Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Some notes on IDW's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection line

Eastman's cover for Ultimate Collection Vol. 5
I was looking for a particular image from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics the other day, and checked out one of IDW's Ultimate collections from the library and, before long, I fell into something of a rabbit hole--well, turtle hole, I guess. I ended up reading the first six volumes of the publisher's Ultimate line--there's a seventh volume, apparently just featuring covers, on the way--as well as re-reading Mirage's full-color, short-lived second volume of TMNT in comic book form.

These ultimate collections are nice-looking books, and I'd certainly like to own copies of my own some day, but I'm at the point in my life where I think I need to buy a house in order to fill it with bookshelves in order to fill those with graphic novels. My one-bedroom apartment is just about at capacity now, and I really shouldn't try to squeeze six or seven atlas-sized collections of comics I already own in several formats in here if I can avoid it.

The books are about 8.5-by-12 inches in size, so the comics within are presented at a notably larger size than usual. The many splash pages and double-page splashes of the earliest TMNT comics are basically big enough to be placed in frames and hung on walls like piece of fine art. Only the covers for the individual issues aren't blown-up within these collections, which I found to be sort of irritating (although if that seventh volume is going to be devoted to collecting the covers, maybe that was the reason why they are presented so small within).

Each collection features a new, original wraparound cover by Kevin Eastman, who is still working surprisingly closely with IDW on their fifth volume of the comic. These covers are all essentially collages of the contents of the volume. These are kind of fascinating in that they reveal the way Eastman draws the characters now, without the visual input of Peter Laird or any of the other Mirage artists he would collaborate with (like Jim Lawson and Eric Talbot, for example), and while his style hasn't changed too drastically over the last three decades or so--that is, Kevin Eastman's artwork is still immediately recognizable as Kevin Eastman's artwork--it is interesting to note those changes.
Also, it's fun to see him draw characters he had no or little input into before. So, for example, the cover for the second volume features his drawing of the Kirby character from 1986's Donatello, which Laird did much of the work on (and comparing the Kirby in the comic to that on Eastman's cover makes this clearer still), and the third volume (above) has Eastman's "cover" versions of Doctor Dome, the Domeoids and the Justice Force superheroes from 1988's TMNT #15, an Eastman-free Laird and Lawson issue.

Aside from the blown-up size and the original covers though, the comics are also all annotated by Eastman and Laird, with every issue being followed by a page or more of memories, reactions and behind-the-scenes notations from the two creators. If you've read these comics at least once before, then the ultimate collection probably provide the ideal way to re-read them, as the effect is a little like having Eastman and Laird reading along over your shoulder, and volunteering their commentary.

All of that stuff is pretty fascinating, and, I'll be honest, sometimes a little shocking. For example, when I was reading these comics as a teenager--I think 1991's TMNT #37 was the first issue I bought new at a comic shop, and after that point I started hunting for back issues while keeping up with new stuff as it was released--I had no idea the pair ever had a falling out of any kind.

They don't detail the ins and outs of their disagreements herein, although they allude to not speaking to one another or being unable to be in the same room with one another quite a bit. That was pretty surprising to hear, although I guess it explains why their collaborations dwindled to almost nothing for a while.

So after 11 issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and the four character-specific one-shot "micro-series" and sundry short stories)  published over the course of  three years in which the pair worked as an exceptionally entwined creative team, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #12 was a Laird solo issue. TMNT #13 an Eastman solo issue (with Talbot assisting on inks). TMNT #14 was the first of many fill-in issues,  and then  #15 was Laird and Lawson, #16  was another fill-in issue and then #17 was Eastman and Talbot. It wasn't until #19-#21 that Eastman and Laird collaborated again--that was the "Return To New York" story arc--and even then it wasn't just the two of them, as Lawson and Talbot were heavily involved in those issues.

Despite the now decades-old disagreements though, the pair seem quite effusive in their praise for one another's respective skills throughout (although Laird never seems to miss an opportunity to point out when there's a typo), and neither seem too terribly eager to re-litigate their conflicts. I guess I'll wait to their biographies (And man, I do hope someone is writing their biography, and that they are both gradually working on their own autobiographies, because what a fascinating story those two lived!).

