Today, Taylor and Drew are discussing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Microseries 8: Shredder, originally released December 4th, 2013. Taylor: For many things, the magic is in the mystery. Not knowing how a magician sawed that lady in half makes the trick something more than it really is. We all know that the magician isn’t actually cutting a living person in two and putting them back together again. However, we don’t know exactly how they created that illusion and are left to wonder how exactly the trick (or illusion) was pulled off. This blurs the line between reality and perception and lets the imagination fill in the gaps. Anything is possible in this space and therein lies the beauty of a magic show. Just so, the circumstances surrounding Oroku Saki’s death and rebirth have, up to this point, been shrouded in mystery. It’s been fun speculating just how the turtle’s age old enemy has defied death, but in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Microseries 8: Shredder, we get some definite answers. With the illusion of his rebirth dispelled, it seems that the TMNT universe has lost a little magic of its own.
Shredder’s reputation as crime lord is being undermined by his hesitancy to speak about his past. Turns out he has good reason for reason for that. As he explains to Kitsune, the witch who brought him back from the dead, defying the natural order of life is hard on a person. When he was dead, Saki’s spirit was transported to the spirit realm, where everyone goes when they die. There, he sees a palace and, as he is wont to do, he decided to conquer it. First he beats up and un-dead army to earn their allegiance and then he storms the castle. He kills the man on the thrown only to realize that that man is himself. This cycle of bizarre suicide plays out every time Shredder sleeps.
Death plays an interesting role in the TMNT universe. On the one hand it’s a grave thing — nobody wants to die after all. Then on the other, death is but a step in a larger picture of things, as is demonstrated by the possible death and rebirth of the Splinter and the turtles in a previous life. Before this issue, we’ve never had a chance to peek behind the curtain of these death mechanics. It occupied a pseudo-spiritual-technical sort of space what with Shredder’s rebirth being made partly responsible by the scientifically derived mutagen and partly by a magic fox demon. It’s a weird and delicate balance that the writers of this comic have played with these two forces up to this point. They have never definitively stated that science or magic is the cause of some of the more mystic parts of the TMNT universe and this has been for the better. That way readers are left to fill in the blanks, perhaps choosing which they would rather believe and in the process claiming a little bit of ownership of the series.
This balance is thrown off a bit by this issue. The bulk of Shredder’s story is spent not on his origins (which was already covered in the excellent Secret History of the Foot Clan) but rather his time in between life. The spirit world Oroku Saki encounters is like a purgatory where all souls go when they die. Not only does answer the question of mysticism in the turtle universe but it also paints a bleak view of life after death. The world Saki sees is grey and boring and basically everything in it sucks.
There are some people milling about aimlessly and there is a castle but that’s about it. It’s hard to understand what the creative team of Dan Duncan and Paul Allor were aiming for with their representation of the afterlife. If this is supposed to be hell, of which Shredder is deserving, then it’s far too placid. If it’s purgatory, then why does EVERYONE end up there? These are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to questions concerning this underworld and in many ways this undermines the moving story of reincarnation that surrounds the turtle family. By showing us such a lackluster idea of the world of the dead, the magic of what lies in the great beyond is trivialized and threatens some of the masterful storytelling which has previously taken place in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
How do you feel Drew? Now that the curtain’s been pulled aside do you see a brick wall or a view of possibility? Does this portrayal of the afterlife fit in with the mythology established thus far in the TMNT universe? Also, isn’t the idea of Shredder feeling compelled to conquer the afterlife a bit silly? Or perhaps, this is his private, hellish afterlife. Thought?
Drew: I don’t know if I would call Shredder’s attitude silly, but it’s certainly telling of his hubris. Like, the dude just arrived on the shores of eternity, and is faced with demonstrable proof of an afterlife — that is, a world beyond what he could possibly know — and there’s not even an ounce of humility. His first act is disregarding all of the warnings given to him upon his arrival, as though they were the instructions for hooking up a new stereo. Most folks, when faced with a new place with new rules, are happy to defer to those with more experience — do as the Romans do, as they say — but not Okoru Saki. He assumes this world and its inhabitants behave in familiar ways, and while he’s mostly right, he misses an important detail about how time works there.
That’s important, because it consigns Saki to death. Certainly not this visit to the afterlife, maybe not even his next one, but eventually, he will become his own downfall. This is particularly tragic given that his entire motivation here was to conquer death. He sacrificed what he truly wanted just because of some pathological need to “rule” the land he stands on.
To answer your first question, Taylor, I’m not particularly bothered by this issue’s seeming emphasis on magic. In fact, I think the story actually rides the line between science and magic quite well. The primary conceit of a time-travel paradox is typically solely the realm of science fiction, but the notion of the afterlife as a quasi-timeless space flips that notion beautifully. Indeed, the child that initially warns Saki knows that he’ll be leaving from the start — that is, he knows the conditions for reviving him will eventually be carried out properly — but he can only hope about what Saki will actually do while he is there, playfully planting some reverse-psychology seeds that ultimately lead Saki to execute himself. Causation has completely flown out the window, only coming to bear on Saki when it can have the maximum impact.
My favorite part of the issue — and perhaps what keeps this from feeling like a true pulling back of the curtain — has to be the question mark Kitsune puts on Shredder’s story: was it all a dream? Did Shredder actually kill his older self in the afterlife, or was he simply sleeping between his “death” and revival? For me, this issue doesn’t assert magic over science any more than The Wizard of Oz does. We want to believe it happened, but there’s no tangible evidence to suggest that it did.
In that way, Duncan is a brilliant choice for an issue set to riding the line between reality and dream. His camera angles and compositions remind me a great deal of Mateus Santolouco’s recent work on the main TMNT title. It makes for the kind of hyper-dynamic action sequences that only further blur the lines of reality.
It might be magic, but it might just be Saki’s subconscious (and a pan-generational army to fight/lead certainly feels like something Saki would cook up). Either way, learning that it haunts his every dream reveals quite a bit about Saki’s anxieties. It also reveals what he values. Allor gets downright poetic when describing how Saki sizes up his opponents to assess their weakness, perfectly setting up his “when in doubt, aim for the eyes” stinger.
I personally always liked seeing how the tricks are done, but I think this issue puts just enough of that in question to give us the best of both worlds. Dream or no, I think this issue is an awesome glimpse into Shredder’s character, and I’m only bummed to learn that he doesn’t have more dreams for us to dig into.
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