By Drew Baumgartner and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Drew: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have always been the perfect outcasts in a medium made for outcasts. Well, saying that comics were “made” for outcasts isn’t entirely accurate, but it certainly had become a medium for outcasts — at least in the US — by the time the turtles were invented in the 1980s. We don’t really need to get into the causality of why comics fandom was perceived as a weird thing — the point is that it was. And in the age before the internet, someone with a “weird” hobby or enthusiasm for some obscure piece of pop culture might not know anyone else like themselves. While the rest of the world could connect over their religion, political party, or even local sports team, the average comics reader in 1984 might not have had anyone they knew who shared their interest. I don’t bring this up to pity the lot of the poor comics fan — heaven knows plenty of people were more isolated and actively persecuted — just to say that themes of not fitting in have always been an essential part of the TMNT makeup. This is a point that Erik Burnham and Sophie Campbell clearly understand, as their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Universe finds several characters seeking their place in the world.
The most obvious is Karai — this arc is called “Karai’s Path,” after all — whose sense of legacy and honor had left her without any direction four issues ago. That same sense of honor connects her to Natsu, who abandoned her own legacy in order to do what she thought was right. Indeed, while Karai agrees that she and Natsu will go their separate ways upon return to Tokyo, the end of the issue suggests that they may be working together on a more permanent basis. Perhaps those shared values make this a connection worth keeping?
I promise I’ll get back to Karai in a moment, but that idea — that outcasts are inclined to seek each other out and keep each other around — is also essential to the TMNT mythos. It’s what makes the turtles relationships to one another and their human companions work. These are all characters with strong personalities, who might seek out other companions if there were other companions to seek out, but they’re kind of stuck with one another. That doesn’t sound super empowering, but I think it reflects the comic shop culture of the mid-1980s (and to this day, honestly); the scarcity of people who understands your interest means you’re under some pressure to make otherwise unlikely friendships work. It’s an idea that is so present in IDW’s version of the turtles, even the villains are getting in on the action.
All of which is to say, as Karai’s band of misfits continues to grow, she finds new direction in building a ninja clan from the ground up, promising to return to New York. That puts her on an eventual collision course with the Turtles, but Koya’s own journey suggests more immediate action.
Actually, it’s possible Koya will have the patience to wait until Karai’s new clan heads to New York, but we can’t rule out that she’ll crop up sooner. Her insistence on vengeance may seem petty in light of her newfound ability to fly — being unable to fly was what she was so upset about in the first place — but it reflects Karai’s own decision to shoot Natsu in the shoulder just to be even. These characters may be able to overcome their setbacks, but they’re not going to forget who set them back in the first place
Speaking of that moment, I feel compelled to bring up Campbell’s use of the “third eye” throughout this arc. We’ve seen plenty of characters bear that motif in moments of power, but in this issue, it’s just Koya in that moment and Karai in this one:
I don’t know enough about Zen Buddhism to comment on the broader spiritual implications of this imagery, but I’m struck at how much its popular conception as “the mind’s eye” resembles Bludgeon’s newfound “radar sense” (for lack of a better term). These characters might all be more connected than it initially seems.
Of course, no discussion of an issue Campbell works on would be complete without some mention of the art, which is stunning as always. I’m always enamored of Campbell’s charming character designs — Natsu’s softie-trying-to-look-tough look tugs at my heartstrings — but this issue had me marveling at Campbell’s black and white (and red) artwork, channelling the earliest days of the turtles. This happens only briefly (but no less strikingly) in the main story, but Campbell cuts loose in the back-up, unleashing a whole slew of drybrush and watercolor effects that add an extra dimension of texture.
Campbell reserves these techniques only for the most spiritual moments, heightening their otherworldliness. It’s breathtaking stuff that demonstrates just how versatile an artist she truly is.
Man, Patrick, this issue managed to stir up a lot of feelings for me, and managed to fully win me over to Karai’s side before she started doing anything truly monstrous. I know I had similar feelings with Shredder at times in the main series (and the other spin-off series he appeared in), which has me feeling like Karai might actually have filled his shoes in my mind. Has she gotten anywhere near Shredder status for you?
Patrick: She may have surpassed it. What Karai has, and what is bestowed upon her by the Kira No Ken, is a simplicity of design that Shredder never had. Drew already pulled my favorite pair of panels from the issue: the moment the red of the cursed blade manifests itself in the character herself. It’s possible that what I’m responding to isn’t the design aesthetic of Karai, so much as it is the design aesthetic of the sword. Hell, I get the feeling on the first page that Campbell and colorist Brittany Peer are trying to show us that this issue is about the Kira No Ken.
Drew’s not wrong to point out the repeated third eye imagery throughout this arc, but the accompanying circular panels that have been so prevalent elsewhere in Campbell and Burnham’s run are scarce here. We do have one circle on this page — it’s an insert-panel and it appears to fall behind Karai’s head rather than contain it. By contrast, in that same larger panel, is the end of blade resting in a wide rectangular panel. It’s a shape and a color we’ve already got three examples of on this page before getting to the circle vs. rectangle moment. The circle can represent Karai’s ambition or her focus or perspective — something personal and driving. Those circles will come back in the end, but always undercut by either the redness of the sword, its long rectangular panel, or both.
The red also makes for a handy trigger for grotesque violence, which is precisely what Peer is foreshadowing in the image above. This team makes maximum use of that, dropping out all other color in moments of extreme violence, as when Koya, Bludgeon and Ocho really lay into Hayashi Toru’s goons. Burnham turns up the violence in Ocho’s rhetoric straight to 10 with the crystal clear “Don’t talk. KILL! KILL EVERYTHING.” And that “kill everything” panel is really the height of stylized craftsmanship from nearly everyone involved. Peer strips away not only all colors besides back, white and red, but also all shading and lighting. Letterer Shawn Lee starts to break his speech balloons on the previous page, exaggerating the size of Ocho’s words, before finally popping the balloons here.
It makes “KILL EVERYTHING” almost look like it’s a sound effect!
One more example of the visual power of that red sword and then, I swear, I’ll leave it alone. When Karai approaches the door to Toru’s panic room, he’s talking such a good game about how impenetrable his security is. The door, it would seem, cannot be broken down, and Karai will have to finish this with greater effort at a later time. But the sharp angles of that scarlet blade don’t obey the rules of decorum that govern the Yakuza. What follows is like a cool, graceful version of that scene at the beginning of Phantom Menace as Karai’s blade slices a clean, angular portal through the impenetrable door.
When Karai kicks out that triangle insert, the inside edges of the door are glowing red. Is it hot? Or just marked with might of the Kira No Ken?
The mythology coming out of this arc in TMNT Universe is so rich, I absolutely cannot wait to see it spill out into the main series. Especially if all of these striking visual cues come along with them. Neither of us really touched on Ocho’s hulking design, which is horrific and ancient in its own way, but I feel like we’re hurting for a giant bruiser in the main series at the moment. It’s quite the ensemble, which I believe was Drew’s point all along.
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?