***This year marks the 10-year anniversary of IDW Publishing’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. In celebration, we here at Primary Ignition will be looking back at the book as a whole. For some, this has emerged as the definitive version of the TMNT. Here is why…***
TITLE: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #13–20
AUTHORS: Kevin Eastman (Story), Tom Waltz (Story & Script)
ARTISTS: Andy Kuhn, Ben Bates
COLORIST: Ronda Pattison
LETTERER: Shawn Lee
PUBLISHER: IDW Publishing
COLLECTED IN: TMNT: The IDW Collection, Vol. 2 (shown right)
RELEASED: August 2012-March 2013
By Rob Siebert
Open Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #13, and it’s evident a pretty big change has occurred. It’s very much the same series. But it looks very different.
Issue #12 had been Dan Duncan’s last as regular penciller (Though he would continue to do cover art for the IDW Collection TMNT books.). His were large shoes to fill, as he’d been with the series since its beginning. He’d introduced us to almost all the characters (not counting the ones introduced in the TMNT Micro-Series issues) and their world. Throw in that he just happens to be one of the best to ever draw the Ninja Turtles, and virtually any artist to pick up the pencil in his wake would have a daunting task ahead of them.
The responsibility ultimately fell on Andy Kuhn, who for the record, is quite good. That’s evidenced by his scenes between Shredder and Karai, Baxter Stockman and the Utroms, and his renderings of Slash later on. But the transition between Duncan’s take on the Turtles and Kuhn’s toothy, inky renderings of the boys in green is a jarring one. As such, his work in TMNT is an acquired taste. Still, he’s more than capable of telling compelling stories in his own right.
Compelling stories continued to be the M.O. for TMNT as it entered its second year of publication. As we discussed last time, the best Ninja Turtles stories often center around themes of family, both the ones we’re born with and the ones we choose. That continued to be the case in issues #13-16 as Waltz and the TMNT crew took an in-depth look at the different, and not always so good, paternal relationships on display. We had Casey Jones and his drunk, abusive father. We had Shredder’s strict, often harsh relationship with Karai (though he’s technically her grandfather). One can even make an argument for Baxter Stockman and Slash.
But of course, the preeminent paternal dynamic in this book is between Splinter and the Turtles. Historically, Splinter in his many incarnations has had one prominent character trait: He’s wise. As such, writers have focused more on the Turtles when it comes to character development. But these issues, #14 in particular, give Splinter an added layer that I don’t think any of us were expecting.
When Casey Jones comes to April’s apartment having been beat up by his dad once again, Resident hothead Raphael goes into a rage. He sets out to teach Arnold Jones a lesson, and is unknowingly followed by Splinter. After Raph has roughed up Casey’s father, Splinter arrives on the scene and shockingly puts a blade to Jones’ throat. He asks, “Would you have me execute this man, my son?” Naturally, this brings Raph out of his angry fit.
Splinter goes on to say that as a young man he, like Raph, was once prone to intense anger, and even thirsts for revenge. Thus, father and son are able to relate to one another in a new way. We even see later on that Splinter’s anger issues have not subsided completely…
As we’ve seen the IDW team do with so many other classic TMNT characters, this move doesn’t change the essence of Splinter. Rather, it adds a new layer to what was already there. It allows him to keep doling out wisdom and fatherly advice, while reminding us that Splinter is wise for a reason. He’s fought many of the same battles as his sons, and faced many of the same demons. This move gives Splinter credibility, as opposed too simply making him a fountain of platitudes.
The artistic highlight of Kuhn’s four-issue run comes in issues #15 and #16 with what I’ll call the “church fight.” The Turtles find an underground rec room at an abandoned church, and hope to set it up as a base. There they run into Slash, a mutant snapping turtle created at Stockgen using an “impure” dose of mutagen. Ergo he’s wild and far more animalistic than our heroes.
The fight with Slash takes place in the dark, with the only light source being flashlights. It’s here that Kuhn is truly in his element. He turns the book into a horror show. Slash has never looked more menacing or terrifying than in some of these under-lit shots. Colorist Ronda Pattison’s contributions to this sequence can’t be understated. She creates a dim, hazy yellow glow that perfectly compliments the inky blackness of Kuhn’s shadows.
