The Visual Language of History and Myth in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Universe 13

by Patrick Ehlers

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

When we talk about character perspectives, we’re usually referring to lens crafted by their specific values, experiences, passions, fears — their view on the world. It is telling that I’m not able truly able to define perspective without using two different metaphors for perception (“lens” and “view”). Sophie Campbell and Erik Burnham’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Universe 13 continues to explore Karai’s perspective, presenting it almost entirely visually, letting the reader draw their own cultural connections.

This issue also finds us at a fascinating intersection of medium and subject. Karai sees herself as an integral link between the the Foot Clan’s past and its future, and with that, a continuation of the history of Japan. We’re introduced to her little fetch-quest through a flashback/history lesson about Kublai Kahn leading the Mongols in invading Japan in the thirteenth century. Campbell and Burnham are tapping into an actual event from Japanese history, including the specific battle where a small group of samurai were able to fend off an enormous Mongol force until reinforcements arrived. Beyond that, Campbell taps into modes of ancient Japanese graphical presentation, combining the staging of the Mōko Shūrai Ekotaba with the graceful inky lines of Japanese calligraphy. Simply put, this is what Japanese history looks like.

Obviously, that’s not literally what it looked like, but Campbell does a stellar job of presenting how the event could have been preserved for the ages. The story has fantastical elements — Chi You (last seen in the Burnham-penned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Ghostbusters mini series) and a magic sword — but both of those elements are folded so effortlessly into what we already know about Karai’s life and experience in this world. Campbell also gives us this dark red accent color, which rapidly represents several different things: loss, hope, redemption. The red is the whole story of the Mongol invasion.

And the next time we see that kind of abstraction, we see the return of that red accent, now with even more visual baggage heaped on top of it.

Throughout both this issue and the previous, there are a handful of small circular panels that draw the reader’s attention to whatever Karai is focusing on, and when she meditates to clear her head, we get that same technique again. Combining the red of the Kublai Kahn story with Karai’s focus circles, Campbell effectively plants Karai in the middle of the Japanese flag. This is how Karai sees herself — a product of both the history and mythology of Japan, and an important part of its future.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

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