Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 40, originally released November 26th, 2014. Patrick: They started out as a joke — an answer to the dare “what’s the weirdest thing you can draw?” A mutant turtle that’s also a ninja, and what the hell, let’s make him a teenager just to layer on the strangeness. “Mutant” and “teenage” made them marketable, but it’s the absurd combination of “ninja” and “turtle” that always stuck in my brain. It just doesn’t make sense: why would a turtle ever be agile and stealthy? They’re bulky, presumably sorta heavy and shouldn’t even have the fingers necessary to grip a katana. That contradiction ends up imbuing the characters with both weight and speed simultaneously, and one of the great pleasures of IDW’s run on TMNT is watching different artists try to capture the sheer momentum that these four brothers represent. Issue 40 is a tour de forces-at-motion-staying-in-motion for Mateus Santolouco, who delivers page after page of stunningly realized action. It may be a brawl between a dozen mutants, but the physicality is so present and so vibrant, believing the insane action is only natural.
We’ve been building to this encounter for a while — even getting something of a teaser for it last month when Pete brought Bebop and Rocksteady back to tussle with Hob, Slash, Mondo Gecko and Herman the Hermit Crab. Now with Splinter, three-quarters of the turtles, Alopex and Nobody in the mix, the fighting can begin in earnest. A plot summary at this point is meaningless — they fight, and while Bebop and Rocksteady appear to be unstoppable, everyone works together to incapacitate them. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how they accomplish this feat — it could have been Splinter and Mondo Gecko’s gambit with the electrical wire, it could have been Raph and Alopex, it could have been Hob and Herman — the beauty of this issue is in watching these characters fly around the street, running into each other and wrecking up the place.
This is some of Santolouco’s finest work on this series, as every single participant has definite, distinctive weight, and every object — including the camera — behalves dynamically around them. He sets a precedent for excellence early in the issue, as Rocksteady opens the fight by tossing a car at Michelangelo. Slash steps in to take the hit for his buddy Mikey. It’s a cute character moment, playing to a relationship that I’m a total sucker for, but the real genius of the moment is in Santolouco’s detail as the car crumples around Slash.
Check out the scale on display in that first panel, and how Mikey’s relative size from the first panel to the second remains consistent. That gives us a quick and easy shorthand for just how far Slash falls after taking this blow. Also, notice that the camera has followed Slash’s head all the way down to the street level while it was once up above. Slash’s posture is also great — I feel like we can see the muscles in his left calf straining to brace against the impact. And then there’s the car itself, which dramatically folds, pops and shatters as it wraps around the big guy.
From my eyes, every single hit reads with the same intensity and purpose. Some of Santolouco’s work seems so simple, but every choice is meaningful and adds to the speed and weight of a fight which — as I flip through it on my Kindle — literally has neither. All graphic storytelling is a little bit magic, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to work so little to have a spell work on me. Let’s take this amazing scuffle between Nobody and Bebop as an example.
The first row of panels starts simple — a small panel, close-up on Nobody’s claw latching on to Bebop’s nose ring. It’s an invasive move on Nobody’s part, bordering on intimate, and the size of the panel focuses the reader’s attention. The next panel is like five times as long, as if to emphasize that there’s this great distance that Nobody is able to yank Bebop across. The next row has the combatants in close with each other, and the action comes quick as these jagged panels communicate both that closeness and the chaos of close-quarters combat. Then the camera drops and swings wide, to give us this amazing third row, as Bebop’s street-clearing uppercut sends Nobody flying off to godknowswhere. Finally, that last row uses a trick of motion-based visual distortion over three panels to creation the illusion of a fisheye lens. I don’t even know what else to say about that one, but hot damn.
And in all of this, Santolouco never lets the action descend into untraceable chaos. My favorite panel in the whole issue manages to squeeze all of our hero characters into one dynamic shot.
Everyone’s here! And they’re all either doing or saying something that’s totally on-character (with the possible exception of Leonardo). It’s a masterpiece of TMNT action-storytelling, boiling over with spectacle and personality, and I couldn’t be much happier with the final product.
Drew, I didn’t mention anything else that happened in this issue. That Casey / Mr. O’Neil scene was sweet, but seems weirdly placed amid the non-stop action. Also, I did not see Donatello’s gambit coming at all, but it’s a deliciously logical way to further drive a wedge between his goals and Splinter’s. I keep thinking back to the future we saw in Turtles in Time 4, and it’s chilling to see some of those blanks getting filled in. Not that I’m expecting the time-travel-logic of this series to be air-tight, but even the suggestion that Donny could be making the biggest possible mistake makes me anxious. How do you see all that working out for him?
Drew: Oh man, that twist comes as such a surprise, I still can’t really predict what will happen next. I suppose in hindsight, it makes sense that Donny’s pragmatism would have him coming up with a better plan than going in alone, even if he’s putting to much faith in Shredder’s ability to be a rational partner — or at least too much faith in his trustworthiness. I mean, Donny’s plan is to double-cross Shredder as soon as Krang is neutralized, but Shredder has decidedly less to loose by double-crossing Donny even sooner. Shredder only needs Donny’s plan, where Donny needs Shredder’s army to actually make it happen.
If this issue was drawn by any other artist, I probably would have been content to focus on this reveal, dismissing the brawl as standard comics action. Indeed, I generally find fights to be the least exciting part of any comic because they’re so often boringly executed, cataloguing an escalating trade of punches, but often sacrificing drama in the name of action. Here, though, the action is drama, with Santolouco imbuing the panels with that real sense of dynamism and weight Patrick mentioned.
Patrick, you highlight a lot of great stuff in that one-page fight between Beebop and Nobody, but you stop short of pointing out one of the key properties of comics that Santolouco is such a master of (which may be because it’s too obvious): on the page, space is time. Santolouco is almost militant in how he uses space to marcate time on the page. Look again at that sequence and notice that all of the longer panels — Beebop getting yanked across the street, or Nobody getting punched into the stratosphere — depict actions that take up more space and more time. That’s probably the best sequence for illustrating that, but I’ll add another, just because Santolouco is a goddamned wizard at this stuff.
That added sense of time also comes with an implied motion of the eye, which gives a sense of motion, action, and cause-and-effect within each panel. The long panel of the explosion at the top of the page starts with the explosion on the left, then carries our eyes over to Beebop and Rocksteady to see them slamming into the building. The panel of Rocksteady kicking Leo manages an even more complicated version, as Beebop picking up the brick is technically in the foreground, but Santolouco’s sense of space and time makes it secondary to the action on the left side of the page.
I could sing Santolouco’s praises all day, but the writing team also deserves a lot of credit for making this fight so much more exciting than the standard comic punch-em-up. I’m so used to overpowered heroes that it’s downright refreshing to see our protagonists — beefed up with the superior size and firepower of Hob’s army, no less — unable to truly overcome a threat. Perhaps more importantly, they’re able to find character moments within the action. It may require sidelining Raph and Alopex for a moment to get them to address their feelings, but it feels natural to how easily Rocksteady had been wrecking everything, and is totally worth the time — those two are adorable together. They even manage a few moments of real humor, helped in no small part by Santolouco’s impeccable sense of timing.
What a great series. It really is a rarity for me to enjoy an issue that’s mostly just a fight scene, but I think this creative team could find the drama in just about anything. I can’t wait to see what they find it in next.
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?