The plot threads of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" have slowly been drawing together and, in issue #49, everything finally coalesces as Clan Foot and Clan Hamato face off in the Gauntlet for the right to fight alongside Shredder and Splinter in their to battle to the death. Kevin Eastman, Bobby Curnow and Tom Waltz have slow-burned their way back to having these characters in one room and the personal nature of the battles fuels the fire of this showdown. Cory Smith illustrates the action with what is becoming a signature style for the turtles, who -- under his pencils -- are proud and noble characters that explode with action and speed when the story opens up for the fight.
Waltz plays with a very large cast and does a great job of maintaining individual voices for each. The noble stillness of Master Splinter, the vengeful spirit of Shredder and the honorable dedication of Oroku Karai lead the first half as they guide readers through the Foot's Gauntlet. Each character wants the same thing -- the honor and respect of the Foot Clan to return -- but each sees a different way of going about achieving this goal. Waltz uses Karai as the bridge between the ideological gap between Splinter and Shredder before letting Smith cut loose with an intense battle between the turtles and Bebop, Rocksteady, Koya and Bludgeon. In the battle, the ideological view of the fight flips as Raphael leads with rage, and the emotional toll the last several issues have taken on the brothers sees them in a bad situation by the end. Waltz uses retribution as a theme in the back-and-forth between the leaders, allowing it to force Shredder towards screaming vengeance. He also uses it in the fight, clouding the heroes' actions with their desire for vengeance for Donatello's brutal attack. The flow of the action is kinetic and exciting, the artist still finding small fun moments within, like Mikey excitedly collecting a shark tooth after cold-cocking Bludgeon.
Some elements of the story are quickly dropped to lean into the more spiritual nature of the confrontation and, while it is organic the removal of Baxter Stockman from the board, it feels abrupt. Formerly a subplot boiling in the background, it's now clear that Stockman was simply a means to return Shredder to the forefront of the story while Eastman, Curnow and Waltz tied up some loose ends. Once the story gets rolling, he's not really missed and hopefully his scheming will have a greater impact down the line.
Issue #50 is going to be a slobber-knocker and it doesn't feel like either of the leaders are going to make it out of this confrontation alive. The poignant speech Master Splinter gives the boys about not wanting to die yet wanting the shadow of the Foot to no longer be cast over his children is moving and feels like the kind of thing that happens before a major player is removed from the story. Even if that feels predictable, it doesn't take away from the excellent story. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" #49 is another solid installment of a series that delievers great story and great visuals month-in and month-out.