Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Bodycount

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Bodycount

This oddity of our current golden age of trade paperback collections, wherein every comic book once published with staples must be republished with a spine for the bookshelf, is part of IDW Publishing’s fruitful relationship with Kevin Eastman, one half of the pair responsible for creating the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and ushering in the 1980s black-and-white comics boom (and still something between a patron saint of, and career model for, many comics-makers).

While Eastman continues to work on Ninja Turtles comics for IDW, which holds the license to his characters now owned by Nickelodeon, the publisher has been gradually re-releasing seemingly everything Eastman has published previously, whether it has a turtle in it or not. Bodycount, as the mid-1990s book would eventually be called, does have a turtle in it, but just the one, and some pains seem to be taken to distance the ultraviolent, somewhat clumsy parody of John Woo shoot-’em-ups from the official TMNT franchise, which has long since become synonymous with family-friendly entertainment.

Eastman’s partner for this particular work was British 2000 AD alum Simon Bisley, whose peculiar heavy metal album aesthetic--which often scans somewhere between Boris Vallejo and Jamie Hewlett-- was by then already familiar to mainstream American readers, as he had already painted a Batman/Judge Dredd crossover and done some Lobo comics for DC with writer Alan Grant. The Eastman and Bisley team were already working on their collaboration with Eric Talbot, Melting Pot, when the comic that became Bodycount started to take form.

The original iteration was to be a 1994 miniseries entitled Casey Jones & Raphael, bearing the names of the two stars: The hockey mask-wearing vigilante parody that Eastman and Peter Laird created for their self-published 1985 Raphael, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic, and Eastman’s favorite ninja turtle, the one that he says was most influenced by his own personality (Donatello is Laird’s, if you’re wondering). Just one issue of Casey Jones & Raphael was published by Mirage Studios, Eastman and Laird’s outfit, and that was it.

After an extremely productive few years from 1992-1995 or so, wherein Eastman and Laird became quite heavily involved with the month-to-month, issue-to-issue work on their famous creations after having left the title for years in the hands of rotating creative teams, they would again step back, and Image Comics would begin publishing a brand-new black-and-white TMNT comic by Gary Carlson and Frank Fosco in 1996. It was there at Image that the Eastman/Bisley Bodycount finally saw completion, with the first issue republished under the new title, then followed by three more issues. Now, 22 years later, it’s back in a new hardcover format with a new cover and some pretty fascinating process business in the back, showing how the two artists worked--and/or don’t quite work--together.

I don’t think “fascinating” is too strong a word to refer to the creation of Ninja Turtle comics. What I personally have always found compelling about Eastman and Laird’s original volume of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the self-published “monthly” that ran for some 60+ issues between 1984 and 1993, was just how different the art in the book could and would look from issue to issue. Not simply during the aforementioned period from about 1988-1992, when different guest cartoonists and creative teams would take over the book for an issue or two to do their own distinct takes on the characters, but even in the earlier days, when it was pretty much just Eastman, Laird and their Mirage studio-mates like Jim Lawson, Eric Talbot, Michael Dooney and a few others.

They would share and swap duties from issue to issue, and so there was never the clear division of labor that marked the assembly line process for making comics that has so long dominated the American mainstream, or even the organized process prevalent in Japan, wherein there’s a name cartoonist and many assistants with specific duties. Rather, different people would handle the scripting and the layouts and the pencils and the inking; sometimes it was pretty much all one of them, sometimes there would be as many as four pencil artists and inkers in the credits,  but rather than parceling up pages or scenes, they might all work in varying combinations on all of the pages. The results could be a comic book that bears some strange gestalt style, or one artist’s style providing a tonal accent to another’s. There’s one three-issue stint from 1989 wherein Jim Lawson pencils from Eastman and Laird’s script, and he’s inked in one issue by Laird, the next by Talbot and the next by Eastman.

For Bodycount, Eastman wrote the script--such that it is--and drew the layouts. Bisley then drew atop of those layouts, in many cases seeming to treat them as little more than suggestions, or perhaps something akin to storyboards, as few of Eastman’s lines seem to have made it into the final work. The backmatter for this collection, published under the Top Shelf umbrella of IDW, shows postage stamp-sized examples of Eastman’s layouts side-by-side with Bisley’s drawings, and you can see what looks like a somewhat conventional old-school Ninja Turtle comic transform into...something very much not.

Eastman’s story is shaggy to the point of silly. When it begins, Casey Jones is embroiled in a bloody six-page bar fight, with little dialogue beyond “Kill!” and “GRAHHHHHH!” Into the melee ducks a buxom woman with martial arts skills named Midnight; she is being pursued by assassins, one of whom has a big trench coat that tends to flare up dramatically, a pair of robot hands and a stylish-looking scar over one eye. His name is Johnny Woo Woo, in case Eastman and Bisley’s source of inspiration doesn’t become obvious enough fast enough. Somewhere in the middle of that, Midnight has a flashback to events in Hong Kong, where she was a driver for Johnny during a set-up, and he apparently blames her for betraying him. Hence the chase.

