Saturday, November 9, 2013

Retrospective: The Mirage TMNT Volume 1 "Guest Era"


“Yeah, what the heck was up with that, anyway?”

The above is usually the response one gets when they broach the subject of Mirage’s “Guest Era”, a protracted and ambitious sequence of issues that stopped the narrative flow of TMNT Volume 1 absolutely freakin’ DEAD.

For some background, the “Guest Era” is recognized as having run from TMNT (Vol. 1) #22 (June, 1989) through TMNT (Vol. 1) #44 (February, 1992).  There are some exceptions: TMNT (Vol. 1) #16 and TMNT (Vol. 1) #18 are considered guest stories even though they predate the full-on “Guest Era”, while TMNT (Vol. 1) #27 and TMNT (Vol. 1) #28 are considered in-house Mirage productions, not guest stories, and are part of Mirage canon.

But all exceptions aside, there were 2 ½ years where Mirage put their ongoing continuity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stories on hold so that guest creators from other independent comics could have free reign to create any sort of Ninja Turtles comic their imaginations could muster.  Conceptually, this sounds like a really fascinating idea.  In practice, however?  The results are often debated.  There are those who adore the era and all its wild ideas while others detest it for derailing the storytelling momentum of the series for over two years.

My personal opinion is somewhere in-between, though I think I drift closer to disliking the experiment than appreciating it.  While the “Guest Era” gave us some truly great TMNT stories from unlikely contributors, it more often than not lacked the variety and imagination which was the entire point.  I’ve reviewed every issue in the “Guest Era” individually, and you may want to check those out for my detailed opinions on each story.  Here, though, I thought I’d collect my thoughts into a single retrospective article on one of the weirdest times in Mirage’s TMNT publishing history.

*Stories that work with “canon”

I suppose the first place to start would be to talk about those stories which don’t deviate from the continuity of the in-house Mirage productions, but instead endeavor to work with them.  As a matter of fact, some of these stories would be referenced by in-house Mirage issues and were considered “canon” for a time (an attitude which Mirage was forced to recant as a matter of legal necessity due to royalty payments and ownership rights).

While I do think too many comic readers put an unnecessary emphasis on continuity these days (being more concerned with “what counts” rather than “what’s good”), I think it’s important for the purpose of this retrospective to point out that not all the stories in the “Guest Era” were intended to take place in some alternate universe wacky land.

For the record, the issues which are referenced by Mirage’s in-house comics or simply don’t interfere with the continuity of the Mirage series in any way are the stories by:

Rick Arthur (#44)
Richard Corben and Jan Strnad (#33)
A.C. Farley and Paul Jenkins (#29, 43)
Rick McCollum and Bill Anderson (#37, 42)
Rick Veitch (#24, 25, 26, 30)

So as you can see, nearly half of the “Guest Era” (10 out of 23) endeavor to cooperate with the ongoing narrative of Mirage’s continuity and actively build upon its characters and mythology.  Heck, the only reason these stories were even “stricken from the record”, so to speak, was due to difficulties involving royalty payments and some burnt bridges caused by Mirage’s “mandatory retroactive work-for-hire contracts” (a controversial subject for another day). 

At the time they were written, many of these stories were embraced by Mirage’s in-house staff and elements were worked into primary continuity.  Rick Veitch’s contributions, especially, were absorbed into the ongoing Mirage storyline.  TMNT #28 (Steve Murphy’s “Sons of the Silent Age”) spins directly out from the events of Veitch’s “The River” trilogy (TMNT #24-26) with a page of art (by Jim Lawson, below) recreating a scene from “The River”.

Perhaps even more important was a character trait for Casey Jones which Veitch created (most prominently in the story “Sky Highway”, TMNT #30): Casey’s obsession with his Chevy.  The McCollum/Anderson team would run with the idea (in TMNT #42) and it would become one of the more obvious aspects of Casey’s early characterization.  The reason these stories which highlight Casey’s love of his car are important is that they set up a major piece of symbolism during Mirage’s “City at War” storyline (TMNT #50-62).  If one were to read just the “canon” issues of TMNT Volume 1, skipping the stories by Veitch and McCollum/Anderson, then they would also miss a good chunk of subtext in Casey’s portion of “City at War”.

The McCollum/Anderson story “Twilight of the Ring” (TMNT #37), in what’s most likely a coincidence, actually sets up a plot point Mirage would reveal later on in their “future” storylines.  In the McCollum/Anderson story, the Turtles restore a cycle of evolutionary dominance, inadvertently initiating the downfall of human civilization.  This would later come to pass in Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 2) #69.

