Monday, August 25, 2014

On Mirage and IDW's collections of the first volume of Tales of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

When initially perusing the Mirage site in order to avail myself of what stock of old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics they have left, now that Nickelodeon owns the characters and IDW Publishing holds the license for producing comics starring the characters, I initially balked at the price of The Collected Tales of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mirage's original 1989 trade paperback collection of the seven-issue series that launched in 1987.

The price was $40, which translates into about $5.71 per issue, according to my calculator, and considering that I already owned Tales of... #6 and #7, $40 seemed like a particularly steep price just to get the first five issues in a reader and collector-friendly trade format.

But then I saw how IDW was collecting and selling the same material. They split the seven issue series into two volumes, both of which cost $19.99 (IDW's first collection contains four issues, their second only three, so they were re-selling each issue at $4.99 or $6.66). In other words, getting trade collections of the material would cost the same either way, and the main choice was between the original black and white version (which included a 10-issue bonus story and a four-and-a-half-page introduction by Stephen R. Bissette, who contributed a tiny bit to the final issue) or the badly-colorized IDW trades (which lacked the bonus story and the Bissette piece, but did have a one-page intro by Kevin Eastman in the first trade, and two new covers by Jim Lawson).

So I went with the Mirage version for my bookshelf, but I also ordered the IDW volumes from a library, so I could see how they stacked up.

The cover for the original collection is penciled by Lawson, inked by Peter Laird and colored by Steve Lavigne, and features a rooftop scene of the title characters and the many enemies (The Monster/Rat King, Complete Carnage, a living idol, Savanti Romero riding a pterosaur) and allies (Superheroes Radical and Nobody, fellow mutant Leatherhead, returning character Renet) they encounter in the stories in one big, wrap-around scene.

Lawson's career as a cartoonist has been fascinating to follow, and he's one of the few artists whom I've read just about everything he's produced, at least from these 1987-produced images to his 2013 Kickstart-ed original graphic novel Dragonfly (which I plan on reviewing here in the near-ish future). Many of the characters on the cover look incredibly rough, and the title characters themselves vary greatly from the more standardized versions of Lawson's Turtles that would eventually emerge.

You can see bits of Lawson's later versions of them here, in Leonardo and Raphael's faces, for example, but it's somewhat difficult to believe the artist who drew this cover is the same one who drew the stories inside, and would go on to draw the 13-part "City at War" storyline, or Paleo and Dragonfly, or even those covers on the IDW collections (which you can see below).

Not only was Lawson's artwork growing and changing, becoming more refined as he found his own style over the years and decades, but the Mirage art of this period was really a studio effort, with Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Jim Lawson and Eric Talbot, for example, changing duties in terms of lay-outs, pencils, inks and black-and-white tones, sometimes in what seemed like a story-by-story basis. Some of my favorite art of the original volume of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came during the "Return to New York Storyline" (in TMNT #19-21 or The Collected Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Book 4), where those four artists seemed to be working in some sort of jam style that looks a bit like the work of each of them, but not entirely the work of any one of them.

This collection begins with the first page of Bissette's intro, which jumps to conclude at the end of the book. Each issue issue begins with a small, black and white reproduction of the issue's wrap-around cover on a page consisting of mostly white space (Here is one place the IDW collections beat the Mirage collection; they include the wraparound covers at full-size, and with Lavigne's original coloring. The other area in which they one-up the Mirage collection is that they include the post-story pin-ups from each issue; these aren't generally all that great, but there are some fairly nice ones, including a Laird drawing of a turtle carving a jack o'lantern with a katana and a still black-and-white "Leatherhead Portfolio" featuring images of the character by Steve Lavigne, Eastman, Laird, Bissette and Michael Gaydos).

From there, each issue opens with a pin-up splash page of a ninja turtle, usually in some form of thematic costume or setting, offering a brief introduction that always ends with "Let me tell 'ya a story..." and then the issue itself launches.

Let's briefly take 'em one by one.

