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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – The Ultimate Collection Vol. 5

tmnt vol5It’s been a long break in between posts about this subject. So long that I’d rather not point it out any further! At long last though I have finally finished reading fifth volume of The Ultimate Collection, a line of hardbound, oversized, compendiums of comic books spanning the Eastman and Laird era of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Mirage Comics. The volumes are published by current TMNT comic publisher IDW and are presented in their original black and white appearance with new artwork by Kevin Eastman used for the back and front cover. Both Eastman and TMNT co-creator Peter Laird provide thoughts and reactions following each issue as they provide insight into their thought process and elaborate on where an idea may have come from.

This fifth volume is essentially the finale to this series, though two additional volumes follow. This one wraps up the City at War arc (issues #56-62) which was basically the grand finale for Eastman and Laird. At this point, they already had stopped drawing and inking the books and had moved onto managing the brand more than anything. These seven issues were originally published in 1993 when TMNT was past its peak, but still very much a money-maker. Artist Jim Lawson had basically taken over all of the pencil duties and was even contributing to the story at this point. Keith Aiken and Jason Temujin Minor handled the inking while Eric Talbot did the tones and Mary Kelleher the lettering.

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Karai has arrived and is ready to make her move.

In case you haven’t read my write-up on Volume 4, City at War tells the tale of the Turtles returning to New York to find that the Foot Clan has split into various competing factions with the loss of Shredder. Karai, leader of the Foot Clan in Japan, has arrived to clean things up and she’s targeting the heroes in a half shell who are currently holed up in an abandoned water tower. Splinter is injured and trapped by the Rat King, making his mainline debut. Meanwhile, April is off living in LA with her sister Robyn while Casey is engaged to a pregnant woman named Gabe and trying to start a new life himself after giving up on chasing April.

I found many of the issues in Volume 4 of this collection to be long and slow. It didn’t help that I wasn’t enamored with Jim Lawson’s take on the Turtles and I was badly missing the art of Eastman and Laird. Even though their art was often rough and had an amateurish quality at times, it was a good fit for the property and it was also improving. It was rewarding to see that maturation take place right before my eyes.

For this round of issues, my enthusiasm is much higher. It gets right to the point with the revelation of who is holding Splinter captive and also has Karai spring her Foot ninja on the Turtles early. This sets up the main conflict which is Karai’s wish to take out Shredder’s remaining Foot Elite, and she wants the Turtles to help. There’s a good scene of the brothers debating the merits of jumping back into the fray. They acknowledge, for the first time, that a lot of the violence is the result of their lost master’s quest for revenge. They were born to avenge Splinter, and they were successful, but their actions have not lead to a better New York for anyone. It’s a really introspective look at the Turtles and not something I was expecting. My only disappointment is that it didn’t eventually lead to a conversation on the subject with Splinter himself.

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Splinter goes through some real shit in these books.

For April, these issues also bring her back to New York. Her father passes away suddenly forcing her and her sister to come to New York for the services. Once there, she decides to stay, and it’s only a matter of time until her path crosses with her old friends. For Casey, tragedy brings him back as well in a rather bold way. The writing for him isn’t as strong as it is for the Turtles, but it still covers subject matter I wasn’t really expecting. For Splinter, he spends much of his time in a delirium and his sequences are pretty visceral. I am not sure what the overall message is supposed to be with Splinter, I guess they wanted him to embrace his primal side at the expense of his learned humanity. It was interesting though and it was nice to finally care about Splinter.

As would be expected from a title with the word “war” in it, there’s a lot of action across these pages. This is where Lawson gets to shine as an artist. His style seems to improve throughout and by the time I made it to the end I was onboard with his Turtles. He is able to convey movement so well and some of the detail work is gorgeous. This is easily a much nicer book to look at than the previous one, and Lawson is the main force behind that.

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I was way more into the artwork this time around and a lot had to do with the brilliant sequencing by Jim Lawson.

The story is a pretty satisfying one, though the ending is a bit unexpected. This is possibly the best arc Mirage ever tackled and much of the good stuff is contained in these issues. I am definitely glad I finally got around to going through it, even if I’ve had it since it was released. Eastman and Laird don’t provide too much in their comments. Eastman is at least good at setting the mood and placing the reader back in 1993. After that, he mostly just gushes about the talent involved in this project. Laird is a bit more critical and willing to point out things that didn’t work, though ultimately he just plain has very little to say.

