Today, Taylor and Drew are discussing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 55, originally released February 24th, 2016.
Taylor: Interpersonal relationships are a hard thing. We’ve all judged and been judged on who we hang out with and the types of relationships we have with these people. Chances are, you’ve wondered why Person X would ever date Person Y or what Person A sees in Group B. The thing is, when you’re in a relationship, it’s hard to see it for what it is. It’s only after things get sufficiently good or sufficiently bad that we finally realize where the relationship stands. Basically, relationships of any type are hard for people. When you’re a mutant though, things are only tougher. Not only do you have your animal instincts to consider, but you have the ever shifting landscape of alliances and double-crosses to consider. TMNT 55 explores the idea of relationships and shows how they sometimes lift you up and sometimes bring you down.
This theme concerning relationships predominates issue 55. For some, relationships become a source of hope and renewal; for others they become a source of manipulation; and for some they are a source of sadness.
Being a man who enjoys ending things on a positive note, let’s start with sadness. In this issue we see the deflating but predicted end of Casey and April’s romantic entanglement. The seeds of this relationship’s end were planted in the Casey and April miniseries, but it’s only now that we see them flower into a full blown split. The reason Casey and April decide to ends thing is complicated, as is the case with most breakups. In short though, Casey feels that he has to protect those he loves with his fists. April is scared by this violence, which becomes the irreconcilable difference between them.
This is a sad moment in the Turtleverse, but it seemed inevitable. While I bemoan the death of this relationship, I applaud all of the writers involved in writing TMNT for crafting a story where this breakup makes sense. Casey is a complicated figure who carries around a lot of emotional baggage with him. His violent history with his dad, Hun, has obviously affected his ability to have a normal relationship where violence doesn’t interfere with those he loves. This is something I’ve learned from previous issues in the TMNT series and the particular scene above couldn’t have happened with that previously established character development. It’s old hat by now, but I can never say enough about how well written the characters in this series are. That sad moments like demonstrate that these are writers who understand the full gamut of human experience.
The relationship that Alopex has with Kitsune is less emotionally wrought than April and Casey’s but makes up for that with how disturbingly manipulative it is. We’ve been teased for several issues now with Kitsune’s eventual subversion of Alopex. In this issue, Kitsune appears to finally make her first significant move which hints at her future plans for Alopex. When Kitsune is brought tea by Alopex she uses the moment to brainwash the fox mutant to due her bidding.
While her plan is still veiled in metaphor, it seems likely that Kitsune hopes to uses Alopex to somehow overthrow Splinter and resurrect Shredder. That’s a bombshell right there and while it’s certainly cause for concern, I don’t find it nearly as disturbing as the way Kitsune manipulates Alopex. Kitsune takes the image of how Alopex’s parents were killed (by a polar bear) and twists it in a way to make Alopex do her bidding. The use of Alopex’s tragedy to achieve her own goals is a particularly evil move on Kitsune’s part, and is made all the more so since she attacks the one TMNT character who seems the most emotionally fragile. While this is all described through the lens of magic and brainwashing, I can’t help but notice the metaphor being made here about manipulative relationships. Sadly, people often use other’s insecurities to further their own means and I weep inside to see Alopex being gamed in this way. It’s sad not only because of the emotional abuse being done here, but also because Alopex is virtually powerless to stop it given her canine background.
The disintegration of Casey and April’s relationships and the manipulation of Alopex are both heart-wrenching developments in this issue, but luckily, hope does still remain in tiny pockets. When Michelangelo leaves the Mutanimals, he returns to the turtle’s old lair since it’s the closest thing he has to a home for him now. After cleaning up the place, he is surprised when all three of his brothers drop in unexpectedly.
Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael have dropped by on the surface to bring Mikey some pizza and invite him on a Foot-Free mission. However, I also get the feeling that these three just also really missed their brother and wanted to see him again. After an issue full of failing and messed up relationships, it’s such a relief to see all four turtle brothers together again. Not only does this offer a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark issue, but it also fits the overall theme of family and comrade in this series. Despite whatever the world throws at them, Leo, Ralph, Donnie, and Mikey are together to the end. This deep connection to friendship and brotherhood remains the heart of this series and frequently reminds me of the spiritual heart of TMNT. The turtles will always find each other and will always be together. This relationship, more than anything else, is what makes them a fearsome, fighting team.