The first issue features an Eastman intro splash (that's it at the top of the post), and Eastman and Laird are credited with the writing, Lawson with the lay-outs and pencils and Ryan Brown with the inks (Tales was mostly Lawson and Brown's book). Set during TMNT #11, according to an asterisk, the issue involves Casey, April and the Turtles settling in at the farmhouse they fled to after The Foot Clan kicked Leonardo's ass and destroyed April's building in New York City. Casey's cousin and some of his friends pay an unwelcome visit, threatening April and Casey with a gun, hoping that Casey will confess where their grandfather, a crook who hid a quarter million dollar score somewhere, hid his loot. It's up to the Turtles to take them all out without being seen, and there's a nice twist ending that resolves the Casey's-cousin-as-antagonist plot from ever boiling up again.

Tales of... #2 introduces Nobody, one of the first superheroes in the TMNT milieu, a cop-by-day, masked crimefighter (with ridiculously large cape)-by-night in Springfield, Massachusetts (which the art team of Lawson and Brown make look fairly identical to the brick building-filled New York City of the earlier issues of TMNT, complete with chimneys, stairway doors and water-towers everywhere). Eastman and Laird are again credited with writing this story. (The opening splash is again drawn by Eastman, but his work is fairly transformed by Brown into something much smoother and brighter).

The Turtles visit the city, and soon become embroiled in Nobody's case, which involves gun-dealers moving heavy armaments illegally. It's Leondardo who gives the vigilante his codename, since he never identifies himself. It's not a bad one, and compared to those of the other superheroes in the TMNT-iverse, it's probably the best (The competition consisting of the likes of Radical, Metalhead, "Stainless" Steel Steve and so on).

The third issue opens with a Turtle in a graveyard, a hand rising from a grave marked Edgar Allen Poe, pencilled by Lawson and appropriately heavily inked by Talbot. This story, entitled "All Hallow's Thieves," doesn't have any writing credits, but the art team is the same as the previous issues. Perhaps Lawson and Brown also wrote it...? Set during the Turtles' time in New York City, it features an occultist who wishes to become the magical king of thieves. To do so, he must steal an idol from April's Second Time Around Shop (which naturally involves the Turtles). He then summons a horde of looting little gremlins, and turning the six-armed idol into a nigh-unbeatable foe for the Turtles to work out how to beat.

The next issue opens with Brown and Eastman drawing a Turtle working over a monster in the style of Jack Kirby (the credits read "Thanx Jack") and contemplating the nature of monsters.

In this story, which Lawson receives both story and pencil credits for (with Brown still inking), we meet a clearly deranged man who has covered himself like a hobo mummy in swathes of rags, and believes himself to be some kind of monster. Those who only know the Turtles from the original cartoon series will recognize him immediately as The Rat King, a name he doesn't actually give himself until the very end of the story. He haunts and abandoned factory complex, and apparently goes through phases where he pretends to be various types of monsters (On the first page, he's "a shambling moss-encrusted mockery of a man," and, later, when Michaelangelo muses aloud that he almost wishes ghosts were real, the proto-Rat King thinks to himself, "That was last year.")

"The Monster" menaces the exploring Casey and the Turltes for a while, ultimately trapping them in a room which fills up with ravenous rats. Our heroes fight the swarm of rodents in a pretty amusing fight scene. My favorite image of this battle is probably Casey going to the trouble of picking up two rats just to "BONK" their heads together.
I'm hardly an expert when it comes to life-and-death, hand-to-hand combat against hordes of rats, but I don't think that's the most efficient method of rat-killing.

Nor is breaking their spines one-by-one with a well-placed karate chop:
Oddly, none of the five characters, four of whom have spent their entire lives being raised and trained by a giant anthropomorphic rat, say anything at all about Splinter throughout this whole issue.

The story ends with Leonardo thinking he's killed the wannabe monster, throwing a shuriken into his chest and knocking him from a great height, after they've safely escaped the bad guy's clutches. But the monster, who renames himself The Rat King upon realizing the rats aren't trying to eat him, survives the wound and fall. Or does he...? Read "City At War" to find out!

Tales... #5 is the Radical/Complete Carnage issue. Eastman and Laird's sole credits here are in "Eastman and Laird present: A Lawson/Brown/Lavigne Prod," and it's Lawson who draws the opening splash, of a "Super Turtle."

