People who dress as (or are inspired by) animals are absurdly common in mainstream (superhero) comics. Part of it comes from a primal connection to nature which dates back to the dawn of humanity alongside the reality that heroes which such themes tend to be more popular with children. Yet unfortunately, the inhumane exploitation of animals is a very true reality in much of the world. Fitting into all of these themes has been IDW Publishing’s quarterly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mini series featuring the eclectic band of mutants, the “Mutanimals”. Writer Paul Allor and artist Andy Kuhn (alongside colorists Nick Filardi and regular series stalwart Ronda Pattison) have taken a cast of characters who arose throughout years worth of the regular Ninja Turtles series and not only added to their ranks, but have done a marvelous job of expanding upon their roots.
The one eyed mutant cat Old Hob has become an ally of convenience with his nemesis, Splinter, and taken on a more anti-mutant philosophy to his life. To this end he’s united with other mutated animals – either those who were directly experimented on, like Slash or Mutagen Man, or ones he helped create himself such as Herman the Hermit Crab, Pigeon Pete and Mondo Gecko – and decided to begin a war against those who have hurt them. After a successful campaign against an albeit weakened Foot Clan, the group have focused on the Null Corporation, the international corporation which the Foot outsourced much of their mutagen experimentation to. In the previous issues of this series, Hob has lost his human ally Lindsay to the corporation as well as not only found more mutants to rescue, but that the CEO of the company (Null herself) is far more than human. Hob is hardly a perfect leader, and his staunch anti-human opinions sometimes chafe against some of his team mates or negatively influence those who are the most vulnerable or gullible. It was the case of the latter which caused the already suicidal Mutagen Man to seek to sacrifice himself to try to destroy Null and her company once and for all. It’s ultimately up the entire Mutanimals team – Lindsay included – to save the day and strike the first blow against corporate exploitation of their kind.
Much like his run on the main TMNT series as well as his work on “Firebreather”, Andy Kuhn brings his A-game to the art for this series. He is at home with inhuman characters engaged in action sequences. It is even more marvelous that Paul Allor has managed to take characters who once existed only to sell toys and get pathos out of them, or even shape them into something new. Mutagen Man’s real name is literally a pun, yet he manages to be tragic in this series without losing all sense of humor to him. Slash makes for a great figure who balances a heroic ideal with a monstrous dark side, and Mondo, Herman, and Pete are good for laughs. Ray and Sally Pride have very quickly established themselves after only two issues, and both Hob and Lindsay are different now than they were at the start of the series. Perhaps the most surprising character here is Null herself. Null was originally created within the pages of the Archie Comics era of TMNT comics during the 1990’s who hadn’t been seen since, but has been remade for a new era. She retains the demonic characteristics and corporate evil of the original, while bolstering the ranks of female characters within the series. Anyone who seeks to work on a well established franchise which lacked female characters in the past and uses such a fact as an excuse would be wise to see IDW’s sustained efforts with the Turtle franchise as proof that such a “problem” only remains one due to lack of will or imagination.
It is hard to find a misstep in this mini series in particular or IDW’s Ninja Turtles comics in general. There is a strong editorial vision which is flanked by creative narrative visions from a team of writers (both old an new) who both honor the past and innovate for the future. There have been no end of strong artists attached to the series, such as Andy Kuhn. And despite this being one of IDW’s best selling titles, the company has resisted the urge to go hog wild on a “family” of titles which all share one continuity. There has only been one ongoing series, and one quarterly or semi-quarterly mini series alongside such as this. Each one has been terrific, and this one has provided more surprises and new characters than others.
Below are honorable mentions. They are comics featuring others who dress like animals, but aren’t quite as hot as the mighty Mutanimals above!
Batman Beyond #1: After nearly a decade of forgetting that this franchise existed, DC Comics has shown incredible tenacity with it for the past five years. After a modestly successful four year run across both print and digital by writers Adam Beechen and Kyle Higgins, it was decided that the series as it was would end in fall 2014 and the character would be more directly injected into the “mainstream” DC Universe from then on. As such, this will be the seventh “number one” issue of a Batman Beyond comic since 1999, and it the one which features the biggest creative team yet has the least in common with the animated series it is inspired by. While the costume may be the same, it is an older Tim Drake who is under the cowl, with an artificial intelligence based on Alfred Pennyworth helping him run things. He’s fresh from the mediocre selling weekly series “Future’s End” and he’s based in a future version of Gotham (and the world) which looks nothing like the world of 2041 from either the comic or the past four years of “Beyond” comics. In fact, despite the number on the cover, this feels very much like a story already in progress, which is quite disorienting. Industry legend Dan Jurgens handles the writing while top artist Bernard Chang rocks things on art, but readers coming in cold will find themselves quite confused. Aside for the now reasonable price of $2.99, this issue is a misfire once one gets beyond the competent writing and the terrific art. Part of the premise and allure of the “Batman Beyond” character and universe was that it followed the adventures of a youth who stumbled into the legend of Batman from outside, and came at things from that perspective. Making him simply an older Tim Drake continues the sort of cyclical and isolationist mentality of many superhero franchises, and having Alfred as an artificial intelligence reeks of a poor attempt at imitating J.A.R.V.I.S. from “Iron Man” at least seven years too late. The tone of the series is more “gritty” than fans of the series may recall; the first page alone carries with is a gory dismemberment. If there is anything that DC Comics has done to death with Batman, it is “grittiness”. The cover itself is even misleading, as this Batman is stuck fighting a war with Brother Eye, who hasn’t been terribly relevant to DC Comics since 2006. This column has long been a fan of Jurgans (as his “Booster Gold” was a mainstay for years) as well as “Batman Beyond”, but this issue was nothing short of a miss. Unless one wants a Batman Beyond comic which in no way is anything like the hit cartoon that spawned it, by all means avoid it.
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #6: Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and colorist Rico Renzi continue their utterly adorable and delightfully quirky and derivative take on one of Steve Ditko’s last creations for Marvel Comics. Few comics both mock yet embrace the absurdities of superhero comics with the style and vigor of this series. Unfortunately, caught amid the usual war of crossover events between companies, this has found an audience about as small as the rodents its’ heroine commands, and this arc may very well be its’ last. Doreen Green continues to juggle being a freshman at Empire State University with being one of New York’s most energetic superheroes as Squirrel Girl, flanked by her newest friend and dorm mate Nancy. When they stumble upon yet another bank robbery in progress, they not only encounter the dangerously confused Hippo (a villain from the 2009 “Dark Reign” era), but two more local superheroes, Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boi. Thankfully, everything is sorted out before too much more property or squirrels can be harmed, but Doreen may have met her worst rival yet in the mystically powered Girl Squirrel. As always, the highlights include the energy of the art as well as the never ending barrage of comedy and quips, as well as Doreen’s unbeatable attitude about everything. In a trait which has become rare in superheroes, she often winds up winning her battles not through brute force, but through her own empathy and willingness to make interesting bargains. This issue is busier than some others, and one could claim that making most of Doreen’s supporting cast fellow superheroes could lose some of the down to earth qualities of her current alter ego. Then again, alter egos seem to be made to be broken, and these heroes are hardly as high up on the spandex chain. As with every issue thus far, this is a good time which can be all too rare in Marvel Comics sometimes.