Monday, September 15, 2014

On Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Vol. 2

The comics industry of 1993, it goes without saying, was a much different one than that of 2014. In fact, it was likely almost as different from today's as it was from 1984's, which is the industry that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird launched their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic series into, coming up with a surprise hit that had myriad, unpredictable consequences, not the least of which was making that unlikely collection of nouns into a household name.

Looking back from the year 2014, it's difficult to tell, or even guess or theorize as to what exactly went wrong with Eastman, Laird and their Mirage Studios' second volume of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a full-color series that launched in the wake of the 13-part "City At War" storyline that brought the first volume, which ran for 63 issues over almost a decade, to a close.

Sure, it had new #1 issue (generally thought of as a good thing, even to this day), and yes, it was now in full color for the first time ever (Certain Turtles specials and reprint projects aside). The logo was new-ish, but it was the same one that had been adorning Mirage's TMNT book since "City At War" kicked off with the fiftieth issue. The creative team hadn't really changed at all since "City At War"; Jim Lawson was still drawing and writing it (Eastman and Laird were apparently overseeing he storyline closely, but didn't get writing credits). Jason Tumjin Minor was still inking it, when other Mirage regulars like Eric Talbot weren't.

Heck, "City" cover artist A.C. Farley even provided the first cover, although after that cover duties were taken over by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, who would really be the ideal artists to draw covers for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic, no?

And, like the last year or so of the first volume (and the fourth volume, that would follow almost a decade later, in 2001), there weren't really discrete story arcs with beginnings, middle and ends, but rather,t he storyline just kept going on in an old-school, truly serial fashion.

So why did the second volume of Eastman and Laird's TMNT last only 13 issues, the same length as "City At War"...?

I have no idea, and I wonder if it might not have had more to do with external forces than any particular rejection of the book by the comics market of 1993-1995, or any sort of creative exhaustion of the concept.

Reading it all at once for the first time though, I can tell you that it was not very good. Of the three Mirage-produced volumes of the series, it is probably the weakest, but I'm guessing it was something more akin to external forces that cut the series short, based on the fact that Lawson really seemed to be setting up future directions for the characters, as the four title characters were starting to go their own ways, even finding new places to live, before they were quite quickly brought back together to resolve all of the dangling plotlines in a rather abrupt fashion.

The series begins more-or-less where the last ended. Donatello, who broke his leg in the climactic fight with the Foot Clan in "City At War," is living in a cave in rural Massachusetts with Splinter. The other three Turtles are living in New York City, in the basement of the new apartment building owned by April and Casey, who are living together as a couple and raising Shadow, the baby Casey adopted from his dead lover Gabrielle, as their own.

This first issue—the one with the striking, wraparound Farley painting of the Turtles racing through a dimly-lit sewer for a cover—is entitled "Memories of the Future," and serves as a sort of dreamy preview of the series, consisting almost entirely of scenes of the cast between disturbing visions and dreams, some of which presage events to come in the following 12 issues, some of which ultimately go nowhere—perhaps because plans changed, or perhaps because the book ended earlier than intended.

Splinter dreams of himself bloody and beaten at the feet of one of the Turtles, whose right hand is stained in blood. When he and Donatello meditate on it further, Don sees himself in Japan in the future, but he can't imagine why he was there; "To bury me," Splinter tells him.

Casey dreams of a big, monstrous verson of himself in a black hockey mask; a sort of Casey Jones-specific grim reaper.
April has a nightmare of her old, evil boss Baxter Stockman rescuing her from marauding Mousers.

Raphael is running around the sewers, where he encounters a giant rat. Leonardo is strapped to a table, a blue (Blue? I always thought they were orange) Triceraton and an alien injecting him with a shot. And Michalengelo? He was watches TV.

Though the creative team doesn't change too significantly throughout the rest of the series—Talbot will occasionally ink, colorist Eric Vincent will occasionally get assistance from "Altered Earth,"—this is for whatever reason the best-looking book of the volume. Perhaps it owes to the fact that there was the greatest lead-time, given even the apparently always-fast Lawson time to linger over the pages longer than usual, or perhaps it owes simply to the fact that story and plot are almost incidental to the issue, making for a greater emphasis on visuals.