A couple of things that occurred to me while reading this volumes, and re-reading the comics within for, like, the hundredth time...

Laird's inks on Lawson's pencils over Eastman's layouts in 1989's TMNT #19
I've talked before about the fact that one of my favorite aspects of these comics were how homemade they feel, and the fact that the particular, long-mysterious-to-me system that Eastman and Laird employed in their creation meant that each issue had a sort of alchemical style, a fusion of each of their significantly different personal styles...sometimes with those of other studio mates also transmuted into the resultant comics.

Sometimes it's quite clear who did what, and thus how each artist's style might have impacted the art--the three-chapter "Return to New York," for example, were inked by Laird, Talbot and Eastman respectively--other times, it seems like two-to-four pencils and pens were involved with every page, and a comic might have a "Mirage Studios" style rather than anyone's personal style.

The notes detail that Eastman and Laird did have a system, although it is interesting to hear them discussing the very earliest issues, particularly TMNT #1, in which neither is exactly clear on who inked a particular page, and it seems that both of them contributed pencils and inks to each page.

The system they ultimately settled on seemed to be this, according to Laird:

1.) They would initially "write" the story in conversation with one another, hammering out a plot together.
2.) Eastman would handle the layout, on which he would include rough dialogue.
3.) Laird would do finished dialogue.
4.) They would pencil the comic based on Eastman's layouts and, after the final dialogue was lettered--originally by them, later by Steve Lavigne--they would ink the art and add toning (that last bit is something I never realized was involved with the construction of these comics, and helps explain the gritty, textured look of the black and white art).
As Laird explained it, they were ideally communicating throughout the entire process, so even though layouts might have been Eastman's "job" and finished dialogue Laird's, they both had and took opportunities to address any and all concerns as they were going.

In the earliest issues especially, Laird said, they tried to make sure they each penciled and inked a piece of each page or panel, and that this would take place by the pair literally handing pages back and forth between them in order to get a true blend of their styles.

Repeatedly throughout these annotations they each note that when they would meet readers at conventions, they were always being asked about how they worked together and who did what. Comics readers in the early 1980s apparently couldn't get their heads around the idea of two writer/artists working on a comic book together as writer/artists, perhaps because so much comics production fell into either the assembly-line method established in the Golden Age (with a writer handing a script to a penciler, who handled his pencil art to an inker, who then gave the finished art to the colorist, etc) or a solo cartoonist doing everything herself.

It is an unusual method, though, one that requires pretty much constant proximity to one another--which I suppose was likely a factor in the eventual strain in their relationship.

Eastman and Laird's final page of 1984's TMNT #1
•The focus of these books is the issues of the original series that Eastman and Laird worked on, to the exclusion of all the fill-in issues. It was striking to see how many times throughout that relatively short run of comics by the pair themselves--just 38 issues total including the one-shots, out of the 62 issues that the first volume of TMNT ultimately ran--that Eastman and Laird seemed to reach natural, organic would-be, could-be endings for their series.

It's pretty common knowledge that they never really anticipated TMNT lasting longer than a single issue, and despite the fact that they both desperately wanted to succeed as comics creators, they were caught off-guard by how successful that lark featuring a silly idea and elements of parody and homage of Frank Miller's Daredevil work ended up being, and how much market demand there was for what such a weird concept.

Re-reading 1984's TMNT #1 with that thought placed in your mind, it's abundantly clear that the comic was created as a 40-page complete story unto itself. There's no cliffhanger, no dangling plot lines, no questions yet to be addressed. In those pages, the pair thoroughly introduce and explain the characters' origins (built atop the origin of Marvel's Daredevil, of course), the history of the enmity between their master and his archenemy and then there's a huge, action-packed, 10-page ninja battle ending with the death of their enemy and the resolution of the conflict that we are told was their life's mission.

Yeah, it's a pretty complete story, and it's not hard to imagine that, had it not caught the imagination of comics readers and, eventually, cartoon-watchers and toy-players-with, it might have just ended up being a strange stepping stone to other endeavors by two talented creators.

