Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: Tales of The TMNT #5

The fifth issue of Tales of The TMNT proved a rather brilliant offering, one that's not only one of the best issues of that particular series I've read, but also one of the better Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stories I've read, period. There's certainly a degree of gimmickry here, the book's form being quite unusual in its construction, but that form is also perfectly suited to the story being told. It fits perfectly with the ninja/martial arts aspect of the characters, and even the characters' origins as a reaction to Frank Miller's Daredevil comics, featuring the blind, ninja-fighting vigilante. Hell, it even makes perfect use of one of the TMNT comics' signature attributes: The fact that they're black and white.

Jim Lawson is the creator responsible, earning not only a credit for pencils, but also a solo credit for story. Peter Laird, who often shares story credits with editor Steve Murphy on this volume of Tales comics, provides the lettering and inks, although the book is so black and white, it's difficult to tell what's penciled and what's inked, or how the images were made, exactly.

Michael Dooney provides the obligatory "frontspiece" image, of Leonardo comforting a frightened Shadow, who is still a young child and who apparently just woke up from a bad dream, in her bedroom by flashlight. After that, the book is all Lawson and Laird, and told in the reverse silhouette style he employed in one of the short stories included in his Paleo comic.

That is, every panel of the story is a simple field of black, and the characters and pieces of their environment appear only as white silhouettes. These extend from the borders of the panels, which are placed upon bright, white pages, free of the gloss you find on many modern comics pages.
There are only two characters in the story, plus a third who at first seems quite incidental. We never see them as anything other than outlines in the black, however. As this is Lawson, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles artist, his Leonardo is completely recognizable, despite the fact that we never see any details (If you've read enough Turtles comics, then you know exactly how Lawson's Turltes look in profile, or the shape of their hands or Leon's sword handles, etc). His foe, a blind Foot ninja, is more mysterious in apperance; not only faceless, but completely featureless. We can see his shape, we know he's wearing a hat and can identify his weapons, but that's all we can really see of him.

The premise is pretty simple. "It's the last thing I saw..." Leonardo narrates, "...a cloud of tetsu-bishi...followed by the caltrops piercing my skin."

Leonardo's Foot foe hits him with a a score of little pointy projectiles, all covered in poison. It's not a lethal poison though, it merely blinds him. His opponent then waits for the blind Leonardo to realize what's happening and get to his feet, and then the battle resumes. Almost halfway through, the Foot ninja explains what's going on. In a previous battle, he was blinded by Leonardo—a battle that Leonardo doesn't even remember, he and his brothers have cut down so many Foot Clan ninja over the years—and the ninja was demoted to a weapon-polisher. He trained in secret though, until he became a master of blind-fighting.

He's back for a rematch, first stealing Leonardo's sight.
So the art is meant to evoke the way to the two character's "see" one another, themselves and their surroundings. They are good enough that they get the shape of things, they know who's who and what's where, but obviously they can't make out the details, like, for example, what colors their opponents are wearing, or the texture of a fence and so on.

Leonardo's narration, which tells most of the story that the art doesn't, appears in small, thin, white lettering, with no narration boxes; the letters reflect the look and feel of the art. What little dialogue there is in the story is similarly lettered white, the dialogue bubbles black with thin, white outlines giving them shape.

There's a sudden, sharp twist at the end that's strong enough to derail the story and even shock the reader, as the artwork lies to us in the way that Leonardo's senses lie to him, and he discovers too late that he was "reading" something wrong. With the transition of one panel tot he next, the silhouettes are altered slightly as Lawson's image reflects the sudden, too-late correction that Leonardo makes.

Our hero is handed an unequivocal, staggering defeat, even though he survives—as does his foe. The defeat is made all the more shocking and unusual given how abrupt the ending is. At the risk of spoiling such an old story, Leonardo attempts to finish off his foe, and finds out that he's actually run through an innocent bystander.
Surely he's not entirely responsible for the murder, as he was clearly manipulated into stabbing the guy—that was, after all, his foe's plan all along—but whatever the circumstances, Leonardo stabs an innocent man to death. And he only finds himself in this situation at all because of a previous fight that meant so little to him he doesn't even remember it.

The story probably seemed more powerful still because of how unusual it is to read comics of this sort in which the heroes regularly, readily kill their opponents—something few superheroes do, let alone similar characters who have been the basis for so much children's entertainment and merchandise over the last 30 years or so.

It can be difficult to remember that the Turtles are basically assassins with a seriously fucked-up, almost supervillainous origin story. They were trained from birth—well, from mutation—by their mentor and father figure for the sole purpose of carrying out the revenge killing of the guy who killed their master's master...because their master's master killed the brother of the guy who killed their master's master...because the brother of the guy who killed their master's master killed the lover of their master's master. Have I got all that right?

Anyway, the Turtles were bred for 15 years to kill Oroku Saki, The Shredder because he killed Hamato Yoshi, Splinter's owner/sensei-of-a-sort. In the process, they killed a whole bunch of Saki's ninja followers. That tends to get down-played in pretty much every Turtles story in every medium outside the very earliest comics.

Lawson remembers that aspect though, and uses it to fuel this pretty great done-in-one meditation on the destructive cycle of violence and vengeance that the Turtles are a part of.

I'm obviously not the only person impressed with the issue. Two years later, Lawson would continue the story started here in a special four-issue miniseries, entitled Tales of Leonardo: Blind Sight.

1 comment:

Mark Pellegrini said...

Tales #5 is one of the best standalone TMNT stories out there, in its style, economy and contribution to the overarching narrative. It reads perfectly well in a vacuum and even better as part of the larger tapestry so it can appeal to anyone.

I don't know if you've read the sequel miniseries you mentioned, Blind Sight, but it's rather divisive. The story starts rather well and is a solid focus on Leo's character, but I felt it fumbled the ball at the 1 yard-line. If you haven't read it, though, I won't elaborate.

It's still probably the best of the character-themed minis that came out during the Tales Vol. 2 era, even if its ended on a sour note. I'd still recommend it.