Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Microseries Villains 5: Karai

Today, Taylor and Patrick are discussing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Microseries Villains 5: Karai originally released August 21st, 2013. 

Taylor: Here at Retcon-Punch we like to yell about gender issues in comics a lot. While some might find the discussion boring, the fact is there are forces working in comics today that both promote and discourage gender equality. It’s not always the easiest discussion but it’s a necessary one in order for us all to progress in our understanding of how media sometimes perpetuates negative stereotypes. Given this state of affairs, it seems odd that one of our favorite series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so far has remained neutral in this conversation. In truly Swiss fashion, TMNT, has neither done anything to provoke our grief or our praise when it comes to gender issues, and that despite a bevy of female characters. However, one can only stay out of this conversation so long and fifth issue of the TMNT: Villains series finds itself in the Retcon-Punch crosshairs. But is that a good or a bad thing?

Karai is angry about the direction the Foot Clan has taken. The reason for this has its roots in her past, which saw her from an early age intrigued by the Foot’s potential. Karai’s father, Oroku Yori, used to be the leader of the Foot Clan. Karai remembers how instead of using ninja tactics to obtain dominance , the man used legal skills to make the Foot powerful. However, he was easily manipulated, and seeing this as a weakness, Karai began to train herself in the ways of the shinobi. She eventually kills her own father and takes control of the Foot and resurrects Oroku Saki because she met him in dream once. Because of this past experience with weak leadership, Karai find herself questioning why Shredder has promoted Leonardo above her in the Foot Clan. Leo shows up at this point, they fight, Leo “wins” and Karai swears to regain control of the Foot. All just your normal day of intrigue in the Foot Clan.

From the previous installments of TMNT proper and Secrets of the Foot Clan we were already familiar with Karai’s drive. We know how skilled she is as a ninja and just how much time she puts in at the dojo to achieve her martial status. It seems in these issues that what drives Karai is her desire to please her “grandfather” Oroku Saki. The reasons for this are clear: he is a demanding man and anything less than total success likely would mean her exile from the Foot Clan at best and her death at worst. However, as with all the villains we’ve been introduced in this micro-series, it turns out there is more motivating Karai than would first appear.

What stands out in particular from this issue is her intense drive to make the Foot Clan the ninja clan again. Rather than being motivated to please her father, her trainer, or Shredder, she is motivated by an intrinsic sense of pride in her lineage. Her disgust at her father’s lack of guts is what initially motivates her to find her own path. What’s interesting about this is Karai isn’t working to please any man in her life. As is so often the case, women are portrayed as either seeking love or seeking the approval of a man they wish to please in some way. This isn’t something that is symptomatic of comics alone, but the media in general, so it’s commendable what writer Erik Burnham has done with the character in avoiding well worn tropes. In short, Karai is different. She is strong female lead who is motivated to obtain her goals because they are what she wants, not what someone else wants.

The way Karai goes about achieving her goals is also a departure from the norm. When she is sent to her family’s library as a punishment the girl is happy because she loves to read. Additionally, this time in the library introduces her to the finer points of the Foot Clan and prepares her for a life of being a lethal ninja.

Book smarts!How often is it that we see our heroines, or heroes for that matter, gain their skills from reading a book? It’s a testament to all of the book lovers out there and it sends the message that reading is not only fun but a powerful tool for achieving your goals. Whereas many girls feel pressured to not be the book-smart girl in school, Karai feels at home honing her craft through the medium of the written word. I can’t help but think of the awesome example Karai is setting to young ladies out there who might be reading TMNT. It reminds them, and us all, how powerful books are and how important it is to motivate girls and boys alike to read.

Lastly, Karai, is supremely confident in her skills. While some might see her posturing as hubris, I find it to be refreshing. Karai is a woman who knows what she wants. Hell, we’ve just seen how she knew what she wanted since she was a young girl. She is no damsel in distress. She does not need to be saved. And she will definitely take care of her business on her own.

When is a turtle a man?So, for it’s for foray in the gender-equality conversation I have to say that TMNT passed remarkably well. While the comic largely remains a boys club, I’m excited by the potential that characters such as Karai bring to the table. It seems only fitting that a story which morphs men into animals would eventually begin to examine the gender conversation behind what makes us human and this issue offers a promise of something special being done.

Patrick, would you like to yell some more about the gender issue in this comic? Or was there something else that really caught your eye in this issue? What do you make of all this discord in the Foot Clan? First Alopex and now Karai. Who will want to kill Shredder next?

Patrick: Oh, I don’t need to go on about gender issues. I take a little issue with some of the generalizations you make — like I’m not convinced that modern media suggests or pressures little girls not to read books — but mostly, I find Karai’s journey compelling for reasons totally separate from her gender. As you point out, Karai learns about her family history and effectively discovers the true nature of her birthright. Then she just fucking goes for it. It’s such an insanely courageous move. Think about it: this is a modern day woman reviving the magic ninja tradition of her family. Back when Oroku Saki and Himatu Yoshi were wrestling for control of the Foot, ninja warfare were commonplace. Karai rebuilding the Foot is a passion project, so far removed from the normal reality she would have been presented with as a child. 

And it’s fascinating that she draws so much strength from that book – the Ashi No Humitsu. For all she knew, the book was a fantasy – a historically based exaggeration of legends from a confusing time in Japanese history. But she basically wills it all into existence, even somehow contacting the soul of her dead ancestor. There are a couple blanks in her history, but we’re left to assume she did a TON of work to put this all together. The issue sorta blows past the moment when she takes out her father’s business associate, but I was struck by how startlingly violent it is.

arrows to the back of the neckI mean, good God: she killed that dude for the crime of helping her father be a successful business man. That is commitment.

That’s an extreme characterization for Karai – it’s paints her as borderline psychotic, dangerously focused on a ninja fantasy. Sure, the fantasy turns out to be true, but only because she makes it true. Which is why the ending of the issue feels so strange. Not only does it feel strange that she would suspend her commitment to the fantasy long enough to stage a coup against Shredder, it seems extra strange that she would ask her best guys to fight each other to the death to prove their commitment to her. I mean, wasn’t she just stepping to the defense of the red shirts that Leo was trash talkin’? It looks like a choice born out of narrative convenience. Did you get a good look at those thugs in her line-up?

pre-mutation beebop and rock steadyYellow leather biker helmet with goggles? Gotta be Rocksteady. Purple mohawk and matching sunglasses? Gotta be Bebop. It might make for sense for Karai to be cultivating an army of Foot insurrectionists, but I suppose we’ll settle for an elite duo that can be so cleanly merged with a rhino and a warthog.

Oh, right – my point. My point is that Karai’s defined her whole existence as how she fit into the Foot Clan, and she turns on that by issue’s end. But maybe that’s the point the issue is making: this wouldn’t be the first patriarch she’s taken down to take control of the clan.

As I was reading through my first time, I was a little underwhelmed by Cory Smith’s art. His harsh angles and straight lines evoke calligraphy, which is an elegant, if somewhat understated effect. It’s really not until Dark Leo shows up and starts fighting that Smith’s true strengths as a visual storyteller come to the fore. That’s always the danger of these kind of stories: the writer covers abstract concepts spanning years of the character’s life, and there’s not much room for the artist to depict clear cause and effect. Solution? Ninja fight! Smith gets in a lot of good tricks, including foreshadowing Karai’s fight-starting headbutt with an enormous panel of her forehead. My favorite, though, is just a simple exchange of blows between capable opponents.

leo v karai

It’s just fun and fluid and clear. All of our ninja fights should look so good.For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?


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