Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Vol. 6: City Fall Part 1

One often frustrating aspect of IDW's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics is co-creator Keven Eastman's heavy involvement in the series, which he has earned co-plotting credits for since its launch, and has always provided covers for (and sometimes even breakdowns for the interior art). Sure, he's only one voice in the mix—one of several writers contributing to the plots or stories–but his presence is important, an unspoken but powerfully communicated endorsement of everything going on in IDW's series. And that series has featured a dramatic reinvention of the characters and their story (the most dramatic reinvention in comics, outside of Archie Comics' based-on-the-cartoon comics series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures).

As puzzling as some of the creative choices might seem to readers, and as poor as particular aspects of particular issues might seem here or there, Eastman seems cool with it. And these characters are all his creations—well, co-creations, anyway—so whether he owns and controls them anymore or not (not; they're Viacom's now), if he's okay with whatever IDW's doing in any given comic, well, who are we to get too bent out of shape?

That said, I've been pretty uncomfortable with a lot of aspects of the reboot, perhaps most particularly on its reliance for the original animated adaptation as a source of inspiration...hell, it's prime source of inspiration. Other aspects of the reboot, like Splinter, the Turtles and Shredder all being reincarnated ninjas from feudal Japan, for example, and Casey Jones being a teenager whose abusive father is the Purple Dragon gangleader, well...I'm still struggling to get used to that stuff.

This particular volume collects four issues of IDW's TMNT ongoing series (#21-#24), but the title story doesn't begin until the second of those issues, #22. Before that comes Eastman's heaviest contribution to the series so far, #21. Eastman not only co-plots it with two others (Bobby Curnow, who is also the series' editor, and Tom Waltz, who scripts each issue), he also provides all of the interior artwork.

That is, of course, a treat. I've liked Eastman's art, and been a fan of it, for as long as I've liked comic books, and while he's refined that style over the years, it hasn't evolved into something new and unrecognizable, nor has it dulled at all. The word "gritty" is overused when discussing action comics, which usually use it to describe the tone of the stories, but the word really applies to Eastman's artwork—full with little flecks of ink and bits of crosshatching, theirs a texture to the work. It's easy to imagine running ones hands over the original pages and feeling the patches and bumps of ink, or holding the original page up and finding it heavier than it should be.

In addition to always enjoying Eastman's visual contributions to IDW's TMNT comics, I also find them amusing. Eastman draws the characters in his own style, the way he's always drawn them, regardless of their new designs. His ninja turtles are all identical, they're all pupil-less, and they wear the same kneepads and elbow-pads they've been wearing since the late '80s, while the IDW artists distinguish the characters pretty widely, and have their arms, legs, hands and feet wrapped like those of fighters, rather than wearing any kind of pads.

Eastman's Splinter still looks like a pupil-ess, shaggy little werewolf, while the other artists draw him taller, with shorter hair, and with a shorter snout and a long goatee and fu manchu mustache. Eastman's Casey looks like he's always looked—that is, a grown-up—rather than a teenager, and his Shredder looks like his Shredder, not IDW's.

I suppose it makes sense that Eastman would just draw his characters how he wants, just as it makes sense that Curnow and/or IDW would let him do as he pleased to keep him happy. In the first volume of Turtles, when Eastman and Laird were both drawing and, later, when they would be joined by their studio-mates, their designs and depictions of the characters changed rather dramatically, and, eventually, different artists would be drawing disconnected stories on an almost issue by issue basis.

Here, however, it's somewhat jarring, as unlike the original Mirage TMNT series, IDW's series has told one big, long, serial story; groups of issues sometimes have individual names and form story arcs, but they all bleed into one another, with no conflict ever being resolved so much as being continued.

That all-Eastman issue is a bit of a tour de force for the artist, as a good 17 of its 22 pages consist of nothing more than fighting. And Eastman manages to pack a lot of action into so relatively few pages, a more remarkable feat still when one considers it contains two single-page splashes and a single two-page splash. How does he accomplish it? With panels; lots and lots of little panels.
Several pages have more than 12 panels on them, allowing the characters to really fight, as in trading blows and so forth. Despite the fact that so much of American super-comics and action genre comics tend to revolve around fighting, there's generally precious little actual action in them; here, at least, there is.

The plot of the story is thin, but then, it's really just a showcase for Eastman. The title characters are on a rooftop and about to head home for the night when they are suddenly attacked by a mysterious robed and hooded figure in a clown face mask, a figure with unnaturally bent legs, suggesting he's not human under that mask.

The character repeatedly attacks, defeats the Turtles and then retreats; each time employing a different combat style, which he rather irritatingly lectures them about while doing so.

At the end, he removes his mask to reveal...
...it was Splinter all along. Nevermind how he concealed his tail, changed his voice and learned to trash-talk as he did, how did he manage to smoosh that big-ass snout flat under a face-mask made for humans?

The last few pages finally move the mega-plot forward a bit, as they are set in Japan, where The Shredder, his grandaughter Karai and The Foot unearth a casket, within which lies a perfectly preserved, glowing woman in a kimono, a ceremonial fox mask by her side. Shredder calls her "Kitsune," and she'll prove an important character moving forward.

