With fifty-eight issues and twelve micro/miniseries and counting, it should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the world of comics that IDW’s current reimaging of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is something special. However, being out of the comic game for over fifteen years, I had no idea what I was getting into when I read the first trade paperback. I couldn’t’ve been ready for this comic when I picked it up and now I can never imagine putting it down. Living in an era of reboots and remakes, we’ve come to accept “At least they didn’t destroy it…” as often the best we can hope for. But IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles defies all odds and transforms a fun childhood favorite into an artistic and emotional masterpiece. With mutants on the mind this weekend (I’ll probably be seeing the new movie tomorrow), I am feeling the urge to talk Turtles. So let’s go!
First, is the word “masterpiece” hyperbolic here? I don’t know. I don’t think so. It’s not a word I toss around often but I’ll admit that whenever I do I weirdly feel like I’m being flippant with its application. Yet it’s always the first word that comes to mind when I think of this comic. The book is elegant and intelligent. It gives each character a new organic depth and emotional complexity that simultaneously fits with how I remember them and elevates them to a place I never could have imagined my Turtles reaching. Under the stewardship of author Tom Waltz and original co-creator Kevin Eastman, the Turtles have grown into something I appreciate as much as an adult as I loved as a child, albeit in an entirely different way.
Traditionally with things I loved as a kid and continue to love as an adult (think comic books in general, Spider-Man, Star Wars, the Ghostbusters, etc.) my appreciation for them grows with me as I see things in them I missed as a child. I can love them as an adult in a different, more complex way then I loved them as a kid. But with IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tom Waltz gives the Turtles and their entire cast of characters depth and dimension that didn’t exist in the cartoons I watched and comics I read, all well staying true to who each character is.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of this version of the Turtles is their youth. As a kid, a teenager was practically an adult. Yes, they goofed around and used classic 80’s/90’s slang, but there was no real difference between watching the Turtles save the day for me than there was watching Iron Man save the day. They were both grown-up to me. But that’s the perspective of an eight year old. In this series, with beyond talented artists (especially Mateus Santolouco) providing such gorgeous illustrations, you see the Turtles for what they are – adolescents who have given up their childhood to an ancient war between their father and the Shredder.
Unlike the gargantuan CGI monstrosities in the newest film series, these Turtles are small in stature, with only their hands and feet seeming larger than an average kid. As a high school teacher, I can see my students in the way they carry themselves and how they wrestle with their emotions. From time to time I’ll consider a group of my students and wonder which four – if push came to shove – I’d trust to save the city or save the world. Looking at a group of kids it’s hard to settle on ones I feel could shoulder the burden of a task like that successfully. This version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feels that way too. You are hoping they will win, expecting it even, but you don’t know how they can carry that weight – or what it will cost them to do so. This adds a powerful dimension to the Turtles’ tale.
In this run, the Turtles and Splinter are reincarnated spirits, reunited from Feudal Japan in the present. Oroku Saki remains in his human form as the Shredder but Hamato Yoshi and his four sons have been reincarnated into animals, before being mutated into their humanoid forms of Splinter, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. In Feudal Japan, after taking control of the Foot Clan, Saki resented the fact that Yoshi wouldn’t follow his leadership. Saki first murders Yoshi’s wife and then, ultimately, tracks down Yoshi and his four young sons. Saki forces Yoshi to watch his sons’ beheadings before killing him as well. Yoshi prays to all manner of deites for another chance to set things right and avenge his family. Their souls are then reunited, if in an unexpected way, in the present.
Disregarding the fact that this isn’t how reincarnation works at all in any Eastern tradition (souls never return to an animal life after they have transitioned to a human life, only differing human lives based on their karma), it is a very clever take on the Turtles. It makes their sense of family feel even stronger. Drawing more from the ideas in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain than anything in Buddhism or Hinduism, we see the bond of love in this family is strong enough that it eventually pulls them back together through time. It also adds a weight to the conflict between Shredder and Splinter, knowing that these men have hated each other for centuries. How they weave together the mystical and the scientific is impressive, allowing the series to be utterly original while honoring where it came from.
The Turtles themselves are also far more complex. In the respective arcs of each Turtle, they showcase the rich tapestry that is the adolescent experience while also allowing readers of all ages to connect with their emotional journey. It’s no longer simply, “Leonardo leads / Donatello does machines / Raphael is cool but rude / Michelangelo is a party duuuude.” Rather these are fully human characters, with struggles and experiences to match.
Leonardo remains the leader, of course. If Leo’s not calling the shots you’re not looking at the Ninja Turtles. He is the oldest of the brothers and carries his maturity gracefully. Despite that, we see a very natural difficulty in figuring out how to carry the weight on his shoulders. He is his father’s star pupil. He leads the Turtles as a team. He was kidnapped by Shredder, brainwashed, and forced to become his second in command – his Chunin – in the Foot Clan. Then after the mind-blowing, senses-shattering twists of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #50, he becomes Chunin again, only this time he’s in control of his mind and Splinter’s in control of the Foot. Far from being a one-off throw away plot, Leo carries the scars of Shredder messing with his mind. But he transcends it, as he always does. For the reader, Leonardo represents who we should all aspire to be. He always gets up. He always carries the weight. He always finds his way back to balance.