A sixth volume in this set was released following this one, but it’s just one-shots and short stories not done by Eastman and Laird. A seventh volume is supposedly on the way as well which is basically going to be an art book. If you’re like me and just wanted to experience the original creators’ interpretation of these characters, then the five volumes are the only ones you need to concern yourself with. I’m not sure if any are still in print, but they have yet to become expensive to acquire. This is a good gift for any Turtle-loving person in your life. Though I feel obligated to point out that these stories are intended for mature audiences as these aren’t the pizza-loving dudes from the cartoons, but chances are if you’re even interested in these works you’re well aware of that fact.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 4

1336705It’s been hard for me to find the time to sit down at the computer and contribute to this blog since becoming a dad in the spring of 2015. It has become especially hard as my offspring has learned to crawl, and then walk. Even so, that event occurred well after I posted my review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  The Ultimate Collection Vol. 3 in January 2013. Hopefully, no one has been sitting around waiting for this post since then, but at long last, I’m finally getting around to reviewing volume 4 of The Ultimate Collection.

For the uninitiated, The Ultimate Collection is a five volume set of hardcover, oversized comic book compilations chronicling the early years for the TMNT and collecting only the works of their original creators:  Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The comics are presented in their original black and white with new cover art and liner notes by both creators. As someone who primarily experienced the Turtles as a kid via the cartoon and the films, I wanted to get this collection to experience firsthand the genesis of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

If you go back and read my review of Volume 3, you will notice I apparently took a long time in getting to that one as well. That was due to my lack of enthusiasm towards the product. For Volume 4, much is the same, unfortunately. Though I should point out right off the bat that Volume 4 is a better read than 3 as it compiles the last major arc of the original run:  City at War. Volume 3 concluded with the re-death of The Shredder and Volume 4 picks up right where that one left off with the two-part Shades of Gray plot commencing in Issue 48. This volume runs in perfect continuity as it contains issues 48-55 as it represents a point in time where Eastman and Laird both had a renewed interest in the comic and a desire to put a finishing touch, of sorts, on everything before going their separate ways.

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This encounter ends up making a large impact on Casey Jones.

Shades of Gray focuses on the Return to New York fallout and takes stock of where all of the main characters are presently at, in terms of their frame of mine. The Turtles return back to North Hampton but intend to return to New York after consulting with Splinter. Splinter is not coming with them, and Donatello wrestles with where his place is. Meanwhile, Casey is returning to his vigilante routes and accidentally takes a life in self defense, which gets the attention of Nobody, another vigilante introduced in the Tales of TMNT stories. Casey is spared, with some help from the Turtles, but is a wreck in the aftermath. April is also shown as lost and decides she needs to leave, especially with Casey being so distant. There’s some nice attention paid to Donatello as the story succeeds in giving his character a little more color than usual and he and Casey have a poignant encounter in the woods nearby.

Shades of Gray is basically a setup for City at War as it sets all of the characters out in new directions. April, searching for a fresh start, heads west to LA where her older sister Robyn resides. The Turtles head to New York, and Casey resolves to go after April after he clears his head. City at War also welcomes back Eastman and Laird to the artist’s chair for issue 1. Aside from that though, all of the pencils are handled by Jim Lawson in this collection. Eastman and Laird’s crowded, cross-hatching heavy art lends itself well to the congested city setting and their take on the Turtles is a welcomed return. Their still pretty amateurish when it comes to illustrating the human characters, in particular April, but overall I enjoy their artwork the most in this collection. It’s a shame it’s only for one issue.

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City at War Part 1 marks the return of Eastman and Laird as artists.

