Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Rat King By Any Other Name...

I think I’ve let it slip in the past that the Rat King is my favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villain.  And by “let it slip” I mean “mentioned it incessantly”.  He’s just great.

But why is he great?

Well, when examining just why I dig the Rat King so much, I think it boils down to just how malleable a character he is.  No two incarnations of the Rat King are alike.  In fact, many are so different that the only things binding them as the same individual are a couple strips of bandage and a rodent fetish. 

And I think that’s what makes him so exciting.  Whenever the brand is reincarnated, be it as a new comic or as a new cartoon, you never know just WHAT you’re going to get when the Rat King comes along.  And for my money’s worth, there’s never been a version of the Rat King that I’ve disliked.

Let’s take a rundown of his history so you can see what I mean…

The Mirage Comic

The original Mirage incarnation of the Rat King is one of the most interesting because in this single universe he has been MANY different things.  Fitting, then, since he’ll be changing so much in every other universe he shows up in.

When first introduced in Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #4, by Ryan Brown and Jim Lawson, he had no proper name.  He was just a crazy homeless guy who was constantly reinventing himself with each season.  While he did identify himself as “the rat king” once, it was among many other monikers.  Indeed, the Palladium TMNT & Other Strangeness sourcebook supplement, “Transdimensional TMNT”, didn’t even have a proper name for his bio, merely calling him “Monster”.

So right off the bat, the Rat King was never nailed down with a singular motivation or personality (or NAME), and I think that's why it’s so acceptable for other incarnations of the brand to deviate from the source material when it comes to the character.  Because even the source material deviates from itself.

When next we meet the Rat King, in TMNT (Vol. 1) #55 (by Eastman, Laird and Lawson), he’s no longer a gibberish-babbling homeless guy setting traps and suffering from delusions of identity.  He’s a spirit guide of sorts who appears to Splinter (who has become trapped at the bottom of an abandoned smokestack) and teaches him lessons about humility and survival.  He’s eloquent, perhaps a bit ponderous, but ultimately nothing like the madman he was in his first appearance (and seems to have spiritual powers, whereas he was specifically noted to have no supernatural abilities in his debut).

He’d make brief cameos in later stories, including Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 2) #65 (by Dan Berger) and TMNT (Vol. 4) #10 (Laird and Lawson), as an ominous spirit still appearing to Splinter, usually as a symbol of death or tragedy.

Steve Murphy (under the pseudonym Dean Clarrain) and Chris Allan would solidify an origin for him in the Mirage universe, and once again, it would deviate quite a bit from the two versions we saw before whilst also trying to harmonize them.  In Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 2) #35, we learn that the Rat King was once a petty thief who was escaping from police custody in a hospital (hence the bandages) when he was chosen by an animal god belonging to a spiritual Pantheon and made “the Rat King”.  He used his powers to amass riches, inciting the other members of the Pantheon to summon Splinter to challenge him.  Once he lost, he was banished to Earth, powerless and insane.

This explains his mental state from his first appearance while also explaining where he got his spiritual powers after death (and also why he was so drawn to Splinter).  Personally, I thought Mirage’s Rat King was better off without an origin, but that’s just me.

Anyway, as you can see, Mirage Rat King has been everything from a petty crook to a god to a homeless madman to a cryptic spirit guide to a harbinger of death and doom.  Hopefully, upon understanding how the source material never kept the character steady in a single portrayal, one can forgive the other media for taking him in crazy new directions.

The Fred Wolf Animated Series

And on the subject of "crazy"...

This version of the Rat King actually premiered in-between his first two Mirage appearances and represents some of the first synergy between the two incarnations.  Playmates, or whoever called the shots, likely chose the name “Rat King” from the comic because it was the best suited (and easier to trademark than “Monster”) and that name ended up sticking right back in the source material as his official name and not just an offhand remark.

This version of the Rat King first appeared in the season 3 episode “Enter the Rat King” (written by Buzz Dixon) and he’s pretty great.  The writers seemed to think so, too, as he was one of the most recurring secondary villains in the series, probably competing with Baxter Stockman for the top spot in that regard.  The writers used him a LOT, especially David Wise, and they seemed to have a lot of fun with the guy.  His prominence in the cartoon is probably what got me to like him so much (I also had his toy as a kid), but it was also the fact that he was less predictable than the other bad guys to appear in the series.

