Story: Kevin Eastman & Tom Waltz
Script: Tom Waltz
Layouts: Kevin Eastman
Art: Dan Duncan
Colors: Ronda Pattison
Release Date: August 24, 2011
Cover: Various, and I refuse to name them all.
Recommended Audiences: People who like the Ninja Turtles and wondered what that part at the end of Turtles Forever was all about.
(Warning: Substantial spoilers ahead, particularly if you’re a Mirage fan who’s reading to find out what has changed.)
Ask the regular adult on the street what they know about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and chances are they’ll tell you about the cartoon series that took the world by storm in the late eighties and early nineties. Ask the regular fifteen-year old, and they’ll probably mention the recently-ended cartoon series, or the recent CGI movie, if they know about the franchise at all. Comparatively speaking, very few people will tell you about the comic book series that started it all, a Frank Miller pastiche that ended up becoming one of the most unlikely success stories in comic book history.
Created by aspiring cartoonists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the original TMNT was a mish-mash of various disparate elements, influences, and genres. As the name would indicate, it was about a group of mutant turtles in their teens, who happened to be ninja; trained by an adult mutant ninja rat named Splinter in the martial arts, they were given a mission: kill the adult human ninja human called Shredder to avenge the murder of Splinter’s owner. Because that’s what you do. It was successful enough to merit additional issues, which in turn led to action figures and a cartoon, which in turn led to a national phenomenon that recast the grim-and-gritty turtles into slapstick pizza addicted jokesters most of the world knows.
This wasn’t the end of the story, however: while the cartoon turtles made their appearance on millions of television screens, Eastman and Laird’s publishing company Mirage Studios quietly continued pumping out comics, building a universe quite unlike that of the cartoon or films. While it wasn’t published as regularly as its sister title Usagi Yojimbo, the comic book turtles outlasted its cartoon counterpart, and despite its dwindling readership, books continued to be published until 2010. Characters grew, evolved, and matured with their audience, in an universe with its own distinctive and inimitable personality.
When Nickelodeon bought the TMNT from co-creator and by then sole owner Peter Laird, fans of the Mirage comic books had reason to worry. While the turtles would undoubtedly live on, the chances that the world would ever again see something like the Mirage comics seemed dim—after all, the book’s chart-topping days were far behind it, and if anything, promoting a more realistic take on the turtles alongside the more humorous incarnation Nickelodeon would almost certainly be going for risked brand confusion. It therefore came as a minor shock when Nickelodeon announced that they had licensed the property to IDW Publishing, and that they would indeed be creating books in the style of the original Mirage comics, with the cooperation of one very special creator—Kevin Eastman himself.
Details soon followed. The book would be set in its own universe, separate from both Eastman and Laird’s original Mirage continuity and whatever animated series Nickelodeon came up with. Like every new continuity , the book would include a mixture of established characters and all-new additions. Kevin Eastman would help provide story outlines and layouts, while Tom Waltz (Silent Hill: Past Life) and newcomer Dan Duncan would provide scripts and finished art, respectively. Unlike “classic” Mirage books, the new series would be in color. It would also be accompanied by the kind of marketing push the likes the Mirage Turtles had probably never enjoyed.
So how did the final product end up? Would it satisfy fans of the Mirage comics? After reading this issue…I’m not sure. It’s obviously trying to replicate the Mirage tone and style—to the point of using the original book’s logo (sans the bit where it announces that it’s “Eastman and Laird’s” TMNT) and giving all four turtles red bandannas (a sticking point with most Mirage fans). However, there are bits and pieces which feel distinctively and deliberately un-Mirage-ish, such as the decision to add color (which I get, and isn’t wholly unprecedented) and a rather distressing plot point: during a battle between the turtles and the gang of thugs led by Old-Hob—a one-eyed, anthropomorphic cat created specifically for the comic—Splinter declares/orders that “none must die [meaning, presumably, their opponents]”–a statement that seems rather baffling in a larger context, since Eastman and Laird’s original Splinter (ergo, the original turtles) had no problem with killing in battle—heck, the original purpose for their training was so they could kill the Shredder—and so the statement here (followed by a battle which would not feel entirely out of place in the recent 4Kids cartoon) feels entirely at odds with the creators’ stated purpose. While future issues may shed some light on this particular detail—there are multiple tactical and strategic reasons why you might want to let your opponents live—until then, it’s a detail that bugs.
While the series tries to replicate the original comics’ tone, it’s clear that they’re not particularly trying to replicate its plot: one issue in, and there are already a ton of differences between this incarnation and the original, ranging from the merely aesthetic (the turtles have no tails; Splinter has gray fur) to details that place it right next to the first cartoon when it comes to actual faithfulness to the original story. The turles’ origin, in particular, appears to have been altered in almost every conceivable way. Instead of being pet turtles, they are turtles being used as part of particular genetic experiments at StockGen Research Inc.; instead of being named by Splinter after being mutated, they are named by April O’Neil while still in their non-mutated state; instead of being Hamato Yoshi’s pet rat nor Hamato Yoshi himself, Splinter is a lab rat being tested on as part of a different StockGen experiment.
