Dina Recommends: IDW’S TMNT Comics

Hello, and welcome back to Dina Recommends, where I present comics, series, podcasts and other things that I think deserves more attention!

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles probably don’t need any introduction. Ever since the four mutant brothers first appeared in the indie comic market back in the 1980s, they’ve appeared in pretty much every possible media. It started with the first (and still most famous) cartoon back in the 1990s, which really kicked off the massive multimedia franchise. Cartoons, comics, movies (live-action and animated), books, video games, oodles upon oodles of toys and action figures… While the ol’ Turtles did sort of drop off the radar around the turn of the century, the franchise was revitalized with the second cartoon series in 2003, and then really kicked off again when the franchise was sold to Nickelodeon and the CGI cartoon came out… there were even a couple of really awful Michael Bay movies, but we don’t talk about them.

One of the biggest staples of the TMNT franchise is its willingness to renew itself and present different takes on its characters and settings. Every time you get a new Turtles movie, cartoon, comic or series, it’s very blatantly its own thing; a new continuity, a new interpretation. The basic archetypes of the Turtles remain the same, but the details vary a lot. Hence, people can never agree what the “definitive” version of TMNT is. Some people swear to the original black and white comics, others insist that the goofy 1990s cartoon is the epitome of Turtles…. and of course the CGI Nickelodeon series. Very likely, there will be people who insist the current “Rise of the TMNT” is the definitive version, even if it’s radically different even for a Turtles take.

Really, I don’t know if any version can be said to be the “definitive” version of the TMNT. I think part of the Turtles’ charm is that they’re so versatile, and the day we get the unquestioned “definitive” version is the day when the fun’s over….

But if you ask me what the BEST version of the TMNT is, then I have no hesitation in answering: “The IDW-published comics, of course!”

IDW is probably my fave American comics publisher at the moment. A lot of really good comics have been and are published under the IDW banner, including a number of licensed comics… and one of these is of course the good old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Back in 2011, the new series started up to once again start a new version of the old story about four baby turtles and a rat that got mutated by a strange ooze and began practicing ninjutsu…. as usual the new version of the story means there’s a new spin on things, and lots of old characters presented in new ways…

In this version, the Turtles and Splinter are lab animals who are part of an experiment to create mutant super-soldiers. They are however stolen from the lab by mysterious ninjas, but thanks to a struggle with intern April O’Neil and the resourcefulness of Splinter the rat, manage to escape… and get exposed to the weird ooze that mutate them into their humanoid forms. However, an encounter with a hungry alley cat ends up separating one of the turtles from the rest…

…and the comic first starts one year later, when a fully-mutated Splinter, together with his three Turtle sons Leonardo, Donatello and Michelangelo, are still searching for the fourth missing brother, Raphael. And clashing with the same alley cat, who also ended up mutating into a humanoid form and now goes by the name “Old Hob.” 

I’ll be honest. When I first started reading the comic I wasn’t OVERLY impressed. It starts slow and the first couple issues feel somewhat pretentious and take themselves too seriously… not to mention, the “decompressed storytelling” that’s so preminent in post-millennial comics meant that it moved SLOWLY and so very little happened in any given issue. Around the second storyline, though… like the fifth or sixth issue… things started to pick up, things got a lot more imaginative and interesting, and the comic’s true strengths began showing. What the IDW comic excels at is that, much like the CGI Nickelodeon series, it takes elements, characters and plotlines from all previous versions of TMNT and puts them into one universe/continuity but puts their own spin on them… as well as adding a ton of new stuff. I think the moment I totally fell in love with this version of TMNT was when they did their own version of the “Turtles in Space” arc from the early Mirage comic, and mixed in Krang and the Neutrinos from the old cartoon, and it was just awesome.

There are SO many great characters in this comics, both new and old. Fan-faves like Bebop and Rocksteady, and the Mighty Mutanimals, even if they’re a little different. Shredder and the Foot Clan are of course heavily involved in most things, as are Krang and the Utroms, the Purple Dragon gang, Renet the Timestress, and even Angel from the 2003 cartoon, who in this version becomes a female version of the masked vigilante “Nobody.” Oh, and Pigeon Pete.

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Look at him. He’s so cute in such an adorably ugly way. I love Pigeon Pete.

It probably helps that the series is co-plotted by original Turtles creator Kevin Eastman… but where the original Mirage comic showed us a young, inexperienced Kevin Eastman, this series showcases a Kevin Eastman who’s had thirty years’ experience in comics storytelling. While the bulk of the writing is probably down to head writer Tom Waltz, Eastman’s contribution is definitely felt. 

(I have to say, of the original Eastman/Laird duo, I think Kevin Eastman is a better storyteller than Peter Laird. Certainly the years of Turtles where only Peter Laird headed the franchise kind of felt like they were missing something important… I think Kevin Eastman is less afraid to experiment and try new things; Peter Laird seems to be a little too set in his ways… and too caught up in creating Big and Deep and Meaningful Tragedies rather than try to make things FUN. Probably why this series feels fresher, more innovative and more lively than anything we saw under Laird’s pen.)

Tone-wise, the series is a little more “mature” than any of the cartoons or even movies, though it never really becomes over-the-top gritty or nihilistic like some of the issues of the Mirage comic. It’s definitely the most spiritual and supernaturally-slanted of all TMNT incarnations so far though… there’s always been a certain spirituality in most incarnations, but here it’s very clear. Reincarnation and spiritualism are very central themes to the story, as are fate, destiny, the nature of gods and deities, and the cyclical nature of history. At the same time, the sci-fi/scientific slant you see in most other incarnations hasn’t been forgotten. Where a lot of stories treat science and magic/spiritualism as antithesis to each other, this series takes on the attitude that they’re really just two sides of the same coin, and magic is just a form of science we don’t understand yet… or that we don’t have the capacity to understand. I think that is one of the two big and overarching themes to the story.

The second big and overarching theme is of course that of family. The bonds of family, as well as the trials and tribulations of family, and of course what makes a family in the first place. Mixed in with a lot of weird and wacky adventures. I think this comic, more than any other version of the TMNT, manages to strike a balance between the silly and the serious… after the first story arc almost stepped wrong, the comic has been good about not taking itself too seriously while at the same time knowing when to stop joking around. 

At the time of writing, the IDW TMNT comic is nearing its hundredth issue, and it’s already the longest-running TMNT comic ever to be made. If you include the various one-shots and miniseries tie-ins, and the two Ghostbusters crossovers, we’re nearing almost two hundred single issues, all set in the same continuity. Seems daunting, maybe, but the hardcover collections are good at presenting all the stories in chronological order… plus, if you like me prefer to read the comics digitally, the Turtlepedia has a handy reading order guide.

If you like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and don’t mind a few unorthodox steps taken, then I wholeheartedly recommend the IDW comics. They’re awesome. 

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