Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Volume 1 TPB SC: Shell Unleashed (IDW, 2012) – Tom Waltz, Kevin Eastman

3 out of 5

One of the many, many, many, many collected versions of the 2012 TMNT series IDW put out, this is the softcover not-called-this-but-essentially omnibus edition of issues 1 – 12, as a minimum frills, $30 edition.  I read and owned these as floppies as they came out, until my frustration with the direction and quality of the series – struggling through its melodrama up through issue 80 or so, when I finally quit – had me divesting myself of the originals.  Curiosity, and timely distance from that experience, had me curious to try things out again, with lowered expectations.

…And initially, I thought: this is just as bad as I remembered.  The first few issues of the series are pretty dang dumb.  I was reluctant to admit it then, just happy to have a new Turtles book on the shelf, but I knew it to be the case: this was a Turtles book to be embarrassed by, with try-hard swearing and Marvel / DC level capital-D Dumb subplotting.  Dan Duncan’s loose, mushy art is too bare and raw, especially when it comes to depicting humans, with Ronda Pattison doing their best to tack on some energy with nicely blended colors but just making it look like what it was: someone trying to sharpen up rough artistry.  Old Hob, our new adversary, is borne out of Fred Wolf-style imagination – mutant rat meet mutant cat – and everyone talks with hackneyed youse guys tuff accents that no one really uses.  It’s revealed that the Turtles were only mutated a little over a year ago and yet they’re full-fledged ninjas and their mutated-at-the-same-time buddy Splinter has taken to calling them ‘sons’ and, because we’re lacking in much to do, Raphael is missing – except who’s Raphael at this point in the story? – wandering the street and bumping in to Casey Jones and his alcoholic father (lots of ‘youse’ in that conversation), with Casey showing approximately 0% shock at Raph’s appearance.  It’s novel having April and Casey as high schoolers, with the former doing an intern job at Stockgen labs, but before we can acknowledge some good creative changeups there, Waltz – great at schmaltzy dialogue and pretty much using the ‘narrative caption at the end of page 1 overlaps a related scene on start of page 2’ setup on every page – introduces Krang and interdimensional travel with zero fanfare, mixed up in some kind of weapons deal with Baxter Stockman.  These issues are slow moving, cheesy, boring messes.  Just as bad as I remembered.

But what I didn’t remember is that, at least in these first 12 issues, it gets infinitely better.  Turns out the boys and Splinter were functioning off of muscle memory, some as-yet-unknown factor resurrecting them in these forms (then conveniently mutated by Stockman’s experiments under Krang’s oversight) from their original, human bodies as father and four sons in ancient Japan.  Why Waltz and Eastman don’t dangle this carrot as a more notable mystery from the start can still be chalked up to bad writing habits, but once it rolls in to the story, all of the characters start to click better.  Hob (who remains a horribly dumb character) takes a backseat to the Stockman / Krang relationship, which is an interesting one-upmanship of antagonism and braggadocio, and Krang the brain is smartly bundled up in his more human-looking guise after that first dunderheaded reveal, allowing us to focus on the interactions and story over aliens WTF questions.  The Foot Clan – Splinter’s ninja rivals from back in his bipedal days as Hamato Yoshi – starts being seeded into the storyline, for some pretty thrilling showdowns in the book’s latter half.  Casey’s dad is, for the time being, taken out of the equation, while Waltz and Eastman offer another smart storyline tweak by bringing April in to the mix as Casey’s tutor; when the latter discovers she worked at Stockgen with some lab animals, including a smart rat and four turtles, he makes the connection to the mutant turtle he’d palled around with and introduces her, and whadya know – she is shocked by their appearance.  In other words: from about issue 5 or so onward, it feels like the book is slowing reeling in and correcting the mistakes it made with its opening.  To top it off, Dan Duncan progresses immensely, forming up his style to something with tons of energy and panache, and synchronizing beautifully with Pattison for one of my favorite eras of TMNT art: fun, energetic, and with a lot of personality.

So these 12 issues actually manage to do quite a bit.  They introduce more than I recall – Krang, The Foot, Shredder, Stockman, Purple Dragons – and, although our writers and artists kick things off completely backwards and underwhelmingly, they stage a coup against their own initial intentions and tighten up the tale and presentation to make most of these introductions flow together compellingly, while weaving in good beats for all our leads (the Turtles, Splinter, April, Casey).  The book still stumbles through Hob, dumb tech babble, forced Raph and Leo squabbles, and some questionable ninja choreography (every action comic book should have its own professional stunt team for reference material…), but it fights back against the tendency to write for already-earned TMNT fans in order to create something more original and interesting, earning new fans and, y’know, re-earning some lapsed one.

The collected editions includes the A and B covers for each issue.