Raphael, on the other hand, is a different story. Raph has always been my favorite Ninja Turtle. When Kalie shared this with a friend of hers she jokingly asked, “Oh, so he has anger issues?” I’m a pretty mellow guy most of the time and I’ve got a loooong fuse…but when it burns out (I’m talking to you Blu-ray player that decided to stop working when I wanted to watch Avengers: Age Of Ultron) I can be known to blow. However, the truth is less insightful than that. Rather, as a kid red was always my favorite color. Raph wore red…sooo that was it. Anyway, Raph’s anger is a hallmark of the character. In the classic cartoons he wasn’t angry but he was always the sassiest, the most rude or sarcastic. In the movies/original comics/Nickelodeon series he certainly is an angry guy, often blowing his cool. In IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the anger is there in an intense fashion. He has a boiling rage inside him at times but it’s presented as his tragic flaw.
Raph knows it’s a problem and he tries desperately to control it…even though he has no idea how to do so. So, for the reader with personality traits we’re less than proud of (*cough, cough* me), Raphael represents the emotional/personal journey we must commit to. He acknowledges his faults. He struggles with them. He (reluctantly) admits when he’s wrong. No matter how many times his anger gets the best of him, he never stops trying to better himself. We see, especially in his growing relationship with Alopex, that Raphael has a capacity for compassion, empathy, and perhaps even romance. Most of all, we see a desire to become a better version of who he is.
Donatello plays an important role in this new itineration as well. He reflects the reader’s struggle with faith. Despite Splinter telling the Turtles the truth of their reincarnation, and their finding all manner of ancient (and magical) texts to support the story, Donnie has trouble believing it. He is a man of science who struggles with faith. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to believe; he’s just not certain how to get there. That is something that resonates with many of us. How do we believe in something outside of ourselves that we can’t verify in any way, shape, or form? How do we begin to trust in a higher power let alone even buy into the fact that one exists? So in Donatello we find a kindred and a model for staying true to who we are…while pushing ourselves to step out of our comfort zone and explore the very real dimensions and challenges of faith.
Donatello was also the focus of the darkest storyline yet in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. At the command of the Shredder for a presumed double cross, Donatello was brutally murdered by Bebop and Rocksteady. He was beaten before being smashed to death with a sledgehammer. Even before I read this issue I had heard this happened. And even before I read the issue I knew he came back. But it didn’t lessen the emotional impact at all. Seeing the final frame of that book left me heartsick.
My heart caught in my throat and I read as fast as I could to get back to the point in the story where Donatello returned. To see someone I’ve known since childhood “die” in such a fashion was unnerving to say the least. This wasn’t a blood and guts display. This was a tragic, shocking moment. Okay…I need to stop writing about this. Let’s look at the happy reunion again!
Lastly there’s Michelangelo. He’s the baby of the family and as such represents faith, joy, and stands as a constant reminder of what we can lose in a war against the darkness in this world. The Turtles’ battle with Shredder and the Foot Clan is one of violence and brutality. Michelangelo alone seems to worry if this is okay. He fights alongside his brothers…but he wears the cost the violence take out of his soul on his sleeve. Broken and fed up with the apparent endless cycle of violence, Mikey leaves his family for awhile. He refuses to be a part of something he sees as so toxic and he tries to chart a different path. Mikey feels everything so very deeply. His joy and happiness is most intense, but so is his pain and despair. Michelangelo then stands as the innate goodness in all of us and reminds the reader that we need honor and protect the best in us. If not, it can be tarnished. It can be lost.
Each character in the series has this level of depth to them. And the book continually introduces classic characters in ways that are new and exciting. You’re never certain which side someone will be on when they arrive, no matter where they were in the 80’s. This makes the story ever surprising while familiar. And (if this isn’t clear by now) I LOVE THIS COMIC SERIES for all of that.
Obviously, I love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They are another beloved part of my childhood. I adored their cartoon series. I watched all of their movies. I read the entire Archie Comics series. I even had tickets to see them in concert during the brief point in their career when they were rock stars…sadly, the tour was cancelled before their local stop. Damn. So the Turtles are special to me. As a result, I could only hear so much praise before I had to check this new series out for myself. I was naturally intrigued and I hoped to find another fun new book to read each month. I got so much more than I hoped for. What I found was a creative masterpiece, taking a central part of my childhood and raising it to a creative height I’m still in awe of, even after having read fifty-eight issues.
So yeah, given all of this, I’m sticking with masterpiece. I’ve found an indispensible part of my monthly pull list in IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I am excited every month to read it. I never know where the story will go as it is a steady stream of surprises and twists. The end of each issues just makes me crave the next one all the more. Under the care of Tom Waltz, Kevin Eastman, Mateus Santolouco, and everyone else that contributes to this book (as well as the microseries) I feel as though I’m experiencing the Turtles at their highest level.