Now, it’s hard to say whether these changes will work or not—so far, we’ve only been given a tiny bit of backstory, and to be entirely fair, none of the changes so far have been badly implemented, so far—in fact, they’re the most intriguing and interesting part of the book (this isn’t entirely a positive thing—see below). However, the pessimistic part of me feels that unless there’s some kind of upcoming drastic swerve, the changes so far change the characters in ways that make them not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but a similar concept with the TMNT name attached. For example, there has been no mention so far of any of turtles’ Japanese backstory: how, then, do the characters become ninja, as opposed to boxers, traceurs , or capoeira masters? Why is Splinter their master, for that matter? Assuming the story goes where it seems to be going, with the turtles and Splinter mutating as part of a Science Experiment Gone Horribly Wrong, how does the story account for all of this? And how does it do it in a way that feels natural for the characters?
None of this, of course, has any importance unless you’re familiar with the original Mirage comics. For those of you who aren’t—and IDW hopes that that’s most of you—the relevant question is: is it good?
The original TMNT book, famously, was a one-shot story; in forty pages it detailed the origins of the Turtles, Splinter, and their arch-enemy the Shredder, with enough space left over for the two sides to actually fight each other to the death, and for a “bonus” introductory fight between the turtles and the Purple Dragon gang. While things like “character development” were missing, the story had a complete beginning, middle and end, and you either liked it or don’t.
This incarnation of the turtles, on the other hand, appears quite happy to give us things in bits and pieces. We get pieces of their origins. We’re introduced to a ton of characters, and given hints to what their story arcs will be. One thing we do not get real is introductions to three of the four turtles; while there is a flashback in which the quartet of baby normal science turtles are named, we’re not told how these correspond with their teenage versions, with the exception of Raphael, whose separation from the rest of the group makes him easy to identify. All in all, this feels like book meant for those who already know about the turtles, and most of the points of interest are interesting precisely in that “oh, this is a new take on things—how will it go?” feeling. For people unfamiliar with the turtles, however, it’s probably not the best of introductions: while there are things which I feel they might find of potential interest, no real incentive is given for them to pick up the next issue. No characters pop out and make you want to care about them, the cliffhanger isn’t exactly the most exciting of materials, and the concept itself doesn’t really have the inherent draw it once had. It’s not a bad comic by any means; it’s just not a terribly good first issue, if you’re new to the turtles.
If you do know the turtles, however, it’s quite good. The first part of the book—the aforementioned fight scene between the turtles and Old Hob’s gang—is well-paced and nicely reminiscent of the original comic books’ opening. It’s also nice to see a villain that a) is all new and b) isn’t the Shredder. It is followed by a flashback segment starring the scientists at StockGen Research and which features the bulk of the origin details, which, like I said, is probably the most interesting part of the book. Finally, the book closes with a segment that’s interesting in a “how did character X get in that situation?” way, and introduces an eight historical TMNT character to the mix. Strangely enough, it simultaneously feels as if both too much and too little happened in the issue, possibly because its the plotline that feels most like an ongoing story is the StockGen one, which feels rather odd, coming from a franchise which never placed much stock in the protagonists’ origin story.
The art, on the other hand,does a good job of keeping the Mirage grittiness while doing its own thing. I’d been worried about Dan Duncan’s’ art because the pieces of it I’d seen uniformly did something weird to the turtles’ mouths and teeth, but that’s not nearly as big a factor as I feared. The layouts, particularly during combat scenes, are quite good—Kevin Eastman may have been out of the game for the better part of a decade, but he still knows how to compose a panel. Ronda Pattison’s colors complement the story and art quite well; I’m still not sure colors are necessary, but hers’ work.
IDW really hopes this book does well for them—they book has a ridiculous twelve alternate covers (I got the Leo one, cause he’s my favorite turtle ^_^ ). As a fan of the latter Mirage comics, I hope they do well—while the more popular cartoon versions are equally valid takes on the concept, I feel the original comics deserve way more recognition than they get. Is this the comic book that will do it? I’m not quite sure. Fans of the Mirage books will like it, even if they don’t quite recognize as a legitimate successor to the original. Fans of the turtles in general, particularly those who’ve heard, but haven’t read, the original books and are curious about them, will probably find stuff to like, too. However, this book probably won’t convince TMNT newbies, which is a damn shame.
P.S.: The book features a character called General Krang. For some reason, I keep imagining him with Christopher Ayres’ Frieza voice.
ETA: Random comment: Given Eastman’s involvement, I’m semi-surprised that the version of April the comic is going with is a Caucasian redhead. Guess it’ll be a good long while before there’s any official depiction of her as an African American. 😦