Let’s also talk about Woody, a side character introduced early in the series who works at a pizza place. He gives the Turtles their pizza fix via a friendship with Michelangelo. Woody’s introduction into the book was charming, but seemingly random. Even in a world as detail rich as IDW’s TMNT, did we really need to know where the Turtles got their pizza from? Maybe not. But the book ultimately wound up better for it.
In issue #15, shortly after one of Mikey’s pizza runs, Woody gets attacked by Slash. Toward the end of issue #16, he abruptly breaks off their friendship. Juxtaposed with some dialogue from Splinter explaining the nature of Mikey’s kindness and sensitivity, we get a heartbreaking few panels in which he finds a note from Woody and then departs in tears (shown above). A heart-wrenching moment coming from a character who seemingly meant very little at the start.
That’s the thing about Michelangelo in the IDWverse: He’s not just a party dude. He’s a sensitive guy. So once again, we see the layering of a classic character. The reason Mikey’s emotions often come off so big is because he feels them in a big way. We aren’t altering or subtracting, we’re simply adding…
Heading into issue #17, Kuhn tags Ben Bates in on pencils and inks. Bates has a more traditional take on the Turtles, in that they’re more in line with what someone like Kevin Eastman or Jim Lawson might turn in. They’re a little bit shorter, with faces that are expressive and nicely proportioned. His work here actually made him into one of my favorite artists on the series.
Issues #17-20 take us directly into space opera territory, as the Turtles are accidentally transported to Dimension X and find themselves caught in a war between General Krang’s forces and the Neutrinos. At the center of the conflict is the android Fugitoid, whom Krang believes holds the secret to constructing his ultimate weapon, the Technodrome.
For TMNT buffs, it’s all very familiar. Fugitoid has been part of TMNT lore since the early days of the comic books, has been adapted into various media. The Technodrome, meanwhile, was a staple of the ’80s cartoon, as were the Neutrinos. It’s not necessarily surprising to see the Neutrinos, but it’s interesting that they made it in so quickly and relatively unchanged. Then again, without the zany hairstyles they’re not really the Neutrinos are they?
This four-issue Dimension X story is the first time Krang, who’s been a fixture in the book since early on, really takes center-stage as the primary villain. There’s a lot to like about IDW’s take on a character who, in the ’80s cartoon, was often played for laughs. First and foremost is how he’s drawn and designed. Kuhn and Bates both draw utroms (the alien species Krang belongs to) very well. But they each go out of their way to make Krang himself look ruthless and sinister. That’s not a small feat, as he’s essentially just a pink blob with tentacles. Also, gone is the colorful and flamboyant robot body Krang wore in the cartoon. What we get here is something that looks much more mechanical, not to mention dark and foreboding. We’re reminded that Krang is a warlord, and very much someone to be feared.
He’s got big, bad plans too. This series repurposes the Technodrome as giant terraforming device to forcefully change Earth’s atmosphere to that of Krang’s destroyed home planet, Utrominon. By virtue of scope alone, at this early point in the series Krang may have been outperforming Shredder on the bad guy scale.
On that topic, one thing that impressed me from a writing perspective was that while they’re not the primary villains, Shredder, Karai, and the Foot Clan still have a presence during these issues. They don’t hog the spotlight away from the main story, but we also don’t go too long without seeing them. By the time we get to the Dimension X storyline, Karai has taken on a more proactive role in a very organic way. Make no mistake about it: There’s an art to keeping all these characters and plot threads relevant to the larger story of the series. To a large extent, TMNT has proven itself to be a masterclass in how to keep all those proverbial plates spinning.
When I look at these eight issues together, the word that comes to mind is versatility. Traditionally, the Ninja Turtles are written and portrayed as all-ages action-adventure characters with a knack for comedy. We get all those ingredients here. But we also get a horror element mixed in with Slash, and then a very strong dose of science fiction courtesy of Krang and the Neutrinos. There’s also a touch of YA romance mixed in there via April O’Neil and Casey Jones. What that tells me is that these characters and their universe are far more versatile than the general public will ever give them credit for. What this IDW comic book series does is expand on that potential in long form, and in a way no other medium has even come close to.
How fitting that the Turtles owe that expansion to the very art form in which they were born: Comic books.
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