Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Comics, TV, and the TMNT

Movies are cool because you get to see amazing things up on a big, gigantic screen, and they pretty much always tell a complete story in a relatively short span of time.  TV is cool because it’s a lot like the movies, but you trade off the giant screen and super-high-end special effects for a longer storytelling format that enables the telling of more complex, more nuisance stories over a much longer period of time.  That’s great so long as you can handle the episodic nature of television.

Comics are cool because they offer the best of both worlds.  You can tell the longest, most nuanced, most complex stories imaginable, and you can tell them with incomparably excellent special effects because the realism of those effects is limited only by the imagination and ability of the artist drawing the comics.  Added to that is the fact that comics are not only a visual medium, they are also literary, meaning that a comic, if it’s done right, can exist in two places at the same time—both on the page and in the mind of the reader.  We can not only see the action, we can also hear the thoughts of the characters.  We can experience events not only in the way that we see them but also in the way that they are described with language by the story’s creator(s).  The downside, though, is that comics are even more episodic than TV.  Yes, you can tell long, complicated stories with comics, but it takes a long, long time for those stories to come completely together—if they ever do.

I mention all of this because my daughter Emma and I have recently become fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), which currently exist as both TV and comics properties, and I’ve been thinking today about which version I like better. 

TMNT, on Nickelodeon.
 To be clear, the television TMNT and the comics TMNT are not at all the same.  Yes, they both have essentially the same character-set[1], and the characterizations are essentially the same[2], but the stories are radically different.  In the comics, the Turtles are essentially homeless, living in a lair in the sewer and scrounging for necessities out of garbage cans.  They live largely on what they can find and on what folks give them out of the kindness of their hearts.  On TV, however, the Turtles have a bit more in the way of creature comforts, and they live a little easier—probably as a reflection of the fact that they exist on Nickelodeon.  Bottom line, the comics-version TMNT is very much a story of survival.  The Turtles have escaped from a lab, and now Baxter Stockman wants to get them back while the Shredder just wants to get them, period.  On TV, however, the story is more about fitting in.  The Turtles live in NYC, a city that they love and protect but of which they barely feel a part, owing largely to the fact that they’re, well, mutant turtles.  And yeah, the Shredder is after them, and Krang is trying to invade from Dimension X, but that’s all secondary to the fact that the Turtles themselves aren’t human and can’t quite adjust to how that makes them different from everyone else that they know.  Still, in both incarnations there are things that make these Turtles distinctly the TMNT that we all know and love.  They have distinct personalities—leader, rebel, geek, free-spirit.  They fight weird mutants on the streets of New York.  They act like heroes.  They might beat you up, but they don’t want to kill you.

TMNT #15 from IDW.  This issue rocked!
So why do I like the comic version better?  Is it just my love of comics as a medium, or is there something else there?

At first I was tempted to say that the comic is superior because the storytelling is a little more complex, and that may be true, but then again, it may not be.  Fact is, in storytelling terms both series are about the same way along.  We’ve seen nine episodes of the show on Nick-on-Demand.  We’ve also read 17 issues of the comic, each of which is 22-pages long—or about half of what’s in a typical half-hour cartoon.  Call it 8.5 episodes of the TV show told via sequential art.

Eh.  What I can tell you is that I really enjoyed the last two issues of TMNT, issues #15 & 16.  Under increased pressure from Krang, Baxter Stockman trained a mutant snapping turtle[3] to hunt down the TMNT.  But the snapping turtle escaped… only to go after the Turtles anyway!  The resulting confrontation was great stuff, with terrific writing and terrific energy in the art, and it ended with what I thought was a terrific series of character moments focused on Leonardo and Michelangelo.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Against that, the TV show has a great opening soundtrack, and I’ve liked it a lot, but while it’s fine, light-hearted stuff, it hasn’t had that kind of resonant character moment yet that made me really think, Wow.  This is outstanding.  I like it.  I like watching it with my daughter.  I just don’t know that I like it quite as much as I like the version I’m getting out of the comics, despite their similarities.

Take that for what it’s worth.

[1] As of this writing, we’ve not seen Casey Jones in the TV version of TMNT, though he’s sure to show up sooner or later.  Also, the two series have a different set of villains though the Shredder, Baxter Stockman, and Krang both appear in both series. 
[2] At least as far as the heroes are concerned.  Baxter Stockman’s portrayal is totally different in each version.
[3] TMNT fans will know that the Snapping Turtle is also a recurring villain.  He was in the second TMNT live-action movie, “The Secret of the Ooze.”

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