Again set during their earlier NYC days, the story consists of the Turtles riding around with April in her Volkswagen van (Vanity license plate? "TMNT"). They almost run over a daring young bike messenger who is promptly attacked by a hand reaching out of the road to grab her bike tire. The messenger is secretly Radical, NYC's resident superhero, who can fly and shoot energy blasts and other cool stuff, but has a pretty lame-ass superhero costume. The hand belongs to her archenemy, Complete Carnage, who looks like a gargoyle in a cape and speedo, and who has the power to move through and absorb any man-made material.

The penultimate issue of Tales... opens with a moody Brown/Talbot image of a Turtle fishing off the side of a boat "here on the bayou," while alligators break the black surface of the water, a snake coils in his direction, and a long-legged, crane-like bird takes flight in the background. This is the Leatherhead issue, in which an amoral hunter of endangered species ("You did it, Mr. Marlin! You shot the last Madagascan Blue Elephant!" an assistant shouts congratulations to him) hunts the mutant alligator. This one too has no writing credits, just art credits.

The poacher Marlin decides to hunt an urban myth, a large alligator sighted in the sewers of New York, and while down there he runs into the Ninja Turtles, who were between skirmishes in a running battle with the Foot Clan. Two more players enter the fray, including Leatherhead (a sewer-dwelling alligator mutated by the Utrom/TCRI Aliens' mutagen that gave birth to Splinter and the Turtles, and is thus much smarter and more bipedal then the gator Marlin was looking for), and an unnamed man who hunts Marlin, ultimately severing the tendon that controls his trigger finger with a throwing knife.

It's strange how different the character of Leatherhead and his relationship with the Turtles is here—in the original cartoon and toy line, he was a villain—just as it's strange he didn't ever play a larger role in the first volume of the comics, not returning in any sizable capacity until TMNT #45.

The final issue of the series sees Peter Laird returning, getting credit for story and layouts, while Lawson pencils, Brown inks and Bissette and Talbot both get thanks for "toning assistance" (In addition, Bissette drew the opening splash, of a turtle atop a grazing triceratops, while pterosaurs fly in the background).

While April—whose skin is more darkly toned than that of the Turtles, and here appears like she might actually be a black woman—and the disguised Turtles are in a museum, a fossil rearranges itself into the gloating head of Savanti Romero, the sorcerer villain from TMNT #8 (the Cerebus team-up issue).
Romero challenges the turtles to face him in the Cretaceous period, where he was exiled, and just as they're pondering how they're supposed to do that, apprentice Time Lord Renet arrives, now outfitted with a digital version of the Sands of Time scepter (and he clocks that once dangled all over her costume and helmet have now been replaced by little digital time pieces).

She takes the Turtles back in time with her, and there we get ninja turtle vs. dinosaur action! Michaelangelo and Donatello take on a couple of deinonychus, while Raphael and Leonardo face off against a Tyrannosaur, atop of which sits Romero. Leo mounts a triceratops, the official dinosaur of Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and goads it into helping them dispatch the T-Rex.

This was and may actually remain one of my favorite Turtles comics, in large part because of the way it suggests so many other adventures that there just aren't room to squeeze into a single issue. When Romero is seemingly killed and the scepter lost, Renet and the turtles spend three months in dinosaur times which, honestly, sounds about as interesting as any other Turtles premise I've encountered in any medium.

Just one thing, though. This is the Cretaceous period, right?
So where the hell did they get all of those mammal skins to make their caveman outfits from?

I suppose Renet and some of the guys' fur coverings (wait, why are the turtles wearing clothes at all? They usually just wear masks and wristbands and kneepads, but are otherwise nude) could have been made from killing, skinning and sewing together the pelts of dozens of tiny little mammals, but one of them is clearly wearing some sort of leopard skin.

Anyway, let's move on.

The 10-page bonus story is another Nobodoy story with a rather sharp, if perhaps open to interpretation, political statement at the end (although I'm thinking it's a lot more anti-gun then pro-gun, given the other parts of the the book, and the TMNT comics in general). Nobody looks much better here, his black costume a much more solid black. Also, this story involves one of the turtles in a wig, glasses and dress, pretending to be an old lady and then kicking a dude's ass. Oddly enough, that's the second time that's happened in a short story in the characters' first half-decade of existence.

Here are the covers for the IDW collections.

