Warning: contains spoilers for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin #2
It’s always difficult to watch childhood heroes fall, and in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin the audience is not spared an iota of visceral horror. Set in a dystopian future, each issue features the once bodacious brothers engaged in fatal, bloody combat which often ends in their brutal loss. This formula was pushed to the limit in the second issue (appropriately entitled “First to Fall”), as Raphael met an ignominious end at the hands of the Shredder’s daughter, Karai. The Last Ronin is a commentary on the futile nature of violence despite its prominent place in our culture, no matter how spectacular it is. And how this violence is often geared towards those who least understand it: children.
Though it may shock some to hear it, TMNT didn’t start out as a family-friendly, children-oriented franchise. In the original comic, published by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird under their own publishing label Mirage, the series walked a slightly more self-consciously satirical line. There was always a bit of goofiness, how could there not be when the stories centered upon a band of human-sized turtles taught the ways of the shinobi by a giant talking rat? But, more often than one might think, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird would veer into more violent, desperate territory with the Turtle brothers, which is why it is so surprising that the main vehicle behind the fame of their franchise, the 1987 cartoon television series, was such a kid-centric affair. Many who grew up watching the series or playing with the popular line of toys produced by Playmates Toys Ltd. are now adults and that is why, most poignantly, The Last Ronin’s philosophical commentary on violence seems to be most geared towards them.
At the climax of TMNT: The Last Ronin #2, written by Eastman, Laird and Tom Waltz, Raphael is quite literally slicing his way through hordes of Foot Soldiers, a litany of deep, streaming gashes, slashes, stab wounds and arrow punctures littering his body as the pages literally swirl with blood in a disturbingly off-kilter fashion. After he finally dices his way through this small army to Karai, she manages to grab a kunai off his custom turtle armor and thrust it right to his brain at the same time he puts a sai in her back. This incredible imagery, overwhelming in its harrowing detail in its own right (thanks to Eastman, Ben Bishop and Esau & Isaac Escorza), is then reflected off of a most unexpectedly powerful place to achieve its incisive reaction: the reader’s own memory of playing with the toys of these characters as a child.
For those who never had the privilege, the Playmates Ltd. toys were incredibly popular during the time and came with a bevy of assorted weapons the Turtles could use. Aimed primarily at children aged 3-7, the toys, while promoting the franchise as a whole, also encouraged mock battles between the characters, some of these characters armed with all manner of bladed weapons. Battles which, with the imagination of a child, might resemble just the kind of gory carnage presented in The Last Ronin.
Even with the effervescent, bouncy tone of the cartoon, it was impossible to deny that the Turtles and their associated characters were geared towards violent conflicts, and this was a main selling point of the toys themselves. And while it may have seemed fairly innocent at the time, in the more hands-off culture of the ‘80s/’90s, looking back there’s a certain insidiousness to it: an insidiousness that its original creators, Eastman and Laird, are now subtly criticizing their own part in.
What disturbing philosophical quandaries will TMNT: The Last Ronin get into next? Issue #2 is on sale now, wherever comic books are sold.