Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Second Day of Comic-mas: Two Turtles’ Woes

By 1990, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles easily usurped the Masters of the Universe as my action figure line of choice. As toy packages often demand, I scrambled to “collect them all!” Christmas was a pivotal time of year to achieve this goal, as long as my parents and grandparents understood where to find a “Mutagen Man.” Of course, fellow fanboys recognize the early ‘90s as the Golden Age of TMNT mania, with the live action film, beloved cartoon series, and all avenues of franchising thrusting our heroes out of their shell and into America’s hearts. To think, it all started as an independent comic book . . .

This detail from 1991's Marvel Holiday Special (soon to be reviewed right here!) satirizes the Turtles' popularity at the time.

Flipping through Mirage Studios’ Michelangelo Christmas Special, I’m amazed that Eastman and Laird retained their series’ original look, when I’m sure they could’ve easily sold out and gone mainstream with the most premiere publishing trends of the day. The beginnings of computerized lettering and coloring, higher-end paper stock and cover gimmicks -- these were all at their disposal, but instead this issue, published in ’90 and at a time of years when parents and kids alike are Ninja Turtle fishing, is so meek, it’s almost beneath notice! A minimalist exterior, and all gray-tone interiors . . . You know, for their own safety, the Turtles lived underground, out of sight. Did Eastman and Laird hope to preserve their original creative process by producing comics the same way?

Ironically, in this issue, Michelangelo dons a civilian costume, blends in with the hustling and bustling of the shopping Christmas crowd, and enjoys a day above ground, where he adopts a stray cat and indulges himself in a toy store. Of course, he discovers a ring of toy thieves that has intercepted a truck intended for the local orphanage, so Mickey and his brothers eventually make sure the “Li’l Orphan Alien” dolls make their way to the kids, at the risk of their own exposure. It’s a fun, heart-warming tale with plenty of action, that, in the context of the Turtles’ own popularity as coveted toys, boasts a satirical subtlety, whether or not overtly intentional by its authors.

The back-up yarn starring my favorite Turtle, Raphael, is a bit more baffling, however. Like many other Christmas comics, writer/artist Jim Lawson (second only to Eastman and Laird as the definitive Turtles storyteller) adapts Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for one of our heroes, revealing a plethora of proverbial “elseworlds” that result from his outlook on the holidays, and, really, on life. As anticipated, Raph isn’t one for Christmas, he decides to ditch decorating the tree at April’s, and three imposing spirits take him on a walk through time. The first ghost takes Raph (and the readers) to the first Turtles’ tale, when the Foot crashed April’s antique store and nearly killed Leonardo. The second spirit reveals that the guys have resigned to their embittered brother’s disappearances, and the Ghost of Christmas Future prophesizes a bestial Raph living alone in a swamp. Interestingly, in the end, Raphael doesn’t join his brothers merrily, but remains alone in thought -- as if the lesson took but didn’t really persuade. Those shells sure are thick!

What I didn’t like about this tale is how rushed it felt. Lawson told the bare minimum to make “The Christmas Carol” connection, but with thirteen pages, his page layout and the story’s pacing seemed cramped and rushed, respectively. Remember, Raphael is my favorite of the foursome, so maybe I’d just hoped to see more of him. Yet, considering his character is the most dynamic in contrast to the generally joyful holiday season, he offers more of a conflict to explore. I’m sure the eighteen years between this issue and today’s Turtles have explored this dynamic more, if I wasn’t so distracted by toys and movies to actually read the half-shell heroes’ comics!

On the subject of toys, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about some of my Christmas indulgences, especially in light of some recent developments in the action figure collecting community. First of all, the Masters of the Universe franchise is in the midst of its second renaissance in the last ten years; back in 2000, Mattel, with the help of accomplished sculptors the Four Horsemen, modernized He-Man, Skeletor, and Eternia’s supporting cast in the hopes of appealing to old and new fans alike. Unfortunately, despite an engrossing new animated series on Cartoon Network, the toys suffered from the trapping of collectability, with mismatched ratio distributions (i.e. one Mer-Man for every five Skeletors, or something like that) and overwhelming variant editions. Kids were turned off and adult fans were broke and embittered pretty quickly -- especially if you’re still an Evil-Lynn away from completion, like me. Also, while these updated character designs looked great, I thought the figures themselves lacked a certain “playability” in contrast to other, better articulated lines. So, in its sophomore effort, the Masters failed to master their market.