Once they committed to a second issue though, a story arc quickly emerged. In issue #2, the TMNT met their first human friend April O'Neil and their father/sensei Master Splinter went missing, all a result of villain Baxter Stockman's robotic mousers. In the following five issues, the guys move in with April and search for Splinter, unwittingly uncovering details about their origins, travelling to outer space and having a rather wild, pulpy adventure that concludes with a reunion with Splinter and the formation of a new configuration of a family, now including April.

It is very easy to imagine Eastman and Laird's TMNT ending with issue #7 then, too, as #1-#7 tell a pretty complete story that ends happily (Raphael, which came out between #2 and #3, doesn't really play into that arc at all, but is more of a side story focusing on his personality...and introducing Casey Jones, who wouldn't play a part in the series for a while yet).

After that, there are some done-in-one stories, including the Michaelangelo and Donatello one-shots, the epic 45-page TMNT #8 featuring a crossover with Dave Sim's Cerebus (and introducing Renet and Savanti Romero), and a rather Splinter-centric flashback to the Pre-Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in #9.

A continuing story arc reemerges in Leonardo, the most action-packed issue up until that point, as it is basically one long fight scene, which leads directly into #10, an unexpected rematch with the supposedly dead Shredder and the Foot Clan, featuring a last-minute save by Casey Jones, who at that point joins the team and their narrative on a permanent basis.
Eastman's cover for 1987's TMNT #11
TMNT #11, set at the farmhouse in Northhampton, is another natural "ending" to the story, as it has the various characters struggling to process what just happened to them in New York City, and, gradually, all making their peace with it to some extent. It has a pretty happy ending, and it's not a bad place to end the story, really, although it does suggest that our heroes have lost...at least in terms of their battle against the Foot Clan, if not at life in general.

The first time I read these comics--hell, the first 40 times I read these comics--it was in a big, fat, phone book-sized collection featuring the four micro-series and the first 11 issues of TMNT. It's easy to see why they collected them in this fashion, as they do read as a complete (even completed) unit.

Then, after a series of adventures mostly set in rural New England as opposed to New York City--the previously mentioned efforts by the then sort of split-up Eastman and Laird team of #12, #14, #15 and #17, plus fill-in issues  by Michael Dooney, Mark Martin and Mark Bode that aren't included in the ultimate collections--Eastman, Laird and their Mirage Studios partners reunite for "Return To New York." That three-issue arc really resolves our heroes' defeat at the hands of the Foot in #11. They have re-killed The Shredder, this time once and for all--the resurrected Shredder isn't quite the same one they killed in #1, of course, as is explained--and they have re-fulfilled their mission in life and are able to move on. At that stories end, the four brothers are in New York, burning the body of The Shredder, and are apparently now free to go wherever they like or do whatever they want.

Again, this too seems like a natural ending point for Eastman an Laird's TMNT narrative. And, in a way, it was. The title kept going, of course, but it would be another three years and 26 issues before Eastman and Laird returned to the book, and for the rest of the 62-issue volume they would only draw a single issue issue together and then share writing credits on 14 issues, the job of drawing the turtles now falling to Lawson, with new inker Keith Aiken, and assists from Talbot and a few others.

The end of that epic storyline would, of course, be another natural ending point--and finally was. The book ended when the 12-issue "City At War" did, only to be relaunched for an ill-starred, 12-issue, full-color run that now seems to be even more forgotten than the Image series was.

Veitch's cover for 1989's TMNT #24
•Because the focus of the ultimate collections is the Eastman and Laird issues of Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that means that many issues of the series are left out. So Dooney's #13 Martin's #16 and Bode's #18 aren't here. And none of the issues that fell between the end of "Return To New York" and  the two-part "City At War" lead-in story arc "Shades of Gray" are included here. That's a lot of TMNT, and a lot of great comics: Two more Mark Martin issues, Rick Veitch's three-issue "The River" arc and a later done-in-one, Michael Zulli's gorgeous but weird "Soul's Winter" story arc, a three-issue arc by Rich Hedden and Tom McWeedy, comics by Steve Murphy, Michael Dooney and Keith Aiken, Dan Berger, Rick Arthur, A.C. Farley, Mark Bode and, my favorites, #37 and #42 by Rick McCollum and Bill Anderson and #41 by Matt Howarth.

