Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Urban Legends resurrected Gary Carlson and Frank Fosco’s prematurely canceled third volume of the TMNT’s adventures from the 1990s, reprinting the original series and adding all-new colors from Adam Guzowski! How did it turn out?
Guys, this book was ’90s as hell.
That’s not necessarily a slam. I admittedly have a bit of a soft spot for the kind of excesses and extreme characters and designs of that decade. I actually remember reading the first issue of this series when I was a youngster and it freaking me out. I was shocked at the willingness to seemingly alter these characters so permanently, even from the very first page.
The Ninja Turtles had remained somewhat static for so long. They had to, otherwise there would be no constant template for the various cartoons and films to base themselves off of. It was safer that way. I guess the fact that the film series had been dormant for some time emboldened the creative team on this series, because the consequences for our heroes start early and they just keep coming. Raphael is disfigured by a laser blast, Donatello is paralyzed and turned into a cyborg, Splinter is mutated into a gigantic bat creature, Casey goes to work at a grocery store (okay, maybe that last one isn’t quite so dire).
The point is, as silly as this book gets (and holy moly, does it get silly), the writers should be commended for taking as many risks as they did here. There’s a real willingness to get weird and push these characters to the point of them being almost unrecognizable. It’s bold and wacky and occasionally flat-out mean, but it’s always inventive, so I have to give it credit for that.
Where the series falls flat is in the characterization of pretty much anyone who isn’t a radical rat or named after a Renaissance artist. The Turtles all feel like themselves, even after the crazy stuff they get put through. There’s something about Donatello being fascinated by his new mechanical body that feels right. Raph is cool, but rude (and by far the most aggressive of the bunch). Splinter is a stone cold badass, taking out a room full of guards in between panels, with our only notice that a fight has taken place being the shocked faces of his captors and the following panel showing the bodies on the floor (one of my favorite moments in the collection).
Unfortunately, none of the other characters are nearly as interesting or strong. The big bad of the first arc, Komodo, feels particularly thin. Were it not for his predilection toward ultraviolence and poisoning people, he’d fit right in as one of the endless stream of corrupt businessman characters on the TMNT cartoon from back in the day.
But perhaps the biggest missed opportunity is this series’ version of April, who spends most of her time blubbering over Casey’s decisions and worrying about whether or not she’s being a good wife to him. It’s kind of a reductive treatment for a character who has always been so capable on the comics page. It’s especially disappointing when one considers that this series is supposed to pick up from the Mirage comics continuity. When she does stand up for herself, it feels like too little, too late.
The humor suffers from a similar disconnect, where the only jokes that really land are the ones that play off the Turtles’ personalities as we already know them. So while it feels right for Donatello to be annoyed that he’s not getting a great signal or for Mikey to wish they could just enjoy a birthday party instead of risking their lives, it’s jarring to see Raphael calling a female enemy a “ninja b---h.” We get it, he’s the rude one. That doesn’t mean that he’s a misogynist.
Again, this could be a case of certain aspects not aging as well. The stories themselves are pretty fun — I love how everyone in this series just keeps rolling with the crazy things that are happening around them. They’ve seen so much wackiness in their short careers as ninja heroes that the sight of a man-lizard or Donatello forming a gun with his own arm doesn’t really phase them. It’s more a matter of, “Okay, what do we do with this info and when can we get back to beating up the baddies?”
There’s also a certain charm to some of the excessive exposition and over-the-top violence. The fact that nearly every issue begins with someone loudly proclaiming what happened last issue made me chuckle every time. It’s a fun book, warts and all. Most of all, I think it’s great that these creators are finally being able to finish their story. Despite my criticisms, I look forward to seeing how they wanted to end this series in a future volume.