Today, Taylor and Spencer are discussing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 61, originally released August 24th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Taylor: The need for violent force is a topic guaranteed to ignite debate. Some preach it as a necessary evil, while others say its existence in any form is unacceptable. Regardless of your stance on the subject, violence is something every person has to come to terms with in some way or another. Frankly put, we live in a violent world, even if most of us in America never have to confront it directly, and that means coming to terms with some ugly truths of the world. This topic is especially important to comics, a medium that frequently depicts violence. While it’s easy for a series to be circumspect when it comes to confronting violence, TMNT is not in its 61st issue. Instead of backing away from its heroes’ potentially problematic reliance on martial force, it confronts the issue head on.
After the attack and escape of Kitsune and further developments with the Street Phantoms, Splinter calls a meeting of the minds to discuss the Foot Clan’s next steps. Here he lays out a vision of what needs to be done to ensure the safety of the Clan, New York City, and perhaps all of humanity. Feelings end up running hot during this meeting and Michelangelo storms out once it becomes clear it’s more of a war counsel. But while one member distances himself from the family, Splinter pulls another closer in a candid conversation with Casey Jones.
The reasons for Mikey’s tirade are perhaps warranted — or perhaps they’re not, it really all depends on your point of view. As Splinter sees the various threats moving in the shadows he feels the need to act preemptively to neutralize them. While Mikey might agree with his father’s sentiments, it’s the language that he uses that most pisses him off.
Mike hates the use of words that we’re used to hearing spout off by politicians when talking about a strike on a foreign country. The likes of “countermeasures” and “preemptively” especially ring true of this. Michelangelo instead longs for words such as “honor” and “protection,” which both evoke a much softer, less sterile tone. While it’s fair to understand Mike’s point, I can’t help but notice he’s talking about two sides of the same coin. Many are the soldier who has fought for honor and protecting some ideal, but the same number have fought in an incident labeled a countermeasure. The fact is, no matter how you wrap it in wording, both Splinter and Mike are talking about violence in some way. Neither of these characters seem all that worried about the use of violence, so much as how it is applied and labeled.
Frankly, that’s a troublesome place this issue has taken us. I’ve always depended on Michelangelo as being the moral compass of this series but I find it hard to necessarily take his side just because the violence he’s advocating happens to sound nicer and less clinical than Splinter’s. In this squirmy feeling, however, I can’t help but see a lesson. Writers Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz, and Bobby Curnow have been around for awhile and it seems unlikely that they would be unaware of the role of violence in comic books. This subtle jab about violence being violence no matter what is especially poignant because it comes at the hands of characters I’ve grown to know and care about over 60 issues. It makes it hard to take their acceptance of a violent world easily. Then again, maybe that’s the point.
This war cabinet scene takes up the majority of the issue save for fun fight at the beginning and the requisite cliffhanger tacked on at the end. There’s a reason for this though. The scene is simply huge both in the breadth of its content and in the number of characters it contains. By my count there are nine people in this scene, all of whom speak at least once. However, the scene never feels crowded or unclear. Why is that?
I think the reason for this can be found in the artwork of Dave Wachter. Save for a couple instances where he establishes the meeting room with a panel showing most of its inhabitants, Wachter limits panels to two to three characters at a time. That looks something like the panels below.
When a character speaks alone they get a panel alone. When a character is talking directly to another, two characters are shown and the same applies if the other replies. This takes what could be a complicated scene and makes it one that never feels bogged down by the weight of wondering who’s talking to whom and what about. It’s considered dangerous to include more than 3-4 people in one scene but Wachter proves that it can be done with some clever paneling and smart framing.
Spencer, what’s your thoughts on this issue and it’s discussion of violence? Splinter seems pretty entrenched in the camp that violence is needed sometimes even if it’s evil. Do you think he’ll ever be proved wrong by Michelangelo or anyone else? Also, what do you make of his direct appeal to Casey?
Spencer: Casey’s an interesting case in this issue, as he’s essentially an outlier to the structure you pointed out, Taylor. Take that second image above: as Taylor pointed out, Wachter generally only includes characters who are speaking within any given panel for the sake of clarity, yet Casey breaks that rule. Twice in this scene, Casey is drawn into the background of a panel despite having no speaking role.
