Comics & Manga

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate B&W Collection Vol. 2 and Vol. 3

Previously, in my gushing about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles... The Turtles bravely reunited with April after their wild adventure with the Triceratons. Fugitoid, and TCRI aliens. It was awesome!

In the interim between that post and now, I didn't write up a solo Vol 2 article. So we'll do a double feature this time, though I won't go into full detail or breakdowns for each issue contained within.

One of Volume 2's biggest highlights are the remaining "Micro Series" issues for each Turtle. Raphael #1 was featured in Volume 1. I had always known about the Raphael one being the introduction of Casey Jones, but was clueless about the other three. Were they good? It always seemed like Raphael #1 was what made it onto recommended reading lists. Well, damn, all four of them are fantastic. Raphael might actually be the weakest one story wise! Just for fun, let's go over those in a most-favorite order, starting with...

Leonardo, December 1986

I'll admit, Leonardo tends to be my favorite Turtle, but it can vary. Leo has a bit of a reputation for being a stick in the mud, and overly serious leader type with less personality than his brothers. I think these qualities are exaggerated, these criticisms are a "glass half empty" kind of thing. When the glass is half full, Leonardo is a skillful, determined, and focused ninja whose love for his family weighs heavy in tandem with his sense of responsibility. Leonardo can be a great foil for everyone else, and on his own makes a great lead character of focus of a story.

Such is the case here, and it is done largely without Leonardo even speaking until the end. On Christmas Eve, the Turtles are helping April decorate the apartment and prepare for festivities. All the Turtles except Leonardo, who is getting absolutely swarmed non-stop by Foot Clan ninja. When their deadliest foe reappears, any chance of a happy holiday is gone...

The tension in this issue is thick, and the artwork is consistently gorgeous and dramatic with Leo's fights. It also leans comedic with April and the boys at home in a delightful contrast. To try and point out every single moment that hit hard would be redundant, you can read it for yourself and feel it on every page. But part of what holds it all together is what we know about Leonardo up to this point. We know he thinks he can do this, and for so long he does. The Foot just keep coming, and coming. We feel his pain, and we know for darn certain he'd love to be there for Christmas.

The comments from everyone at April's place help solidify the deal and a sense of tragedy that carries into the next mainline issue. They imagine Leonardo is just busy, or training, or on some kind of quest. They have no idea. That's where it starts to sting, and you feel bad for Leo. He is getting jumped, and it sucks, even with tons of unforgettable ass kicking. In the 1990 film adaptation, Leonardo was swapped for Raphael, which I think worked very well for the writing of that movie. It may have worked here as well, but not to the same effect.

You almost get the sense that we are part of this tragedy too, for not keeping our eyes and focus on Leonardo. For assuming he'd always be there to lead and be strong. I wonder if at this time, he was sort of an underdog already? I can't really say. Here's a comment from Kevin Eastman in the volume.

It's definitely my favorite of the Micro-Series, it's got to be read to have the full impact felt. It seems so simple, and in some ways it is, but it's brought to life in an artful and bold way.

Michelangelo, December 1985

Christmas gets me every time. Almost any story can be enhanced for me by taking place around Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not that Leo came out a year after this one. Michelangelo's adventure is about a thousand times more lighthearted, as it really should be! This story has a warm sense of joy, and also a cat. If were not for Klunk, I may have placed the next issue ahead of this one. It was damn close.

Michelangelo makes a new feline friend, and after having fun at a toy store (isn't he so cute?), ends up discovering a planned robbery to steal the hottest Christmas toy, just to sell back at a markup. I guess there were scalpers even back then! What a bunch of creeps. The pure-hearted Mikey is the perfect Turtle for this set up, I love it. He gets the opportunity to be funny, sweet, and beat some bad guys at all once. And yes, the kitty Klunk is brave and tough and gets through the story just fine.

It's a great look at Michelangelo as a character. I mentioned last time that as early as issue two, he starts getting his individual identity very quickly. To see that further cemented here is a great little thing. Who doesn't love Mikey? Anyone who could read this issue and not love him has a cold heart!