Now, Mattel has decided that the adult collector has the power and has developed an exclusive on-line community featuring better articulated, finely sculpted incarnations of the classic line -- much to my complete delight. I’ve already scored this month’s inaugural He-Man and Beast-Man offerings, with a new figure promised monthly. (A special thanks to my brother for monitoring the Internet the instant the figures became available! I had to work, which goes to show that the responsibilities of adulthood too often trump the persistent delights of youth.) Now, the question is, do I open these figures and play with them, or keep them in their packages to display? I could just as easily open and display them, but if I never touch them, engage them in interactive adventure . . . What’s the point?

I wouldn’t have guessed it, but I’ve recently read some criticism about this direction, that on-line sales threaten to prohibit the line’s success, that reverting to the classic design is a step backward. I’m going on the record here and begging to differ -- Mattel has finally found He-Man’s post ‘80s niche. Simply put, kids aren’t interested in barbarians with ray guns anymore. Consider the more popular franchises of today’s youth -- Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, World of Warcraft. In these worlds, the heroes are passive participants, calling upon other creatures and weaponry to save the day for them. Children can relate to this inability to fight the good fight themselves, and by playing the games affiliated with these new mythologies, become as active in the lore as the very protagonists therein. So, if He-Man is to succeed today, the kids that originally sought him are still his core audience, just grown up into “exclusive collectors.” Now, we have the power!

My pic of the Masters of the Universe Classics He-Man prototype at 2007 San Diego Comic Con.

Yet, He-Man isn’t the only toy-based controversy that has been dancing in my head this holiday season. The latest Justice League Unlimited action figure six-packs are on sale at Target this week, and on Sunday I scoured four local branches for the “Secret Society,” “Apokalips Now,” and “Legends of the League” sets. I found them, but not before I found their boxes -- packed with other figures. Interestingly, the most coveted figures were replaced with previously available ones, with similar features, to boot; for example, the Atomic Skull was replaced with Waverider, who also boasts a translucent flaming head. KGBeast was replaced with the Elongated Man, both of whom have arm accessories. Fortunately, I was keen enough not to buy figures I already own, but the potential origins for this mishap are disturbing. Either collectors are purchasing these sets, pulling the new figures and replacing them with common extras, then returning the sets to Target for their money back, or Mattel is deliberating mis-packaging these boxes to make the new figures more collectible. Either thought is despicable to a simple fan like me, merely interested in having one of every available character. How many sharp kids will be disappointed this Christmas when parents buy the “Secret Society” pack they asked for -- and find a Copperhead where Shadow Thief should be?

Finally, the release of that “Apokalips Now” pack, specifically its inclusion of the character Mantis, has encouraged me to embrace the whims of my inner child and find contemporary counterparts to the action figures I had as a kid. The latest Masters of the Universe line helps, but I also had scattered DC Super Powers and Marvel Secret Wars figures purchased by my folks. Core characters like the Justice League and the Avengers are easy to come by, but baddies like Mantis or Kang are a bit more obscure. Fortunately, Hasbro’s latest Marvel Legends line includes a Kang, so I’m just a modern Magneto short of achieving a renewed version of my childhood collection.

What’s the point, you ask? What’s the point of indulging in comics in the first place? Originally targeting a younger audience, as much as the medium has grown up with its readership, its roots in fantasy and science fiction still appeals to the child in all of us. After all, childhood is in essence the journey to adulthood, the road to becoming something bigger than we already are. Superhero comics replace that need for adults -- having achieved the whole growing up thing -- the need to become something better. Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dwelling in the sewers, sometimes the inner child like to dress up like a man and come out to play for awhile. I’ve learned not to toy with his emotions.

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