Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Bodycount

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Bodycount

Confession time! Before this one, I had never read a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic. By the time me and all the other '90s kids got squeezed out, the Heroes in a Half-Shell were such a franchised hurricane that the comic books, like they always are when they compete against other media, were easy to miss. I watched the live-action movie, I waited through the lame-ass cartoon version for Pokemon to start, and I even had a couple of the action figures. Crucially, though, those action figures came from garage sales or older cousins, and not the packages from Toys 'R' Us. The Ninja Turtles were passe by the time I'd aged into the market for them - and that was a loooong time ago. If I ever even saw TMNT comics on the stands as a kid, I don't remember them. I probably passed over them the same way I passed on Transformers and Alf comics, knowing with the mysterious certitude only kids possess that comics based on TV shows are wack. It wasn't until I begin making a serious study of the comics medium in my teens that I learned the Turtles' origin was in sequential art, as the most successful small-press comic of all time. (I guarantee there's a little kid out there right now who'll only discover Batman started out as a comic book character after he [or she, but c'mon, this kid is probably a he] discovers The Comics Journal in 2030.) 

Yeah yeah, I can hear you - nobody gives a shit about your childhood dude! You're correct--even my mom would sooner forget it. But I bring it up to make the point that the Ninja Turtles are far and away the most nostalgia-driven concern that still has multiple comics coming out every month. Even superheroes manage to string together a decent run of issues that can sell on their own merits rather than those of the franchise they're attached to once in a blue moon to keep people coming back for more. Ninja Turtle comics, on the other hand, sell solely to a captive audience solely by virtue of their Being Ninja Turtle Comics. That captive audience is composed entirely of guys five to ten years older than me who got swept up by the original wave. The only two people I've met who were younger than me and into Ninja Turtle comics I'll refrain from describing here for fear of kicking up a comment-section firestorm; suffice to say they ain't gonna be splitting the atom anytime soon though. Even in a world where sexually attractive celebrities can be found dropping cute little quotables about their Marvel Universe obsessions, it's extremely difficult to imagine a line about anyone outside a comic store being or getting really into the extended TMNT Universe greeted with anything other than gales of laughter. Actually, it was pretty goddamn hard for me the time I heard it in the comic store too!

Still, the Ninja Turtles have always exerted a kind of morbid fascination upon me. If something can keep its hold on any imagination, no matter how infertile, for the decades that move its supplicant from childhood to middle age, it must carry a power of some kind. All the more so when those years together consist of much less feast than famine. And hey, I'm a big fan of Usagi Yojimbo comics, probably the Turtles' closest spiritual cousin. So when I got asked to review a Ninja Turtle comic drawn by Simon Bisley, my reaction was immediate and enthusiastic: Finally, an excuse! Too, Bisley is another kind of spiritual cousin to the Ninja Turtles: a big deal at the same late-'80s/early '90s hair-metal moment, whose style perhaps outpaces his substance in the eyes of all but a similar hard core of dedicated Constant Readers. It was like getting asked if I wanted a ticket to a M√łtley Crue concert - as long as I don't gotta pay anything, hell yeah!

The comic in question is a reprint of the 1996 miniseries Bodycount, a fact I was not aware of until I read the "creator notes" at the back of the book. For a '90s action comic Steve Lavigne's computer colors have aged incredibly well, extra impressive considering that Bisley's street-art expressionist rendering of superheroics is a tough ask any time. Before I knew this wasn't a new comic, my thought was that Bisley was putting in more effort than he often does nowadays. If you're into this particular style of art the version of it seen here is impressive, with goiter-muscled pinups in full roar getting plenty of support from solid scene-setting master shots and more character acting than I can remember seeing in most Bisley books. There's a chiaroscuro effect that pops up in places, clearly a riff on Sin City, that Bisley handles well, and speaks of his collaboration with Frank Miller as a learning experience rather than just a cash-in. The graffitiesque sound effects lettering, whether by Bisley or Lavigne, is a big visual plus. In a vacuum, Bisley holds up his end of the bargain: this is dedicated, Image-style gonzo picture making with enough manic weirdness and distortion to it to keep the pages turning.

It's original Turtles writer Kevin Eastman, and how his script interacts with Bisley's art, that runs this book off the rails. Bodycount comprises one long chase sequence - an interesting idea for an action comic if handled properly, but boy is this one ever not that. Bisley's deformed drawing excels when it shows moments of impact: the best moments in this book are the blood-splurting car crashes and withering hails of gunfire. But he's below average at showing bodies moving through space, or keeping the reader's focus on key figures in melee-style action scenes. Eastman, meanwhile, isn't a disciplined enough writer to structure his plot with moments of pursuit giving way to bursts of action. It all just happens all at once, which leaves Bisley, to say nothing of readers' comprehension, in some rather dire straits. A good writer should play to their artist's strengths; Eastman the writer, instead, functions more like the quarterbacks who threw the passes in this video

Boy, does he ever lean into his artist's love of tits though! I was extremely let down by the realization that Bodycount isn't a full-cast Ninja Turtles comic, but a team-up between Raphael and Casey Jones, the dude who's always hanging around with the Turtles like the 13 year old you see playing Star Wars with a bunch of 8 year olds at the wedding. If there's one thing about the Turtles media I consumed as a kid that I enjoyed, it was their goofball-ass banter. Into the void created by the full team's absence parachutes a stereotypical Bad Girl, a female assassin whose name I'm too lazy to go back and look for because it's not a real name, it's some Cool Sounding Noun. Shadow? Razor? Who gives a fuck! Anyway, she's given the unenviable task of expositing this thing's plot while Raph and Casey pose and shoot at shit. You feel bad for the poor lady, especially given that she clearly has to take a few off-panel time outs for (further) cosmetic enhancements as the story ratchets up.

I must confess that my level of interest disappeared on this comic once I realized about two thirds of the way through that the other Ninja Turtles weren't going to show up and save the day. I couldn't help glazing over the word balloons unless the words in it were written in big font, or giving the less-explosiony panels a cursory glance. But I have to give strong consideration to the idea that this might have been the point. Eastman published some pretty outre cartoonists in his time as the head of Tundra; Bisley's worked with some pretty literate motherfuckers in his day. These guys have to know the difference, right? And really, what do people come to a Ninja Turtle comic for anyway? The best level to enjoy Bodycount on is one of total immediacy - not as a narrative or even a collection of sequences, but panel by panel, subconsciously gauging each new one for its level of dopamine production, then looking at the next. The Ninja Turtles themselves, in this reading, are less characters than a skeleton key, the permission a reader needs to enter a more total state of passive reception than most comics allow. 

What this says about your average Ninja Turtle devotee I'm sure I don't know. I will say that by the time Moonlight or whatever - you know, the girl - ditches her purple leather jacket and bustier for strategically ripped fetish wear before her final conflict with, uh, her brother, and pops an aureola free of its confines during the heat of the battle, even a reader from Uranus could tell some kind of climax is being reached. The strange power held by the extended TMNT universe must, I'm afraid, remain a mystery.