Donatello, February 1986

Donatello's issue has a pretty noteworthy history behind its creation that influenced the story inside it. Eastman tells it in the volume as well, so you won't be confused or miss any context. At this time, the legendary Jack Kirby was caught up in a legal battle to try and have his original artwork returned to him from most of the major comic publishers. To help out financially and show some solidarity, Peter Laird came up with the idea of having sales of Donatello be donated to the Kirby family as assistance. The story, as well, features an artist named Kirby.

That's pretty much the coolest thing ever, so in that sense Donatello's, book is an instant success. It has a great story inside the pages too. Donny being summoned to fix the shower is a hilarious opener, only made funnier by turning into an interdimensional adventured spawned by a magic crystal and a pencil. It's hard not to smile when you spot the Kirby style creatures and watch Donatello blast them with a laser cannon. If you don't know the ending of this one (it was adapted in the 2003 series, I recall), you might be surprised by how it makes you feel. An extremely solid issue put together for a righteous cause. Now I feel bad ranking these at all!

Raphael, April 1985 (reprinted in Vol 1)

Raphael gets a tremendous amount of depth added to his character here, and as you can see this is the earliest one shot by a mile. After a training exercise becomes a brawl as a result of Raph's anger, he runs off with his thoughts swirling about what he did wrong. At this earlier stage, everyone is still developing, but Raphael had already had a penchant for being the tougher, angrier brother. To see Raphael go through some genuine reflection makes the heart ache for him.

It's also a great time to introduce Casey Jones, who plays here as a sort of dark reflection of Raphael. Casey Jones actually is out here beating criminals within an inch of their lives. It works out brilliantly, Casey's style of crimefighting is informed by television. He runs around with a hockey stick and baseball bats spouting one-liners. Casey almost reads as a parody of the Turtles themselves, and this is not lost on Raphael!

Fighting and action makes up a lot of this issue, but like in Leonardo, none of it really wasted or a dull. How could it be with Casey and Raphael as the stars? I feel that story wise, it's not as strong as the three that would follow. Raphael and Casey come to a sort of mutual understanding (if you can call it that!) after beating each other down, and go off to beat up some crooks together. It's a ton of fun, but doesn't feel completely resolved in the emotional core. Still, just because I put this as least favorite doesn't mean it's bad. It's great, obviously! But all the other issues have hands too. Maybe if Raphael had found a cat...

Everything Else in Vol 2

The other mainline issues in the volume are...alright until the Shredder returns issue 10. I somewhat enjoyed the crossover with Cerebus the Aadvark, whom I admittedly have never read and only heard about. Cerebus seems rather grim and serious about everything, which makes the Turtles look like goofy Looney Tunes characters. That is extremely funny, but the rest of the stories just didn't do a ton for me. Splinter gets some highlighting in issue 9 that was enjoyable, but I wouldn't call that story a major feature either.

Of course, the volume ends on a set of absolute masterpieces in issues 10 and especially 11. It's no wonder they used this for the movie. "True Stories" follows everyone's lives in Northampton after the Shredder's attack at April's place. In a stroke of genius, the story is told through April's perspective, as the extended family heal and accept the events of that traumatic day. It's shockingly reflective, personal, and intimate. What makes it fascinating is that, for a while, this is the last issue that Eastman and Laird would work on together. There's something meta and haunting about the real-life story of Eastman and Laird going through this major change, while the Turtle family does the same. There are a lot of ways to look at it though, and I won't paraphrase the duo's comments in the actual volume. Even if you skip over those though, Leonardo 1, TMNT 10 and 11 make for an emotional and engaging read. Certainly the best the series has, thus far.

Volume 3

I was really hoping this wouldn't be the case, and I wouldn't say any of the comics in this volume are baaad, per say. But until our real-life creative heroes team up again for Return to New York, that lead up is notably weaker than what had come before. I should note that Eastman and Laird at this point are working with other Mirage collaborators and creatives, it's not like the building exploded or anything. They're still there working on TMNT and other books.