For whatever reason, the story of the second volume begins in earnest in the next issue.

The Turtles start to go their own ways, with Raphael deciding to move out (he finds a nice abandoned storage attic atop a cathedral, but never actually gets to move in), Leonardo returning to the sewer lair (where he has an adventure of his own featuring a gigantic, monstrous, almost Gamera-sized snapping turtle and a fish-creature akin to those from TMNT #28 and/or the syndicated newspaper comic strip. Michelangelo, for his part, plans to stay in the basement apartment, close to Shadow.
The main villain of this volume is the mad robotocist and Mouser inventor Baxter Stockman, not seen since the first handful of issues of volume one (The current IDW series, and the cartoon shows, made much greater use of the character). He has apparently been held all this time at a secret Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency facility, where he built himself an incredibly powerful robot body...and then cut his own brain out and installed it into the body. From there, he headed towards New York City, to finally get his revenge on April and the Turtles.

Federal agents and a mysterious bald guy are, understandably, interested.

Stockman's revenge on April involves jabbing her with a syringe full of...something (it would take ten years for that to resolve itself in Vol. 4), but the battle with the Turtles is a bit more traditional, involving guns and rockets on rooftops.

The three Turtles are eventually joined in the battle by Donatello and their Massachusetts vigilante friend Nobody (now sporting a very '90s costume, one which replaces the cape with a bunch of pouches and makes him look more like an off-model Snake Eyes than a logo-less or branding-free Moon Knight or Batman type vigilante).
The good guys win, and Stockman's robot body (and the human brain inside it) are eventually completely destroyed, but not before Stockman can hurl Raph off a rooftop.

He survives, but ends up being taken by...someone.

The final few issues of the series deal with the Turtles and their friends—Nobody, Casey, and a mysterious bald psychic fellow who is able to deus ex machina them the location of Raph—arriving in the Nevada desert to infiltrate the DARPA facility and free him.

It turns out Raphael's being kept with a veritable menagerie of various aliens, including an off-model Aliens alien and a Triceraton (orange again). Despite the number of ninjas in the group, their entrance is very loud generates a great deal of attention, meaning they will have to try and fight their way out. Making matters worse, the Triceraton proves somewhat treacherous, and he has a ship full of allies not too far away, ones who would rather attack Earth in a kamikaze, world-ending fashion than admit defeat.

So what begins as an action-packed infiltration scene eventually transforms into a save-the-world type scenario.
Suffice it to say, nobody dies—well, Nobody dies, but nobody other than Nobody dies—the world is saved, and their new psychic friend even manages to put everyone back together with little memory of what actually happened. In the final scene, Leonardo awakes as if from a dream, and Casey has no memory of what just occurred. (I think it worth noting here too that the interior art really rallies in the last few issues, when Lawson begins inking his own work, and a great deal of detail returns to the pencil art that wasn't there in some of the previous issues).

I had mentioned that the book wasn't very good, but what, precisely, was wrong with it? Well, the little editorial-like introductions to the issues often signed by Peter Laird, and what commentary I've read from he and Eastman elsewhere indicated that with "City At War" and this volume they wanted to reassert control over the lives and stories of their characters, as the book had become more-or-less an anthology title for much of what occurred between #12 and #47 of the original series, with different creators offering wildly different takes and tones, some of which clearly didn't fit within anything resembling a greater continuity (Michael Zulli's three-issue arc, for example), even if they were awesome comics.

It's true, of course, but then, even when Eastman and Laird were doing pretty much everything themselves on the title, in the first dozen issues or so, it didn't exactly read like an ongoing storyline with a long-term plot or consistent direction. The characters were introduced, their origin told, they met their archenemy and killed him—end issue #1. The next few issues, they met a human friend in April, fought some robots, the end. They went into outer-space for a few issues. They travelled back in time—or to another comic book's universe—to meet and fight alongside Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark, for one issue.

The series, from the beginning, was one that occurred more-or-less in fits and starts, with little in the way of issue-to-issue continuity. I think Rick Veitch's three-issue "The River" run was about as long as any storyline Eastman and Laird produced before "City At War." The Turtles characters, at least in the Mirage books, seemed to be a group of character that, collectively or individually (remember, key points of their history—the introduction of Casey Jones, the return of the Foot Clan and "The Shredder"—occurred in single-issue "micro-series) had weird stuff happen to them, quite often at something approaching random.

