Patrick: I love the first two-thirds of most horror movies. That’s where the filmmakers have to establish an honest sense of both danger and mystery. That’ll all presumably pay-off in the final act, but it’s sort of remarkable how much more engaging the set up has to be than the pay off. Honestly, by the time a horror flick gets to that pay-off, you’re lucky if the characters do anything more than scream, run and die. So that tension must be expertly wound in order to make that climax mean anything. If you were to watch it in isolation, that scene of Ripley strapping herself in to blow the Alien out the airlock can be slow and almost drama-less. But after two hours of steadily unspooled threats and a growing list of unnerving questions, the scene is masterpiece of suspense. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 56 finds our storytellers quietly gathering those questions, slowly bringing its internal mystery to a fever pitch.
A lot of my write-ups of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — especially when the series is drawn by Mateus Santolouco — end up being about the man’s mastery of movement of the still page. He’s an absolute genius when it comes to selling the ninja acrobatics, and it’s fascinating to watch that skill set tackle something a lot more ominous and meditative.
The storytelling is all very clean, eschewing non-grid paneling or any of the abstractions that make Santolouco’s action sequences so outstanding. That kind of clarity extends to every scene, with the majority of them beginning when characters enter a room. That may sound like a minor detail, it sets a steady expectation of an entrance, followed by some sort of conversation. The scene in Harold’s lab starts when the Turtles enter; the scene in Kitsune’s room starts when Rat King enters; the scene in Splinter’s room starts when Jennika enters; and the scene on Burnow Island begins with the Turtles entering. But then there’s an entrance that upsets this comfortable little pattern: Leatherhead.
This is also the first and only splash page in the issue, meaning that the visual vocabulary being used here is unique to this moment. Obviously, the creative team wants to have a big reveal for this character — he’s a fan-fav, and Santolouco’s design for him is incredible — but his appearance here quite literally upsets the rhythm that had been established in the previous eight pages. The copy here is tantalizingly minimal, and writer Tom Waltz smartly inserts a bit of dialogue from the next scene without any indication of what that dialogue is referring to. “We’re in trouble…” ends up being about those two shadowy figures in the Burnow Island caves, but the reader immediately maps it on to ol’ Leatherhead here.
I’m also enamored with the way the character is written. He is polite to the point of sounding rehearsed, and he recounts an origin story that is almost too familiar. He starts by retelling the end of Turtles in Time 3, and Santolouco obliges with a panel that matches that ending.
There’s an editor’s note here to refer us back to this issue, but Santolouco has already done the heavy lifting for us. Leatherhead’s accounting of his own uneventful history takes this air of authority and runs with it. But damn it all if I don’t find that certainty unnerving.
We’ve got a bunch of examples of the past being drudged up early in the issue to foreshadow some kind of impending doom. Kitsune and Rat King’s conversation is probably the most obvious — and again, there’s an editor’s note to point us to the Casey & April miniseries. But the very next page gives us another: we’re reminded of Jennika’s treachery both by Splinter’s words and the editor’s reference to issue 52. For the time being, we’re looking to the past as a method of turning the screws of suspense.
So let’s jump back ahead to Leatherhead’s deal with the Turtles, with all of that tension in mind. Santolouco stages this deal-making in a room that feels way to tight for these six characters to occupy at one time, but he’s also got totally mastery of this space. Waltz’ script bounces dialogue between the various players and Santolouco uses every trick imaginable to get all the appropriate characters in the panel at the same time.
It’s actually not just a neat trick that puts the camera at such a high angle — we’re sort of observing this conversation from Leatherhead’s perspective here. That’s why the camera is so high. On the previous page, when he and Fugitoid are explaining their deal, the camera is low — imitating the Turtles’ perspective. It’s a quick and clear way to establish their power dynamics; the Turtles (and by extension, the readers) are left asking questions while Leatherhead has all the information.
