In war, everyone’s the good guy, despite probably having to do some pretty horrible stuff. While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #78 sees everyone outside of the Turtles themselves try to justify their crummy actions, writer Tom Waltz flips the moral scale, painting the old heroes in a darker light and humanizing those once demonized. In this issue alone, he once faceless Foot are personified in Jennika, a recurring character who has always valued her clan over the person leading it, and the titular “antagonist” of the “Invasion of the Triceratons” arc has their case pleaded by the titular turtles themselves.
One moment from this issue that really sticks out is not the showdown between The Triceratons and Casey Jones’ Purple Dragons gang, but the aftermath, a viral video of the encounter titled “Citizens battle ‘terrorist’ in the streets.” Whether intentional or not, The Triceratons being labeled as “terrorists” in the same video that sees gang-leader Jones laying a hockey stick to a nose horn seems weirdly relatable in today’s xenophobic United States. It’s also one of the latest examples of how the TMNT comics have transitioned from a comic book satire to a dark cultural critique, though they’ve always been that as well.
There’s no doubt the divide is necessary for managing the brand. With any of the dozens Turtles of cartoons over the last few decades highlighting the humor of Eastman and Laird’s world, it’s almost necessary for the comics and games targeted to an older audience to work in opposition to that. It also seems to be reflective of the franchise’s need to stay relevant, which it has been successful at least in small circles.
Children will always gravitate to a TMNT-branded product, but the handling of the more mature stuff is what has earned the Ninja Turtles continued respect over the years, if not the same popularity they once had. These are stories that challenge what the Turtles are, and with the recent death and return of Leonardo, continue to show that anything can happen.
Perhaps not in contrast, but certainly in opposition, Splinter has gained control of the Foot, meaning his duties as a leader supercede his emotions and morals. At a time when the reader is exposed to more nuance than ever before, Splinter’s role blinds him to the empathy a true martial arts master should carry in him.
Damian Couceiro’s jagged pencils capture the rough world of a mid-war New York with the same stylized pop and flare deserving of a story about overgrown animals and dinosaurs duking it out in the streets. Early on in this series, artists tipped the visual feel one way or the other, a three bears scenario that failed to capture the grit and imagination that have existed together since that first TMNT comic.
Partnered with Ronda Pattison’s colors, the book’s visual element has this 80’s and 90’s independent feel: the same place the franchise started. The emotion of Couceiro’s characters is not diluted, as Pattison uses a simple palate that completes the pages instead of dominating over them, balancing what could have otherwise been a series of flooded pages when partnered with Couciero’s noir-like ink shading.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #78 ends suggesting this is just the start of things to come. Fans of a more fantasy-driven Turtles may put this issue down feeling that this world is getting overrun with realism, but those who know the legacy of these books will likely see it as a new take on a classic formula, one that has been done better at times than others.
(W) Tom Waltz, Kevin Eastman (A/CA) Damian Couceiro