There is some reason to quibble with the curation of these ultimate collections.

Some of these guest comics are pretty far afield of those told by Eastman and Laird, the more "canonical" ninja turtles stories, and are best read as the Mirage equivalents of Marvel's What If...? or DC's Elseworlds or Silver Age "imaginary stories." Just before and for a long time after "Return to New York," TMNT was basically an anthology series, akin to Legends of The Dark Knight. Like LDK though, if some stories strayed too far to be considered in continuity, others fit in perfectly well with Eastman and Laird's stories. Many of the above stories are set in and around the New England farmhouse, for example, and others have the characters re-encountering characters from earlier in the series, like Renet, Savanti Romero, Romero's previously unrevealed wife and the superheroine Radical and supervillain Carnage.

By excising all of these from the ultimate collections, there is a rather strange compressing of time, and a reader doesn't get the sense that the characters were ever really lost in the wilderness, trying to figure out their next move after their defeat in #10. When Raphael starts fighting with his brothers in the first chapter of "Return," complaining about how long they have been hiding out in New England while Shredder and The Foot are alive and well in New York City, here only some 186 pages and four issues, instead of twice that.

And even less time passes between the conclusion of "Return To New York" and the beginning of "City At War"; in fact, because "Shades of Gray" is basically an unofficial first two chapters of "City At War," both of the big, Eastman and Laird-written storylines about the turtles returning to New York City to sort out matters with the Foot Clan happen back-to-back in these collections.

I don't know what, exactly, would have been a better solution, I just know the series reads very differently when presented with all of the fill-ins excised like this.

Talbot's cover for 1988's TMNT #17
That said, I thought the inclusion of #17 was somewhat surprising. That's the Eric Talbot solo issue, the bulk of which is a rather weird, random stream-of-conscious fantasy story set in in feudal Japan and starring a version of Michaelangelo....although it turns out to be a dramatization of a story Michaelangelo himself is writing. Eastman is credited as a writer on it, both in the collection and on Mirage's website, but Eastman himself seems surprised by the credit in his annotations of the issue, and doesn't remember having done enough work on the book to have deserved the credit.

Meanwhile, Eastman did contribute to the Mark Bode issues--#18, which he co-wrote and helped ink, and #32, which he helped ink--but neither of those are included herein (Those are both really fun ones, too, sending the Turtles overseas to Hong Kong, where they kinda sorta team-up with a Bruce Lee stand-in, and to Egypt, where they fight Anubis and other characters of Egyptian mythology. I really liked Bode's Turtle designs, and the way he handled dialogue, the balloons and sound effects all appearing above the panels).

I suppose both of those issues lean pretty hard away from the canonical Turtles, of course, but if the organizing principle here is the complete Eastman and Laird TMNT and co-writing #17 was enough, to qualify, well...

Splash page by Lawson and Aiken from 1992's TMNT #51
•When we get to #48 in Ultimate Collection Volume 4, Jim Lawson has become the official Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles artist and, in fact, it is his art we will see for every issue included in the next two volumes, with the brief exception of the 42 pages of TMNT #50, in which Eastman and Laird reunite on both story and art.

I remember it being a real treat at the time the book came out--I had signed up for a subscription of the book at the time, and that was and remains the only time I ever had a subscription to a comic book series--although looking at it now, it sure is jarring to see the Lawson art get replaced by the infinitely darker, busier, more textured Eastman/Laird art, only to give way almost immediately to Lawson's more streamlined, abstract and expressive art (Confession: I used to hate Lawson's TMNT art. Now he's one of my favorite TMNT artists).
Lawsons' cover for 1987's Tales of The TMNT #2, introducing Nobody
"Shades of Gray" sticks out a bit in this curation of the series, if only because the character Nobody plays a rather significant role. A more traditional vigilante/superhero based in Springfield, he was introduced in Tales of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2 (written by Eastman and Laird and drawn by Lawson and Ryan Brown), and, because no issues of Tales are collected here, isn't really introduced to the narrative properly, but rather just appears.

Still, those two issues--TMNT #48 and #49--are pretty important, as they include the events that kick off the splintering of the TMNT family that sets up "City At War." The first official chapter of which, #50, is silent.

