Drew: Last month, Patrick laid out the difference between time travel narratives that amount to fish-out-of-water stories and those that are actually about time travel — that is, those where the actions and repercussions of time travel are the point of the story. Turtles in Time 1 fell squarely into the first category, basically giving the Turtles an excuse to run around with dinosaurs for a while. It’s certainly a noble endeavor (and darn successful — we loved the heck out of that issue), but for a mini-series titled Turtles in Time, it seems only natural that the focus should shift back to the time travel itself, bringing all the concerns of causation and the space-time continuum to the fore as the Turtles encounter themselves pre-reincarnation in feudal Japan.
The Turtles “bwoop” into their new space-time, and immediately find some bathing Samurai to steal disguises from. Unfortunately, those disguises don’t amount to very much, as they’re immediately identified as “demons” by everyone they encounter. One of the first people they meet is a man being assaulted by a gang of ninjas. They jump to his aid, and manage to fend off the attackers, but are horrified to discover that the victim is none other than Hamato Yoshi — Splinter’s pre-reincarnated identity. He insists on taking the “demons” home for dinner as a sign of gratitude, but the guys are generally uncomfortable with the idea of being around their own pre-reincarnated selves.
Leo is particularly upset at the knowledge that these kids will be massacred (eventually leading to their own present state of being), and has disappeared by the time the rest of the Turtles wake up. They quickly realize he’s attempting to save the kids from that fate by preemptively killing Shredder, but is eventually talked down by Raph, who reminds him that history as we know it has allowed the Turtles to save many more lives, and that preventing their existence would be tantamount to killing April, Casey, the Neutrinos, etc. The Turtles reunite just in time to be bwooped away again, but we’re treated to the tantalizing suggestion that Leo’s actions lead directly to Shredder’s “you mess with me, I kill you AND your family” policy that we’re now so familiar with.
That last wrinkle is what makes this issue so fascinating. Don’t get me wrong, the Back to the Future subversions are awesome — the Turtles drop from a tree to save their father, Leo attempts to alter history in order to prevent himself from ever existing, etc. — but the thought that the Turtles aren’t altering history, but playing an active role in creating the history they know is fascinating. It seems to be a “whatever happened, happened” approach to time-travel, which never fails to make me smile.
For all of my emphasis on Erik Burnham’s story, it’s Charles Paul Wilson III’s art that really steals the show. After an issue with Sophie Campbell (and our familiarity with his take on the characters from the main series), it’s easy to think of the Turtles as adorable chibis, but Wilson really emphasizes their monstrousness, selling every bit of that “demon” label they receive here.
It’s a piece of subjectivity that, while more an artifact of Wilson’s style than of any conscious decision on his part, makes him a fantastic choice for a story that emphasizes just how weird these guys are. Intriguingly, there are hints that that subjectivity isn’t just that of Yoshi (or any other humans they encounter), but of the turtles themselves. Leo seems fixated on the idea that saving the human versions of the Turtles would be worth the lives of the Turtle versions, suggesting that maybe he’s the one who sees them as monstrous aberrations, rather than cute little stuffed animals.
Spencer! I don’t think you and I have ever talked about the Turtles before, and while issue 1 of this series was a breezy one-off, this one seems mired in the already impenetrably dense mythology of the main series. Did you feel lost at all in reading this issue, or was there enough here to catch you up with all of the specific weirdness of the situation here?
Spencer: Drew, this is indeed the first time we’ve ever talked about the Turtles, and there’s a perfectly reasonable (if fairly blasphemous) reason for that: this is the first piece of TMNT media I’ve ever consumed. I wasn’t allowed to watch the show growing up, and as an adult it always seemed like the kind of franchise I’d need a nostalgia factor to appreciate, so I never tried to get into it. That said, the consistently glowing reviews you and Patrick and Taylor always give this book encouraged me to take a chance on it, and I’m pretty happy with the result.
You asked me if I felt lost, and amazingly, I wasn’t lost a bit. Admittedly, I’ve absorbed a decent bit of TMNT knowledge from reading our coverage and just from growing up during an era when the Turtles were the most popular franchise on the planet, but still, I think this issue does an excellent job of introducing all the essential bits of backstory. The Turtles are lost in time, run into themselves in a past life where they were brutally murdered, and are a little unsure about how to handle it; Burnham makes these important beats explicit in the dialogue, so that even the most unseasoned of newcomers (such as myself) can follow along.
It did take a little more effort for this beginner to keep the Turtles straight (I don’t think Donatello’s name is even mentioned in the issue), but Burnham and Wilson do a lot right in this regard as well, giving ample spotlight to each turtle’s shining characteristic (which seems to be Leo’s stern morality, Raph’s rashness, Don’s genius, and Mikey’s childish enthusiasm) and then even applying those same traits to their human incarnations as well:
Look, the kids are even color coded to match their turtle counterparts!
More importantly, though, Burnham and Wilson make the emotional stakes just as explicit as the plot beats. The dilemma the Turtles face as to whether to save their own lives is compelling drama, but I’m finding myself even more impressed by the small moments of joy scattered throughout the issue.
It’s moments like these that underline just how tragic the inevitable slaughter of this family will be, that demonstrates just how much the Turtles are sacrificing for the greater good. Growing up I always had the impression that the Turtles were a little corny (specifically, I thought they fit into that painfully “hip” brand of 90s entertainment), but this current incarnation at least has proven me dead wrong; this issue is complex and full of genuine emotion.
Drew mentioned the “whatever happened, happened” brand of time-travel theory in his half of the article, and that’s one of my favorite aspects of this issue as well. Specifically, I like what this implies about the Turtles’ place in the universe: that destiny has chosen the Turtles for a higher calling, and nothing they do is capable of changing that fate.
Yet, at the same time this seems to be the ultimate moment for the Turtles to exercise their agency. Destiny may have big plans for them, but Leo still gets to decide to spare Shredder, to decide to embrace the heroic path that destiny seems to have handpicked for the Turtles. Prior to this moment the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were still entertaining, engaging characters, but this decision goes a long way towards establishing them as selfless, noble heroes worth rooting for. Leo may think of the Turtles as monstrous aberrations, but it’s obvious that they’re anything but.
Here’s the part where I echo Drew’s praise of Charles Paul Wilson III’s art, but I also want to take a moment to point out how great the work of colorist Jeremy Mohler is. While the more cartoony art of issue one had brighter coloring to go with it, Mohler keeps his work in this more serious issue subdued; it almost takes on a faded appearance, actually, as if the pages had actually been sitting around yellowing over the hundreds of years since this feudal adventure took place, and this is especially obvious in the gutters, which are tan instead of their usual white. I can’t help but to be reminded of how artwork from this period in Japanese history is often depicted, which certainly makes the choice an apt one.
It’s obvious that the creative team behind this mini-series has the skill to adapt the Turtles appropriately to any time period they may wind up in and whatever kind of story may pop up as a result of said-time travel, and that kind of versatility is truly impressive. It looks like the current run of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a success with both old fans and newbies alike; I only wish I had access to time-travel myself so I could find the extra time I need to catch up with it.
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?