Other guest issues aren’t referenced by Mirage in-house, but reference Mirage storylines.  McCollum/Anderson’s tale “Juliet’s Revenge” (TMNT #42) mentions numerous Mirage rogues and acts as a follow-up to the events of Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #7.  Corben’s story “Turtles Take Time” (TMNT #33) features one of Renet’s time travel devices winding up in April’s living room, sending the TMNT on an adventure through history.

Meanwhile, stories such as Rick Arthur’s “The Violent Underground” (TMNT #44) and A.C. Farley’s “Men of Shadow” and “Halls of Lost Legend” (TMNT #29, 43) don’t make any overt references to anything, but also have no contradictory material to speak of.  In the case of A.C. Farley, he did a lot of work for Mirage and may have even been on staff (I don’t know the specifics), so it’s odd that his contributions are not considered part of Mirage canon (while staffer Steve Murphy’s two issues that came out during the “Guest Era” are).

So looking back, the span between TMNT #21 and TMNT #45 wasn’t a complete drought of in-continuity material.  Like I said, nearly half the issues were written to fit into the established storylines and many of them contributed to characters and arcs.

Why is it, then, that so many fans look back at the “Guest Era” with revulsion and frustration?

*The surreal “ran-dumb” comedy relief issues

Ahhhh, it’s all coming back to me, now.

This is the other extreme end of the spectrum.  As opposed to stories written to take place within the ongoing narrative of the in-house Mirage productions, these are stories that go way off the deep end into goofy, surreal, crazy comedy antics.  Some are weirder than others, but they’re all guilty of trying to be “wacky”.

For the record, these are the stories by:

Mark Bode’ (#18, 32)
Rich Hedden and Tom McWeeney (#34, 38, 39, 40)
Matt Howarth (#41)
Mark Martin (#16, 22, 23)

Look, not all of these are bad.  I rather like Hedden & McWeeney’s “Toitle Anxiety” (TMNT #34) and Martin’s “A TMNT Story” (TMNT #16).  And even some of the ones I’m not that big on do have their moments, such as the excellent cartooning in Bode’s “Shell of the Dragon” (TMNT #18) and at least 50% of Howarth’s “Turtle Dreams” (TMNT #41) is surprisingly insightful.

No, what makes many of these a chore to sit through is that they don’t know when to end.  There’s nothing worse than a joke that overstays its welcome and many of the gags in these comedy relief issues were pretty thin to begin with.  Martin’s TMNT #16 was a damn good story, but then he elected to stretch it out into a trilogy and by the end of the thing you’re just begging for it to stop.  Perhaps the most infamous offender of the entire “Guest Era” was Hedden & McWeeney’s “Spaced Out” trilogy that spanned TMNT #38-40.  They’re good cartoonists with a zany style, but three issues in a row is overdoing it.  What could have been a fun one-shot was bloated into three months of tedium.

And I suppose that’s another facet of the problem.  In an action-adventure series, comedy relief stories are fun when they’re used as breathers or punctuation between dramatic storylines.  But when they absorb an entire book for month after month after month, they wear you down.  There was no strategy to their implementation, particularly through the #30s, when it seemed like it was just one surreal humor story after another with the action-adventure stories being the brief respite.

The entire experience just leaves a rotten taste in your mouth and even going back and looking over everything, I think it was planned very, very poorly.  The basic idea of the “Guest Era” was for independent creators to reinvent the Turtles in entirely new and fresh ways.  But of the 23 issues that make up the “Guest Era”, 10 are written to safely take place within Mirage continuity and 10 are written as silly, “ran-dumb” nonsense comedy stories.  How is that “variety”, precisely?  It’s just trading one extreme for the other and we really weren’t treated to much innovation or imagination (I don’t consider stream-of-consciousness “ran-dumb” writing to be imaginative, sorry).

But what about the other 3?  Well, I’ll get to those in a minute, but only because I want to end this article on a positive note.  Before I can get there, though, I have to comment on…

*Indie creators using the TMNT comic to shill their own characters

By 1989, when the “Guest Era” began, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had already become an immensely recognizable brand name (what with the cartoon and toyline having begun 2 years earlier).  By having their names attached to the TMNT comic book, the indie creators invited to participate in the “Guest Era” were receiving some major publicity.

Unfortunately, many of those creators chose to exploit the opportunity not as a means to create Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stories, but as a means to promote their creator-owned characters… with special guest appearances from the Ninja Turtles.