The City at War arc is primarily focused on the Turtles and their place in the New York community. They take on a Batman like role upon their initial return which frustrates Raph. The other brothers confide in one another that they’re unsure of what their place is and Leo has the hardest time with it and struggles with his role as leader for much of the collection. Meanwhile, the Foot Clan is in disarray and has splintered off into multiple factions. We see a rag-tag group of the ninjas mostly making trouble, but also a more sophisticated faction that targets the others financially via cyber warfare. And then there’s the Japan faction which is teased throughout the entire collection. They’re lead by Karai, who finally reaches New York by issue 55, but her presence isn’t felt until Volume 5. The Foot Elite are also around making trouble, and their allegiance is unclear. One encounter seems to place their allegiance still firmly with their deceased master making them a chaotic force simply out for revenge. It’s also unclear how large their numbers are, but considering they’re the elite force, probably few.

April’s adventures in LA are shown and they’re dull by comparison. Her scenarios often retread familiar ground as she still feels lost and without a home even with her sister and her sister’s young son. Robyn is the foil who tries to get April to loosen up, have fun, meet a guy, and so on. She humors her sister, to a point, and shows some genuine enthusiasm in the upcoming Christmas celebration she’ll be able to share with her sister, but not a lot happens.

Casey, on the other hand, gets sidetracked out in New Mexico when his truck gets stolen. He falls in with a waitress named Gabby, and the two quickly become an item. When Gabby confesses to Casey that she’s four months pregnant, he seems to find some new purpose for himself. The scenes between the two are hard to get a read on as Casey becomes consumed by this new role for himself. Does he genuinely have feelings for Gabby or is he too just looking for some new purpose for himself? Someone to take care of and protect?

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AC Fairly handles the covers and he prefers a “chunky” kind of turtle that I’m not particularly fond of.

It hurts that Eastman and Laird aren’t the most gifted storytellers or script writers. There’s a lot of groan-inducing dialogue, some intentional as Casey is basically a lunkhead, throughout the two more grounded arcs. The parts with the Turtles have minimal dialogue at times. It is frustrating to see, that after such a strong character-driven opening with Shades of Gray, that the Turtles mostly return to their personality-less roles for City at War. Only Leo and Raph are given room to show-off their personalities, which has become a reoccurring problem for the books as a whole. Mikey is the most criminally overlooked as his comic book counterpart has almost no defining characteristics beyond his weapons. Perhaps it was an unintentional reaction to his oversized personality everywhere else that Eastman and Laird chose to keep the spotlight away from him.

Not to be forgotten, is the Splinter arc which is mostly small, but contains a nice reveal at its end in this collection. Another Tales of TMNT character makes their main-line debut and one that is familiar to longtime TMNT fans. The setup is done well and I really enjoyed the brief depiction of this character. Hopefully it pays off in Volume 5.

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Lawson’s version of the Turtles is not one of my favorites.

As I mentioned before, Jim Lawson handles almost all of the pencils in this collection and it was the reason I grew so disinterested in the volume to begin with. I do not enjoy his take on the Turtles. They’re blocky and his art is sometimes sloppy. I’m mostly okay with his April, even if she seems to not have any of the physical traits of the Eastman and Laird version, and his Casey is fine. His backgrounds are a lot less crowded which works for some of the action scenes but sometimes there’s an emptiness to them. Perhaps the over-sized format draws more attention to all of the white space. He does have some awkward transitions where he tries to convey too much motion on one page, but at least he’s not beholden to the traditional panel approach. There’s also an overuse of splash pages in issues 54 and 55 that feel like filler. Even Laird admits in the liner notes he’s not sure why they went with so many. Lawson’s art does shine some in issue 54 when he gets to depict a cloaked Mikey in the snow. For some reason, the snow is abandoned in the following issue. I guess they had a heat wave.

The cover art and some of the interior art is new and handled by Eastman. It’s in line with the other collections, though not my favorite. I think the back cover would have been better off as the front as it depicts the Turtles surrounded by Foot Ninjas which is a nice representation of what’s contained inside. Otherwise though, it’s fine. The liner notes feel more substantial here as well, especially from Laid. Eastman is still too in love with everything they did while Laird is a little more critical. The quality of the set is once again very high and there’s little to complain about there. The pages are nice and thick and the whole set has a nice weight to it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles continues to be a mostly action-oriented affair. The attempts at actual story-telling work better here than they did in some of the other issues, but a lot of it is also cliche and amateurish. No one picks up a TMNT comic expecting Shakespeare though, and there are some genuinely good bits of character development contained in these issues. I just wish they had a better artist.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection – Vol. 2

