Friday, March 23, 2007

Raphael: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle #1

Raphael: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle #1, November 1987, Mirage Studios
by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird with Lavigne

I think my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fever has finally broken. With a week's worth of Turtle-related comic books under my belt, mostly titles inspired by the lean, green fighting machines' success, and this morning's midnight premiere, I've shelled out all of the enthusiasm my inner child can muster for this beloved franchise. Oh, I'm not over the Turtles, mind, and in fact I may see TMNT again soon, but today's issue, an appropriate follow-up to yesterday's review, is the sheer icing on the cake of this week's culminating theme. The Turtles came, saw, and conquered . . . again. Sure, my fever broke, but these guys will always be hot.

The "Turtles Tracks" column in this issue of Raphael #1 is practically prophetic, and pop culturally ironic, as Eastman and Laird announce their brand new association with Palladium Books, who, as the new agency in charge of their characters' licencing, had just secured an action figure deal with Playmates Toys and the production of an animated series through Murakami/Wolf/Swenson. Yes, this admittedly excited editorial is indeed the threshold into the ground floor of the Turtles' inevitable mainstream success . . . Could Eastman and Laird have anticipated that a feature film wasn't too far ahead? That their humble half-shell heroes would burst from the pages of their respected independent comics to become household names, a veritable voice for a new generation? That, twenty years later, hordes of people pushing thirty-years-old would excitedly line up at midnight to see their creations computer-animated on the silver screen? They'd be shell shocked.

Even if they did, this issue, which I was thrilled to find in a dollar box a month ago and have been cherishing for this very day, the opening day of the Turtles' triumphant return to the big screen, is the last gasp of their grim 'n gritty graphics, a pre-Cowabunga classic that, decades later, still captures and conveys the carefree attitude these creators infused into their cutting edge comics. Their prophetic introduction aside, this issue sets the stage for the very concepts that fuel TMNT lore and establishes the imbalance of Raphael's inherent rage. In fact, interestingly, the cover of this issue parallels the first and last pages of Raphael TMNT Movie Prequel #1 . . . Coincidence? Further, in the lead story, Raph pursues one Casey Jones, who the Turtle dubs a violent vigilante -- the very role he adopts in yesterday's read. Apparently, these concepts have been brewing behind those bandanna-shrouded eyes for years. Finally, they've come to fruition.

Yes, the lead story introduces Jones, and after a slugfest in the park, he and Raphael form an alliance that, in my opinion, is the beginning of one of the most beautiful friendships in comics. Although Casey is initially bewildered by Raph's peculiar appearance, their hot-headedness and unquenchable thirst for justice bind them together even more than the love Casey shares with April. By the end of this issue, when, in an Eastman exclusive story, Jones and Raph defeat an organized gang of bank robbers, the two are comparing war wounds back at the pad, two friends bound by a battlefield camaraderie to which even the other Turtles aren't privy. I'm grateful this relationship was preserved in the latest feature film incarnation of the franchise. It's grounding -- as the gang's human buddy, Casey is the guy we really want to be.

Incidentally, I've always preferred Eastman's pencils over Laird's. While Laird's interpretation of their half-shell heroes is perhaps the most classic, the most cited when comparing the characters' to their more modern designs, Eastman's seemed to stem from a Miller/Simonson school, utilizing thin ink lines, and over the top pulp drama to maximize even the silliest story's tension. This issue's back-up yarn is a perfect example, even more so because of the Daredevil posters hanging in Raphael's room. Apparently, he's a fan, too.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Raphael is my favorite of the Turtles. Although all of their bandannas were red in the beginning, as a kid, since red was my favorite color, I was drawn to Raph over the others, and I felt like the short range of his sai weapons must've meant that he was the most skilled (and, at the risk of spilling a spoiler, I think TMNT reveals that I was right). Alas, a little older and a little wiser now, I realize that, without the contrast of the other Turtles, I might not have realized how awesome Raph really is. Therein, I truly like them all. Further, in contrast to the other titles I've read this week, theirs is the only franchise that has stood the test of time. Even before the toys and cartoons, the parodies and spin-offs paled in comparison to the Eastman and Laird library. Michelangelo has said it before: they love being turtles . . . and we love them for it.

Supplemental notes: Check out yesterday's review re-posted at Geek in the City, and tomorrow, my review of the TMNT film. Further, this month's Comic Buyers' Guide features an excellent artist about the titles inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' initial success, some of which I read this week. Now get to reading!

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