Thee Comic Column #0: Kevin Eastman’s New TMNT

image courtesy of the Opinionated Bastard

NOTE: This article, in a slightly different form, was originally published here on CHUD.com. However, now nine months into the new TMNT book IDW is publishing, I thought it bore repeating/expanding upon. I’m a firm believer if you dig something you spread the word, so that something doesn’t disappear.

Ever since I read Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Vol.#2 (pictured here; 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. Coming at it a bit after the fact, I always marveled at how dark and unlike the popular arm of the franchise this book was. This darkness and a near complete disinterest in adhering to set continuity or the usual heroes-vs-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 Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird worked with a slew of other creators to run the turtles through everything from uber-conservative survivalists (#12) and Lovecraftian archetypes (#29) to – perhaps most strangely – Ancient Chinese reinterpretations (#31).

The juxtaposition between what the characters became for children and what the creators did for the readers of their Mirage Studios book blew me away. One could look at this as a book forced to meander without focus but I preferred to think of it as creators exploring a handful of characters they hoped would show a very real passage of time and outline the overall oddness of aging and existence. Even when the book returned to the topic of The Shredder it was in a weird, dark and fairly psychologically unsettling way. The now legendary Return to New York story arc (issues #19-21) circa 1989 is where we learn the remaining members of the Foot Clan have been experimenting with bringing Oroku Saki back in a most peculiar way; by feeding worms with Saki’s remains. The theory at work here is that 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 it was pretty bad ass in the comic. Watching the guys chop through several failed and twisted, worm-reanimated ninja masters only to see their insides spill night crawlers was as exciting as it was disgusting; as perplexing as it was horrific.

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. This new volume took the original series’ continuity and 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 became 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, back under the Mirage banner. This series eschewed the events of vol 3. and basically picked up at a later point in the future world of the original Mirage series. Like the Image book there was quite a bit more continuity at play with Vol. 4 but alas, this series was also never finished, going only a mere 30 issues.

By the time this fourth volume of the Turtles started the four green brothers were a very part-time entity to me, probably largely due to the constant start-stop heartbreak (and Vol. 4 jettisoning the continuity of Vol. 3 didn’t help) I’d begun to associate with the characters. Nonetheless I continued to buy and read the new book. And what I found was that the characters had become very nostalgic and – in some weird way – almost mystical to me. As Vol. 4 mounted in intensity I began to get into it a bit more. This in turn spurred me to start seeking out many of those back issues of the original series in dollar bins around the country and admiring the franchise for such an amazing job of (in the big-picture) transcending its very indie roots with a new series that ended up being very good and considerably higher profile than ever before (but interestingly, 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 by 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 old school fans and even many high-profile creators working today. Books like Michael Dooney’s Gizmo, Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli’s Puma Blues, Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo and of course Dave Sim’s Cerebus, 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.

A lot of time has passed since that last series. Roughly nine months ago growing comics mogul IDW began a new re-launch of the Turtles that I’ve been reading and like very much. 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 the book continues to hang together as well as it does so far. There’s even by a Micro-series spin-off, comprised of a book for each Turtle, and unlike many other spin-offs in the comic world this is a nice extra dimension to the ongoing series, flushing out peripheral ideas and views of the over-all continuity being built.

As long as it doesn’t share a similar fate to its former relatives. But truthfully the book is in good hands. IDW has made a serious run into the big-time with the publishing of Joe Hill’s mega-epic Locke and Key, as well as a cache of licensed properties and re-vamps that, if the amazing GIJOE: COBRA book is any indication, are now the litmus test for all relaunchs. And I know how we all feel about the idea of the age of the revamps/re-imagings, however as I alluded to above, the key seems to be to do it to titles/concepts that have collapsed beneath the density of their own post success-balloon gravity. I don’t read a lot of the books IDW publishes because most of them are outside my scope of interest, but from the three I do I’d definitely urge interested parties to peruse the company’s website (linked above) and give anything that might interest you a chance. And if you’re interested in the Turtles, before michael bay arrives with what will no doubt be his own big-budget bullsheet remake in the cinemas, go out and pick up this new book and help support what has turned 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

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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