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 2

There was a time in my life when I thought I was done with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  They had dominated my childhood, but come the early 90’s I had mostly moved on.  I still had a soft spot for them, but their cartoon had become too predictable, the toy lines too ridiculous, and I was already on to my next obsession.  When the television show moved to CBS’s new Saturday morning block the studio revamped it, giving it a darker look in an attempt to mature the series to better appeal to changing tastes.  It didn’t last long in this new format, and the Turtles began to fade away from the mainstream.  In 1997 Fox and Saban Entertainment brought the four-some back for a new live action show, possibly to try to appeal to fans of the Power Rangers, but the show only lasted one season and 26 episodes before being cancelled.

The Turtles mostly vanished from television after the cancellation of The Next Mutation.  It seemed like they were now destined to become just a memory of a silly era where anthropomorphic characters were all over the place in children’s programming.  Something people in the future would look back on and say, “What were they thinking?”  Then a funny thing happened, and the Turtles were suddenly relevant again.

It all started with Fox and 4Kids Entertainment revitalizing the franchise thru a new cartoon developed in collaboration with Peter Laird’s Mirage Studios (by this point in time, co-creator Kevin Eastman wasn’t involved with the TMNT) that premiered on Fox’s Saturday morning cartoon block in early 2003.  Simply titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this new series adapted the original Mirage comics more faithfully then its predecessors while still keeping the show appropriate for younger viewers.  The Turtles had an edgier appearance with blank eyes and a more lean appearance.  Each one had a personality mirroring the ones from the original comic.  Really, the only holdover from the wildly popular 80’s cartoon was the unique bandana color for each turtle.  At times, the show almost directly paralleled the old books before the creators started to branch out and do their own thing, but the show worked and the Turtles were once again relevant.  This helped get a new movie green-lit that was eventually released in 2007, titled TMNT, and has helped keep the franchise alive to this day.  Now the Turtles are owned by Nickelodeon with IDW handling the new comic book line.  A new show and a bunch of new toys (including these awesome retro themed ones) are slated for release later this year in addition to the ongoing comic run now headed by Eastman.  Along the way, IDW has chosen to give the old fans some new collections to thumb thru, and my old Turtle-fandom is back in full-force!

Michaelangelo’s solo issue, featuring the debut of Klunk the cat.

I already talked about IDW’s first release of collected works, and now I’m ready to talk about Volume 2.  Volume 2 is another high-quality release and contains issues 8-11 of the original run, plus the micro issue one-shots for Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo.  The cover contains new artwork done by Eastman, though it confusingly includes the Triceratons and Fugitioid who don’t appear in this collection, but looks nice.  The interior has been enhanced to a larger size, like the first volume, and is kept in its original black and white.  Each issue is followed by reflections from both Eastman and Laird.  For this collection, Laird has contributed more thoughts and it looks like he was a more active participant.  It’s particularly interesting to read the comments for the later issues when the two discuss their fraying relationship with each other.  Neither guy takes shots at one another, and both come across as sincere when they express their disappointment for how things turned out.

The issues covered by this collection essentially wrap-up the original run of the books.  After issue #11, more people were brought on board and Eastman and Laird didn’t really work together any longer.  The Turtles were also exploding on television and the first movie was in production for a 1990 release.  The issues bring the Turtles back to earth following their exploits in space, and outside of a couple of issues, the story-lines are more reality based this time around (when one ignores the fact that the protagonists are walking, talking, fighting turtles, of course).

The first few issues have a sort of one-shot feel to them as the plot-lines do not tie in with any of the previous narratives.  Issue #8 was a collaborative with Dave Sims’ Cerebus the Aardvark, a comic at the time Eastman was said to be particularly fond of.  It’s some wacky time-travel thing that sees the Turtles accidentally warped to Cerebus’s medieval setting where the two join forces.  There’s some decent humor here, but for someone who isn’t a fan of Cerebus, the cross-over appeal was lost on me and I was interested in getting back to the New York setting.  Issue #9 is a flash-back of one of the Turtles’ earliest outings that sees Splinter switch bodies with a dying master in Japan.  While still containing a supernatural element, I enjoyed this one more than issue #8 as it felt more like a traditional TMNT adventure and it was fun seeing the younger Turtles do their thing.  Design wise, Eastman and Laird gave the Turtles full bandanas that covered their heads which was kind of a cool look.

