Sunday, June 01, 2014

I was not 100% satisfied with this product.

As Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were among the first comics I started reading, I've always had a special place in my heart for 'em, and one of my great regrets in comics collecting is that I didn't snap up all of the original, Mirage-published trades when they were still widely available (The only two I actually bought were the first volume, a phone-book sized one that collected the first 12 issues and the four "micro-series" one-shots, and Vol. 4, the one collecting the "Return to New York"). (UPDATE: Oh wow, what's this?! There goes my discretionary spending for the next month or two.)

As a teenager, in the days before the Internet, I rather studiously studied things like the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide for TMNT appearances, and tried to track down as many as I could, even the hard-to-find ones like the shorts in Anything Goes #5 or Gobbledygoodk, for example (checking, I think I ultimately collected all but 13 issues of the original, 62-issue volume of TMNT, but only two issues of Tales of...).

I was therefore pretty thrilled to hear that when IDW announced they would be publishing a new TMNT comic, they would also be collecting the original Mirage material. Unfortunately, like a lot of IDW's franchise-specific efforts, I found myself a little bewildered and overwhelemed by their strategies, which involved a line of trades collecting their new comic (and trades collecting their miniseries and their series of one-shots), another line collecting just the Eastman and Laird material, another line collecting the mostly non-Eastman and Laird material, another line collecting Tales of... and another collecting the Archie Comics series.

After waiting, let's see...years, I finally decided to start buying some of their collections of the Mirage material (I had already started reading their collections of the new, IDW original series, although I left off with the fifth volume) with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Classics Vol. 1.

I wasn't entirely satisfied.

I'm not entirely sure of the format I would most want in a TMNT collection, but whatever it was, I'd want it to be 1) black-and-white, 2) chronological, 3) comprehensive, and 4) easy to navigate.

This first volume isn't any of those anything.

It's 100-pages, and collects a single issue of the original volume of TMNT, Michael Dooney's 1988 issue #13 (one of those 13 issues I had never read), and a selection of shorts from the 1989 Mirage trade paperback, Shell Shock, which itself was a selection of short stories, some of which were original to it, others of which appeared elsewhere (The book was apparently a sort of fund-raiser for the Literacy Volunteers of Chicago, which explains a very weird scene in one short in which Splinter instructs a guy curled up with a bottle on a park bench with the words "Learn to read, get a GED. IT's not going to be seasy but you can do it. There are groups all over the country--literacy volunteer, programs, adult education classes, community colleges or libraries who are working to help dropouts and adults to improve their reading skills" and more...all in a single word balloon!)
Art by Jim Lawson, George Hagenaur and Eric Talbot
The IDW trade doesn't contain the fine print that you'll find in most Marvel and DC collections, explaining where the material collected was originally printed, nor does the table of contents say what's from where, only noting #13 and the titles of the individual stories from Shell Shock, the only clues as to those stories' source being the (un-credited) A.C. Farley cover of Shell Shock, which appears after the last page of #13.
Well, that and the fact that the back cover includes the words "Volume I contains Mirage Studios #13, along with a collection of stories from Shell Shock trade paperback."

In terms of context, Kevin Eastman, who has been working particularly closely with IDW on their various Turtles comics projects, does provide a new introduction that talks enthusiastically, and somewhat persuasively, about how allowing a bunch of other talented creators to work on he and Peter Laird's characters over the years have helped them discover new elements of characters that they regarded as their own. But it's not specific to these particular comics, which is, again, something I would have liked. You know, a paragraph about how Michael Dooney started working with them on Turtles comics (he does offer a few sentences on how Dooney first pitched them with "You guys never put enough BABES in the TMNT comics!"), and how the Shell Shock book came about, or how they chose these particular stories.

Well, as for the content, it's about what is to be expected. I found myself a little out-of-sorts re-reading some old-school TMNT material of late, as I of course have grown to be a much more knowledgeable and sophisticated comics reader and consumer of culture, pop and otherwise, over the last twenty-some years (well, maybe I should say "somewhat" instead of "much"), while those stories haven't changed.

They don't strike me as the be-all and end-all of comics storytelling the way they used to (when I had little to compare them with, save half-forgotten memories of random issues of Marvel's G.I. Joe and Transformers that relatives had bought me when I was home sick from school), and much of my affection for them now comes from the sort of rough charm they bear, and my own respect and nostalgia for the characters, the creators and the time period in which they were first produced and when I first encountered them.
Dooney's story, "The People's Choice," finds the Turtles going for a camping trip by an abandoned house on the edge of a pond. There they encounter an alien "BABE," as Eastman's introduction might refer to Jhanna, a democratically elected humanoid from a distant planet, where popular elections are immediately followed by death matches between the rivals in order to certify the results. Jhanna's rival shows up the next morning, along with a gang of colorfully different aliens, and everybody fights. Spoiler warning: Jhanna and the Turtles survive, and defeat the bad guys.

