Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 2) #27

Publication date: September, 2006

Plot: Chris Allan, Dean Clarrain and Peter Laird
Script: Dean Clarrain (Steve Murphy)
Art: Chris Allan
Frontispiece: Michael Dooney
Letters: Eric Talbot
Letters page art: Diego Jourdan

“White Horses”


Frontispiece: April, dressed as Nobody, is perched on a rooftop, looking down at the city.  She ponders to herself that she no longer knows who she is and decides to tell us a story…

At the Pioneer Bar on the coast of Sitka, Alaska, April meets with a man named Ken.  Ken tells her that he’s loaded up her kayak with supplies and that the cabin she’s rented has also been filled with provisions (April intends to spend a month alone there).  She thanks him, gives him the keys to her motorcycle, and as she heads out, she notices photos of boats all over the walls.  Ken tells her that in the fishing town, one’s boat is their livelihood and they’d best take care of it.

As April journeys toward Kruzof Island, she considers the 4,000-mile journey she’s so far undertaken in her attempt to find herself.  She would call it “soul-searching” but isn’t sure that, given her origins, she even has a soul.  When she reaches the next coast, there is nowhere further, physically, for her to go.  April considers it the boundary between this and the next world and wonders what the next world must be like.

April explores the island and reads up on the history of the Tlingit natives who once thrived there.  She reads about their devotion to nature spirits, and as she’s accosted by a raven near an ancient fire pit, wonders if it was a spirit.  She also reads up on the various attempts by white men to settle the island.  In the forties, when one attempt failed, the white families vacated, but left a single white mare behind by accident.  April feels pity for the poor creature who was left all alone.  For years, visitors would spot the white mare and wonder how she survived the winters all by herself.

Suddenly, she’s disturbed by an old lady who introduces herself as Onida, a Tlingit of the Raven clan.  She tells April that she’s “pretty as a picture”.  Incensed by her choice of words, April storms off in search of solitude.

Later, April continues to rough it on the island, but is disappointed that she’s merely existing rather than thinking.  One day, a grizzly bear gets her scent and Onida reappears, urging her to back away slowly until the bear is out of sight. 

The two camp out on the beach and get to know one another.  Eventually, April tells Onida about her origins as a drawing.  She fears that it was her father’s belief in her that has maintained her existence, and now that he’s dead, she doesn’t expect she’ll last much longer.  With some coaxing from Onida, April admits that she came to Alaska to die.

Onida is not surprised by April’s tale, but rather, tells her that life and death are far more complex for anyone to understand.  Everything a person does in their life is part of the life/death equation, even down to the smallest variables such as how they eat or how they drive.  Onida says that life and death, ultimately, are a matter of choice.

Later, April continues exploring the island and considers Onida’s words about choice and isn’t sure she can choose to leave such a beautiful world behind.  Suddenly, the grizzly bear from earlier spots her and chases her to a cliff’s edge.  April falls over the side and hangs on for her life.  The bear sniffs the air and leaves her alone.  April slips partway down the cliff and tries to hang on, but wonders if she should even bother.

An image of Splinter appears before her and she thinks it means that she’s about to die.  April decides that she’s not ready to die, that she wants to live.  Onida appears above her and asks if she’s sure that she wants to live.  April confirms and Onida extends a hand to help her up.

Sometime later, as April heads back to the mainland on her kayak, she waves goodbye to Onida and thanks her for saving her life.  As she turns her back, Onida transforms into the white mare and thanks April for remembering her.

Turtle Tips:

*April left on her road trip in TMNT (Vol. 4) #23.  She will return from it in TMNT (Vol. 4) #31.

*April learned her origin in TMNT (Vol. 4) #14 and revealed it to Casey in TMNT (Vol. 4) #22.

*April debuted as the new Nobody in TMNT (Vol. 4) #20.

*April’s father died in TMNT (Vol. 1) #56.  Splinter died in TMNT (Vol. 4) #10.

*This issue was dedicated to the memory of Steve Irwin.


Alright, this may very well be the last Steve Murphy TMNT comic I ever review.  It’s certainly the last one in my archives, anyway.  I guess, with this being my last Murphy issue, I should clear some things up.

I give Murphy a pretty hard time on this site.  I don’t think I’m necessarily picking on him, as I always couch my criticisms with examples as to why I don’t like this or that, but I do seem to hit him harder than I do other writers whose works I don’t care for.

