Pencils: Dario Brizuela
*Chronologically speaking, I would place this story sometime after TMNT (Vol. 1) #21, when the Turtles had returned to New York.
*Mikey was first shown taking an interest in writing in TMNT (Vol. 1) #17. While he was shown pursuing the career aggressively in Image’s TMNT Vol. 3, this marks one of the few times Mikey is shown continuing the craft in Mirage continuity.
*Tiresias mentions a vision in which hundreds of thousands die. He may be referring to the apocalyptic future seen in Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 2) #69. It's events were also alluded to in Tales of the TMNT #24 and Tales of the TMNT #45.
*The book “De Vermis Mysteriis” was created by author Robert Bloch as an addition to the Cthulhu Mythos of writer H.P. Lovecraft.
*Leonardo will recall this adventure many years later in TMNT (Vol. 4) #18. (In reality, TMNT #18 was published prior to this issue and the reference, at the time, was to an “as-yet-untold TMNT tale”.)
*This issue also contained a bonus story, “The Mother of All Anger” by Will Tupper and Jon Landry.
Like a lot of people, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft in high school when I was searching for horror literature somewhere in-between the modern masters like Stephen King and Clive Barker, and the gothic authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker. I stumbled upon a “Best of H.P. Lovecraft” paperback from Del Rey (which I still own to this very day despite it being in tatters) and from there I had to read EVERYTHING. And once I devoured Lovecraft’s entire works, I moved onto his Weird Fiction contemporaries, such as Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith and, as it pertains to this issue of Tales of the TMNT, Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber.
I love me some Lovecraft, is what I’m getting at, and much to my surprise, the Weird Fiction medium actually blends into the universe of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles astonishingly well. Tristan Jones recently penned a fantastic miniseries for IDW, Infestation 2: TMNT, which pitted the Turtles against Lovecraft’s “Black Goat with a Thousand Young”, Shub-Niggurath. And even the cartoons, both old and new, have dabbled in some limited Lovecraftian elements. The Fred Wolf TMNT episode “Splinter No More” by Michael Reaves boasts some neutered Lovecraftian influences, while the 4Kids TMNT episode “The Darkness Within” was very obviously inspired by the Mythos.
The best Lovecraft-inspired TMNT story, for my money’s worth, is “Circle of Darkness” by Bill Moulage (scripting a concept conceived by Steve Murphy). In reality, its two strongest Cthulhu Mythos influences aren’t drawn from Lovecraft stories at all, but from two of his contemporaries (members of the “Lovecraft Circle”, as it's called, now). “De Vermis Mysteriis” was created by Robert Bloch (youngest member of the Circle) and featured in quite a few of his Mythos stories, most notably in a trilogy he co-wrote with Lovecraft (“The Shambler from the Stars”, “The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Shadow from the Steeple”). The idea of a giant worm lurking below cities and causing earthquakes seems to have been taken from a story by another member of the Circle, Fritz Leiber, called “The Terror from the Depths”.
But more than just references and slimy monsters make “Circle of Darkness” feel so authentic. Moulage buckles down and pays excruciating attention to geography and landmarks to draw you into the reality of the story; tying the locations of actual buildings such as the Flatiron with nearby curiosities such as the birthplace of Herman Melville and empty stretches of shadowy parkland such as Madison Square. Even the bars Mikey references for his story-within-the-story are real establishments.
The hallucinations and cracking of Michelangelo’s sanity took me back to John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness” (the finest Lovecraft-inspired film ever made), but Moulage overcomes the temptation to just have the character “go crazy” and call it a day. Instead, Mike’s insanity, the things he sees, the locations he notices all weave together into a coherent plot once you take the time to unravel them. The "twist ending", that the building was empty the entire time, reminded me a bit of an old horror flick called "The Sentinel" (albeit that the was the mid-movie twist).
Obviously, Tiresias had been using that building on West Twenty-Fourth to sacrifice souls for decades (at least going back to the 1890s, as Herman Melville was shown to have lived near the building) and Mike was intended to be the final sacrifice that would free him from his curse. I love the reason why he has to pretend to be a blind man (because his head is on backwards), which felt like the sort of “shock” ending you’d get in the last sentence of a Lovecraft tale.
From a TMNT perspective, Moulage dredges up Mikey’s love of writing, which is one of his traits the Mirage crew always neglected for reasons I could never understand. It was a good choice, as Lovecrafts protagonists, when they weren’t wealthy, upper class scholars, were typically struggling authors (the man was a visionary, but his protagonists were almost all completely interchangeable). The approach accommodates a noir-style inner monologue that would have felt far more awkward without the “distracted author” trappings provided by Mikey.
Dario Brizuela turns in more great pencils, which is the usual for him. He captures the authenticity of the architecture and location shout-outs in the script, with a particularly nice splash page of Leo perched atop the Flatiron Building. The story ends on a delightfully eerie note, as Brizuela’s pencil rendering of the building on West Twenty-Fourth gives way to an actual photograph (taken by Murphy); a subtle reminder that “the place is real”. I’ve only been to Manhattan twice, but during each visit I must have taken ten dozen photos of just buildings (all of which were lost when my old hard drive crashed). I love the congested mix of old turn of the century buildings with modern constructs, though I love the blocks comprised of nothing but the crumbling old places even more (not that I’d be stupid enough to visit those neighborhoods after dark, mind you). New York: An awesome place to visit, but I’d never want to live there.
“Circle of Darkness” is a favorite of mine, partly because I’m biased in my tastes, but also because it’s just a well-crafted story. If this had been written in prose and all TMNT characters removed, it would have been just as effective a horror story, which I think says volumes about its quality.
Grade: A (as in, “Ahhhh, poor Mirage-Mikey. Giving up on your dreams of being an author and ultimately becoming a tour guide…”)