More often than not, he was a typical antagonist, but his M.O. was always changing.  Sometimes he used a hypnotic flute ala the Pied Piper of Hamlin, sometimes he was a genius chemist that made zombies and mutant rats, sometimes he was a robotics expert, sometimes he was at war with other recurring villains (such as Leatherhead), sometimes he teamed up with other recurring villains (such as… Leatherhead?), and sometimes he was a mercenary hired by the Shredder.  He was always working a different angle in the cartoon and his shtick never got as repetitive as other bad guys’.

And sometimes he even helped the Turtles or was decidedly neutral (his action figure actually didn’t label whose side he was on in either a deliberate attempt to make him more mysterious or just a typographical error).  In “Return of the Fly” he willingly helps the Turtles save April while never explaining his reasons.  In “Pizza by the Shred”, he accidentally steals a pizza from the Shredder, inciting a case of mistaken identity, but otherwise never raises a hand to attack the Turtles because he just wasn’t feeling it that day.  And in “Donatello’s Duplicate” he helps the Turtles take down Pinky McFingers (albeit after McFingers double-crosses him).

In a show that was so often formulaic and repetitive, the Rat King was a breath of fresh air as he always injected variety into the plots.  Hell, sometimes he’d just show up midway through the second act, do something to inconvenience the cast, and then disappear altogether (“The Great Boldini”).  He was awesome like that.

The TMNT Adventures Comic

The Rat King who appeared in the pages of Archie’s TMNT Adventures comic is a bit of a mystery, partly because he appeared in very few issues.

From the getgo, he was very distinct from other incarnations of the character, debuting in TMNT Adventures #11 (by Steve Murphy, using his Clarrain pseudonym, and Jim Lawson).  In his first appearance, he identifies himself as Ha’ntaan, the Rat King, and he lords over a section of the sewers which the Turtles trespass into.  Forgoing the usual comic book protocol, the Turtles actually avoid fighting him and humble themselves by apologizing and are given permission to leave without incident.

It was strange and random, not just because it avoided the clichés of the medium, but also because the Rat King wouldn’t be seen or heard from again for 32 more issues.

When he resurfaces in TMNT Adventures #43 (by Murphy and Allan), it’s a story taking place in the future.  We learn that at one point, the Rat King waged war against the Turtles for control of the sewers, but was defeated.  He eventually teamed up with Armaggon, Verminator-X and the Shredder to use Hitler’s brain to open a time portal and I don’t even fucking know, man.  I don’t even fucking know.

But he made Splinter beat the shit out of Michelangelo and that was pretty great.

He was also intended to appear again in “The Forever War”, a story arc that was never produced, but in what capacity we may never know.

But clearly, in this incarnation the Rat King is far more “regal” (he at least ACTS like he has a diplomatic personality) and wages war on a larger level than the small-time antics of his Mirage or Fred Wolf counterparts.  He also has a real name (Ha’ntaan) which has never been applied to any other version of the character (who has had a few different real names).

TMNT Daily Newspaper Comic

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles newspaper strip was a strange animal.  When you read over it, you can tell that it's sort of a chimera, an amalgamation of all the other TMNT mediums that were out at the time.  When Steve Murphy was writing the strip and Jim Lawson was drawing it, they adapted stories from their work on Mirage's TMNT Volume 1 comic ("Sons of the Silent Age") and also included characters and concepts from their work on Archie's TMNT Adventures (evil aliens Scul and Bean make appearances).  When Dan Berger took over as writer and artist for the strip, he began incorporating ideas from the Fred Wolf animated series.

And that leads us to this incarnation of the Rat King.

During his arc, the Rat King ran for President of the United States, using his hypnotic flute to influence the masses via a daytime talk show.  He eventually commands all the viewers in New York to come to his political rally at an old warehouse, where he would kill them all by feeding them poisoned cheeseballs (thus emptying the city of humanity so the rats could rule).

Splinter succumbs to the subliminal command, but manages to dissuade all the other zombies from eating the cheeseballs (because they had no mayo).

Eventually, the Turtles defeat the Rat King by opening a trap door he was standing on, knocking him unconscious.  Afterward, Splinter examines the Rat King's flute and finds an alien microchip of Krang's design, revealing that the Rat King was working for the Shredder the whole time.