The Shell Shock shorts, 11 of the 26 from the original collection, range from 2-10 pages, and are mostly from Eastman, Laird and familiar Mirage contributors like Jim Lawson, Ryan Brown, Eric Talbot and Dooney. They are almost all set in New York City and deal with the Turtles as urban vigilantes and/or encounter-ers of the bizarre (Donatello runs across an energy being in a Dooney-created super-comic take on the genie-in-a-bottle fairy tale, for example).

It was weird reading them, because I had previously read three of 'em, the silent Turtles-go-to-the-drive-in short from Anything Goes and two shorts from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness role-playing game source books I used to love (As I've mentioned before, my path to Turtles comics went from the after school cartoon to the RPG to the Mirage comics; and to DC comics, come to think of it, was the Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon to the Dungeons & Dragons RPG to DC/TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons comics). I recognized the Anything Goes story immediately, but the other two I knew I had read before, but I wasn't sure where, so that was mildly frustrating as I racked my disintegrating memory (I found the answer online, not in this book).

While it was fun reading all of these, as they were like "lost" comics I never had access to before, the best of the lot were probably those by Michael Zulli, a Mirage artist (Puma Blues, plus a TMNT story arc that stood out even among the radically different versions of the characters and comics the rotating creative teams brought to the pages) who went on to great acclaim in a variety of unexpected places, including DC/Vertigo's Sandman and some Batman comics. He has a pair of contributions, both co-written by Stephen Murphy. "O-Deed," a weird dream imagery story that culminates in a nightmare, and "A Splinter in the Eye of God?," in which Zulli's Splinter attempts to meditate while clashing images of pollution and the natural world pass all around him.

Zulli's characters evolve quite a bit between the two stories, and it's interesting to compare his first turtle (Michaelangelo) with the turtles (all four of 'em), who appear in the later story.
Zulli and Talbot
His first Turtle looks more or less like the Eastman/Laird designs rendered in his style, whereas the later Turtles look far more humanoid and turtle-like, with noses that split the difference between a turtle "beak" and a human nose, and little ear holes.
(From what little I've seen of the latest Turtles movie designs, they seem to suggest Zulli's designs to me more than those of any other TMNT artist I can think of).

Zulli's first story is basically verbal gobbledygook over imagery, although I liked the tender detail of Spliter referring to Michaelangelo as simply "Michael." The latter reads something like a prelude to his later TMNT story arc. His Splinter is by this point pretty amazing, an almost photo-realistic drawing of rat man in an open robe, revealing the mammalian hind legs he runs bipedally on, and a vaguely, almost Beatrix Potter-esque rodent face. Zulli draws bones and a dove with amazing precision as well.

The coloring by Digikore Design Limted (that's how its spelled on the title page; not sure if that's a typo or that their name) is unwelcome, in part simply because I've never really been able to get my head around the idea of color turtles comics, as the very concept seems somewhat oxymoronic. The turtles are creatures of black and white comics, and they never seem quite right in a color environment. (The thick black lines of the Eastman/Laird comics don't accept colorization too well, and the art tends to look worse in color than in black and white, and it seems a crime to put planes of color between some of Zulli's line work and the eyes of readers).

They seem to do a decent enough job of coloring though, keeping all four turtles in matching red masks throughout and bearing identical green flesh-tones (the latter has become one of the ways various Turtles tale-tellers have tried further differentiating the characters, by giving them all a slightly different shade of green skin).

There are a few missteps though, as in the 1985 "Don't Judge a Book..." story from one of the RPG books, in which the Turtles don Halloween costumes in order to go out among people, but wind up trashing their costumes during a fight with some would-be burglars. When one tears the pink dress off of one of the guys and finds a shell, the shell is colored the same pink as the dress. In another story, a police SWAT team is outfitted not in traditional navy blue or black, but red and gray. And in the story "The 49th Street Stompers," the Turtles face four opponents, including two women in body suits, which are colored garish solid pink and blue.
Eastman and Dooney
It's not the TMNT collection I would have wanted, but, as Donald Rumsfeld once said, you go with the TMNT collection you have, not the one you may wish you had. Or something like that. It's been a while since I've had to listen to anything Donald Rumsfeld might have said.

And it's not like I'm not going to by the rest of them or anything.

I'm not entirely sure what is in vol. 2—Amazon says issues #16, #22 and #23, which would make it an all Mark Martin collection, and thus tied together by creator but out of order—but hopefully the rest of Shell Shock shows up somewhere, as it includes a Stan Sakai Usagi Yojimbo team-up, several Eric Talbot stories, including one with a werewolf and another in which Mike and Raph accidentally do nitrous, and a Michaelangelo solo story featuring art by Richard Corben.

1 comment:

Kilowog said...

I always assumed Zulli was told (or decided on his own) to draw Michelangelo more like how he's drawn in the other comics to make that story fit in that series of stories. With his other stories being more like they are in Soul's Winter because they took place with those same turtles.

Or maybe this current climate of comics is messing with my brain. Equally likely.