splinter is Hamato Yoshi. After fighting off the Foot clan ninjas and Alopex in single combat, Splinter engages Shredder but is tired from his previous fights and is about to perish…when the turtles bust in, work together in a beautiful tribute to the original fight sequence with the Shredder in the very first Mirage Turtles book. They manage to escape with Splinter in tow.
Frustrated with the lack of progress in recovering the mutagen, Baxter Stockman shoots Old Hob square in the chest but is quickly subdued by Krang and taken away on his helicopter for the ominous ‘plan B.’ Thus ends arc two, and you are brought up to the current issue number 12.
The main series has had the same creative team behind them; stories and layouts by Kevin Eastman, scripts by Tom Waltz, art by Dan Duncan, and coloring by Ronda Pattison. The action is really tight thanks to Eastman’s layouts, he was always the more action-oriented of the original Eastman & Laird team. Waltz manages to deliver a lot of solid, impressive dialogue; I was particularly impressed with his handling of Donatello’s skepticism at the idea of them being reincarnated. As a child I loved Donatello but as an adult rereading the books I was unimpressed with how one dimensional he was at the hands of so many writers. Too often, he was just the egg head, which as no emotional resonance when your peers value your intelligence. He was the opposite of Raphael, a character that nearly every writer has added depth to. Raphael is the Wolverine of the TMNT-verse, the violent brooding outcast who likes being the violent brooding outcast. Notably, Donatello has taken over Raphael’s typical role as Leonardo’s foil, the two of them constantly at each other over concepts of science and faith, duty and reason. And I love it. I feel like Raph already had so much on his character plate; being the guy who was always quick to fight with the ‘good son’ was a fair role to pass to Donny.
Duncan’s art is a strange beast. When he takes his time, it can be as evocative and intriguing as Frank Miller’s. But most of the time, his style is solid but unremarkable. He strikes a good balance between the lighter look of the cartoons and the heavier serious style of the Mirage books. He will apparently be leaving the book after this twelfth issue for another project and while I am interested to see some new art style, the baffling Andy Kuhn will be taking over for the immediate future. Ronda Pattison’s colors are lovely, filled with fantastic callback choices (April’s favorite color is apparently yellow, and note was made to the four shades of green the boys came in back in the day.)
In place of a Tales of the TMNT-style book this time around, Eastman and Co. revived the Micro-Series from the original Mirage line. The original books had a series of four single-issue micro-series (dreamed up to lampoon all the mini-series’s running around in the 80′s mainstream books) with each one focusing on one turtle. In a nice tie-in, each of the new books features an alternate cover featuring the art of the original Microseries book. To make sure the covers worked, the new microseries’s stories all referenced the original books. So the original Raphael microseries book, which featured Casey Jones on the cover, featured the two of them again (this time they were encountering Alopex plus two thugs who were obviously the unmutated Bebop and Rocksteady!)
The cool thing about the microseries this time around is it allowed a new creative team to take a shot at each issue. The aforementioned Raphael book featured a script by Brian Lynch, art by Franco Urru, and colors by Fabio Mantovani. The script was fun and entertaining and a great tease for the future (it is the first appearance of Alopex, Bebop, Rocksteady, and Shredder). Franco Urru’s art is alluring and has a great sense of motion to it. Mantovani’s colors complement Urru’s style well.
The Michelangelo micro featured a Brian Lynch script with art from Andy Kuhn and colors from Bill Crabtree. The original Michelangelo book featured a story where he longed to get out and enjoy the Christmas holiday with the humans; this script has him feeling similarly but this time he gets to sneak into a New Year’s Eve costume party. The story is pretty comical and silly as you would expect from a Mikey book, and Kuhn’s frenetic child-like art style fits for this kind of story. He gets no help, in my humble opinion, from Crabtree’s rather bland color palette. In the end, the quality of this book makes me wary about Kuhn heading up art on the main title now that Duncan is gone.
The Donatello micro featured a script by main-series writer Waltz and microseries writer Lynch, with art by Valeria Schiti and colors by Scarletgothica and Ilaria Traversi. The original story featured a fanciful tribute to Jack Kirby where Donny gets sucked into the world of an illustrator named Kirby who ends up staying the fantasy world even as he pushes Donny back into reality. For this book, Donny finds himself in a rivalry with another inventor over the internet (nice callbacks with Donny’s screen name Duz_Machines84 and the rival being kirbyfan01) they end up teaming up to escape Baxter Stockman. The book was a lot of fun, lighter in tone again from the main series, but not nearly as much as the Mikey micro. The art style was highly polished and the closest in style to Duncan’s but with a shinier color palette and an overall warmer feel.
The Leonardo micro could be my favorite art of the IDW run so far. Scripted again by Lynch with art by Ross Campbell and colors by Jay Fotos, this micro is nearly a direct callback to the original Leo micro of the 80s wherein Leo is cornered by an army of Foot ninjas and has to fight his way out while contemplating taking lives or fighting defensively entirely. It ends with a confrontation with the Shredder where he loses but keeps his life. Campbell has got it, man. The art feels like such a beautiful amazing modern take on the Eastman & Laird style from the original series while at the same time blazing its own trail. Fotos’s muted color palette and subtle use of colors complement it nicely, but I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed Campbell’s art.
The new micros continued past the boys and Splinter’s micro was a solid entrant. With a script by Eric Burnham, art by Charles Paul Wilson III and colors again by Jay Fotos, the book takes place during Splinter’s fight for his life in issue 11. Splinter contemplates his past life, his anger in his youth, the calming effect of meeting Tang Shen, the love of his life and mother of his four sons, and the recklessness he and Saki displayed as youth members of the Foot. I quite enjoyed the script and loved this insight into Hamato Yoshi’s life and the fleshing out of this new reincarnation origin. Wilson’s art is serviceable and even reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. Fotos’s colors are strong, he continues the trend of sepia toning the Japan sequences, which I like a lot.
Finally, the Casey Jones micro by Mike Costa and Ben Epstein with art by Mike Henderson and colors by Ian Herring. While I did really like the art and colors and I enjoyed the backstory of Casey’s mask and his mother’s death, I was not really enjoying the book until the last two pages where Casey purposefully takes yet another beating from his dad to fulfill the promise to his mother to “let him feel strong. He isn’t, you are. But please take care of him and let him feel strong.” As a bloody and beaten Casey stumbles into the antique shop and onto the turtles’ couch with their concerned faces all around, he just mutters it again. “Because I’m the strong one.” A rather predictable tale came to a fascinating and bittersweet moment that really turned the book for me. Henderson and Herring are very solid in this outing, I hope to see more of them.
Well there you have it. A few thousand words and you are caught up on the 12 issues of the main series and the six microseries. The next arc is about to pop off and hopefully Krang and his war with the Neutrinos and the Foot Clan will get fleshed out a bit more. Also, I hope Ross Campbell’s work features more in the series. I reserve judgement on Andy Kuhn helming the series’ art for now. Hope you’ve enjoyed this crazy long diatribe.