Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Universe 9

Today, Taylor and Patrick are discussing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Universe 9, originally released April 26th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.

Taylor: When news broke a little while ago that Hayao Miyazaki was coming out of retirement to make a new movie, people were understandably excited. Miyazaki’s movies have developed a cult-like following over the years, and the promise of new material is sure to arouse the interest of even the most casual Miyazaki fan. Part of what draws people to Miyazaki’s work is the beautiful animation in each film, but perhaps a bigger draw is the surreal, fairy tale world Miyazaki creates in each of his stories. These worlds are often dark, weird, mysterious and funny, so it’s easy to see why we are enchanted by them time and time again. TMNT Universe 9 almost certainly takes some cues from Miyazaki films, and does it so damn well that the issue is just as enthralling as any film put out by the legendary master.

Alopex and Angel are at April’s parents’ Northampton farm. Having recently freed herself from Kitsune’s snare, Alopex is enjoying the quiet freedom from ninjas, mutants, and teenagers down state in Manhattan. Angel is along for the ride to support her friend. A lazy boat ride quickly goes awry when they are swallowed by a giant  toad and transported to magical party dimension.

This weird domain Alopex and Angel find themselves in is nothing short of astonishing. Everywhere they go, our two heroes see one sight that is stranger than the last. There is something to be said for the slow paced storytelling Sophie Campbell (this time writing words!) employs in introducing us to this new world. Campbell is a patient writer and lets the story unfold at a cinematic pace. Instead of being told about this new dimension, Campbell is content to show it to us.

Being shown owls dressed as dandies, flying fish, toad chefs, and humans worshiping weird statues does more to establish the oddity of this world than any words could. Campbell is an established artist herself, and its clear here that she understands the importance of telling stories visually, like in the panels above. The similarities seen between these scenes and that in a Miyazaki film are clear: even though everyone is doing normal things in each panel, each is bizarre and slightly terrifying in a unique way. Miyazaki perfected this juxtaposition of the normal and the weird and Campbell has proven herself adept in following in his footsteps.

Of course all of these panels wouldn’t nearly as effective if not for the stunning art of Pablo Tunica. In this issue, Tunica takes the prompts that were given to him by Campbell and takes them to a stunning place on each page. The detail he includes in each panel, especially in the Toad Baron’s realm, is a feast for the eyes. One has only to look at the below panel to get what I’m talking about.

Included in this panel are dozens of creatures all going about their business in this Den of Delights. Each of these creatures clearly distinguishes itself from its neighbors and the resulting image is one that is a delight for the senses. I can only imagine the time it took to not only draw this one panel, but also design all of these creatures. That the result is a scene that looks lively, as opposed to chaotic, makes the scene all the more impressive. It’s easy to understand how a team of artists can come up with so many unique creatures in a Miyazaki film, but for one person to do it all by himself is just astounding. The imagination required for this full page spread is staggering and makes for the highlight of the issue.

But really, it’s the teamwork between Campbell and Tunica that makes this issue work so well. Early on in the issue it’s clear the two are in sync during a conversation between Alopex and Angel. When Alopex says she may never return to New York, Angel reminds her of Raphael and their budding romance, when a delightful exchange takes place.

The pause between Angel and Alopex in the second panel is wonderfully comic and it’s delightful to watch Alopex just sit there and smolder for a second. Again, it seems that Campbell has an excellent sense of when to let Tunica’s art do the talking. Tunica rewards Campbell’s trust time and time again in this issue, taking every opportunity to display his skill. The acting we see on both Alopex and Angel’s faces is spot on and conveys the subtle humor of this scene extremely well.

Partick! I was blown-away by this issue. Like a Miyazaki film, I felt utterly transported while I was reading it. Did you get that same sense? Do you have any thoughts on the newest Pantheon member, the Toad Baron? It seems like he and Michelangelo might get on really well. You know, the whole “party dude” thing. Do you agree?

Patrick: The key difference between Mikey and The Toad Baron, is that Mikey’s partying is non compulsory. Michelangelo is never going to insist that people who just want to leave stay and party with him — he’s got more emotional intelligence than that. But that’s a great connection for some kind of future story: both Mikey and Toad Baron seek pleasure, but their methods and end-goals are grotesquely different.

And actually, any promise of future Toad Baron makes me excited! The Pantheon is one of those huge question marks that hangs over this series — we’re not really clear on their origin or why they’re so entangled with our characters. Every time we get another piece of information about them, it casts the world of TMNT in a completely different light. I mean, Shredder is a menacing force, but he’s downright diabolical when you realize he has the unconditional backing of one of these beings. Toad Baron fleshes out that mythology in a way that Rat King and Aka never could — by insisting that there’s more to these characters than “fuckin’ with mortals.” All of which is to say: I love the Toad Baron.

And Taylor’s totally correct to draw Miyazaki comparisons — Tunica draws Toad Baron with Studio Ghibli’s trademark blend of adorable and grotesque.

That design is basically perfect. A full set of teeth in a frog’s mouth is almost always going to be enough to put me on edge, but his billowing red cloak, dangly bracelets, and bird-like legs all combine to make a fully-arresting collection of images. He’s the weirdness of the Pleasure Den distilled into one character.

Of course, Tunica is also adept at broadening that weirdness to a macro level, even letting it dictate the form of the issue itself. First of all, there are froggy hints on the very first page of the issue — Alopex kicks one off her rock for disturbing her meditation, effectively expressing the entirety of the theme four panels in.

And while that’s astonishing efficiency, I wanted to focus on the formal weirdness that letter Shawn Lee introduces with that first setting box. “Northampton.” We may not actually need this location information, right? Whether we know exactly where our heroes are, we intrinsically understand where they are not: they’re not in New York City. But thing that strikes me as odd — and which already sets the reader off on slightly strange footing — is that the caption box is slightly obscured by one of the trees in the foreground. It’s not huge, but the simple act of reading the first word printed in this story forces the reader contend with something that is not quite right.

Tunica quietly subverts a handful of storytelling best-practices, giving the pacing of the issue a funky gait every time we’re supposed to be asking the question “hey, wait, what’s going on here?” A lot of his pages end with panels bleeding into the gutters on the bottom and/or right side of the page — a common technique to encourage the reader’s eye forward. But there are a number of times Tunica reverses this, pulling the reader’s eye down and to the left. It is beautifully irregular, and paired with Toad Baron’s endless dance party, suggests a waltz-y weirdness that couldn’t be accomplished by Miyazaki-esque designs alone. Here’s an example: Alopex and Angel discover some… oddly proportioned flowers in the lake. Tunica tags it with one of these awkward, leftward footsteps.

waltz-y pacing

Taylor, I’ll agree that this team is a match made in TMNT heaven. As far as I’m concerned, Campbell owns Alopex, and she should write and draw as much of the character as much as humanly possible. She’s found a great ally in Tunica, who appears to be taking Campbell’s cues on the cuteness of Alopex’ design, while embracing a totally compelling artistry of his own. It’s also worth noting that Bobby Curnow, editor for this and the main TMNT series, shares a writing credit with Campbell — which just serves to emphasize how strong and important the whole Ninja Turtle team is at IDW.

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?

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