Today, Taylor and Drew are discussing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 64, originally released November 23rd, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Taylor: On any given day I feel like I know the people who are close to me. I know my girlfriend, my friends, and my family in a way that makes me feel like I truly understand them. While this holds true on most days, every so often I am surprised by a sudden thought or action by these people who I thought I knew. Maybe it’s a sudden fit of passion or a change of previously held beliefs, but on occasion I look at the people I know and wonder — who are you? At times like these I’m acutely aware of our inability to truly know another person, and that realization is at once terrifying and exciting. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 64 captures this feeling perfectly, but it comes at the expense of contradicting long established character development.
The Foot Clan, including the Turtles and the Purple Dragons, are launching an all out assault on Darius Dun’s compound to rescue Harold and put an end to the Street Phantom Gang. During this battle, cloaked feelings and secret agendas come to light that threaten to destabilize the network of alliances the Turtles have built.
The first, and most significant, alliance that threatens to crumble is that between Splinter and his own sons. For several issues it has become apparent that Splinter, as head of the Foot Clan, is taking actions which contradict the strict moral code the Turtles live by. In issue 64, the tension caused by Splinter’s actions comes to a head when he executes Darius Dun for not surrendering all of his gang’s assets. The Turtles are horrified by this sudden violence and quickly disavow Splinter and the Foot Clan.
This sudden turn for Splinter comes as a shock to the Turtles and to me as well. Ever since the reboot of this series 64 issues ago, Splinter has been developed as a character who is kind, wise, and loyal to his family. That he would kill an unarmed man without reason defies literally everything I, and the Turtles, have come to expect from the character and contradicts everything we have come to know about Splinter over the course of this series. However, there is a reason for Splinter’s actions, as Leonardo finds out.
The revelation that Splinter killed Dun to drive his sons away from him in order to protect them, is a dark turn for a character who previously was so warm. There is a cold logic to Splinter’s actions here and that’s perhaps the most disturbing part of his actions. If he will kill to powerless men to protect his family, what else will he do? This seems to hint at a dark side to Splinter that I — or the Turtles for that matter — never knew was there. That’s a scary reminder that there are always depths to people’s souls we will never know, no matter how much time we spend with them.
I can’t help but feel Splinter’s turn comes at a cost, though. Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz, and Bobby Curnow have literally spent years crafting Splinter’s character and, suddenly, all of that hard work seems for naught. True, Splinter’s execution of Dun is surprising, but it makes me question all of the character development that came before this instant. A similar issue crops up in this issue when Libby suddenly turns from evil lackey to Harold’s savior when she confesses her undying love for him.
In the last issue she was the jealous and spurned partner who had abandoned Harold but now she’s fallen for Harold again. The reason for this? She was impressed with how he yelled at Dun and escaped his cell. Granted, we don’t know Libby as well as Splinter, but this turn seems sudden and not at all genuine. If the point is to show that Libby is a layered character with conflicting emotions, there is room for growth here, but the writers have taken an awful risk in this issue by choosing this path. As with Splinter, a sudden character change can be jarring (in a good way) but it doesn’t pay dividends in later issues; it’s a risk that won’t pay off.
Despite all of this character work, issue 64 does all contain a fair amount of action! There are numerous highlights to the issue but one page that really caught my eye was when the Turtles battle the Street Phantoms in a stairway. Artist David Wachter wonderfully illustrates this encounter.
Watcher has brilliantly used the dimensions of the typical comic book page to create a sense of vertical space in this stairwell. Comic pages are taller than they are wide, and Wachter structures his panels on this page in a way that uses this height to emphasize the tall, narrow feeling of a stairwell. Five of the seven panels here are taller than they are wide, and this effectively conveys the claustrophobic feeling one gets when in a stairwell inside a highrise. In addition, in almost all of the panels, Wachter angels the camera either up or down. This gives the sense that we are either looking up or down at the action in panel just as if we were in the stairwell looking at the action above or below us. Overall, it’s a nice page highlights Wachter’s continued fine work on this series.
Drew, how did you like this issue? Again, I found a lot of the character actions incongruent with their previously established traits. Do you feel the same way? Also, where do the Turtles and Splinter go from here?
Drew: It’s interesting; I don’t feel the same way at all. To me, the killing of Darius Dun so thoroughly evoked the killing of Shredder — an act that I previously wouldn’t have thought Splinter capable of — that it felt less like a jarring change of character than it did confirm a pattern of behavior. But that may be exactly why it’s so disturbing.
Mikey was so horrified back when that happened that he isolated himself from the family for fear of the monster he thought Splinter had become. The rest of the Turtles gave Splinter the benefit of the doubt, believing that the extraordinary circumstances surrounding their conflict with Shredder justified Splinter’s extraordinary actions. In their minds (and those of the readers), Splinter wasn’t a killer, but a kind, peaceable mentor driven to kill in defense of his family. Mikey was still skeptical of this interpretation of events — don’t forget that Splinter had already defeated Shredder before he killed him — but was willing to give his father another chance for the sake of his family. Splinter’s actions here confirm Mikey’s worst fears, finally proving them to his brothers.
Which is to say, I think this version of Splinter was always there, but, like Leo, Donnie, and Raph, we didn’t want to see it. We wanted to believe that there was some other explanation for Splinter’s secret, wheels-within-wheels machinations, or even his sudden interest in going on the offensive, but it seems the most logical (though hurtful) explanation is the logical one: Splinter’s goals and values are not what we had assumed them to be. Actually, I’ll leave room for a reveal that Splinter is playing at an even bigger game — I suspect the impending showdown with Kitsune may have motivated Splinter to gather resources while he could — but I think we’ve definitely crossed an ends-justifying-means threshold. “No killing” has been Mikey’s rule from the start, and there’s no real justifying it this time.
I was definitely less convinced of Libby’s reversal, but I think it actually stands as an important contrast to Splinter’s non-reversal. That is, Libby’s decision to abandon Harold is similar to Splinter’s decision to kill Splinter — either can be read as a mistake or as an indictment of their character. Where the killing of Darius Dun confirms that Splinter is a killer, Libby’s appeal to Harold confirms that she regretted her decision. Again, I have to leave room for the possibility that there may be more at work here than we understand yet, but I actually found that beat to ring true.
But, I did struggle a bit more with Harold’s flat-out rejection of the Turtles. Harold has always been prickly and maintained a distance from the Turtles, but he spent the better part of the last two issues praising the loyalty of his friends, so it feels off that he would offer none in return. Obviously, Libby’s reversal and injury has brought his emotions to the edge, so he may regret that decision, too, but it didn’t quite feel like the mentality the previous issues had established. I certainly think he’ll regret the logic of blaming this on the Turtles — it actually is kind of Splinter’s fault (though Harold doesn’t know that), but surely Libby is partially to blame for getting mixed up with Dun in the first place. Maybe Harold will only see that if and when Libby turns out to by lying, but I would have thought his dispassionate logic would save him from these kinds of mistakes.
And I suppose that’s what my defense of all of the developments of this issue come down to: the characters being given the freedom to make mistakes. That’s basic comics hero writing, but few series actually put so much at stake so regularly. This isn’t Peter Parker missing another date with MJ — the core characters and relationships of this series hang in the balance. Our characters have defined personalities, but they also have interior lives we don’t fully understand and the capability to mess things up unintentionally. That makes their decisions sometimes confusing or even frustrating, but it also makes them true to life. As always, that’s a remarkable feat in a series about mutant ninja reptiles, but I’ll be damned if the creative team doesn’t continue to stick these landings.
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