Patrick: Iterating on mythology is common practice for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles team. You could even argue that iteration and exploration of the franchise’s mythology is not only something that IDW does incredibly, but is the whole point of the series. There are so many fan favorite characters, stories, locations and details taken from decades of comics, TV shows, movies, video games and action figures, all melded into one gracefully grotesque whole. So what happens when the team iterates on itself, looping back to re-examine a pivotal moment in their own history through a “what if” lens? The result is an insightful look at our heroes, but perhaps more importantly, it shows us just how delicately balanced all that mythology has been over the past five years.
That balance is demonstrated by basically having the whole cast collapse under the weight of unresolveable conflict. Writers Kevin Eastman, Bobby Curnow and Tom Waltz put some of the most dire images right up front; it’s not enough to know that the Turtles are bad guys now, we start by seeing it in action. Splinter’s being pursued through the alleys and over the rooftops of New York City, by an initially unseen assailant. But it’s one of those non-secret secrets: artist Zack Howard leaves telltale clues of the Turtles involvement on that first page. A sai here, a bo staff there. Howard isn’t making us work particularly hard to reach the conclusion that the Turtles are chasing their father, but the fact that we get those clues before we know for certain what’s going on means that we are actively engaged in the story from page one. For my money, it’s not until the top of the second page that we really get to play along emotionally.
I could deal with the idea of someone torturing Hob for info so to the Turtles could hunt down Splinter, but that bloodied Turtle-fist tells a much more specific, much more brutal story. Actually, which part of this is harder to take, emotionally speaking, that the Turtles are doing evil things or that they are still fundamentally themselves while they’re doing it? Burnow and Waltz never miss an opportunity to express their still-lovable personalities. That means jokes and quips, all of which feel necessarily more sinister in this new context. This sequences is topped by Mikey reenacting one of the most quintessentially creepy and weird moments in cinema history.
He’s doing the only part of The Warriors anyone can ever remember, and it’s absolutely in-character and totally horrifying.
What unfolds from there is sort of a who’s-who of TMNT meeting their worst possible fate. Between this and Secret Wars 1, I think I may be discovering that I do have a soft spot for stories wherein all the characters that can’t die do. I suppose it’s just the effect of seeing the exact opposite of what I expect to see unfolding on the page that gets me so excited. Burnow, Waltz and Howard trot out as many of the relevant cast members as possible, recontextualizing just about everyone for these new circumstances. Hob and Slash are still sticking together, but it looks like desperate times have strengthened their relationship with Splinter. Or how about Karai and Alopex, who have taken it upon themselves to turn on the Foot? And, most powerfully, there’s Arnie Jones, who hasn’t been mutated into the monstrous Hun, but instead storms Foot headquarters with an army of low-lifes from Skara Brae armed with sawed-off shotguns and semi-automatics. Each of these tweaks feels utterly earned, and all of the betrayal and back-stabbing action comes from a sincere place, instead of just a desire to see everyone beat each other up.
Which isn’t to suggest that that action isn’t fun on its own. Of course it is. I loved seeing Splinter take on Kitsune in the astral plane. Cory Smith is credited with “additional art” for this issue, and he’s supported Santolouco with pre-reincarnation flashback stuff before, so I assume some of that Tan Shen intervention is drawn by him. But beyond that sequence, I found myself gasping at the sheer audacity of Raph hurling a sai into Hob’s chest or Arnie blowing Shedder’s head off at point-blank range. The ending is totally unsettling, huh? The Turtles and Slash (who, I suppose is technically also a turtle) are the only ones to survive the skirmish.
Taylor, I think this issue was really effective, particularly in how much it made me appreciate the measured way Waltz, Burnow and company dole out traumatic events in the main series. Too many issues like this and it’d be hard to have anything left to love, right? Oh! And how did you like Howard’s art? I find it to be a satisfying halfway point between Eastman’s angular, inky work and Santolouco’s fluid masterwork — did you identify any other influences or qualities to it?
Taylor: Drew: In a surprise deviation from the expected timeline, Taylor has been replaced by me! Patrick, I definitely want to talk about Howard’s work on this issue, but its hard for me to separate it from the content of the story. That is, I think I may need to explore my feelings on this alternate reality before I can really get into my thoughts on how the artwork communicates that reality.
As I read this issue, I couldn’t stop thinking about Gottfried Leibniz‘s “Best of all Possible Worlds,” which suggests that the evil in our universe represents some kind of compromise against greater evils in alternate (though perhaps hypothetical) universes. It was conceived to answer the question of why bad things happen to good people, positing that, even the most evil things that have ever happened are better than what would have happened had they not. It’s a heady (and profoundly fucked-up) explanation for a epistemological paradox, but Eastman, Curnow and Waltz manage to illustrate it beautifully in this issue, demonstrating just how bad a different timeline might be. Certain details sound appealing — Hun never becomes an adversary, Beebop and Rocksteady are never created, and the Street Phantoms are rooted out before they can become a real threat — but there’s no denying how ugly this timeline is.
“Ugly” is maybe an inopportune word to use to transition back to the art, but there’s no doubt that Howard captures a grimness that doesn’t usually exist within this series — even at its darkest moments. Patrick, I like your assessment of Howard’s linework as being somewhere between Eastman and Santolouco’s distinctive styles, but I was actually most reminded of Ken Garing, who did a few issues on the main series recently. Of course, all of these comparisons come up a bit short at conveying just how novel Howard’s grittiness is — or how effectively he can deploy it. Indeed, the most powerful moments come when he breaks that grimness with raw emotion, like the closeups of a broken-hearted Splinter that punctuate that opening fight.
Of course, for all of the ways this universe is much darker than the one we know, there are some intriguing parallels between both, suggesting that they were fated to happen, even if the specifics of how they happen don’t quite line up. Or, to borrow an idea from LOST, they represent the universe course-correcting. For all of the changes, Alopex still turns on Shredder, Splinter still battles Kitsune on the astral plane, and Shredder still ends up without a head. Intriguingly, many of those moments are rendered not by Howard, but by Smith, suggesting that they might represent the “real” timeline breaking through. I’m fairly certain Smith handles the scene where Alopex and Karai conspire to rebel, but I’m absolutely sure he’s the artist on the final page:
Once the primary difference between this world and the main IDW timeline — that is, which side of the battle the turtles are on — is resolved, the darkness of Howard’s art dies away, and the turtles return to what we might identify as their platonic form. Or, at least the form we more strongly associate with the IDW universe. Obviously, the deviations would reverberate long after the events of this issue — I can’t help but wonder how the turtles could take on Krang without the Foot — but the course of history has resolved enough to lift the shadows that so distinguished this timeline from the one we know.
Patrick, I really love the notion that this riff on IDW’s turtles timeline is effectively a microcosm of the riff these writers have been doing on Turtles history all along. The familiar characters and situations are every bit as thrilling as the changes we don’t expect, and this issue allows them to demonstrate just how skilled they are at playing those extremes off one another. I think you’re right to suggest that this timeline couldn’t sustain itself indefinitely — this ending represents Hamlet-level cast decimation — but as an opportunity for this writing team to flex their skills at remixing turtles history, I couldn’t ask for more.
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