That's what made "City At War" seem so unusual and, I suppose, Volume Two so strange. It's another 13-part story arc, featuring characters that only quite rarely had story arcs, and almost never of that length, rather full of call-backs to earlier continuity which, again, isn't something that was too often encountered in Turtles comics.

Could that have been what went wrong? I don't know. Read all at once like this, the plot holds together fairly well, despite the few paths suggested and abandoned, but I imagine it was incredibly frustrating when read on its original monthly—or bi-monthly, I suppose—schedule, when the free-form, punctuation-free, endless narrative would likely seem to meander quite a bit (particularly at a time in comics when, if "writing for the trade" hadn't yet emerged as an everywhere-you-look phenomenon, at the very least story arcs were the dominant form of serial comics storytelling. Also,t hat weird first issue where nothing really happened that wasn't a dream likely didn't help get anyone too excited about issue #2, two months hence).

Personally, I enjoyed the plotting just fine (this time around), but there was little-to-no character development, which seemed rather strange given the big events in the characters' lives, like the four brothers being separated for the first time, or April and one-time practically insane vigilante Casey Jones being in a relationship with one another and trying to raise an orphaned child. Perhaps it's silly to want more out of a comic book called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I felt like the plot and sophistication of the comics-making might have grown as I grew, but the storytelling hadn't...certainly not enough to justify scrapping the book Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had become before "City" in an attempt to recapture a book it never really was, whether that was what it's original creators intended it to be or not.

I additionally found it a little weird that Splinter never reappears after the first issue, April has almost nothing at all to do for the entirety of the series and Casey goes mask-less and bat-less throughout, even when fighting, as in one instance where he attacks some federal agents...
and in the assault on DARPA plot that fills the last few issues, wherein he spend the entire time brainwashed into thinking he's Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"I planted a suggestion in Casey's brain that he was the world's best assault team leader," the mysterious bald psychic man says, by way of explaining some of Casey's action heroics.
I don't think color helped much, although I did appreciate the look of it in the first and final issues (Color on Lawson art is, I realized, something I've very, very rarely seen). The color on the covers tends to look pretty sickly though, which I think may have been more a result of the coloring technology of the time period than any sort of misapplication. Comics coloring was moving in leaps and bounds at that time period, and a lot of ugly-looking comics resulted. I like Laird's art, I like Eastman's art, I like the way their collaborative art looks, but a lot of these covers are pretty terrible-looking.




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Most of the issues contain back-up stories of varying degrees of quality. The first of these is "I.M.P." It's a three-part story by Eric Talbot and Lawson about a little black cat with white "socks" of fur trying to escape a high-security facility and doing so, despite all the guns fired at it.
A much longer one is the seven-part "Bog: Swamp Demon" by writer Ryan Brown and artists Matt Roach, which features a Swamp Thing/Man-Thing/Heap-like swamp creature, albeit one with a decidedly more supernatural and demonic twist. The Bernie Wrightson-like art features a "star" who looks more-or-less like your standard muck man from the neck down, but has a horrifying skull-like visage (atop of his head is actually see white skull peeking up out of the dark green skin), and a crown of gnarled branches emanating from its head.
The writing and art are very reminiscent of 1970s horror comics from superhero publishers, as Bog deals with his own tragic origin, fighting a human serial killer that isn't actually human, and plenty of other monsters and demons, including Satan himself.

The story is a little hard to follow, and not helped any by the fact that its chapters are printed out of order. The coloring shifts from dark and muddy at the beginning, to sharp and clear at the end, making it a lot easier to appreciate Roach's artwork.

I was tempted to devote a whole blog post to Bog, if only to provide more swamp monster content for comics retailer, blogger and muck-encrusted mockery of a man enthusiast Mike Sterling, but it sounds like he may be pretty busy in the near future.

1 comment:

Patrick Markfort said...

Excellent post. I really enjoyed reading this as commentary and criticism of the actual craft of the TMNT comics is surprisingly hard to come by. A lot of great work has been done throughout the various incarnations of the characters. I remember liking this run a lot when it first came out, particularly the artwork, but I haven't revisited it in years.