The common thread between these weaker issues (12-18, though 13 and 18 are skipped in this volume, more on that later) is that the Turtles themselves do not feature very strongly in them. I'm not sure why that's the case for a particular creative reason, or if I'm missing something here. I mean, don't get me wrong, they are there. Like, physically, most of the time. The vibe is just off. Maybe it wouldn't feel that way if one was unaware of the creative changes, but for me they were reads that ended on a feeling of "Okay...?".

"The Unmentionables" is a funky little story where Casey gets to lead. "Dome Doom" does have a core story that works, just not involving the Turtles as active, dynamic characters. "Survivalists" is a weird turn that I'm still not sure how I feel about. How did that guy build an ATOM BOMB in the woods, and secretly?

Going through it all, I was scared that it was just over and I had already read through peak Ninja Turtles. I was very, very wrong.

Return to New York

WE'RE SO BACK. Literally. It's like someone turned the lights back on on what Ninja Turtles is so good at. Eastman and Laird were back together to tell a story they wanted to. The Turtles couldn't stay in Northampton forever, it was time for them to get back to their home. And what a dazzling return it is.

After Raphael demands that the group return to the dismay of Leonardo, Raph runs off and gets the story started in full. As an aside, were Donny and Mike just watching Raph and Leo go at it in this issue? They were seriously this close to killing each other! What follows is a an all out war, a raid on Shredder and the Foot. I'm running out of fresh adjectives now. Let's see... Return to New York is absolutely stupefying. I'm sitting there with my mouth hanging down as a surviving Triceraton appears. As they fight waves and waves of Ninja in pages that feel huge.

Story-wise, it's a little thin I suppose, but it's all worth it to get the intensity and ferocity. Yes, the Shredder was resurrected by worms and magic. It's a little cheat, but who cares? Do you see this? It speaks for itself, but it's amazing, stunning work artistically. This revenge, their destiny, is something that really matters to the brothers. It matters to us, and seeing so much crazy stuff happen along the way makes it feel like it's the finale of the whole series. And for a while, it kind of was?

The Guest Era

I was curious where the series would go after that. There's "Tales of the TMNT", collected in a volume and originally released inbetween mainline Turtles books. There is also Volume 4 of this Ultimate Black and White Collection. Volume 3 ends at issue #21, and Volume 4 picks up at #48. What's the deal with that? In that interim, Eastman and Laird seldom worked in Ninja Turtles comics themselves. Instead, a suite of guest creators would step in. Here's a nice blogspot post that elaborates. I love that, in concept at least (despite my griping earlier with what I feel are weaker issues), and would love to check some out. But this collection, which has been fantastic, skips right to the next time Eastman and Laird get together almost three years later for City at War. I suppose that's what they would like you to read? I'm not super sure.

I assume this lack of Eastman OR Laird is why two issues got skipped over in Volume 2 and 3. Really odd situation, but if I describe it to you now, maybe you won't have to hunt around and do research like me. My brain hurts!

Right now, my plan is to read "Tales" and then hit up Volume 4. Tales introduces some neat villains, of which the Turtles actually kind of lack in the mainline series thus far. When I think of Ninja Turtles, their wild rogues gallery comes to mind, it's interesting how that element is basically absent. Shredder is just too good, I suppose! Volume 4 is simply what's next in the collection I'm reading, and I'm not in the mood to complicate that too much.

Please Read This

I am upgrading my recommendation. Both Volume 1 and 2 are going into a must-read category that I have just made up. If someone reads Volume 3 just for "Return to New York" right after Volume 2, I wouldn't blame them. The tension in Return requires that some time have passed, and is most effective having some awareness of their adventures in Northampton. I concede though that it's not technically mission critical. If you're bored by an issue or aren't feeling it, it's always cool to skim around!

My journey through the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics continues to leave me starstruck, even with a few holes in the armor every now and then. It's still unlike anything I've read before, and has to be read to be experienced. As I mentioned before, the independent spirit of comics is alive and well in these issues, even as we cross the point where The Cartoon had launched the Turtles into eternal franchise mode. You've just got to check it out.

See you next time, and happy reading!