And that is basically what the rest of the comic is: A chase, punctuated every few pages by gun battles. Johnny corners Midnight and Casey in an alley, Raphael leaps down to rescue them. The three of them flee from NYC to Pittsburgh, with Johnny and his crew of killers in hot pursuit. At every stop, there’s a gunfight that leaves ridiculous numbers of bystanders dead and things exploded, and yet our heroes keep running until they reach the final issue, at which point they stop running and fight back...for no apparent reason other than the fact that it is the last issue of the series.

Bisley quite evidently didn’t waste too much time poring over previous Ninja Turtle comics in order to master the characters’ designs. In his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, the emphasis is on "mutant", and he gives Raphael staring eyeballs with pupils peeking out through the red mask--rather than the Batman-like white triangle eyes they usually have--and the sort of expressionistic musculature that defines so much of his other work. He also had a tendency to want to draw Raphael as a human dressed as a turtle; Eastman’s notes say that his first passes included five toes per foot (instead of the two the turtles have) and a shell-strapped to his back; that shell generally looks a bit like something a Major League Baseball catcher might wear, and there are images of the five-toed, guy-dressed-like-a-turtle that survived into the collection.

Those familiar with Bisley’s oeuvre will get what they expect: The main villain is big and menacing, the main (human) hero is handsome and overly-muscled,  the main female protagonist has Barbie doll breasts, body-builder muscles and she puts on a bathing suit for a climactic sword fight. The rest of the characters all tend to look like hurried doodles that were gradually fleshed out and filled in later, even if they don’t stylistically seem to fit in the same story as the primaries. Backgrounds are crowded, extra doodles come from nowhere--like a funny little half-elephant, half-dog and a smoking monkey in a top hat that make a single panel appearance to stand along a few supporting characters to gawk at an explosion near the climax--and certain sound effects get drawn into the art in graffiti-style calligraphy (regular Mirage letterer Steve Lavigne handles everything in a dialogue bubble).

Obviously a great deal of attention is lavished on the guns, which are sometimes drawn in great detail and at other times are merely large gray rectangles from which the bullet effects originate. Bisley fills his panels with orange-ish starbursts emanating from their tips, and the casings form brass-colored rainbows arcing away from the characters, suggesting their routes through page-space as they run, jump and shoot. The effects of the guns are given just as much attention. While most of the main characters never get too close to getting shot, generic footsoldiers and passersby are constantly riddled with and even pulled apart by gunfire. The goriest imagery is among the silliest, as innocent bystanders will mug and make funny faces as the sides of their heads explode like balloons being popped. There is more than one flying eyeball scene; possibly more than six.

It’s all so much that it’s a very difficult comic to take seriously, which makes one wonder how serious Eastman’s commentary on guns is really meant to be taken. At the start of the book, Casey is fighting with his fists, and Raphael with his ninja weapons. Throughout the chases, Casey keeps re-stating his dislike of guns, as does Raphael, who has trouble fitting his big, green, mutant fingers in the trigger guards to squeeze off shots. The latter eventually comes around though, first out of desperation, and then out of glee at the destruction they cause. “Hmm...These things aren’t so bad,” he thinks at one point, “Helps even up the odds against the losers!”

For the final battle, when Midnight has doffed her low cut tank top and tight-fitting pantsuit for her battle bikini, he emerges with guns and grenades strapped all over his body, laughing while clutching a machine gun with an angry face painted on it.  His eyes get wide and glassy, and he seems as crazy about guns as the cartoon cuckoo bird is for Cocoa Puffs.

It’s not until his friend Casey is seemingly shot to death--don’t worry, his lucky Wayne Gretsky hockey puck necklace caught the bullet meant for his heart--that Raphael learns the error of his ways, shakes his fists at the heavens, sheds a turtle-manly tear and delivers a brief homily about the ugliness of guns. While it’s pretty clear Raphael’s seduction by and ultimate rejection of the gun is done with some purpose, it would probably be reading too much into the story to think Eastman and Bisley planned on this as a criticism of American culture’s weird relationship with guns, specifically that it’s not until you lose someone to gun violence-- that is, when the problem affects you personally--that we start to consider them a problem. This was, after all, originally published a few years before Columbine, and thus far predates the now regular appearance of mass shootings in the mass media.

More likely, those scenes are just there to move these ever flexible characters in the direction necessary to accomplish the creators’ modest goals, and then move them back towards their default settings. Which is, of course, perfectly fine; after all, what says mid-1990s mainstream comics like talented cartoonists devoting a great deal of time and effort to what’s little more than an over-the-top lark?

Completely inessential, Bodycount is nevertheless one more extremely interesting entry in Eastman’s career of collaborating with other cartoonists, and an engagingly weird warts-and-all time capsule of a comic book.