Revisiting Mirage’s “CITY AT WAR”
Warning: Contains spoilers
Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles returned to airwaves this Sunday (a nice birthday gift for yours truly) in an episode titled “City At War.” While the episode was great on its own merits, it failed to meet this writer’s expectations based on the name alone. The episode did a lot to set up the show’s new status quo, with the Shredder’s absence leaving a vacuum for the city’s organized crime, but that’s all it did. It’s disappointing because “City At War” is one of the greatest story arcs in the Ninja Turtles’ lore. Published from 1991 to 1992, this 13-part epic closed out the first comic volume in grand fashion under the vision of co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird with art by the great Jim Lawson.
After being exiled to Northampton in TMNT #10, the Turtles did return to New York in the famed story arc from issues #19-21. However, they would immediately retreat back to their “second home” in Massachusetts, where they would remain through issue #49. And then, issue #50 was released. The cover art called back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, signaling the return to darker, more serious storytelling. Upon returning to New York, the Turtles discover a city on the brink of war, with the Shredder’s death (back in TMNT #21) resulting a power vacuum between various factions of the Foot.
The main conflict is not one between the Turtles and the various groups vying for power, but rather among themselves and if they should even become involved. The two primary stances in the argument are voiced by (unsurprisingly) Leonardo and Raphael. Initially, Raph believes that they are responsible and should take action to prevent matters from escalating any further. Leonardo, on the other hand, shows uncertainty. Initially he believes that this is not really their fight, but later he argues that if he and his brothers are to intervene, they must go beyond what Raphael is proposing and become full-fledged guardians of the city against all crime.
This difference of opinion is notable for several reasons. The Leo vs. Raph dynamic is typically portrayed as explosive, with each other diametrically opposed on all fronts. However, Eastman and Laird use this moment to demonstrate not only their mutual respect, but their growth and maturity since their debut issue in 1984. Leo is not quick to dismiss Raph, and vice versa. Their dialogue is long winded, but lacks the vigor and undertones of animosity as one might expect. There is a back-and-forth nature to their conversations, which results in more collaborative decision-making by the brotherly quartet.
The Turtles are not the only characters to undergo significant character development during “City At War.” While the Turtles have ventured back to the familiar confines of New York City, Casey Jones and April O’Neil have gone completely separate ways; April is now living with her sister in Los Angeles, CA while Casey unexpectedly finds love in the Rocky Mountains. While out west, April tries her hand at a number of jobs, never once feeling comfortable in any role. Her journey to the West Coast mostly serves to give her a psychological break before confronting her problems back east head on. Casey, on the other hand, makes a new life for himself as he and a local woman named Gracie fall in love and build a life for each other. As is the case for the Turtles, Casey and April undergo a significant maturation that is fitting for the series’ sendoff, but is also ripe for storytelling opportunities that will be mined in later volumes.
Splinter, the Turtles’ sensei and father figure, undergoes his own trials during this arc. When the story begins, he is still in the forests of Massachusetts in deep meditation. He eventually awakens, drawn back to the city as his sons were. Making his way through a decaying urban landscape, he eventually suffers a broken leg after falling into a smokestack. Literally, he endures a personal crucible of psychological torment at the hands of the Rat King… or so he thinks. Its a fascinating sequence that weaves into the narrative throughout the arc’s thirteen issues, during which we see Splinter broken down to the point where he embraces his raw, feral nature. This deconstruction allows Eastman and Laird to rebuild Splinter’s character into one that is stronger and more resilient than before.
“City At War” also introduces readers to Karai. Though she has been given varying origins over the franchises many iterations, she is introduced here as the leader of the Foot’s Japanese operations. Her strength, both physically and mentally, makes her a great foil for the Turtles. However, the trait that gives them the most trouble is her strong code of honor. She encapsulates all that the Foot were supposed to represent, rather than the perversion they had become under the Shredder. In her quest to restore honor to the Foot’s New York operations, she presents the Turtles with an offer that turns their world upside down: help her faction of the Foot and never be bothered by the organization again.
This is perplexing to the four reptiles, as the creative team challenges the very conceit of the series which they set up back in Issue #1 (albeit rather loosely). Splinter has trained them for a lifelong battle against Oroku Saki, who was dispatched not once (TMNT #1), but twice (TMNT #21). And though the Foot no longer appears to be a problem to them, they are conflicted due to their loyalty. To Raphael, aligning themselves with the Foot is an affront to Splinter, no matter the reason. The others grapple with this proposition too, but it is Leo who once again steps forward, asserting that they should take Karai up on her offer.
The others’ agreement with him (despite reservations) marks a significant step in their maturity as characters. This is four brothers collectively deciding to forge their own path in life, rather than continue on one prescribed to them by a parental figure. They make note that the battle they have been fighting has not been theirs, but Splinter’s. The struggles they have endured against the Foot were borne from Splinter’s thirst for vengeance, not theirs. It is here where the TMNT, for all intents and purposes, become the “MNT”. In making this decision, the make the transition from boys to men, albeit mutated, green turtle-men. Though they still hold Splinter in high regard, they are not tied to his decision making.
Of course, no discussion of “City At War” is complete without mentioning the outstanding work of Jim Lawson, who for many is the definitive Ninja Turtles artist, surpassing Eastman and Laird. This is arc is an emotionally taxing journey for all characters, and that above all else is where Lawson excels. Whether it’s Casey’s roller coaster journey, or April’s introspective trip to California, readers are aware of each character’s emotional state regardless of the situation.
Lawson’s work with character’s emotions is rivaled only by his page composition. He packs an incredible amount of detail into every single panel without making pages feel overcrowded or disorienting. This works in those quieter, narrative driven sequences, but is most effective during moments of big action. With a story titled “City At War,” it delivers bombastic and brutal action sequences. The stories in this volume of the series has had its silly moments, but their have always been high stakes, and the violence is not without consequence. This thread continues throughout this story arc, leaving the reader with a lasting impression.
“City At War” holds up as a defining piece of TMNT lore decades after it was originally published. If the current animated series manages to take cues from this epic over the course of the current season, then Turtle fans should prepare for something special. In the meantime, those that are unable to track down the story in comic book form should look into its 3-part adaptation from the 2003 animated series. But while that 3-episode arc is a wonderful adaptation of the Mirage comics (as is most of the 2003 series), nothing can truly capture the magic of the comic series.