Ever since I read Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Vol.#2 (pictured above; an over-sized trade paperback collection before trade paperback collections were the norm) I’ve been a fan of the turtles in their more serious, Vertigo-esque original versions. I can’t say I followed that original book religiously, however I went through spurts in the 80’s where I bought back issues and at least one more of these First Graphic Novel trades* and I always marveled at how dark and unlike the popular arm of the franchise the book was. This darkness and a near complete disinterest in adhering to set continuity or the usual heroes-vs-the-big-bad was further underlined in the comic after the characters became a hot toy and cartoon commodity and The Shredder became their version of Cobra Commander. Week after week on the cartoons the Turtles battled Krang and Shredder. Bi-monthly (if we were lucky) Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird worked with a slew of other creators to run the turtles through everything from uber-conservative survivalists (#12) to Lovecraftian archetypes (#29) to – perhaps most strangely – Ancient Chinese-like reinterpretations (#31).
The juxtaposition between what the characters became for children and what the creators did for the readership of their Mirage Studios book blew me away – one could look at this as a book forced to meander without focus but I prefer to think of it as creators exploring a handful of characters they hoped would show a very real passage of time and overall oddness to existence. Even when the book returned to the topic of The Shredder it was in a weird, dark and pretty psychologically unsettling way. The FANTASTIC Return to New York story arc (issues #19-21), ~1989, where we learn the remaining members of the Foot Clan have been experimenting with bringing old Oroku Saki back in a most peculiar way; by feeding worms with Saki’s remains the colony of tiny organisms adapt their cellular structures to become the original form and a series of increasingly bizarre Shredders are born – I don’t know if that explanation makes much sense scientifically, however trust me – it was pretty bad ass in the comic to watch the boys chop through failed and twisted, worm-reanimated ninja masters only to see their insides spill night crawlers!
The first series ended somewhere in the early 90’s and after a short-lived (and completely unseen by me) second color volume there was a period where the Turtles seemed to disappear from comics that didn’t carry the ‘Archie’ tag on the top of them**. Then, in mid-90’s Erik ‘Savage Dragon‘ Larsen brought the brothers to Image comics with a B&W series helmed by Gary Carlson and Frank Fosco that took the original series’ continuity and kinda went crazy with it, putting the Turtles through some pretty tumultuous times. Raph took on the mantle of the Shredder, Don became part cyborg and the feel of the new book felt very much like that original series but with a serious dose of continuity injected into it. Unfortunately the book only lasted for twenty-three issues before cancellation and when the turtles next appeared it would be in the very capable hands of Peter Laird and Jim Lawson***. This series was also never finished; by this time the Turtles were a very part-time but nostalgic and almost mystical entity to me and I had begun to follow with regularity, seeking out many of those back issues of the original series in dollar bins around the country and admiring the franchise for so far transcending its very indie roots with a new series that was very good and considerably higher profile than ever before (but still very much independent). And that, to me, is the staying power of the characters – go back and look at some of those 1980’s issues and you will see Independent publishing at its finest. The stories are a dirty kind of black and white and are book-ended by ads for other books and creators Mirage either published and gave a chance to shine or advertised; books that otherwise may never have seen the light of day. Together with the Turtles these books and creators make up a strange, almost other-worldly collection of 80’s pop culture known to few but reveled in and admired by creators today that have gone on to make something of their craft in comics. Books like Michael Dooney’s Gizmo, Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli’s Puma Blues, Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack (thanks again for the trade Mike!!!) and of course Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, along with the original TMNT, paved the way for things like DC’s Vertigo or even Image comics because they showed there was life outside the Big Two and what’s more, they did it COMPLETELY INDEPENDENTLY. There are no ads for milk or nike or Saturday morning cartoons in these books; there’s only ads for other creators and their similarly independent books. That my friends, is a Scene – a scene not unlike the early Dischord or SST records, except with print instead of music.
But I digress.
This new Mirage series again went the way of the Image before it and ended publication with issue 31. It seemed the Turtles simply could not sustain an ongoing series anymore. The question I pose today is, can they now?
A lot of time has passed since that last series and now growing comics mogul IDW has a new, re-launch of the Turtles that I’ve been reading and so far I have to say, I’m excited. Although both of the original creators did not return for this (this time Kevin Eastman is present, Peter Laird is not) the book feels like a pretty damn good re-launch. And where I would often question the idea to re-launch something with so much history, there have been so many different series, spin-offs and continuity ups and downs over the years, in the turtles’ case this is actually probably a really good idea.
As long as it hangs together well.
And so far, yeah, it has. There’s some little technical things that bug me, truncated or unnaturally obtuse logic leaps and character development, such as the fact that we keep seeing flashbacks to the Turtles, splinter and a large cat being exposed to the fabled mutagen during a ninja raid on a government-sponsored laboratory with the timeline tag: FIFTEEN MONTHS AGO. Now, how the hell are the Turtles and Splinter to have learned ninjitsu in fifteen months time?
I know, I know, ease off the nerd hammer, right? It’s just a comic?
Thing is though as of issue four there now seems to be a subtle implication that this seemingly disparate timeline to the characters’ origins is something… more. Something that will perhaps serve to qualify this new book as an iteration in a multi-verse of realities that but up against the old series. First, on page eight of issue four Splinter rather cryptically tells the brothers “We will vanish into the shadows, as has always been our way“. When questioned by one of his sons about this Splinter continues, “I understand there is much you do not recall, all of you. In time you will remember, but for now I only ask for your trust and obedience as we escape to our new life together. And with a new life, we will take new names… ones now familiar o us all –“****
Now, I suppose I should mention that at the point of these remarks from the boys’ mentor, apparently fifteen or so months since their mutation, the group consists of three Turtles and Master Splinter. Raphael is MIA as far as his family is concerned, having been separated during the chaotic events that caused their mutations. This further points to the idea that Splinter is sensing that all of these events are mirroring events that have transpired before, as he has the others searching nightly for their missing brother. The whole thing is playing out quite well and is making me very frakin’ excited at the possibilities that could arise within the course of this series.
As long as it doesn’t share a similar fate to its former relatives. So if this sounds cool, go out and pick it up and help support what may turn out to be a great book and the continuation of an indie publishing legacy!!!
Note: GREAT web resource I found for the somewhat baffling Turtle comic timeline: http://tmntentity.blogspot.com/2010/01/mirage-comics-continuity-timeline.html
* The other one, Volume #3, contained a crossover with Dave Sims’ intellectual Ardvark Cerebus.
** Some of which were admittedly not too shabby conceptually, if certainly suffering from a very cartoon-like delivery. My younger cousin collected them and I would read through them from time to time.
*** Unfortunately this new series dismissed the events of the Image books entirely, which yours truly was not so happy about. That Image series had some really interesting twists and turns in it.
**** Obviously all dialogue excerpts are property of the creators and this is in no way meant as pirating. I’d be happy to remove at request, I am merely attempting to pimp what I like.