Considering that Wachter rarely does this with any other characters throughout this sequence — and with none as consistently as Casey — it’s clear this is quite purposeful. Casey has no lines throughout the war council, so by including him in the background the creative team is reminding their readers that Casey is at the meeting, and making them question, even if it’s just subconsciously, why Casey isn’t actually participating in it. That’s the whole point of Casey’s inclusion here: by the time Splinter questions why Casey’s been so quiet, the audience should already be asking themselves the same question.
(As for what Splinter wants with Casey, well, that’s harder to figure out. It seems significant that Splinter didn’t make this appeal in the actual war council, but was this simply because of Mikey’s interruption, or because Splinter wants to keep Casey’s role a secret? If the latter, why?)
There’s a lot of really fun stuff going on with this issue, but ultimately, my focus keeps coming back to that war council sequence. It really is remarkably structured. The scene is both a recap and a mission statement, reminding readers of all the ongoing threats currently in play and then splitting the cast up into teams to address those threats. Some of the reasoning behind these teams is purely plot-based (such as Leo’s ability to resist Kitsune’s manipulations or Donnie’s tech skills), but the creative team never forgets to ground their proceedings in emotion either. Raph and Angel are sent after Alopex because they care about her the most, Jennika still feels guilt over her actions even when they provide the team with invaluable intel, and, of course, then there’s Mikey.
Of course Mikey has his morals, and he and Splinter’s disagreement does have a lot to do with violence and tactics, but I think a lot of Mikey’s hurt in this issue also comes from simply not feeling like a family anymore.
Note that Mikey makes a big distinction between a “War Council” and a “Family Meeting,” and he’s not necessarily wrong. “War Council” suggests…well, it suggests exactly what it sounds like (and exactly what we got). A family meeting for the Turtles, meanwhile, would probably still involve some sort of strategizing, but also maybe some hugs and video games. Mikey may be attempting to take the moral high-ground, but it’s clear that what’s bothering him most is that he misses his family, and that he likely even feels betrayed that they’d invite him to be a part of the Foot Clan’s war council when they know he wants nothing to do with it.
For the record, my thoughts on violence, at least in this particular instance, are probably closer to Splinter’s than Mikey’s. The Clan’s many enemies will hurt a lot of people, and stopping them is the best possible outcome — and all these factions have already attacked the Foot Clan, so it’s not like they’re pulling a Carol Danvers and hunting these people down before they even commit a crime or anything. But it’s okay if Mikey doesn’t have the absolute 100% correct opinion here! He’s the heart of the team, sure, but he’s also a character in his own right, and it’s a sign of good writing that his stance is based more off his (perfectly valid) emotions and experiences than on filling a certain role within the team.
I’ve already touched on it a little bit, but it’s that kind of nuanced character work that really makes this title shine. One smart touch I appreciated throughout TMNT 61 was the moments when these characters’ more goofy sides shone through even the most regimented of situations.
Donnie may be the “smart” one and is likely more interested than most in the proceedings of this meeting, but he still can’t help but to get caught up in the joy of pizza. It’s such a human (mutant?) moment, and it really helps drive home, not only these characters’ youth, but the fact that they’re all unique individuals with their own quirks and motivations, not just pawns in the Foot Clan’s maneuvers. Considering the current conflicts amongst the Turtles and even the Foot Clan themselves, as well as some possible secrets courtesy of Splinter, that may be more important to keep in mind than ever before.
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I think Michelangelo actually has a very strong point that they never even entertain non-violent solutions to their various problems (and//or the sub-problem that they aren’t using violence to stop crime or make NYC a safer place, just to secure the superiority of the Foot Clan), but I love that he gets hung up on the words. Again – great lesson about the Ninja Turtles being TEENAGERS. Mikey rejects his father’s conservative views about violence and causes a big scene at a family meal. It’s like freaking out about colonialism at Thanksgiving Dinner – you’re not wrong, but you also know that’s not going to go over well.
And actually, come to think of it, now that there are mythical creatures at play here, it might be super stupid to be trying to fight them. April banished Kitsune with a fucking feather and a prayer. If surviving their game means appealing to their mercy and decency, I’m going to have to stick up for my boy Mikey as MVP.