The third chapter in Mark Martin’s “Time Traveler” trilogy (TMNT #23) almost completely eliminates the presence of TMNT franchise characters and is instead an issue of his “Gnatrat” series, thinly disguised as a Ninja Turtles story.  The previous installments in the trilogy were suspiciously lacking in the titular Ninja Turtles, but the finale was pretty much all Gnatrat, who isn’t a particularly charming character.  At the end of the day, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were reduced to making a cameo in their own comic.

While I enjoyed part of Matt Howarth’s “Turtle Dreams” (TMNT #41), the worst segment of the story occurs when Ron and Russ Post of Howarth’s creator-owned series “Those Annoying Post Bros” invade the narrative for a gratuitous guest spot that stretches on and on and on.  It doesn’t enhance anything Howarth was trying to do with the story of that issue, it’s just a reminder to all the readers out there that they can buy “Those Annoying Post Bros” issues on stands now (well, not anymore).

Other issues didn’t jam in existing creator-owned characters, but instead were used as pitches for new characters (none of whom, I believe, were ever used again outside of their TMNT appearances). 

In Farley’s “Men of Shadow” (TMNT #29), the Turtles play second fiddle to vampire hunter and paranormal investigator Clark Ashton Allard, who has his own rogues gallery, back story, motivations and… really, why does he even need the Turtles at all?

Bode’s “Shell of the Dragon” (TMNT #18) isn’t quite so dismissive of the Turtles, but stars original character Chang Lee.  The story is about him and his troubles with Chinese gangs and the Turtles spend much of the narrative on the sidelines, as Chang Lee shows off how awesome he is and wouldn’t you like to read an ongoing series starring him right now?  Huh?  Huh?

Possibly the absolute worst offender is Rick Arthur’s “The Violent Underground” (TMNT #44) which introduces his character Lucindra to the detriment of absolutely everybody else.  He attempts to endear her to the audience by showcasing how she’s better than everybody at absolutely every possible thing and is just all-around flawless in every conceivable way.  It’s a very brazen and blatant attempt to pitch a new character and rather than be a story about the Ninja Turtles, “The Violent Underground” is a story about how you need to buy a series starring Lucindra because she’s just so hip.

This stuff is awful and it mars what would otherwise be some great issues (“The Violent Underground” and “Men of Shadow” both feature some killer art by Arthur and Farley).  It makes much of the “Guest Era” reek of insincerity, like many of these creators had no interest in writing Ninja Turtle stories; they just wanted a wider audience to pitch their independently owned spin-off characters to.

But there’s a diamond in every rough, and that would be…

*The “Souls Winter” trilogy

Even for those that hate the “Guest Era”, you might find it was all worth it for Michael Zulli’s “Souls Winter” trilogy (#31, 35, 36).

Zulli seemed to be the only creator to fully grasp the possibilities of the “Guest Era”.  While most of the indie creators were content to do either in-continuity stories or “ran-dumb” bullshit comedies, Zulli elected to recreate the Ninja Turtles from scratch.

“Souls Winter” is a complete reboot, offering an alternate glimpse at what the Turtles might be like had they been born through more spiritual and mystical means, as opposed to science fiction contrivances.  The familiar set up is there, with Splinter and his battle against Shredder and the Foot Clan, but the execution is largely different.  While individual characterization for the Turtles isn’t as strong (they don’t have unique names or identifying weapons), there’s a deeper narrative about the nature of the soul and what constitutes a life.

It’s a fascinating arc with some drop-dead gorgeous artwork by Zulli.  There are no corners cut and nothing feels phoned in.  “Souls Winter” is the only installment in the “Guest Era” that actually took the Turtles and reinvented them in a brand new way.


So, was the “Guest Era” experiment successful?  Well, I think that is largely up to the opinion of the individual reader.  If the purpose of the “Guest Era” was to get a bunch of freelance creators to make stories for Mirage, then yeah, I guess it was a success.  But if the purpose was for those creators to bring something unique and challenging to the table, then I think that by and large, no.  It was not very successful in its endeavor.

I adore many of these stories and I appreciate the spirit of the idea, but the planning was a disaster, the variety of content was sorely lacking and many of the creators seemed preoccupied with promoting themselves rather than telling good stories (one would think telling a good story would be the best way to promote yourself, but hey). 

There are great individual tales to be cherry-picked from the pool, and even the lesser ones still often have high-quality artwork to draw you in.  So I wouldn’t write the entire run of stories off with a hand wave.  If anything, I’d suggest one check it out and see for themselves what appeals to them.  IDW has currently been collecting these installments rather haphazardly in their TMNT Classics trade paperback volumes, so getting a hold of them is easier than ever.  Well, except the issues from creators who never signed the "mandatory retroactive work-for-hire contracts", anyway.  We may never see any of those ever again.