Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: Casey Jones: North By Downeast

Introduced by creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1985's Raphael one-shot (which you can read in its entirety here, Casey Jones would become one of the central characters in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, joining the core cast of the title characters, Splinter and April on a more-or-less permanent basis from 1986's TMNT #10 on, as well as appearing in all of the cartoons (albeit just briefly in the first and most influential series), and as many of the feature films as The Shredder did (each were in three of the five films). Despite Casey's role as a sort of unofficial, human fifth Turtle, he didn't earn a comic book with his name in the title until 1994's two-part miniseries Casey Jones: North By Downeast (That same year he'd also share a title with his best friend among the Turtles in Casey Jones and Raphael, an ill-starred miniseries that Mirage only published a single issue of).

The story that fills the pages of Casey Jones actually wasn't originally intended for a miniseries. Rather, the "North By Downeast" story started out being serialized short chapter by chapter in the short-lived Mirage Studios anthology Plastron Cafe. Never finished there, Casey Jones reprinted those chapters and finished off the storyline in a set of two comics, produced in full color (the shorts in Plastron were, of course, in black-and-white, color still being fairly new to the world of the Turtles, even at that late date in the publisher's history).

Read today, Casey Jones is probably more noteworthy for who made it, rather than whose name is in the title: Character co-creator Kevin Eastman provided the story and inks, but Rick Veitch scripted, penciled and even lettered the story (Usual TMNT letterer Steve Lavigne provided the colors, and John Totleben the covers). Veitch, probably still best-known for his BratPack and Swamp Thing, despite some compelling and under-appreciated work since (including Cant' Get No and Army @ Love for Vertigo), was here making a return trip to the world of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, having previously produced the three-part storyline "The River" (TMNT #24-#26) and the weird-ass one-off TMNT #30.

If any publisher ever decides to collect TMNT comics by creator, Veitch has certainly produced enough of it to fill a good-sized trade paperback and, significantly, most of it is very good; "The River" being one of the better non-Eastman and Laird stories that wasn't a wild departure.

The pacing in "North By Downeast," as well as its set-up, betrays its origins as short strips spread across issues of an anthology. It opens cinematically, on a dark and stormy night, the first few pages of panels taking us from an establishing shot of the New York City, following the rain into a gutter, down a drainpipe, into an open manhole, and into the sewer. Casey is sneaking into the Turtles' den, and letting in enough water to short out their electricity.

He strikes a match, and begins to tell the Turtles a story...one of a solo adventure of his as random and wild as any of the Turtles' more outlandish adventures.

Veitch takes Eastman and Laird's original conception of Casey as a street vigilante who fights crime with baseball bats, hockey sticks and other blunt sporting equipment he keeps in the beat-up golf-bag slung over his shoulder to the extreme, even if it's a logical, even more realistic extreme. His Casey wears not only a hocky mask, but also hockey gloves, knee and shin pads, a cup and what appears to be either hockey or football pads (I'm no sports fan) as body armor. His bag is stuffed full of the usual sporting equipment, as well as a ski pole (for stabbing), a crowbar a saw and other useful items.
The first issue is mostly set-up, as our hero prowls the rooftops, looking for crimes to fight while occasionally watching strangers' television sets by peering in their windows, when he discovers a particularly weird crime: Crackheads stealing a tank of lobsters.

He intervenes, and soon finds himself fighting something...wrong, people that aren't quite people. He catches a cinderblock to the head, and finds himself stripped of his sporting equipment and ejected from a huge, nautilus-shaped ship of some kind.

He's rescued by a sexy fisherwoman, wearing a bikini under a slicker and hat and chomping on a corncob pipe, Popeye-style, who tells him a weird tale of lobster men from Venus, a lobster God king, a special lobster—The Royal Roe—which will allow the lobster men to regain their original form if they present it to their monstrous emperor.
In the second issue, all of the ish he learns about hits the fan, as he fashions himself a new mask and armor out of the discarded shells of some of the giant lobster men and, arming himself with an axe and a...boat thing...
...he wades into the alien lobster guys' ritual to raise an Ebirah-sized lobster. The crazy plot, which reads like a modern take on something Robert E. Howard might have pounded out over the course of a weekend, is met with crazy imagery by Veitch, as Casey's opponents shift forms mid-fight, and in an effort to reclaim his hockey mask (and save the world), he faces a lobster wearing it over his lobster face.
Eastman and Veitch give their story an old-school pulp twist ending (or, an old-school pulp-inspired old-school horror comic twist ending), with Casey leaving the Turtles as abruptly as he joined them, and leaving the story's ending—and veracity—somewhat ambiguous. Save for some evidence he leaves behind.

It's a pretty ludicrous story, start to finish, but Veitch and Eastman sure do work well together, and, visually, this is probably the best Casey Jones has ever looked, or ever would look again.

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