That makes the subsequent Utrom-re-animation (and foreshadowing about Ch’rell’s villainy) all the more chilling. Taylor, I feel like I could talk about the art and pacing on those last five pages forever, but I’ve exhausted my wordcount! Are you as excited as I am to see Santolouco back in the saddle? Who do you think the shadowy figures in the cave are? And how do you feel about all of this hero talk? Our Turtles are taking a lot of chances on creatures they have no reason trust — is that going to come back to bite them in the ass or will it save them in the end?
Taylor: I’m always excited to see Santolouco’s name at the bottom of a TMNT title page! As you say, Patrick, Santolouco does a great job of manning the pencils even though this issue doesn’t have any of his trademark action. While that’s a hallmark of his work for you, one thing that’s always impressed me about his work on this series is his ability to animate emotion of the faces of the various creatures inhabiting the Turtleverse.
A prime example of this skill can be seen in Leatherhead, who by all accounts should be a horrifying creature, but in this issue is not. Alligators are creatures that invoke fear in even the most stout of heart, most likely because of their toothy-grin and scaled body. Making a creature such as this seem tame and friendly is by no means easy, but Santolouco manages it in a lot of panels Leatherhead appears in.
By softening his brow, Santolouco eases a lot of the edge off of this character. Additionally, Letherhead’s eyes are drawn remarkably emotive in this and other panels. When I compare the panel above with the one Patrick posted of pre-mutated Leatherhead, the difference is astounding. The result of Santolouco’s efforts to humanize Leatherhead is an alligator that is demure looking, which is an attribute most wouldn’t attribute to a species that kills its food with a “death roll.” What’s more remarkable about this achievement is that it’s done almost completely with the brows and the eyes alone. Leatherhead’s mouth maintains the life-like appearance of a real alligator and thus betrays no emotion. That Leatherhead expresses his emotions just through his eyes, let alone at all, is a testament to the ability of Santolouco to draw not just mutants, but true characters.
This ability to draw characters who are not easily identifiable as good or evil helps create a lot of the tension that Patrick spoke about. No one is really playing their cards in this issue, and that makes it hard to tell who will emerge as the next major threat to the turtles. Take, for example, the Utroms. Last we saw a conscious Utrom, he was in a killer robot suit and threatening to terraform and enslave the entire earth. Compare that to how they are portrayed here — as artists, politicians, and scientists — and it’s hard to judge just exactly what type of creature they are.
Once again, Santolouco softens the features of something once considered dangerous and makes it appear docile and friendly. To return to Alien, this is a lot like the character Ash, played by Ian Holm. On the outside, he’s entirely benign and pleasant but as is learned later in the movie he’s actually a ruthless cyborg who will do anything to fulfil the Weyland Corporation’s orders. That just has me wondering both about the Utroms and Leatherhead. Both have a side to them that outwardly seems dangerous, yet both also appear to be innocent and no potential allies to the turtles. It seems unlikely that nothing will go wrong between the turtles and these creatures, but just who will turn out to be evil and in just what way has me on the edge of my seat. That these characters are presented in such a way both narratively and artistically is once again a testament to the talent on the TMNT team.
In a way, it’s almost a determent to this series that every issue is so good. It sets the bar unbelievably high each month and I’m always amazed how consistently good each issue is. Issue 56 follows this trend and perhaps even more impressive because it rests so self assured in what it’s doing, even if it’s a bit different from most other issues. With many TMNT issues you can track a fairly traditional plot structure. If one were so inclined it would be easy to pinpoint the climax, exposition and so on. This issue, however, is one long crescendo that builds until the final page.
This page, with its sudden bloodshed and cliffhanger ending almost comes out of left field. While I can’t say I wasn’t expecting some twist ending to this issue, I would never have guessed it would be so climatic. After the slow burn of this issue with its quiet suspicions, the sudden violence on the last page is all the more shocking. It’s basically the perfect ending to a brooding issue that so skillfully builds tension. That this comes from writers and artists who do action so well is in some ways surprising. It’s hard to do one thing really well in comics, let alone several. However, if I’ve learned anything from reading this series, it’s that I can trust its creators. Time and again the writers and artist show me that they are professionals at the top of their game, no matter what that game may be.
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?