comics, comics criticism, writing

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: City at War

It begins amid endings.

City at War, published between August 1992 and 1993  is remembered fondly among fans of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics as the longest extended story of the Mirage era and its epic finale.

At its core it is a rich and heartbreaking story of fractured relationships, the painful reality of aging, and the burdens of responsibility.

Notably, City at War is the final collaboration between creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Amidst its bombast and excitement, it is a deeply personal reflection of the souring and fragmenting of their personal and professional relationship. 

The Turtles and their extended family begin issue 50 each setting out from their second home in Northamptom. Casey, April, and Splinter go their separate ways as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael travel to New York to clean up the mess that was made following their defeat of the Shredder in 1989’s Return to New York. The Shredder’s death created a power vacuum within the Foot Clan, leaving innocents dead in their wake. 

City at War is immediately preceded by a two issue prologue titled Shades of Gray, which sees the fallout for Casey Jones after, in a fit of his usual rage, he accidentally kills a young man who mugged him. Spiraling into a depression and reckoning with the consequences of his rage for the first time, he gets drunk, fights with Donatello, and alienates the rest of his friends. April meanwhile, is looking back on her life, all the dangers and messes, and feeling lost. She feels as if her identity is tied entirely to the turtles and is exhausted by living in hiding, unable to let anyone else into the secrets of her life. She vents these feelings to Splinter, hoping for some wise counsel, but Splinter instead tells her to leave and slams the door. 

In issue 50, the start of City at War proper, Eastman and Laird’s layouts masterfully capture these fragmented interpersonal dynamics. Shards of broken glass are a running visual motif, and the characters are caught in the fragments. The storytelling echoes this fracturing. The issue jumps from short scene to short scene, with staccato imagery from different character’s stories that change from panel to panel. The only extended sequence is a violent conflict that highlights the internecine warfare within the Foot Clan and the threat it poses. 

TMNT Issue 50 art by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird

An innocent elderly immigrant, who escaped the violence of the Soviet Union, returns to his home, a tiny apartment in a bad part of town. He is caught in an explosion laid by one Foot faction. His life, already a patchwork cobbled together in this unfamiliar city, is shattered.

His path to healing runs through the 12 issues to come.

This first chapter is the last story fully produced by Eastman and Laird. It highlights their exceptional shared storytelling, between Eastman’s dynamic layouts and gritty inks and Laird’s more methodical and technical illustration. Combined, they pull together a haunting tale of heartbreak and disappointment.

By the time City of War was released in 1992, the labor of overseeing a multinational media empire had overshadowed the joy of comics that drew the two together in the early 80s. Laird is open about the difficulty the two had working with one another as outside pressures and licensing deals started creeping in. The responsibility of running the business was bearing down on them, demanding more of their time and energy than they could handle.

Apart from issue 50, the rest of the penciling duties fall to Jim Lawson, a Mirage Studios stalwart, with ink and tone assists from Keith Aiken, Jason Minor, Eric Talbot, Matt Banning, letters by Mary Kelleher, and striking covers from A.C. Farley. Lawson’s figures are stylized and cartoonish and his inventive layouts provide exhilarating action with an incredible ability to display separate events taking place across the same time frame. Through his composition and sense of scale, Lawson visually highlights the insurmountable odds, both emotional and physical, in which the characters are being swept up. His action scenes are dynamic and expertly paced, and they are appropriately brutal. The violence highlights the stakes and emotional state of the characters, and Lawson’s cartoonish figures balance the drama with the playful roots of the Ninja Turtles.

This balance evokes the transition facing the Ninja Turtles, as they take their first steps into adulthood.

As the story proceeds, the Turtles attempt to right the wrong they left behind and take responsibility for the violence it caused. But they must do it on their own, without Master Splinter. It is an opportunity to make their own path, no longer haunted by the Foot or the grudges of their father.

Meanwhile, Casey ends up stranded in the midwest, falls in love with a woman who is four months pregnant, and must decide whether to settle down and make a new life. Largely presented as a well meaning oaf with a short fuse until this point, for the first time Casey is left to sit with the repercussions of his actions, and reckon with his own emotional issues. In doing so he takes his first steps toward responsibility. Unmoored from his previous life, he is able to  escape the violent and angry path he has been on. With Gabrielle he finds peace for a time, and a purpose in the step-daughter he pledges to raise. His journey throughout the story, from his lowest point in his fight with Donatello to the loving glances at his step-daughter Shadow as he travels back to New York illustrate the questions of responsibility that permeate the story.