After that issue, artist Mateus Santolouco shows up and "City Fall" proper begins...or, I should say, continues. The first page of the storyline opens with The Shredder and Kitsune back in New York, discussing a group called "The Savate," who dress like Naurto characters and are lead by a brash young man called Victor. They are apparently a rival martial arts gang in NYC who oppose The Foot Clan, and an asterisk helpfully instructs us to "See TMNT Annual #1." That comic was never collected in trade paperback, which kinda/sorta defeats the purpose of trade collections, really. (Similarly, the recently-released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time collection does not include TMNT Annual 2014, which kicked off the storyline; I reviewed that book briefly here).

So it looks like a gang war is shaping up, and it's to be waged between The Foot and The Savate, with the Turtles and company caught in the middle. But before it comes to that, The Shredder has a reeaallly complicated plan to pull off.

He has Karai and The Foot capture Casey Jones and Raphael but then let Raph escape and summon Splinter and his brothers to help him rescue Casey. April drops the guys off at "the docks," where Shredder meets Karai and Alopex (the fox mutant introduced in IDW's Raphael #1) and then shoves a bladed-gauntlet into Casey's stomach, horribly wounding him. This draws the Turtles out, everyone fights and they try to retreat and get Casey to safety...and, during the melee, Shredder and company capture their true target: Leonardo (Why not just capture him in the first place? I do not know).

They the Foot turn Leonardo over to Kitsune for mystical brainwashing, which leads to a string of guest-artists including Dan Duncan, Ross Campbell, Andy Kuhn, Ben Bates and Eastman himself again, each drawing a two-page spread of a fantasy sequence set inside Leo's brain. Campbell, for example, draws a bunch of Foot Ninja pursuing a mask-less Leo, the ninja spontaneously mutating into hairless, desiccated rat men before a big, scary version of Splinter throws him off a rooftop, only to be rescued by Shredder. Eastman draws Splinter siccing the reanimaed corpses of the other three turtles on Leo, and again Shredder saves him.

Meanwhile, April and Casey's friend Angel, an on-again, off-again member of the Purple Dragons, watch over him at the hospital, and mutant Old Hob and huge mutant turtle Slash offer Splinter and the Turtles their assistance in finding The Foot Clan. They do find The Foot, but they also find the newly brain-washed Leonardo, now decked out in a black bandanna, with black fabric wrapped around his limbs, and sporting a bit of armor and a Shredder-like gauntlet. The guest artist-drawn flashback sequences have flipped Leo's loyalties from Splinter to The Shredder.
Everyone fights, and it ends in a draw. Both sides return to their corners, and The Shredder retains Leonardo, who is now in his thrall.

This volume marks the beginning of Santolouco's stint as regular-ish artist on the series. Unlike the previous artists on IDW's TMNT comic—Dan Duncan drew the first three volumes, Andy Kuhn the foruth and Ben Bates the fifth—Santolouco redesigns the individual Turltes to make them look more distinct from one another, and he leans pretty hard towards the designs of the current, 2012-launched television cartoon (perhaps by directive, rather than choice).
So now Donatello is a head taller than Raphael and Leonardo, and somewhat lankier; he even has a gap in his teeth. Michaelangelo is almost a head shorter than Raph and Leo, and his bandanna is noticeably shorter than those of his brothers, leaving hardly any "tail" flowing behind his head; they all have much rounder heads now, and resemble compromises between the designs of the TV show and Duncan and company's earlier Turtles.

He draws them well, and draws all of the other characters well as too—I'm not fond of some of the designs, like that of Slash or The Savate, but he inherited those—but it's a pretty jarring change from what came before.


Despite the unfortunate tendency to not collect important parts of the stories just because they get published outside of the main title, the trades really are the best way to read IDW's TMNT comic. After all, if you read the issues serially, you'd only be able to get one cover, and thus miss out on Eastman's often quite awesome covers, or the many awesome variant covers from great, usually unexpected artists.

Like, for example, have you ever wondered what Dean Haspiel's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might look like? Wonder no more!
There's definitely something weird going on with the way he draws their shells at the crotch.

Or hey, remember how great those first issues of the the latest volume of Marvel's Moon Knight series were? Did you find yourself wondering what artist Declan Shalvey's Shredder and The Foot Clan might look like? Behold!
I feel like there may be some sort of Foot Clan/Declan joke to be made, but I can't quite find it.


Patrick C said...

Other than the presence of Tenet, that TMNT annual has nothing to do with the turtles in time mini. Even reading it you're left wondering just what the heck is going on in turtles in time #1.

Also the other cool aspect of those Leo brainwashing scenes, the artist that drew each 'vision' is the same artist that drew the event Leo is flashing back to. I thought that was pretty cool.

Mark Pellegrini said...

Well, not so lucky for those who have already been buying the smaller trades, but good news for those who have yet to get into the IDW series...

TMNT: The IDW Collection Vol. 1:


It's a new hardcover series that will collect all the IDW issues, but splicing the other minis into the narrative of the ongoing so everything reads in coherent, chronological order.

Looks fancy!