Patrick: The defining quality of my teenage years was business. And not like, going to an office, wearing a tie and making money, but like busy-ness. I’d be at school from 7:30 to like 3:00, then go to play practice for a couple hours, then play in some ensemble (or practice in the winter) and then I’d do homework in the basement until I feel asleep on AIM. I had written a song about that sensation for my high school ska band (Down In Front, in case you were wondering) called “Someone Else’s Time” so I was at least aware that my schedule was spiraling beyond my control. I’ve been busy since, but I don’t think I’ve ever surrendered my time quite so freely as I did when I was 17. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seem to be suffering from some of the same fractured focus, but it’s remarkable how well storytellers Tom Waltz, Bobby Curnow, Kevin Eastman and David Wachter compartmentalize each threat tearing at the Turtles.
The issue starts with more of the more obliquely self-destructive things we’ve seen in the pages of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — Casey going to knock the crap out of the Purple Dragons. Waltz doesn’t write the scene with much subtlety, giving everyone at the hideout the most hoary, cliched tough guy dialogue you could imagine. Casey actually says “make me.” That kind of naked projection of machismo would be disappointing if only Wachter wasn’t able to deliver on some frighteningly kinetic violence a few pages later.
I like that top row a lot — every panel suggests a motion either up or down, and we kind of track the action through the swinging of that knife. And that bottom row is just outstanding, with every panel acting as both a visual continuation of the panel that came before it and foreshadowing the panel comes next. The first two of those panels insist on a continuity of both time and space, but the connections get more abstract, until it’s really just the similarly shaped violence that unites these images. But it’s also telling that all of that posturing has gone away in favor of punches and kicks. Casey can’t deal with the hows and whys anymore — he just wants to hurt the people that caused him so much pain.
Mind you, this is all a starting point. The problems the turtles face are myriad, and they’re all starting to feel it. Donatello mentions how far they’re stretched to April and Raph makes a plea to Michelangelo that they can’t handle everything without him. And that’s without either group pairing knowing how Casey is spending his evenings. It’s a lot for these characters to handle, but Waltz is careful to give that overwhelmed feeling it’s own story beat. That’s actually one of the most emotionally effective moments of the whole issue — Raphael and Michelangelo bearing their fears and insecurities to each other. Again, Waltz finds his own strength in silence, letting Mikey keep his mouth shut while Raph makes his case. It’s not a decision for Raph, it’s a decision for Mikey. Just like in the Casey scene above, the visuals tell his story better than words ever could. Wachter draws an adorable Michelangelo, showing him vulnerable in profile, with not even a background to support him.
When the narrative shifts focus away from the Turtles to tell both the on-going and origin stories of Darius Dun, the direction does seem immediately less obvious. With so many balls in the air, do we really have a need to introduce the high school frustrations of the Street Phantoms’ big boss? I mean, y’know, to the extent we need anything.
But I think that scene serves as a final little distraction before the issue’s biggest reveal. Y’see, we’ve been tied up in all these smaller (but still meaningful) emotional beats that we may have been blinded to Splinter’s terrifying ambition. He’s been positioning himself, his clan, his son and their friends to wipe out the Phantoms, but in so doing has put Harold’s life in danger. More than that though, he seems to be sacrificing the trust of his sons (and just as Michelangelo is about to walk back into the fold). That’s the real danger of being stretched too thin — it’s hard to see when one piece of your life starts to fall apart.
Drew, luckily, I don’t think any part of this series is falling apart. This does feel like a pair of surprisingly villainous turns for both Casey and Splinter, but they also came from shockingly honest places. Neither of their self destructive decisions seem unfounded, just unfortunate.
Drew: But there may also be more to them than meets the eye. There’s little doubt that Casey got some sense of satisfaction from beating down the Purple Dragons, but I doubt revenge was his primary motivation. Indeed, I doubt confronting the Purple Dragons was his idea, at all. We know Splinter had a special assignment for Casey, and this sure seems to fit the bill. Of course, we don’t yet know why — is Splinter eliminating competition, or hoping to beat them into servitude? Perhaps there’s a subtler reason we’re not privy to. Either way, the J-cut of Jammer’s question at the end of that dazzling fight sequence — “what’s next?” — seems more than appropriate.
I’m less confident in Splinter’s motive. Right now, his power trip is being played very straight, but there is the possibility that he’s either under the sway of some kind of corrupting influence — perhaps the Rat King is pulling his strings — or that he’s testing the morality of either his sons or the foot at large. Neither would be out of the question for this series, but they’re not nearly as emotionally satisfying. The thought that this is a free choice made by Splinter not only makes it a more profound character moment for him, it also speaks volumes of the family dynamics that drove him to this point.
This series has now explored the influences each of the turtles have on their family by estranging each one of them in kind. This allowed us to get to know each of these characters on their own, but more importantly, it revealed what the family looks like without them. In this case, the family has been deeply lacking for Mikey’s optimism and morality, sending Splinter down a dark path such that he now feels the need to preemptively strike anyone who might threaten the Foot.
Perhaps more importantly, Mikey’s absence has more or less dissolved the notion of the family as an entity. Mikey remarked that their family meeting in the previous issue felt more like a war council, and the brothers were quickly given unique assignments that kept them apart. It’s a logical way to distribute the family’s influence over the breadth of the Foot, but it also spreads that influence decidedly thin, perhaps at the cost of the very relationships that define the family in the first place. It’s no coincidence Splinter’s plan with Harold only comes to light when two of his sons are in the same room with him — their different perspectives are necessary to ask the right questions.
The value of each turtle’s perspective can manifest in surprising ways. Raphael is an unlikely ambassador, but it’s his own experience living alone that allows him to level with Mikey. Indeed, I think that the appeal comes from the gruffest brother makes it all the more moving — if even Raph is saying nice things, they must really miss him. Patrick already included the best beat from that sequence — that profile of Mikey is simply gorgeous — but I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the quality of the acting in that scene.
Wachter’s impeccable sense of motion plays a key role here — the stillness that surrounds Mikey’s sudden embrace of Raphael emphasizes just how sudden it was, which in turn makes the serenity of that final moment feel all the more still. It’s a clever trick that punctuates the connection these brothers have made throughout this scene impeccably.
Patrick, I’m with you in feeling a bit overwhelmed with all of the players in this series — even the ones that don’t appear in the issue hang over the proceedings like a ghost — but I’m also with you in feeling like it’s holding together just fine. I mean, any series that can pause for a moment like that between Mikey and Raph can’t really be running away with itself, can it? Perhaps I’m just in awe of the scope of this series, which seems just as comfortable flipping between an ever-growing cast as it is focusing on a few key players. One feeling remains constant throughout all of that: I can’t wait to see what happens next.
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?