This Rat King owes more to the Fred Wolf cartoon than his TMNT Adventures counterpart (who didn't use a flute and was decidedly less comical).  In a satire of American media influencing political opinion, "The Rat King Show" is quite obviously intended to be a parody of "The Larry King Show".  You can decide for yourself if that bit of wordplay is genius or gag-inducing.

Be that as it may, it still means that we have one universe where the Rat King is not only a minion of the Shredder and Krang... but also a talk show host and political candidate.

The Konami Video Games

What the shit?

Okay, so in the "universe" of Konami's various TMNT video games, the Rat King is positively humongous and garbed in purple spandex.  He's also rather high-ranking, considering he's the sub-boss of the Super Nintendo version of TMNT Tournament Fighters (playing second fiddle to Karai).

As a matter of fact, I think the guys at Konami may have been under the impression the Rat King was a professional wrestler.  In addition to his size, his moves are mostly wrestling stuff (suplexes and body-slams and the like) and his stage is the Channel 6 building, intimating some sort of show biz connection.  His special move involves creating a field of electricity around him, so jeez, I have no clue what he's supposed to be.

The Rat King also shows up as the Level 3 boss of TMNT: Turtles in Time.  With this appearance, he's closer to his cartoon model, no longer being purple and massive.  He commands a Footski and appears to be working for the Shredder, but that's about all you can divulge from this incarnation.  Well, that and his dialogue: "First the sewers, then the world!"  But that's nothing new.

The 4Kids Animated Series

And in this universe, he’s a robot!

The Rat King made his first appearance in the episode “Bishop’s Gambit” (written by Greg Johnson), but not as the Rat King.  Originally, he was a clone of recurring villain Agent Bishop, enhanced with cybernetics and mutated DNA from Master Splinter (which I supposed explains his ability to control rats).  Called the Slayer, he took heavy damage in a battle with the Turtles and wound up getting flushed down the sewers in a flood of chemicals.

He eventually resurfaced in the episode “I, Monster” (written by Brandon Sawyer), a tremendously GOOD adaptation of Tales of the TMNT #4.  So good, in fact, that I named it one of the 25 Greatest TMNT Moments a few years back.  There isn’t too much to say about the episode since I already covered the comic version, but man, it’s really great.  They work everything into the ongoing tapestry of the 4Kids series, with the Slayer (never addressed as the Rat King) reciting monologues directly from the comic and now completely insane and unsure of his identity thanks to the damage he’s taken. 

The 4Kids series could get pretty dark and violent (“Bishop’s Gambit” ended with the titular bad guy getting impaled on a fucking meat hook) and it’s implied in this episode by the presence of skeletons that the Rat King has spent his days feeding people to his army of rats for shits and giggles.  This Rat King inherits the fighting prowess of the Slayer (who inherited it from Bishop) and is the most physically imposing version of the character.  And Dong Woo’s animation is really in top gear with this episode, too.  Some fluid, gorgeous stuff.

The Rat King makes a brief cameo in the final episode of the series, during its Back to the Sewers rebranding.  In “Wedding Bells and Bytes” (written by Matthew and John Drek) he secretly watches the wedding of Casey Jones and April O’Neil and smiles with satisfaction.  By this point in the series, the budget had really fallen out and Rat King was given a rather lousy streamlined redesign.  Luckily, we don’t have to look at it for more than a couple of seconds.


Anyway, this was a Rat King I really, really wanted to see more of.  But maybe it’s for the best that I didn’t.  His two episodes, be it as the Slayer or the Rat King, were two incredibly good episodes.  If you’ve never seen the 4Kids series and you want to just take a sampling of the show, I’d recommend checking out “Bishop’s Gambit” and “I, Monster”.  Yes, they’re imbedded in the ongoing story arcs of the show (which was highly serialized when it came to storytelling), but they’re great examples of how awesome the 4Kids cartoon could be.

The Nickelodeon Animated Series

Nickelodeon’s TMNT cartoon has a thing for horror movies.  I mean, a LOT of episodes have a serious horror slant to them, especially once you get into season 3, and so it should come as no surprise that Ciro Nieli and the rest of the Nick crew really went out of their way to try and make this Rat King SCARY.

The character who would be Rat King, Dr. Victor Falco, first appeared in the episode “Monkey Brains” (written by Russ Carney and Ron Corcillo), where he injects himself with a serum that would give him telepathic reflexes.  A lab accident disfigures him, however, and by the episode titled (you guessed it) “I, Monster” (written by Jase Ricci), he’s gone completely blind and turned into a walking corpse.  Taking up residence in the sewers, he discovers that his telepathic powers allow him to see through the eyes of the rats and he begins waging war on the Turtles and Splinter.

He returns in “Of Rats and Men” (written by Todd Garfield), taking control of Splinter and trying to use mutagen to create an army of rat-people.  He appears to die when Splinter sends him falling into an abyss.  But “falling into an abyss” is just Saturday morning cartoon code for “see you next time”.  I’m sure he’ll be back.

The Rat King also popped up in IDW’s tie-in comic, in TMNT New Animated Adventures #8 (written by Kenny Byerly and drawn by Dario Brizuela).  In that one, he creates a giant rat-golem formed from thousands of rats, but is thwarted by April O’Neil’s ill-defined telepathic powers and also a monkey.  It wasn’t very good.

Anyway, THIS Rat King is all about the presentation.  Voiced by horror icon Jeffrey Combs (better known as Dr. Herbert West, The Re-Animator), he also sports this chilling Southern Baptist preacher getup with the signature bandages existing only as a blindfold to cover his deep, black sockets (that glow red for appropriate effect).  The direction in his episodes is especially good, keeping him to the shadows and focusing on weird angles and moody imagery to make him as spooky as possible.

It’s a very cool interpretation of the Rat King and, by this point in the franchise history, the one version to deviate the most on a visual level.  The 4Kids version was a cyborg, yeah, but even he stuck to a mostly faithful “mummy” costume that gelled with previous versions.  The Nick Rat King is just out there and breaks the final mold that kept all incarnations consistent.

The IDW Comic

We don’t know much about IDW’s Rat King, yet.  He just recently debuted in TMNT #36 (written by Tom Waltz) and hasn’t made any significant appearances since.  But I like him already.

Essentially, he belongs to some sort of supernatural family where he and his siblings (the Japanese fox-witch Kitsune and the Chinese bull-demon Chi-You) manipulate humans in a twisted “game” for control over the Earth.  The bigger picture behind the game is still unfolding as of this writing.

While previous versions of the Rat King, namely the Fred Wolf and newspaper incarnations, felt content to homage the Pied Piper of Hamelin, IDW’s Rat King actually IS the figure of Germanic legend.  Just as Kitsune is based on Japanese folk lore and Chi-You is based on Chinese mythology, so is the Rat King a supernatural entity of European persuasion.  Evidently, his past as the creepy purloiner of vermin and children is all part of “the game” and he spends his one appearance thus far manipulating Leonardo and Master Splinter to use them against his sister.  Weird stuff.

And just as the Nick cartoon broke the “rules” of how the Rat King should look, artist Mateus Santolouco likewise went in a far different direction from what we’d seen in the past.  This Rat King looks like a fusion between Count Orlok from “Nosferatu” and Riff Raff from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with a few dangling bandages for tradition’s sake.

So in conclusion…

The Rat King can be a crazy guy that plays the flute and throws soda cans at people, he can be a supernatural entity manipulating world events, he can be a robot clone with Splinter’s DNA and he can be a politician running for the office of President of the United States.  But variety was written into the character’s DNA from his very first appearance, always changing and always fluctuating and never knowing what he was going to be from one day to the next.  While fans can feel beholden to consistent portrayals of certain characters like Karai or Leatherhead and eschew extreme deviations from the norm, I whole-heartedly believe that there isn’t a right or a wrong way to do the Rat King. 

The Rat King is chaos, change, shock and surprise.  He can be ANYTHING and practically has been EVERYTHING up to this point.  And that’s why I like him so much.  When the Rat King shows up in a comic or cartoon, you never know what to expect and that’s what makes him so thrilling.  And if you don’t like a version of him for whatever reason, hey, don’t sweat it.  Because the next time the franchise gets a reboot, the Rat King is guaranteed to be completely different.