He’s back!

The micro series for Mike, Don, and Leo are interwoven throughout the collection.  Mike and Don’s are more of the one-shot variety, while Leo’s directly ties into the next arc for the comic.  In Mike’s, we get to see the youngest of the Turtles foil a robbery on Christmas and make a new friend out of a stray cat he dubs Klunk.  It’s a fun chance to see Mike go off on his own and adds depth to the character.  The issue would eventually be used as inspiration for an episode of the 2003 cartoon titled “The Christmas Aliens.”  Donatello’s one-shot, “Kirby and the Warp Crystal,” would also be adapted for the cartoon as “The King.”  This issue was Eastman and Laird’s tribute to the legendary Jack Kirby.  Initially, the two wanted to rasie money for Kirby who was in a legal battle with Marvel Comics over licensing fees.  In the old days, writers who worked for Marvel worked under a work-for-hire agreement and anything they created was the property of Marvel and Marvel alone, meaning they saw no royalties for other works using the characters they created.  Kirby and his family refused to take Eastman and Laird’s money, but the sentiment was likely still appreciated.  The story is kind of fun, and it’s obvious the two had great affection for Kirby’s work as his influence is all over the series.

The Leonardo one-shot is probably my favorite from this collection as it kicks off the plot that re-introduces The Shredder.  This book and the following ones would be adapted in part for the first film.  In Leo’s book, he gets attacked by the returning Foot clan and eventually overwhelmed (in the film, it’s Raphael in place of Leo).  The encounter spills over into April’s apartment as the issue ends with Leo crashing thru the window and warning his brothers that The Shredder is back.  The full-page illustration is one of my favorites from the series.

From here, the Turtles are attacked by the Foot and the action takes them into April’s antique shop.  When things are looking bad, Casey Jones shows up and aids in their escape but Shredder sees to it that April’s store (and home) is destroyed in the process.  From here, the story takes us to Northampton, Massachusetts where Casey’s grandmother has an old farm house.  Issue #11 is told mostly thru the eyes of April as she writes in her journal about how the Turtles cope with defeat and how she deals with the loss of her father’s antique shop.  I’ve been critical of Eastman and Laird’s writing in the past, but here they do a nice of job of presenting their theme for the story with care and levity, making this issue (and arc) their best yet.  The overall theme of issue #11 ends up being to appreciate what is most important in life, and not to place too much importance in material things.  The issue ends with the Turtles coming together as both April and the gang arrive at that same conclusion simultaneously.

Overall, I think I enjoyed Volume 2 more than I enjoyed Volume 1.  The writing is tighter and more focused, and the micro issues really do a good job of adding depth to the characters.  Eastman and Laird are also able to bring out the individual personalities for each turtle in the other issues as well, and they’ve all finally had their traits firmly established by the end of the collection.  I’m still a bit surprised that the Leo/Raph rivalry hasn’t been hinted at yet, though perhaps I’ve been misled and that is a dynamic that was added to the group by outside sources before Eastman and Laird considered exploring it.  It’s also a lot of fun seeing the stories for the first time that ended up making it into the movie I saw so long ago as a kid.  It makes me appreciate that film even more.  And while most of the books were lifted in a more thematic sense for the film, the scene where Don and Casey work on the old truck even had some of the dialogue lifted word for word.  Only in the comic it’s Raph in place of Don and some of the insults are different.  There is a sense of finality at the end of the collection, especially in the write-ups from Eastman and Laird, but a volume 3 is on the way that will cover issues #12, 14, 15, 17, and 19-21 which contains the “Return to New York” story-line.  Following that arc, Eastman and Laird had little direct involvement with the comics so it figures that volume 3 may be the last for the The Ultimate Collection.  It is possible a fourth volume could be produced covering the massive “City at War” arc that spanned 13 issues and was co-written by the original creators.  Volume 3 is currently due out in July, though don’t be surprised if it gets delayed as both of the previous collections were.  I’ve really enjoyed the fist two volumes, and already have volume 3 pre-ordered!  For longtime fans, I suggest you do the same.


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