Drew, do you have more thoughts on the relationships on display in this issue? I’m really digging Michael Dialynas art in this issue. In particular I think his rendering of Kitsune and Alopex is both terrifying and engrossing. What about the parts of this issue concerning Honeycutt and Harold? Any thoughts there?
Drew: You know, I had completely forgotten that Honeycutt made that deal to revive Donatello. We have no idea what the terms of that deal were, but it certainly seems like it might somehow involve the Turtles. I’m always charmed at how well this series (and its various tie-in mini- and micro-series) develop supporting characters, so I absolutely love that Honeycutt and Harold have conversations, plans, and concerns that the turtles aren’t (yet) privy to. I also love that Harold is too preoccupied with the Street Phantom cloak to worry about Honeycutt’s problems.
Actually, that reminds me of another of this series’ great strengths: developing its villains long before their conflict is brought to a head. It’s classic Paul Levitz “introduce a thread as a subplot before it takes over as the main thread” plotting, but Curnow, Eastman, and Waltz have basically perfected it. This issue functions more-or-less as a standalone, but it also reminds us just how many villains are threatening our cast right now: the Street Phantoms, the Rat King, Kitsune, and potentially whatever Honeycutt has signed the Turtles up for. None of these conflicts rise above a simmer here, but checking in with all of them makes me very excited for the next year or so of the series.
Anyway, Taylor, I’m glad you asked about Dialynas’ work here. I’ve loved his art over the past several issues, but I think this one tops them all. Part of that may be that he gets to draw more of the primary cast — the last few issues were so Mutanimal-focused — but he also gets to work in a different emotional range, here. Dialynas’ work on The Woods has long demonstrated his skill at teen melodrama, and while this issue also affords him a great fight scene, it’s the acting that really makes it sing. Taylor is absolutely right to emphasize the interpersonal drama in this issue, but my favorite piece of acting comes when Mikey is alone, cleaning up their old lair.
Man, it’s rare that a comic makes me tear up, and rarer still that it can muster that kind of emotion by page two, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have to stop reading for a moment after this sequence. There’s no doubt that some of the impact here comes from having followed these characters for over 50 issues — I’m fully invested in their lives — but Dialynas sells the holy living shit out of it. Mikey’s sad surprise in the first panel, his unbridled joy in the next two, and the tears welling in the final panel (his lips tightening just enough to bring them into frame) all work together to cut straight to the heart.
That this particular flashback has such emotional weight for both Mikey and us is key. A page earlier, Mikey flashes back to goofing around with his brothers, but instead of tears, that memory prompts a casual “heh.” Pairing these two memories (and drawing us into Mikey’s different responses to them), sets up a key, unspoken truth of Mikey’s reunion with his brothers: this is nice and fun, but he really misses Splinter. The entire creative team masks that very sad truth in Mikey’s joy at seeing his brothers, but the flashback from above hangs over their reunion. I suspect that sadness will remain on the back burner as the Turtles turn their attention to Honeycutt’s deal, but I’m already gearing up for more tears whenever Mikey and Splinter reconcile.
But that could be a long time coming. Casey and April’s fight illustrates how adept this creative team is at letting their characters make self-destructive decisions that totally fit their motivations. That’s what makes their split so heartbreaking — it’s just so believable, even if we can see them making missteps along the way. I won’t discount them eventually reconciling, but Casey’s ego certainly seems bruised enough to make that take awhile. Mikey’s situation is obviously different, but its largely motivated by a similar sense of betrayal, and may ultimately be just as self-destructive.
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but this series has some of the best teenage characters in all of fiction — they just happen to also be mutant ninja turtles. In spite of those decidedly unusual qualifiers, the creative team is able to keep these characters remarkably relatable, even when we know they’re making the wrong decisions. Indeed, that we can relate to those bad decisions makes them all the more heartbreaking. This creative team knows what it’s doing.
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