Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 44, originally released March 18th, 2015.
Patrick: I think we all make a lot of assumptions about invulnerability. Especially living, as we do, in the 21st century, with so many medical and technological advances, meaningful loss is an uncommon occurrence. That assumption is lie we tell ourselves, but perhaps it’s a necessary lie. If we had to seriously consider our own human fragility before starting our days tomorrow, how many of us could even scrape up the gumption to drive to work? The human body so such a fragile carrier for these personalities which seem so indestructible. The idea that Drew’s personality could be snuffed out by something terrible happening to his body is ludicrous, but it’s also completely true. Tucked into the closing acts of the Attack on the Technodrome, Tom Waltz, Cory Smith, and the creative team on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles explores this vulnerability.
The battle on Burnow island plays out much as we would expect it to: the bad guys fight, the good guys win, Baxter Stockman slips away. There are clever scuffs and twists throughout, but the real centerpiece of the issue takes place back in New York, where Bebop and Rocksteady have the drop on Donatello. Donnie’s been a even more of a loner than usual in this story arc, so seeing him ambushed — and outnumbered — has a pretty obvious solution, right? When our heroes are in trouble, help arrives — happens all the time. Hell, it happens elsewhere in this same issue. (Splinter gets reinforcements in the form of Nobody and Alopex when he needs back-up fighting Karai and her elite guard.) But Donatello is not afforded that luxury. Bebop and Rocksteady lay waste to him. It’s a positively horrifying scene to read, and I want to walk through it beat by beat to discuss how it creates expectation, subverts it and ultimately forces the reader to look away.
For starters, it’s the longest un-interrupted scene in the issue, and at five pages, is roughly a quarter of the book. When we join the battle, Donatello is already scrambling.
Not only does Smith start the scene in media res, we start with Donnie disoriented — the character starts the scene upside down, for crying out loud. Also, Rocksteady’s massive size and the threat posed by that hammer is established immediately. Reading left to right, Rocksteady’s enormous frame is literally the first thing we see. Don’t get me wrong, Bebop’s pretty big too, but Smith is already forecasting who the real wrecking ball is. Smith is even cruel enough to indulge the reader’s fantasy that Donnie’s ninja training will get him out of this jam — the implied zig-zag of Don’s motions seem awfully electric on the page, but it’s nothing that damn hammer can’t put a stop to again.
Then Metalhead enters the fight, fulfilling that “hero in trouble” contract I was just writing about. I breathe a little sigh of relief, assured that that’s how Donnie’s going to make it through this encounter. Plus, Metalhead gets a classic hero-shot entrance — an awesome low angle, framed by the legs of his enemy, and protecting someone else from harm.
It’s right here where writer Tom Waltz tips his hand a little bit, having Harold — via Metalhead — explicitly say “they can’t hurt me…” That is our expectation. These are our heroes: they can be battered and brainwashed and traumatized and humiliated and challenged, but they can’t really be hurt. Rocksteady (again, it’s always Rocksteady) challenges this by spitting back “Who says we can’t hurt you?” And that’s when the hammer makes another appearance.
A couple things to note here. First that that this is the first example in this fight of Ronda Pattison employing this hotter color palette for the abstract backgrounds. We’re starting here with yellow, and you’ll notice that as the fight progresses, the background colors fade through orange to red. But those moments of abstraction are reserved for when our guys are taking hits. When Donnie makes a break for the door, or tries to pull himself off the ground, the environments are cool colors (blues mostly), and rendered in pretty clear detail.
Those hits get redder and redder as Bebop lays in to Donatello, but this is more about Pattison and Smith building the visual vocabulary for what’s about to happen than anything Bebop is doing. I like the panel a lot, but like, it is a little silly that Bebop smacks Donatello with the computer keyboard, right? That’s not a specific action we need to worry about, but the deepening of the red in each successive panel is.
When we turn the page, Smith immediately reminds us that the real threat in the room his Rocksteady. Metalhead didn’t stand a chance, and Rocksteady is able to cavalierly rip off his arm, while taking a laser blast and casually quipping “no problem.” This is Rocksteady at his most monstrously invulnerable. The second he’s reunited with that sledgehammer, it’s apparent that no one is coming to save Donatello. And for all of the exciting ways we’ve seen Donatello take a punch in this issue, the final blow is revealed to us only as a shadow cast along an upsettingly red wall.
The unthinkable has happened and Smith is averting our eyes for us. It’s a powerful scene, perfectly engineered to make the reader feel Donatello’s physical vulnerability.
Drew, we can go on to speculate over Donnie’s future in the comments, but I’m struck by just how much this is a primer for other characters being physically vulnerable throughout the issue. Bludgeon and Koya are beaten by a change in the atmosphere; Krang is beaten by zapping his squishy bits. Did you find that vulnerability as unsettling as I did?
Drew: Absolutely, though I think the goddamned finality of it all is what really sells it. Krang’s circumstances look pretty dire, but nothing sells the notion of finality quite like the final page of the issue.
What a stunning composition. Smith gives us this heartbreaking Pietà pose (a scene famously carved by Michaelangelo) — a silent, almost meditative expression of loss — but surrounds it with reminders of the violence that wrought it, from the twisted metal in the background, to Donnie’s splintered bō staff, to the blood sickeningly pooling from his unseen (but clearly horrific) wound.
Smith also manages to give every single character a meaningful reaction that is somehow an expression of their personalities AND one of the famous stages of grief. Leo’s stunned disbelief scans as denial, while Mikey’s tears imply depression (and you can bet he’ll be the most traumatized by this), and of course, Raph is angry as hell. Bargaining and acceptance are a bit harder to convey in a single image, but Waltz cleverly positions the characters who have been their the longest, particularly Alopex and Angel, as the ones revealing the death to the other turtles — they’ve accepted it enough to share it, even as they express their attempts to revive him. Carrying us through all five stages of grief in a single image gives this page a crushing sense of finality, turning the ubiquitous “to be continued!” into a kind of taunt.
Even the structure of the issue supports this finality. This scene is the last, for obvious reasons, but it also comes impossibly late — that is, insanely long after we see that fatal blow Patrick included. Indeed, after that fight scene, we don’t see Donnie again until this closing image, 14 pages later. Letting the rest of the issue play out after that sledgehammer blow is almost cruel, but we can’t help but hope that Donnie could somehow be saved. It’s not until the very last page that it’s confirmed that he’s gone.
Obviously, there are still expectations that Donnie will somehow return — the power of the Pietà cuts both ways — but I’m impressed at how hard the creative team works to banish the possibility of any cheap fakeouts. TMNT as a franchise is pretty well-known for deaths that turn out to not be deaths, after all, but Waltz et al. make a point of putting one in this issue to Shredder, the king of punching his way out of a pile of rubble. This creative team wouldn’t dare employ that same device twice in a row like that, meaning the path to Donnie’s return will somehow be more tortuous (and torturous).
That’s the light at the end of what may be a long tunnel, but in the meantime, I’m actually looking forward to how the rest of the turtles react to his absence. Removing Leo from the group had surprising consequences, clarifying his role on the team, and how his brothers react to it. I expect Donnie’s absence to be just as enlightening. And heartbreaking, for sure, but I’ve got to find some sliver lining, right? Right?
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