Look, Steve Murphy (whether he’s using his pseudonyms “Dean Clarrain” or “J.D. Vollman”) is the most prolific writer in the TMNT franchise, bar none.  No other writer even comes CLOSE to matching the number of stories Murphy has written starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or their extended universe.  The depth of his catalog is staggering and I honestly never imagined I’d reach the bottom of it.

But that also means that he has more bad stories than any other TMNT writer.  Also, potentially more good or average stories.  But that’s just the end result of having written more stories than anybody else.  So for those of us who tend to focus more on the negative than the positive, it can seem like I’m endlessly ripping into him and his accomplishments (while my positive reviews flutter by unnoticed).

But it’s more than just Murphy having written a lot of bad Turtle stories as a byproduct of writing so many Turtle stories in general.  There’s this polarization between Murphy’s better and worse works that I’ve never seen in any other Turtle author.  When Murphy writes a good story, he writes one of the all-time best.  And vice versa, when it’s a dud, it’s a HELL of a dud.  And as I mentioned earlier, it’s much easier to notice a foul smell than a pleasant one, so the swine tend to stand out above the pearls.

And as I’m sure you’ve noticed, when I criticize one of Murphy’s lesser offerings, I tend to get irritated by a single setback: His propensity for using the characters as mouthpieces to parrot his personal opinions.  I’ve yammered incessantly about this and I don’t want to go into it again, but it is something he has always done to the point that it might as well be a “Murphyism”. 

Whether it’s the characters coincidentally reciting verbatim Murphy’s views on politics, religion, environmentalism and fashion, or the narrative warping in a way to present the figures Murphy dislikes as villains and those he looks up to as virtuous, you will find all that and more CONSTANTLY throughout his body of work.

Much of the time, the actual characters and story get lost in the personal message Murphy is trying to convey, and rather than trying to be well-informed or educational, they’re usually a case of “what’s bothering me this week in the world of politics or sound-byte news”.  I guess when you’re writing an average of 5 TMNT stories a month for 20 years, inspiration begins to come less frequently and you’re often left with no recourse but to adapt your blog into a comic script to meet your deadline.  But whatever the circumstance, the comics could be pretty fucking rotten.

But when Murphy’s works are less personal, at least on an “I’m holier than thou” level, he’s shown the capacity to write some of the greatest TMNT comics in the canon.  It’s my relief and pleasure to say, after this extensive tangent, that “White Horses” is one of his best stories.

So getting on-topic, “White Horses” was written as the follow-up to Laird’s controversial new origin for April.  I don’t think I’m being out of line when I say that a LOT of fans detested that story from Volume 4 and time has not come close to healing the wound.  It was pretty bad.

There are any number of colorful euphemisms to describe the intent of “White Horses”.  Is it “making diamonds out of coal”?  Is it “polishing a turd”?  And they’d be right on the money, yes.  But however you want to describe it, this story takes one of the worst TMNT comics ever written and uses it as a platform to give us one of the best.  Do the ends justify the means?  No, maybe not.  April’s origin is still stupid as fuck.  But “White Horses” essentially tells us that “it doesn’t matter, you can forget about it” and that might be the best advice Murphy’s ever given us.

The purpose of April’s origin as a doodle brought to life by a magic crystal was mystifying for a plethora of reasons, but I think the question that lingered in most everyone’s mind was “why?”  What was the POINT?  On the surface, it seems that it was done just to give April something to DO.  Something to make her relevant to the narrative again.  April’s journey to “find herself” was the outcome of that new origin.  This is what she DID.  This is how she was RELEVANT.

So with that in mind, this is one of the most vital issues of Tales of the TMNT Volume 2.  In TMNT Volume 4, April finds her origin, vanishes from the book entirely and then returns good as new.  If you missed this issue, then her new origin comes across as more meaningless than ever because the ongoing omits the story the origin was used to setup.

I honestly can’t imagine reading through Volume 4 and NOT inserting this issue somewhere between #23 and #31.  Well, actually, I CAN imagine it.  And it would be awful.

“White Horses” is something of a spiritual successor to Murphy’s more famous TMNT masterpiece, “Sons of the Silent Age”.  In that story, Raphael is going through a similar nihilistic dilemma as he ponders his inability to reproduce and decides that nothing he’ll do in life will ever matter, so what’s the point?

