IDW Publishing’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Comics Are The TMNT Comics You’ve Wanted Since 1989
Listen folks, I want to like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a lot. I have a huge amount of childhood nostalgia caught up in those characters, and as an adult, I can recognize TMNT as arguably the single most successful independent comic book of all time, a cornerstone that paved the way for a revolution of creator-owned books that continues today. I want them to be good, but there's so much of it, spread across so much media, that it's hard to figure out what to get into if I want something that's going to live up to those high hopes.
Fortunately, Comixology celebrated the release of the latest Ninja Turtles movie with a sale on the current run of comics from IDW Publishing and gave me exactly the opportunity I was looking for. Since I had only heard good things about those comics -- and since everyone I asked about them told me to just get it all -- I took the plunge ad bought up everything they had, and I've been spending the last few days reading through. And seriously?
It is good. It's, like, X-Men in the '70s good.
I realize that's a pretty bold claim, but honestly, that's the best way to describe the feeling of reading this comic, and a lot of that comes from the way it's structured. I was warned before I jumped in that the spinoff titles were just as necessary to the story as the main series was, and that's definitely true. There's even a reading order that you're supposed to follow, although fortunately for me, the digital collections include the letters pages that were sure to alert readers as to what other titles they could be picking up that month, which makes it pretty easy to follow along.
Either way, the result is that reading it, I kept switching back and forth between the ongoing series and the TMNT Microseries books, which tell stories focusing on individual characters that fit between the issues of the ongoing. It sounds more complicated than it is, but it gives the series an incredible structure that allows it to follow characters as they weave in and out of the main story, having their own adventures and fleshing out their own characters in a way that supports the ongoing narrative. Taken as a whole, it feels like a very "old school" way of building a team book, and because it's technically two series going on at the same time (and more, once you get to the other miniseries), it allows the creators to cram in a whole into a relatively short time, forming an incredibly deep, rich story.
Plus, you get to see stuff like Bryan Lynch and Ross Campbell's Leonardo one-shot, where Campbell starts straight up channeling Frank Miller Daredevil with a talking turtle.
Seriously, if you get one issue, just to try it out, get that one, but be advised that you're probably going to want the whole thing eventually.
As fun (and necessary) as those one-shots are, though, it's that complex narrative that really hooked me on the series, and that really gives it that old-school feeling. One of the big selling points of the book when it came out was that TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman would be cowriting it with Tom Waltz -- a pretty awesome trick that's similar to what IDW pulled when they brought Larry Hama back to continue G.I. Joe with #156 -- and with artist Dan Duncan, they set about creating a new take on the franchise that brings a lot of the disparate TMNT threads together.
That's one of the things I was really looking forward to about this series. Like I said, there's a lot of Ninja Turtles stuff out there to deal with, and tying it all into one unified vision can quickly get out of hand, especially if the minutiae takes over the story. But that said, this is a comic that actually takes a moment to explain why the Turtle switch from all red masks (like the original comics) to the multicolored masks (like the cartoon) and makes it fun, cool, and actually kind of moving.
It's not perfect, of course. One of the drawbacks of that classic feeling is that part of it comes from plot elements that, at the very least, start out feeling really cliché -- specifically with regards to there being a lot of backstory in this comic that involves women dying to motivate men. Hamato Yoshi's wife back in Feudal Japan and Casey Jones's mother both suffer that fate, complete with suitably dramatic dying words, and it grates more than a little bit, especially in a book where there's only one woman among the heroes. At the same time, though, as a reader, I'm willing to overlook the use of a cliché if the book can do something new with it, and TMNT certainly does that.
Casey Jones's backstory, for instance, starts out as one of those clichés that I've seen a million times, the troubled hero with the saintly dead mother and the cartoonishly abusive dad.
As the story goes on, however -- particularly as his relationship with April O'Neil develops, and as he takes the center stage in his own Microseries issue -- that story gets a lot deeper, and a lot more emotionally affecting. Once I'd read through the Microseries issue, "There's some genuinely heartbreaking stuff in this Ninja Turtles comic" became a sentence that I actually said to someone out loud. It's amazingly well done, and has an emotional impact that earns its use of that pretty worn-out plot point.
As for the Turtles themselves, that's where the book gets both completely bananas and completely awesome.
Believe it or not, the one thing that I've always had a problem accepting -- yes, the one thing in the entire Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise -- is trying to get my head around just where Splinter learned how to be a ninja master in the first place, and how he was able to teach it to four teenage turtles. And, I suppose, how we knew they were "teenagers" to begin with. Having him be a human who was mutated by the ooze into a giant rat makes him the odd man out in the family, but having him start out as a rat raises way more questions. And those are questions that this series answers beautifully.
It's one of those rare cases where making something way more complicated actually makes it better. See, Splinter is a rat and the Turtles, are, well, turtles, but the personalities and skills that they have don't come just from the ooze that mutates them into their humanoid forms. Instead, they're the family of Hamato Yoshi, murdered by Shredder in Feudal Japan, reincarnated to fulfill their destiny and get vengeance for what the Foot Clan did to them in the past.
For a series like this, where the core concept is already so notably over the top, where the ongoing plot is about the Turtles facing off against an interdimensional invasion from the Utrom Empire, throwing in reincarnation and destiny in there is both enjoyably weird and kind of perfectly fitting. It's no weirder than anything else in what's always been a sci-fi action comic, and it ties things together in a really fun way -- even if Donatello seems to have a few problems with it.
It's a great comic, and while the Comixology sale is unfortunately over, it's well worth picking up digitally at the regular price -- $7.99 for the collection of the first four issues -- or snagging it in print. It's the TMNT book that I've wanted since I was a kid, and it's even better now.