Sunday, July 19, 2015

TMNT (Vol. 4) #22

Publication date: June, 2005

Writing, lettering, toning: Peter Laird
Layouts, penciling, inking: Jim Lawson
Cover painting: Michael Dooney
Production assistance: Dan Berger


Several weeks ago.  Renet takes April back in time to show her the truth about her origins.

Over 30 years ago.  April and Renet arrive in the apartment above the Second Time Around shop, but in the bodies of cockroaches clinging to the ceiling.  April sees her father and mother below, arguing about adopting (apparently, the birth of Robyn three years earlier had left Mrs. O’Neil unable to give birth).  In frustration, Mr. O’Neil walks down to the shop to sort through a lot he’d purchased sight unseen.  Within that lot, he finds a pencil held in a strange casing.  April immediately recognizes what’s inside the casing: The crystal her tenant Kirby had used to bring drawings to life (according to Donatello).  Robyn then comes downstairs to ask for a puppy and Mr. O’Neil takes her up to bed.

April and Renet then succumb to their cockroach instincts so that they can survive in these new bodies while they observe the O’Neils.  April eats carrion and has sex with other cockroaches.

Some days later, Mr. O’Neil continues sketching, something he’s very good at, when his pencil breaks.  With no other instruments around, he uses the crystal-pencil to continue sketching an apple.  When he finishes, a second apple appears.  Surprised, he experiments by drawing a yellow-jacket.  It also comes to life and buzzes toward him.  He smashes it and it vanishes; as does the apple.

Over the next few weeks, Mr. O’Neil experiments with the crystal and lets his wife in on his secret.  They agree not to tell anyone of their discovery, but wonder what to do with the thing since the creations only last a few moments.  One day, Mr. O’Neil draws a puppy and rather than vanish, it stays.  He gives the puppy to Robyn and all seems well, until a few weeks later when it, too, vanishes.  Robyn is heartbroken, but Mr. O’Neil starts thinking.

Mr. O’Neil realizes that the length the creations stay is directly related to how much emotional energy he invests in his drawings.  He and Mrs. O’Neil agree to draw a baby for themselves.  After much studying and practice sketching, Mr. O’Neil attaches the crystal and draws a perfect baby.  The infant lasts a week before vanishing, leaving Mr. and Mrs. O’Neil bereaved.

They agree to try again and create a second baby, whom they name April.  She lasts a little over a month before vanishing.  This time, they’re utterly devastated by the loss and Mrs. O’Neil refuses to continue.  April recalls the stories Donatello told her about the other dimension the drawings went to when they vanished.  She wonders if her twins had survived when they went there and if she has “sisters” in that universe.

In a drunken, desperate stupor, Mr. O’Neil takes the crystal and attaches it to an inking pen.  He then draws April #3 directly in ink on the page and does so perfectly and with all the energy he can muster.  The new April appears and this time, never vanishes.  Renet shows April a summary of her life, proving that this third baby was actually her.  With their cockroach bodies dying, April and Renet perform one final task: They drag the crystal to a vent grate and push it down the duct, where it is lost.  Then they die.

The present.  April returns with Renet and spends time thinking over what she’d seen.  She tells Casey that the reason she hid the crystal from her father was so that, no matter his intentions, he could never create another being like her again.  She explains to Casey that she isn’t a person, which is why she can’t have kids.  At best, she’s an approximation of a human being, but not real.  April concludes that she’s “Nobody”.

Turtle Tips:

*This story is continued from TMNT (Vol. 4) #21.  The story continues in TMNT (Vol. 4) #23.

*Renet showed April her origin in TMNT (Vol. 4) #14.

*The crystal was last seen in Donatello (Microseries) #1.

*The events of "This Mortal Shell" take place between this and next issue.


So this is it: The issue that either makes or breaks TMNT Volume 4 for a lot of people.  From what I’ve read, “breaks” tends to be the more common reaction, but this is the internet, and the dissatisfied tend to be louder than the mollified.  So maybe more people DID enjoy this story than I’ve come to observe, they just choose to remain satisfied in silence.

I guess I’ll try to approach this story of April’s origin from a more objective standpoint, but let me get the subjective reaction out of the way first.

April being a magic doodle from another dimension is dumb.

Now that that’s out of my system, we can talk about the issue more in-depth.  The overall “journal entry” style Laird was going for with the presentation seems a deliberate attempt to invoke TMNT (Vol. 1) #11.  That was the epilogue to the original New York era and the prologue to the Northampton exile era, but was told through journal entries made by April.  The art in that issue went unlettered while all the text was stacked vertically in the left and right margins.  Although this isn’t a “journal entry” (the issue is framed as April telling Casey a story), the presentation is nigh-identical to TMNT #11.

It was a neat bit of nostalgia, recalling what was probably the last issue to see April treated as a truly relevant character.  There was a time when her narrative mattered, but by the exile era that slowly ebbed away and she began to drift into the background.  By “City at War”, her story was a metatextual one about how she didn’t matter anymore.  By Volume 2 and the start of Volume 4, she was reduced to being a perpetual victim in constant need of being rescued.

In the grand scheme of the Mirage series, April was only truly relevant in those first few years when the Turtles were living with her in the Second Time Around shop and acclimating to human society.  She existed to try to teach them how to interact with people or find silly ways to get around being caught, as well as a home and moral support.

But they eventually outgrew her and when that happened, there just wasn’t anything more for her to do.  She’d served her purpose in those first few years and all that was left was a shell.  It’s harsh, but hey.  When April’s biggest storyline following the exile involved her going to California and complaining about messy apartments and then coming back to New York, it seems pretty clear her days of being interesting were long behind her.

And that’s a problem just about every TMNT incarnation has had with April.  She’s fun for that classic introduction storyline, but what the hell do you do with her after that?  The answer most offshoot TMNT media have come up with is employing something to make her less “normal” so she can compete with all the more exciting personalities.  So she’s a news reporter, a treasure hunter, a psychic, and (most commonly) a ninja-in-training.  Whatever it takes to keep her from being “boring”.  Because being “the normal one” is freakin’ boring.

Mirage, to their credit, stuck with April being “the normal one” for 21 years.  The idea was that she provided a grounding; she kept one foot in reality for the sake of the characters and the book.  It helped provide scale even at the expense of rendering her dull, forgettable, irrelevant or just plain old wallpaper.  But they stuck to it for 21 years, turning their noses up at making April “more interesting” while all the offshoot media was turning her into a ninja on par with the Turtles or a news reporter with questionable fashion sense.  I don’t know if I’d call that an act of “integrity”, but it was one of the things that set Mirage’s April apart from her doppelgangers.

Then, after 21 years of sticking to his guns, Laird finally relents and “upgrades” April with a weird crazy origin and now she’s a magic doodle from another dimension.  Bravo.

No one can ever really complain about the cartoons or movies or kid’s comics turning April into a ninja or a psychic or Indiana Jones again.  Because Mirage April, source material April, is a fantastical drawing brought to life by an enchanted pen.

And also she fucked a cockroach.

So yeah, make a note of that.  If you ever want to write one of those vacuous “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Ninja Turtles” articles for a list site, you can now include “April fucked a cockroach” as one of the segments.  You’re welcome.

Now, Devil’s Advocate, does being a magic doodle really change anything fundamentally about April in the Mirage comics?  It doesn’t change any of the things she did in the past and, presumably, she’ll still go on to be a boring milquetoast nine-to-fiver in the future.  It’s just that instead of coming from a womb, she came from a gem-powered fountain pen.  (I’m sorry, but there just isn’t any way to write that without making it sound idiotic.)

Maybe that’s the lesson Laird was going for; that being a magic drawing doesn’t make April any less April.  And her arc after this would seem to support that notion, as she goes on a journey to “find herself” (she does that a lot) and will come to the conclusion that the circumstances of her birth don’t make her any less of a person.  As the readers, I think we’re supposed to take away that being a magic drawing doesn’t make her any less of a character.

But god, it’s just so stupid.  I appreciate how it tied into the old Donatello microseries, I guess, so the whole magic crystal thing doesn’t come completely out of the blue (though we’re no closer to knowing its origin now than we were 20 years beforehand), but “magic doodle baby” is so many degrees dumber than “psychic teenager” or “jumpsuit-clad anchorwoman”.

The problem has NEVER been that fans can’t accept a more interesting April.  We’d been doing it since 1987.  The problem was “magic doodle baby”.

I suppose another issue is that so little is done with April after this shocking revelation.  She doesn’t continue to be the new Nobody; that was but a fleeting fancy she never committed herself to.  Instead, she goes on a journey of self-actualization that keeps her out of the narrative of Volume 4 for about ten issues but actually only spans the length and breadth of a single Tales of the TMNT installment.  Following that, Laird put Volume 4 on hiatus and sold everything else to Viacom, so whatever real payoff or aftermath we might have gotten from this narrative bombshell achieves nil.

The end result makes what’s supposed to be a big moment feel frivolous.  Fact of the matter is, we’re actually only a few issues away from Volume 4’s first hiatus, the “conclusion” for many people who failed to follow the new oddball release schedule (one issue every 5 or more years, announced over obscure blog posts, only sold on Facebook or the Mirage website, limited 1000 copies print runs).  April’s origin was a bomb dropped at a point where it had no impact.

Look, there are moments in this issue that are powerful even when you get past the “magic doodle baby” scenario.  The first and second April vanishing after a few months and leaving April’s parents devastated was heartbreaking.  You can imagine it absolutely destroying these people and the build up toward Mr. O’Neil drawing the final April was suitably well done, even if it’s unclear whether the emotional energy is what sustained April’s existence or the fact that her dad decided to use ink instead of pencil which is more “permanent”.

But this is a story more suited to an arthouse film or something.  This isn’t “Benjamin Button”, here.  This is “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.  You have an established character who served a vital (if dull) purpose for two decades and now she’s something completely ridiculous. 

There are other bits of subtext in here, such as the whole cockroach thing intimating Kafka’s “Metamorphisis” and the concept of existentialism, but it’s not so clever when the character flat out says, “Wow, this is just like Kafka’s ‘Metamorphisis’!  Boy, what a clever narrative!”  And the whole thing with the real April being the third try perhaps suggests discussions about miscarriages and abortion, prochoice vs. prolife, but god I don’t want to open THAT can of worms in the comments section of my site.

I think I’ve talked about this issue as much as I care to.  While I’ve no problem with April being changed from the “den mother/scale for reality” figure for the purpose of making her more interesting, it’s just a tad baffling that Laird would choose 21 years later to implement that change.  And when it comes so close to the point where Laird lost interest in Volume 4, it doesn’t really stick or achieve any payoff.  We’re basically at the 1 yard-line of the Mirage TMNT universe here, which is a hell of a time to drop “magic doodle baby” on us.