As you can see, they are also by Lawson and have the same basic idea—put most of the characters from the stories on the covers with the Turtles in one big scene—but, the stories having been divided into two collections, there are fewer characters per cover (That's Casey's cousin clutching what he hopes is a treasure box on the cover of the first issue, if you're wondering).

The IDW collections are much clearer in terms of who wrote what. The first three issues were by Eastman and Laird, the fourth by Lawson, the fifth by Lawson and Brown, the sixth by Brown and the seventh by Laird. No one is credited for the coloring of these issues, not even "Digikore," the company that's colorized the other TMNT collections from IDW I've seen.

Among the dubious coloring choices are the decision to render these 3-D glasses one of the guys wears in #2 and #3 as red and pale, almost-white blue, and then just making them into regular, albeit opaque glasses, in the next issue. Then there's April's constant wearing of ugly pink sweaters (and, on one instance, an ugly turquoise sweater), giving Leonardo a golden rather than silver colored shurkien, the use of that brown-ish red or red-sh brown that Gnatrat and his "The Fannywhacker" identity were both given in TMNT Classics Vol. 2 to the "Super Turtle" pin-up...
...and I'm not sure how I feel about this red and gray look for the Foot Clan:
While The Shredder did originally apparently wear red, and the Foot have often been depicted in Hand-like red early on, more often than not they were depicted in blue or black.

For example, here are the earliest Foot Clan color appearances from the Mirage comic book era I can find, ranging from a reprint of 1984's TMNT #1 to 1992's TMNT #52. (The image with no text on it is the back cover of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness role-playing game source book, published in 1985).

It looks like IDW's mysterious colorist, whoever that is (Nobody, now retired from the force and making ends meet by coloring, perhaps?) went with the First Comics color-scheme for the Foot uniforms, at least as is evident from that First cover (I've never read those collections, so I'm not sure what The Foot wore on the interiors).

I see no reason to give The Foot glowing eyes though.

Oh, and the heavily-toned panels of April from Tales... #7, a few of which I included above, look pretty terrible in the IDW collection, as the tones weren't removed, a light, Crayola peach crayon color was just added atop them, so April's got black lines all over her face for some reason in the final product.

Finally, regarding the IDW collections, I was somewhat intrigued by the little starbursts on the cover reading "Ages 13 and Up Recommended," and a disclaimer on the title pages:
These reprints of 1980s-era comics were inteded for mature audiences, and do not reflect today's values or those of Nickelodeon or IDW Publishing. Except for the addition of color, the comics are presented here as originally published.
I can understand the caution, given that Nickelodeon does have a children's cartoon currently airing, and IDW is printing and/or reprinting two Turtles-for-kids books (I think? I can't keep up), and the general confusion of the audience for Ninja Turtles (a confusion quite evident in the latest film).

I was a little surprised by the "today's values" bit though, as that seems like the sort of disclaimer one might find before, say, a Will Eisner Spirit collection or a Osamu Tezuka book with their offensive stereotypes of black folks or Native Americans, maybe a reprint of classic Disney material, which can read pretty racist.

But I'm not sure what it might refer to here. There are no people of color in the books. The one man from the original stories who seems to be black, the man hunting Marlin, seems to have been re-colored into yet another white guy.

I don't recall any uses of derivations of the words "retard" or "gay" or "fag," words used much, much more often in the 1980s then now (if my experiences in grade school were representative); now they are used probably far less than even "the N-word," which at least some people have sought to retake and make their own.

I thought the word "bimbo" might have been employed to refer to April or Renet at some point, as it cropped up an awful lot to basically mean a not very smart woman in the page of a slightly later vintage of Mirage comic I also read this week, but I couldn't find any instance of that either.

So perhaps they were simply referring to the fact that it was more acceptable to kill rats, dinosaurs and crazy hobo mummies in 1980s narratives then it is today...? Or perhaps that's just a legal, blanket disclaimer appearing in all of IDW's TMNT reprints after a certain point (It wasn't in the only IDW reprint book I've bought so far, Classics Vol.1).

1 comment:

Adam Winters said...

Nice analysis! Those IDW Color "Classics" really make some bizarre decisions. And Bobby Curnow all but confirmed the disclaimer relates to the potential cultural sensibilities that might be offended on account of the King of Thieves' incantation homage to Pee-Wee Herman: