When I began reading IDW’s brilliant series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles several months ago, I was faced with a question. As I amassed all the trade paperbacks going back to the beginning of the series’ 2011 run (because, responsible adult finances be damned, this was too fun to not read everything) I wondered whether or not I should invest in all the micro-series and miniseries that ran alongside the main title. Obviously, it was a question born of financial concerns. Did I need them to understand the story? Did they add anything essential to my comprehension of the main title? Should I spend all of that money?!? I scoured the internet looking for suggestions. I found a lot of sites offering very helpful chronological lists of where the various micro-series and miniseries issues fit within the larger stories in the main title but I didn’t find much on how essential they were. So, for those of you struggling with this yourself or if you’re just interested the fun little tale of what I ended up doing, here’s my answer.
I’ve written before that I fell in love with IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and I fell in love with the series FAST. I was originally only going to buy the first few volumes, to give the series a try, and then gradually gather the rest at a respectable and reasoned pace over the next year. Ha – Past Michael, you were so naive! As history will show, that certainly didn’t happen. But I really struggled with balancing how much I loved this new series and how much I could (well, should, really) spend on these back issues and trade paperbacks. My problem was that the stories Tom Waltz was telling were so compelling I couldn’t bring myself to just jump in with #54 and then slowly learn what came before. Rather, I wanted to experience it all as it originally unfolded. (AND IT WAS TOTALLY WORTH IT!!) Also, each issue I read ended up being as captivating as the one that proceeded it. How could I skip chapters in this book?!? I couldn’t. But that realization still left me at a loss for the micro-series.
The classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series at Mirage as well as IDW’s (perfect) reimagining feature a monthly title while also, occasionally, having side micro-series or miniseries run alongside the main title telling different, yet related stories. The first micro-series was four issues, each featuring Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo in turn. Separated from the action in the main title as well as the other characters, we got to understand each Turtle’s character, emotions, and motivation on a deeper level. The second micro-series looked at Splinter, April, Casey Jones, and Fugitoid. They go on to profile the villains, explore the Utroms and Dimension X, and even dive into Hamato Yoshi and the Shredder’s past in The Secret History of the Foot Clan.
Most recently, we have the five issue Bebop & Rocksteady Destroy Everything miniseries – a time travel romp that manages to be as headache inducing as it is fun. (And this from a guy who likes to boast that he understands (or understood!) time travel better than any “real science.”) These issues cleverly feature a variety of artists, with each handling a different time period or dimension so everyone looks different based on where/when they are. It works well and makes for a fun twist to the comics. I find myself continually checking my phone to see if it’s Wednesday yet since the miniseries concludes this week. I’m dying to know what happens!
I’m also not-so-secretly in love with the fact that the device they are using to travel through time looks a lot like the time scepter from 1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. That’s something else I really appreciate about the current Turtles series – I’m constantly meeting characters or locals or objects that are familiar to me from my lifelong Turtle fandom. But when I meet them they are all reimagined in a way that allows them to simultaneously be familiar and excitingly new all at once. So you get the fun of recognition but you remain unsure of the plot, ready to be surprised by how it unfolds. To give one more example, the Rat King has recently surfaced in the main title as well as the Casey & April miniseries. This new version creeps me out and I can’t wait to learn more about him and how he’ll relate to the Turtles and their larger world!
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’ve read most of the micro/miniseries that feature the Turtles and their amazing cast of characters. Admittedly, I’ve passed (at least for now) on both the Turtles in Time and Mutanimals miniseries. The rest I’ve collected and read along with the other trade paperbacks. Why? When I was thinking about writing this post I realized the why of this extra expenditure can be summed up in one word, and it’s also a word that I think captures a lot of what makes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so great – intimacy.
These comics feature stories about adolescent, mutated Turtles who, you know, use their ninja skills to fight crime. It’s a goofy premise to be sure – it always has been. But to the credit of Tom Waltz (as well as those who have written the many micro and miniseries that accompany Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) the characters are far from goofy let alone one dimensional. Rather, they are rich, emotionally layered, dynamic characters. For the first time in my life I’m encountering Turtles who feel like kids…kids who are being forced to grow up too fast. How they respond to this loss of innocence and growing responsibility is as varied as the Turtles’ personalities. When I read these comics I connect with the very real hope, fear, joy, and pain radiating from Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. Despite being mutant, ninja turtles they always feel incredibly human. And it’s not just the Turtles! Each and every character I’ve come across in this series has as real and complex an emotional journey and life situation as I’ve been discussing. I find myself as drawn into the emotional life and choices of Karai or Alopex as I am with Raph or Leo.
As one would expect with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the action in this series is intense. Issue #50 alone had more GPP (gasps-per-page) than I normally find in the whole stack of comics I take home on Wednesday. And that’s just one issue. But it was far from a one-off. I was just as wrapped up in the wild twists and action in the most recent issue #57. But the action alone isn’t what’s turned me into such a loyal (and excited!) fan of this series. It’s the rich emotional lives of these dynamic characters – experiencing their constantly evolving emotional journeys and the relationships they form. Honestly, that’s what’s come to elevate Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into such a brilliant, beautiful work of art for me. As I’ve written before, under the stewardship of Tom Waltz this current run has taken something so completely known to me and turned into something beautifully daring and incredibly original.
And THAT is why I find all the micro-series and miniseries so indispensible. I get more of this. In fact, often the pace of action found in the main title slows a bit to allow even greater introspection and character development in the micro-series. And while reading the micro-series aren’t essential for you to understand what happens in the main title (there is always plenty of exposition and character development there as well) they certainly add important layers of depth to the Turtles and all those who fill their worlds. And sometimes, as with Bebop & Rocksteady Destroy Everything it’s just a healthy dose of FUN which breaks some of the tension that can mount in the main title too. Both are important to me as a reader and I find both experiences in the Turtles’ micro and miniseries.
I’m hesitant to offer any definitive list of what should be read and what can be skipped. Reading is a subjective experience and we all like what we like. What I would offer, for people like me who are new to the title and are financially responsible are trying to be financially responsible, is this: look at the reviews on Amazon, see what seem most exciting to you, and start from there. For me, I’ve loved them all and couldn’t imagine taking any of them out of my reading experience. But, if push came to shove and I had to choose, I would say the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Micro-Series Volume One: Four Brothers, Four Tales and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret History of the Foot Clan are the ones that can’t be missed. They affected my vision of the story in the main title and the characters in the most fundamental ways.
The former gives such intimate portraits of the Turtles – especially the one focusing on Leonardo. Raphael has always been my favorite, but Leo’s story is the one that’s still the most vividly with me. You see why he’s the leader and what he carries on his shoulders. You see his control, his focus – and the challenge to maintain those in the heat of battle. You see what motivates him and you see what family is for the leader of the Turtles. The panels, of Leo thinking and then fighting in the rain, desperate yet controlled, are magnificent. And The Secret History of the Foot Clan goes a long way to building the new mythology, the idea that the Turtles, Splinter, and the Shredder all knew each other before and have been reincarnated in the present, in wildly new forms, from who they were in Feudal Japan. I love the theological/mystical dimension the reincarnation angle puts on the story so any more information about that is an excitedly welcome addition for me. Also, it gives the reader a sense of a Foot Clan that stretches back through time, creating a far more intimidating enemy for the Turtles to face.
But those are just my thoughts. Everyone’s unique in their reading experience and their tastes. If nothing else, we can all rejoice that we’re living in a time where the Turtles’ tale is being told in such an incredible way! So grab some pizza, tie on the ol’ bandana, and get yourself some more of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! God knows I ended up buying a lot of these titles this spring and I haven’t regretted a cent I spent on them. Cowabunga!