Monday, October 06, 2014

On Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Vol. 4

In 1993 Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird and Mirage Studios relaunched their seminal Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book series as a full-color series with a new number #1, a regular creative team (Jim Lawson penciling and writing, others helping him on inks) and a television-like ongoing, serial narrative. As discussed previously, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles volume 2 lasted only 12 issue, and Mirage seemingly suddenly ceased to be a comics-producing concern in 1995.

As for the Turtles, they moved into a new black-and-white comic with a new #1 at Image Comics. The series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vol. 3, was written by Gary Carlson, drawn by Frank Fosco, and featured covers by Image's Erik Larsen. It lasted just 23 issues before being canceled in 1999, due to poor sales (according to Mirage's website).

After that strange interlude, a series which saw the main characters often injured and mutilated in various ways that forced radical changes in costume and appearance, the Turtles came home to a new and rejuvenated Mirage in 2001, with the launch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vol. 4 (The new logo reading "TMNT" in big, bold letters, while the words the acronym stood for ran in much smaller font below it).

I admit that I didn't really give he new series much of a chance when it was originally being released on a bi-monthly schedule; I read maybe the first seven issues before deciding to drop it and maybe pick it up in trade someday. I never did pick it up in trade—I don't know if they ever actually collected any of it in trade—but I did just buy a huge chunk of it in back issue form (#1-8, #10-13, #15, #16, #18, #19, #21 and #22).

The book was a rather strange beast. It was a Mirage Turtles comic through and through, but perhaps because of the time period when it was being produced (and who I was and what my relationship with comics was at the time), it no longer seemed quite as weird or unusual, as indie or underground, as the first volume of Turtles comics from Mirage (and, to a lesser extent, the second volume).

It was black and white like the original comics, but it told an ongoing narrative, with no breaks for story arcs the way most superhero comics (and comics from superhhero publishers) are told—it wasn't being written for the trade, but was a comic book created in spite of trades. And, in that arc-less-ness, it also resembled TMNT Vol. 2.

It was a pretty nice all-around package, of the sort it's hard to think of any other books quite like it. Each issues cost $2.95 and the page count could vary rather widely, but was generally in the neighborhood of at least 32 pages (one notable exception was #10, which was sixty pages long, and thus cost $3.95). (The flexible page count really allowed every book to function as a distinct story unit of its own, and to let the scenes really breathe visually; while it's true on one hand that strict page counts force a sort of creativity and economy from creators, the opposite is also true, and it was refreshing to see scenes paced as leisurely as so many in this volume are. The third issue, for example, where something pretty momentous happens, is 48-pages long, but the price doesn't jump from $2.95).

There were never any ads in any of the books save house ads in the backs of the books, and they generally had very substantial letters columns that stretched over several pages, with Peter Laird answering the mail, sometimes at rather great length.

Yes, Peter Laird. And that was the other odd thing about the book: It was very much a Mirage comic, save for one glaring, obvious omission. Laird was quite heavily involved with the book, more heavily involved than at any time since the earlier issues of the first volume of TMNT comics. He wrote every issue, he handled the letting, he inked the art, and he also handled the toning (although, as the book progressed, the toning would disappear in favor of more stark black and white art).

The rest of the creators involved were as familiar to readers of Mirage comics as Laird was. Jim Lawson handled all the penciling once again and, with the exception of the first cover, each cover was painted by Michael Dooney, taken from a blown-up piece of Lawson's art in the interior pages. Soon, Eric Talbot would join the regular team as an inker, and Dan Berger's name appeared as production assistant.

The only name missing was Kevin Eastman, which I suppose I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it's interesting to see what a Peter Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic would look like without Eastman, but it also seemed to be missing least, to a certain extent. Eastman is so ingrained in the DNA of the characters that even when he's not there and actively contributing, he's still there, in the same way that when various creators would take on Eastman and Laird's characters during the artists showcase periods of the first volume (#16-18, #22-47), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still felt like Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (I will say that the Eastmanless-ness of this volume seems much less wrong now that IDW has begun publishing a fifth volume of the series, as Eastman has been involved in that series, while Laird has not; in a sense then, we've now seen what each creator might do with their characters were the other not there actively contributing).

That's all behind the scenes stuff, of course. On the pages themselves, perhaps the most interesting creative choice of all was, beyond how much of himself and his longtime collaborators Laird poured into the book, was to pick up right where he, Eastman and Lawson had left off with the characters...but with the 15 years that had elapsed factored in.

So Volume 4 is continued from Vols. 1 and 2 (Volume 3, the Image Comics volume, is ignored, Laird explains, not because he didn't like it, but because it diverged so far from "his" Turtles, and it made more sense for him to continue the story he and Eastman had begun telling). But it is set in 2001, meaning that there was some 15 years or so that had passed in the characters' lives since the final issue of Volume 2 shipped.

Unlike all those superhero characters the Turtles have shared comic shop shelf space with over the years then, they were aging and had aged in real-time; the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were no longer teenagers, but in their early 30s (Not that the title would be changed to reflect that, although perhaps that had something to do with the emphasis of "TMNT" over what the acronym stands for on the new logo). This meant that Shadow, Casey and April's adopted baby, was now a teenager herself. It meant that all of the characters were much more grown-up, and the four brothers had a greater, fuller sense of themselves; each seemed more of an individual, and older and wiser (Even Raphael's angst and anger are dialed down).