Eastman and Laird's cover for 1992's TMNT #50
•"City At War" is an extremely unusual story arc for even this extremely unusual comic, lasting 12-14 issues, depending on if we count "Shades", and dwarfing the longest sustained story arcs from the book's previous 50 issues. (Remember, "Return to New York" was just three issues, albeit 40-ish page issues, and the unofficial search for Splinter arc was just about six issues).

It was also probably the most emotionally mature of the TMNT stories, with Eastman, Laird and Lawson splitting the characters up into four different units, each experiencing their own story arcs. In the case of the two human characters, their storylines are positively mundane--Casey moves away, meets a woman, falls in love and tries to settle into a normal-ish domestic relationship with her, while April moves to Los Angeles to live with her sister and start a life free of mutant ninjas and their attendant secrets.

Meanwhile, Splinter finds himself in extremely dire straits and faces death alone, and the Turtles themselves return to New York City and find themselves trying to sort out a massive gang war involving warring factions of The Foot Clan...the result of their having cut off the head of the organization when they killed Shredder for the second time.

And then there's a random New Yorker who was caught in an explosion during the Foot's initial war against itself, and we follow his recovery throughout, a somewhat frustrating element because a reader keeps expecting him to turn out to be someone important to the plot somehow, but he is instead just there to dramatize a real person who suffers during wars in general--a point that was made in the first issue, and thus didn't really need 11 more issue's worth of example.s

I recall finding the story somewhat frustrating the first time through, read in monthly installments--again, this story was a huge change from the 50 or so TMNT comics that preceded it, as they were mostly big done-in-one adventures--and even the second time through, but this time I found it pretty engrossing. I started it late at night, with the intention of reading the first few chapters, and ended up staying up late enough to read the whole thing in a fit of pure can't-put-it-down-ism, blowing way past my bedtime.

It's kind of striking how unusual the story felt for a TMNT comic, given how basic, even generic elements of April and Casey's plot lines were, and how simple what Eastman, Laird and Lawson ended up doing really was. While the A plot was basically that of the ninja turtles doing ninja turtle stuff and questioning their purpose in life more than ever, starting to come of age in a way that felt uncomfortable in the context of everything that came before, the overall purpose of the story was simply to break up the characters' extended family, send them off in different directions to learn why they are together in the first place, and then reunite them via soap opera like events and coincidences.

This storyline gave us the character Karai, who isn't too terribly well-developed here, but would play a pretty large role in TMNT mass media adaptions in the 21st century, and Shadow, who would be a recurring character in Laird's fourth volume of the TMNT title...a character with a lot of potential that I don't think ever ended up being met (Actually, I suspect there's a lot of unrealized potential in the space between the time jump of TMNT Vol. 2 #12 and TMNT Vol. 4 #1, a great deal of which was explored in Tales... Vol. 2, which ran alongside TMNT Vol. 4. (I mean, a teenage girl named Shadow raised by sports equipment-wielding vigilante Casey Jones, with four ninja masters for uncles and a fifth ninja master as her grandfather...? She'd basically be a blend of the Casey and April characters, with skills on par with the mutant ninjas).

Eastman and Laird's cover for 1987's Anything Goes #5
•Now Eastman and Laird made a lot of comics between the time 1984's TMNT #1 became a hit and when issue #62 shipped in 1993. Even if one ignores all the comics they merely had a hand in, while other Mirage Studio artists did the heavy lifting, the early days of their characters saw them contributing short stories to a variety of anthologies and original content to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness role-playing games source books (which I liked better than Dungeons & Dragons back in the day; it's been a while since I looked closely at RPGs, but I remember the Palladium system being a lot easier and more intuitive than what was then the TSR Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system).

In figuring out how to collect all that stuff, IDW apparently opted to publish it all after the stories that ran in the main TMNT title (and the four one-shots). Thus, the first five volumes collect the most Eastman and/or Laird-heavy issues of TMNT, while the sixth, epilogue-like volume is stuffed with about 30 short comics of various short lengths, all produced between 1985 and 1989.