April, too, is in that same predicament, but whereas Raph’s concerns could be brushed off as teenage melodrama, April’s issues have a bit more weight to them.  She’s even less of a person than Raph is; at least Raph was born from a mother.  April is “art imitating life”, as she so nicely puts it in this issue.  She isn’t “real”, at least by her appraisal, and therefor she wonders if she even has a soul or a true consciousness.

While the accompanying monologue and many of the metaphors seen in the issue can seem pretty heavy handed (the thing with the boat at the beginning), there’s a certain flow to them that keeps the proceedings from feeling melodramatic or whiney.  The sincerity of April’s predicament causes us to forget the stupidity of how the whole thing started.

The bigger bombshell is the revelation that she came to the forest to die.  Murphy doesn’t elaborate on exactly what that means; did she come to commit suicide or did she come expecting to wink out of existence like her prototype “sisters”?  Either way, she wasn’t expecting to ever go home again.

It casts this somber net over everything that preceded the revelation, and when you go back and reread the issue, you can tell just how well Murphy set the whole thing up.  

April poetically refers to the coast off the island as a boundary between this world and the next, wondering what the next world would be like.  In actuality, she wasn’t waxing poetic at all, but was pondering what would happen to her when she died.  

There’s a montage where she tries out some foraging tips and enjoys the fruits of her labors, eating a fresh meal she gathered herself, but also hates herself for enjoying it.  You don’t really get why, at the time, but it’s of course because she came to the island to die and she’s mad that she’s doing the opposite of that: Surviving.

There’s even a subtle hint at the very start of the issue, as she gives the keys to her motorcycle to the old man at the bar.  On the surface, you might think it was just her asking him to watch the bike while she’s gone, but the reality is that she was giving the bike away because she wasn’t expecting to go home.  Pretty dark stuff.

April is still rather bland in the story, but I think that’s a reality I’ll just have to make peace with.  Mirage April will always be bland; that IS her characterization.  And it doesn’t hurt the narrative any, either.  April comments that all she’s been doing in this story is “existing” and, in a metatextual way, that’s all she’s EVER done in the TMNT comics.  Has it been a life worth living?  Does it mean she should die?  Well, she figures that out.

The stuff with the Tlingit woman and the white mare add a nice supernatural element to the story to give it a little pizzazz.  To my surprise, Murphy restrained himself from including segues into the plight of the Native population and the evils of white settlers; probably a first for any story he’s ever written involving Native characters.  In fact, this story is completely devoid of any tangents about environmentalism or white guilt or the evils of industry, and is instead a focused tale about April finding a reason to go on living.  No doubt, that focus and restraint is one of the reasons I think this ranks among Murphy’s best works.

Chris Allan returns for art, and this may also be the last time I ever get to talk about his stuff, too.

While I don’t think this script was necessarily tailored to his more superficial strengths (there's no action), and it’s certainly not Allan’s flashiest work, it is still a solidly penciled installment.  Allan has always excelled at expressions and body language, but he employs a lot of subtlety in these pages.  April is down in the dumps, but not cartoonishly so.  He doesn’t telegraph her suicidal attitude, but you can tell throughout that there’s something deeply, deeply wrong with her just by looking.

Allan doesn’t half-ass any of the nature or scenery in this issue, either, and it is a VERY lovely comic.  One of the themes involves the beauty of the natural world inspiring April to find meaning in life, and Allan sells it exceptionally well.  His grey tones are also nicely done and the whole issue has this sort of overcast look to it; it FEELS like it takes place in Alaska, not in the dead of snowy winter, but in the nippy, wet, gloomy months beforehand.

Alright, I’m going to wrap this up since my review has gotten absurdly long.  I doubt anyone has even made it this far.

Essentially, I’m glad that of all the Murphy comics in his library, I saved this one for last.  I’m glad that I decided to end on a good note with him.  He has written TMNT comics that I have absolutely despised, many of them, in fact; but this is one I positively love.  He takes one of the worst TMNT plots and spins a meaningful tale out of it.  And more than that, he writes a story all about April that is actually INTERESTING.  Such a thing has rarely been done.

Grade: A (as in, “And then April goes back to Volume 4 and returns to acting like a melodramatic shithead.  Oh the difference a writer makes”.)