And, of course, there was a decade and a half of untold stories to be built on or referred back to. Not too long after the launch of this volume, a sister title Tales of the TMNT would launch, and many of those comics would focus on filling-in adventures from the missing years (I'm working my way through that series now; you can expect a bunch of posts on it in the near future).
Laird and Lawson's first issue is filled with rather deliberate call-backs to the first issue of the original volume, with the Turtles facing down a New York City street gang, some of their poses and dialogue directly echoing their first fight against the Purple Dragons in 1984's original outing.

The four of them live in a sewer lair in New York City, Casey and April are still together and trying to have a baby of their own together, and teenage Shadow lives at the farm house with her "grandfather" Splinter. Karai and The Foot Clan are still around, but have gone more-or-less "straight" now, and serve as ninja security contractors.

Laird presents a very big paradigm and premise shifting event almost immediately in the new series, however (In fact, the first pages of the first issue begin teasing it). The Utroms, the squishy-looking, tentacled aliens that look like brains whose chemical waste was the chemical that mutated the turtles and Splinter, return very openly, very publicly to Earth.
The scenes of alien ships arriving outside of New York City, and a rapt world watching the events unfold on television, had a very 9/11 feel to them, and, intentional or not, those televised events similarly altered that world forever: Actually, while the scenes of the characters reacting felt like 9/11, the changes wrought on the fictional New York City were obviously much bigger.
With alien visitors quickly becoming a part of every day life in New York, the Turtles are free to walk the streets openly.

Laird builds on past events quite a bit: There are Metalhead and other members of Justice Force from 1988's TMNT #15, mention of Baxter Stockman injecting April in vol. 2, talk of Triceratons, Renet makes a couple of appearances. He also engages in a great deal of world-building, which includes a passel of superheroes, a superhero hospital named for Jack Kirby, and some Kirby-esque alien life forms later on. One need not know who all these characters are, or be completely familiar with all of their past appearances, to make sense of the story at hand, however. It's enough to know that there's this make-shift family group of sorts—four mutant ninja turtles, their father/sensei mutant rat and three human beings—that have lived all kinds of wild and crazy adventures, and for whom nothing is out of the ordinary.
In fact, Laird even intentionally plays up the fact that one need not know everything about everything in one of the bigger events of the series. When one of the main characters die, the funeral is attended by familiar characters from throughout the various a few new ones created just for the scene that Laird explains in a later letter column he hopes to introduce in a flashback story in Tales at some point.

As the series progresses, the four turtles start to go their own ways, or at least get their own story arcs. Donatello joins the Utroms on an exploratory mission of a "lost world" in South America, where they find intelligent raptors that talk like Gollum and maybe the most bizarre design Lawson or Laird have ever come up with for alien creatures.

Leonardo finds himself working with The Foot.

Raphael gets attacked by some kind of vampire and mutates into a bestial, mostrous form.

And as for Michelangelo? (Yeah, here it is "Michelangelo" rather than "Michaelangelo"; Laird changed the spelling of his name, saying he did so to correct the mistaken misspelling back in 1984 that had since stuck). He is a sort of Earth tour guide for visiting aliens, since he looks alien but is actually an Earth native, and he gets involved with the weirdest plot of all...

As I mentioned, I'm missing large chunks of this particular volume, and the last one I read was #22, so I don't know exactly how it all ended, or if it did get a proper ending before it was canceled, the Turtles sold to Nickelodeon, and IDW's Volume 5—a hard reboot of the characters and their story—was launched. (If not, it would be cool if IDW hired Laird and Lawson to write the "end" of their story in a miniseries or original graphic novel at some point).

But I really liked what I read. These comics won't be the ones Peter Laird is remembered for simply because of the impact of his earliest work on the comics industry and pop culture in general, but these comics feature some of his strongest writing, and the artwork may represent the best of Lawson's non-Paleo artwork. But with Lawson it's really hard to say, as I tend to think that whenever I encounter new work of his. That huge chunk of Tales of the TMNT I've also recently acquired? Lawson does some downright stellar artwork in that too, particularly #5, which read like a response to that classic G.I. Joe #21, the "Silent Interlude" story, only dealing with a different sense.

At this point in my comics-reading career, I don't really have any interest in collecting comics as much as reading them, which is generally easy enough to accomplish, thanks to the current ubiquity of trade paperbacks and collections of all kind, but this is a series I'm going to continue looking in long-boxes at comics shops and shows for, because there's a lot of the story I still haven't read, and that is, apparently, the only way to read it.

1 comment:

wildfire405 said...

I recently finished reading the Mirage series also and am perhaps two issues away from finishing Tales Vol. 2. I have to admit, this series was bizarre. I appreciate it, I want to see it finished someday, but I can't say I really "like" it.

The breakup of Eastman and Laird was always kept pretty private. No one talks smack about anyone and that's amazing. As volume 4 went on, and Laird's letter columns got more "opinionated" I think, reading between the lines, I can guess why the break up occurred. When we read that Eastman was leaving Mirage, I thought he was the tired, angry, bored douche abandoning the ship. Now having met Eastman, and having read those letter columns, bless his heart, but I think Laird might be a keep-to-himself kind of guy who might be hard to work with--like a George Lucas.

Laird's got good ideas, but his ideas are better when he has people to bounce them off. Eastman seems to be the more social one. The one who's likely to engage fans. I think his touch on the ongoing IDW series is a blessing to the story.

Volume 4? It really just isn't going where I like my turtles to go. They're mutilating them, and nothing really resolves. In the beginning, the Turtles complained of being without purpose and directionless, and the story weaves that way--without a real end in sight.

but if they eventually do release 31 and 33 on the Mirage website, I'll be the first do dive back in and buy it.