They're culled from all over, too: Back-ups from TMNT reprints, the Palladium source books, the Mirage-published anthologies like Turtle Soup, Shell Shock and Gobbledygook, a Grimjack back-up, the Fantagraphics-published Anything Goes and some benefit books.

In addition to the guys who have their name on the cover, there are comics included in here from many Mirage Studios regulars, like Lawson, Talbot, Michael Dooney and Ryan Brown, all working in various configurations in terms of who was doing what and with whom. There are also some stories by artists not as closely associated with the characters, like Stephen Bissette, who writes and draws an extremely eight-page story entitled "Turtle Dreams" (and those dreams are much scarier than the those in Matt Howarth's TMNT #41); Michael Zulli, working solo on one story and with his Puma Blues partner Steve Murphy on another; and Richard Corben, who inked a four-page Eastman-written and -penciled story that was created specifically so that Eastman could work with Corben (Zulli and Corben would both later do more TMNT, of course; the former drawing the aforementioned "Soul's Winter" arc featuring the most dramatically distinct version of the Turtles to ever appear in their own comic, and Corben collaborating with Jan Strnad on TMNT #33).

I've read many of these, but there were a few that were brand new to me, and thus quite welcome surprises. For example, there's a 10-page turtle-less Triceratons story by Laird that appeared in a Mirage anthology entitled Grunts that I had never heard of, and an Eastman and Laird collaboration entitled "Casey Jones, Private Eye" from a Mirage mini-comics project that I was similarly ignorant of. The latter's nothing special, really, and the format doesn't flatter artwork obviously created to be read much smaller, but the Triceratons story was pretty interesting, and introduces a race of humanoid bears that oppose the Triceraton Empire. I'm actually a little surprised they didn't show up in the last TMNT cartoon, given how diligently it scoured the comics for inspiration.

While the first six volumes of this series were devoted to following the canonical Turtles story of their creators as closely as possible, focusing on the work they themselves did more than the many, many comics they simply had a hand in or sanctioned, this volume really gives a good sense of what the title was like for a portion of its run, what the studio's output was like, and just how fertile the characters and concept were as a springboard, and how generous Eastman and Laird were with their creations and their work.

In a sense, this is actually a good volume to start with, as it is the one that gives the best idea of what the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic was like and what Mirage Studios was like. I mean, it's probably a pretty lousy place to start in terms of the story of the TMNT, but it's a perfect place to get a feel for the Turtles and the guys that made them.

And to return to that aspect of the Mirage Studios comics that I mentioned earlier, regarding the who-did-what-where nature of their output, and how first Eastman and Laird and then as many as a dozen different collaborators would conceive of a flexible Mirage "house style" that slid along a particular spectrum, this is practically a text book for that, as there are so many different combinations of the Mirage Studios artists, all appearing within the same covers.

Some of these shorts absolutely fit into the "real" TMNT story, being the work of Eastman and Laird and tied closely to the events of the monthly--there are several set during their time in space, for example--others are of the sort of off-to-the side larks or riffs of Tales or the micro-series, and some need to be massaged into the narrative, but nothing herein seemed to really not fit in with the extremely broad mandate of the Mirage Studios Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics which, at it's most basic was basically just, "Whatever, just so long as it has at least one teenage mutant ninja turtle in it."

Among the stories I most enjoyed reading or re-reading in the sixth volume were the Eastman/Laird Anything Goes story in which the guys go on a secret stealth mission...to see Aliens at the drive-in, which I long ago managed to find at a garage sale in Ashtabula after many summer afternoons of studying the Overstreet Price Guide for TMNT appearances; the Eastman/Laird Grimjack back-up story which I recalled similarly looking for but never actually finding; the Eastman/Corben collaboration; the Laird story "Technofear" from 1986's Gobbledygook, which featured what I guess is now vintage computer art; and Zulli and Bissette's strange versions of the characters.

I'm looking forward to the seventh volume, and am curious if there will be a volume eight or beyond. After all, for volume four, Laird did much of the writing, and, for IDW's volume five, Eastman was rather heavily involved, although IDW has plenty of collections of that already...

Anyway, let's meet back here to discuss volume seven once that's released, and maybe we can talk about the 12-issue TMNT series that immediately followed the conclusion of this one, since that's still pretty fresh in my head.

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