By the time of City at War, both creators were entering new phases of their lives, with new responsibilities to families and the business that had overshadowed their art. Now responsible for the livelihood of a group of artists and writers, and Eastman looking ahead to new publishing ventures, these questions of responsibility and how they create fracture points in relationships are central to the story. Missteps have repercussions, and the weight of expectation that overrides what once brought people together can tear them apart.

“I think we might have thought otherwise, and I’m not sure who would’ve been the first to admit it then (if at all)–but personally, looking back, I feel like we both knew we were making the final studio album.”

-Kevin Eastman, IDW Ultimate Collection vol. 4

In New York, the Ninja Turtles try to solve the Foot problem by putting out individual fires, but recognize the futility, with Leo lamenting that they are reduced to “the neighborhood watch.” These fights quickly explode and overwhelm the Turtles, catching innocent bystanders in their wake.

Leonardo is emotionally drained by these events. Are the things he once believed in, honor and duty, just the naive dreams of childhood? Are the only “true motivators” hate and greed? When Raphael asks in response what motivates him, Leo admits “Lately…I don’t have a clue.”

It is a childish notion the turtles have, that they can somehow stop the Foot. They don’t even really know what that means–kill them all? The turtles may have killed before, but not by hunting down their enemies or in cold blood.

There is no real triumph in the resolution to this story. There are only compromises and consolations in mended fences. 

To end their blood feud with The Foot, the Turtles must decide whether to make a deal with the devil and  allow them to consolidate around a new leader, Karai. 

Leonardo in particular feels the burden of these decisions, knowing that it was he who landed the killing blow against the Shredder, and this action forever tied the Foot to his family. The original story notes for issue 58 (as shared by Peter Laird on his blog) describe it as “a crux point in the maturing of the turtles, where they are forced to realize that life is not necessarily black and white…that there are shades of grey.” 

Their choice is a compromise– help Karai take control, end the war between the Foot, and she will command her ninja to leave them in peace, but this will mean letting Foot continue in their criminal ways. Michelangelo and Leonardo discuss whether it would be something Splinter would approve of, and whether that even matters anymore. 

It is time for the Turtles to take control of their destiny and decide for themselves what is right. 

It echoes the journeys of their creators leaving the emotional highs of their early career behind, stepping into responsibility and what it means for those relationships that have gotten them to where they are. 

If the journey for Casey, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello are about stepping into adulthood and responsibility and the heartbreak of those decisions, then April’s journey in Los Angeles with her sister Robyn grapples with the painful process of defining oneself beyond our relationships. April’s life has revolved around the dangers of having the Turtles in her life, and the need to hold those secrets. It has kept her from pursuing new relationships or exploring for herself what it means to be April O’Neil. She must break away from the relationships by which she has defined her identity.

Ultimately, April’s personal journey with Robyn leads to the realization that her path isn’t to be found away from New York City simply because it is different from what she was surrounded by. She returns to New York facing an open ended future, coming to realize she was not held back by her relationships but by her own fears.

As all of these complex journeys unfold, Master Splinter remains in Northampton, investigating the spiritual world, in an attempt to expand his consciousness. 

In his quest he is tormented by the spectre of the mysterious Rat King who taunts him and challenges him to accept his animal nature. Splinter, leg broken and unable to escape the literal and spiritual hole in which he is trapped, fights against this in an attempt to hold onto his personhood. He is frightened that by admitting the animal part of himself he will lose that which he holds so important: his spirit.

Ultimately, he must accept the Rat King’s taunts and accept both sides of himself.

The final issue finds the family reunited, a bit wiser than when they parted. And yet, the final pages are not joyful. Donatello and Splinter stay in Northampton as the rest go back to the city, both still processing the ordeals they have been through. 

There has been healing, yes, but things will never be whole in quite the same way they once were. The fracture lines remain. The most satisfying emotional conclusion is April’s heartfelt words to Splinter that he had become a second father to her, and his embrace of her as his daughter.

The final three pages of City at War are of the old man injured in issue 50. He has healed slowly over the course of the six months the story took place. This gradual process is a throughline over the course of the 12 issues, mirroring the breaking down and piecing back together of the Turtles. He has been moved to a retirement community, but it does not heal the emotional wounds that he carried into the first issue. He stares out the window, unsure what to make of the future ahead of him.

These resolutions drive home the sadness and bittersweet victories of the painful process of growing older. The relationships and routines by which we define ourselves cannot last forever, and realizing that, no matter what good may come from it, can not erase the pain of the shattered past that leads to growth. 

There was no reunion, bittersweet or otherwise for Eastman and Laird, whose personal and professional relationship only deteriorated over time. Through City at War, both men process their grief on the page, forever cherishing what they built together, but knowing that all things must change. These fractures leave lasting scars, but it is the price we pay for getting older, as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles discover.

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