The coloring on IDW's Raphael made me sai* wistfully for the original comics

As much as I love comics, as much as I love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as much as I love writing and as much as I love drawing, I do not envy the folks at IDW, who secured the license to produce new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics from the new owner of the ninja turtle characters, Viacom. Sure, from a business perspective, it sounds like a great opportunity for a comics publisher, particularly a smaller one without, say Time Warner or Disney breathing down their necks to turn huge profits constantly.

But from a creative standpoint? What do you do with the characters in 2011, after their mega-successful first life as black-and-white comics stars from the mid-eighties, their even more successful second life as late-eighties cartoon, toy, movie and marketing juggernauts, and the many, many less successful attempts to rejigger them in various media, with varying levels of success, over the course of the last ten to fifteen years? After all, even if approached as a nostalgia-driven project, there are two very different most-prevalent takes on the characters to try and tap into.

I think IDW probably has the right idea.

They somehow managed to lure  back one of the two creators, Kevin Eastman, after he had been largely absent from the comics for years (His fellow co-creator, Peter Laird, had been heavily involved in the last Mirage series, just previous to the Viacom sale). Eastman is co-writing the new series with Tom Waltz, and co-penciling with artist Dan Duncan, essentially providing layouts for Duncan to finish.

They also chose to start fresh with the narrative instead of picking up where one of the past volumes of the comics left off, or simply rebooting and telling the same old story all over again. There are, so far, some pretty key differences, including a new villain and the fact that the four title characters didn’t all grow up together.

I don’t know how well IDW is serving the many potential TMNT audiences, but I was pretty excited to see a “micro-series” starring Raphael on the stands this week.

During Eastman and Laird’s original, 1984-1993 volume of the series, they published four such micro-series featuring solo stories of the each character, beginning in 1985 with Raphael. Half of them were fairly standalone stories. 1985’s Michaelanglo was a Christmas special, and 1986’s Donatello was an unofficial team-up with Jack Kirby. The others were pretty integral to that volume’s story. In 1986’s Leonardo, for example, Shredder and The Foot Clan return from the first issue to hound the title character back to his home and drive the characters out of New York City to the farm much of the rest of the series would be based at.

And in Raphael, Eastman and Laird introduced Casey Jones, presented as a worse version of the angry, violent Raphael. In his original appearance, Casey Jones was basically a maniac vigilante, beating up muggers with sporting equipment.

Appreciating the nod to the first volume of turtle comics (a nod that includes, among the way-too-many variant covers, transposing Eastman images of the covers for the original special onto the new one), I thought this would be a pretty good time to check in on IDW’s progress with TMNT.

The differences between 1985's Raphael and 2011's are dramatic.

Firstly, this is a different creative team than the monthly, with Brian Lynch writing and Franco Urru drawing. Urru’s design for the the Turtles, well, Turtle, seems very much in keeping with Duncan's, but unlike the Mirage version, it’s by different guys than the series it spins out of.

It’s also in color, which was, of course, to be expected, although ninja turtles in color still strike me as somehow off, like a colorized black-and-white movie. There was a grittiness to the black ink on white paper, and immediacy and urgency that felt in keeping with the 1980s NYC urban setting. The color art, by Fabio Mantovani, is also pretty forceful, in the showy, over-powering style that has become the standard at Marvel and way too many of the non-Big Two companies in the past five years.

There’s a neat stippling effect on Raphael, that gives his skin a reptilian look, but the coloring is extremely effects-heavy, to the point that every square inch has several such effects, so that it all blends together, and nothing pops out. Raphael’s skin has the same look and texture as the rooftops he stands on, for example. Shadow effects on top of the colors make the darkness seem weak compared to the more dramatic, stark black of regular old ink or Crayola-colored solid black.  And luminescent lighting effects are applied to stars, windows, the reflection of light from Raphael’s shell or a new character’s white fur.

The story, like that of the original Raphael, definitely stands alone, with a beginning, middle and end, but it also quite noticeably picks up on a bigger story already in the telling, and ends with a very dramatic, full-page splash cliffhanger with a very 1960’s Marvel technique hinting at the return of the characters’ most well-known villain. It introduces a new character in Alopex, an arctic snow fox mutant, just as the previous Raphael introduced a new character, although in this case its made quite clear she’s meant to stick around.

After the story, in which Raphael and his friend Casey Jones are interrupted from crime patrol/talking about their feelings by the introduction of a new mutant pursued by familiar foes, there are three pages of sketches of the new character by Eastman. The first of these is a full-page one, in which we see the character in Eastman’s familiar, rough style (Is she a fox, or a werewolf, or a rat, like Master Splinter, whom she resembles?). She’s leaping in mid-air, a cityscape of rooftops and chimneys and heavy clouds in the background.

It’s in color, but only just, mostly blue on top of the black ink, with some green, brown and red in Alopex’s clothing to distinguish it from her fur. It’s certainly more finished than the other two pages of more preliminary sketches, but it still looks like the dashed off work of a great artist. It looks drawn, by human hand, and it looks urgent and unmediated.

I wish the rest of comic looked like that. Not necessarily drawn by Eastman, but more like this drawing of his: Drawn by hand, from memory instead of reference, less fussed-over, less-realistic.

Perhaps even more than the characters, I think that’s what I liked most about the original comics, and what I like more about them now when I look back at them, as the production values of mainstream, serial comic book-comics get higher and higher, and the pursuit of realism is coloring and setting becomes more and more prevalent.

I still think IDW’s going about their management of the franchise in the right way, and there’s certainly a lot more right about Raphael than there is wrong, but, as always, I found myself wanting it to be more right.

Or maybe just more like the way I personally want it to look, and to hell with industry trends or what seems to sell these days.

Yeah, that sounds about right. After all, I am a fan.

*And if you think that sai-based headline pun was bad, you shoulda seen the other nine on the list I decided against using.

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