“City At War”, the 13-part story arc that concluded Mirage Volume 1, is a significant chapter in the Ninja Turtles’ history. It has driven TMNT storylines through Volume 2 and Volume 4 of the Mirage Studios comics, the current series from IDW Publishing, the 2003 animated series, and 2012 animated series. As the TMNT Fansite has previously discussed, “City At War” marks the maturation of the Turtles from teenagers into (for lack of a better term) men. Because of this story’s sheer significance and scope, one article is not enough to do it justice. It’s time to dig in, page-by-page and panel-by-panel into “City At War”.
A callback to the series’ first issue, this new composition of the Turtles in their now-iconic rooftop pose immediately sets the the tone for the issue an arc as a whole. Despite their return to New York back in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #19-21, they would immediately retreat back to Northampton, MA in issue #22 and remain there until this issue. It also would mark the first time since “Return to New York” that the entire issue (except for lettering) was produced by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.
The issue opens to a double-page spread of Splinter meditating in the Massachusetts wilderness. Illustrated by Peter Laird, Splinter is positioned beside a creek. The trees and bushes surrounding him are lush and full of life. Given what lies beyond this opening double-page splash, this imagery is perplexing until the issue’s closing moments.
Something rarely seen in the TMNT comics is a New York City that is bustling and full of life. That is what Kevin Eastman presents on this page. Even though NYC had been cleaned up considerably in 1992, the comic maintained the grungy and unsavory urban environment depicted in 1984. The abundance of sex shops and pornographic theaters establishes this world’s moral (or rather, immoral) center.
With the exception of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #33, the original publication of Mirage Volume 1 was entirely in black and white. This page is an example of how color could assist the reader in following the story better. However, that the lack of color forces the reader to study the art more intensely, allowing them to both understand the narrative and appreciate the techniques employed in the page’s composition.
On the left side, a page-length panel depicts a man sheepishly walking through his neighborhood, a bag of “Wicked Dandy Chicken” in tow (presumably for dinner). Adjacent to this, five panels are stacked among each other. In each, a different set of hands in engaging in a different activity. One zooms in this character’s bag of chicken. Another focuses on someone packing a bag. The next depicts an armored figure assembling a bomb, followed by a set of hands boarding up a window. The last one shows a woman holding a book against her torso, as if she had fallen asleep in the middle of a chapter. Who these individuals are becomes clear in the following pages, but this is an effective manner in which to set the stage for the story.
The sequence continues. The unnamed civilian enters his run down apartment building. Walls are cracked. Sheetrock is exposed. Garbage and a doll lay carelessly atop the stairs. Elsewhere, the perspective is zoomed out, showing a UMASS sweatshirt on the individual packing their bags. It’s Casey Jones, who glances at his hockey mask before throwing it into the trash. Meanwhile, the bomb ticks closer to zero.
We finally get a good look at who is boarding up a window. It’s the Turtles. And it’s not just any window – it’s the farmhouse in Northampton. It appears that their stay up north has come to an end, though Splinter remains in mediation. It should be noted that even though the Turtles are most associated with the streets of New York, in this original run at Mirage Studios, they only remained in the city for a handful of issues.
Casey stares longingly at a photograph of himself with April. It may be unclear to some, but he is emotionally rattled from the events of TMNT #48-49 (go check them out – they’re great!) and cannot appear to live with himself. He casts the photograph aside, and the frame shatters, transitioning to an April O’Neil who has been startled awake. She’s waiting patiently at the airport for her flight to California.
Splinter’s mediation continues through a torrential rainstorm, his face appearing unchanged. Michelangelo finishes the last touches on the farmhouse and joins his brothers. It appears that their voyage to New York is about to begin. Most significant is that this page contains the first trace of dialogue in the issue. Our unnamed civilian pops on his television, and the reader is greeted to a news report about a military coup taking over a foreign nation. Meanwhile, the bomb continues tick.
Both April and Casey pick up their luggage to begin their new journeys. Coincidentally, both make their way from the East Coast out west, though April is the only one to reach the Pacific.
As Casey is about to step outside, he notices the photograph in its shattered frame on the floor; it’s an image that will be revisited later in the issue. The shards of glass represent the fractured state of the TMNT family at present, with each person either unwilling or unable to reconnect with one another.
This page is full of great detailing, from the individual wooden slats on the floor, to the splintered glass of the picture frame. Even the “Jones” embroidered on Casey’s travel bag makes this world feel all the more lived in. Casey picks the picture off the floor, removes it from the frame, and tucks it in his back pocket. We also check in once again on our civilian friend, who is later identified in the arc as Mr. Nathan (“Nate”) Buscheyev. Once more, his television provides the reader a bit of dialogue as the report of a coup continues.
Eastman and Laird break up this page into four vertical panels stretching the length of the page, once more focusing on Mr. Buscheyev, Splinter, April, and the Turtles. The imagery is simple, but once more informs the reader of these characters’ emotional states.
We see the bomb ticking away, placed on the shelf of a sex shop. It almost blends into the image, as if it always belonged. The page quickly transitions back to Mr. Busheyev, and it becomes clear that his apartment is directly above the bomb. The remainder of the page is broken up into twelve panels – small enough to capture a fragment of an image. Eastman fills these panels with the Turtles, Casey, the Bomb, April, Splinter, and Mr. Busheyev. As the reader’s eyes shift from panel to panel, the tension grows greater. That bomb has been there for a while, ticking away. It feels as though detonation is imminent.
Once again, this is another gorgeous double-page spread that once again shows the anguish that certain characters are experiencing.
Finally, we get a title card for the issue. A cityscape of New York is emblazoned with the text “City at War Part One”, adjacent to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In the foreground is a seemingly innocuous water tower. This will play a much larger role as the story arc unfolds.
More shots of the city are established, zeroing in on a fenced off area beneath one of the city’s bridges. Here, what appears to be a Foot soldier approaches. Only it’s not a Foot soldier – it’s a small army of them.
One of the Foot enters this restricted area, only to be immediately ejected – dead on arrival. A different type of warrior, with a tattered cape, brimmed hat, and armed with a kyoketsu-shogue emerges. Without hesitation, he begins taking on the other Foot soldiers, gracefully moving from combatant to combatant. Seemingly each of his movements results in a kill. Despite their best efforts, the Foot are picked off one-by-one in manners that are both graceful and graphic. In the end, one Foot soldier remains, and instinctively retreats. But this deadly killing machine quickly follows in pursuit of his prey.
The Foot and his pursuer engage in a rooftop chase. Beginning with a full-page splash, the Foot’s best efforts to escape are thwarted at every turn. There is a element to this which feels ripped out of a slasher movie. Despite his best attempts to escape, this elite warrior appears to be at every turn. The faster he moves in an attempt to get away, the closer his would-be killer becomes.
The slasher-movie feeling continues, as the Foot soldier – far more graceful than is counterparts from the Fred Wolf cartoon – makes an error in judgement attempting to clear an alleyway. He would fall to his death, if not for being caught by his pursuer. Perhaps death is not in the cards after all…
…Or not. This elite ninja tosses the Foot soldier on the rooftop like a ragdoll. There is a great juxtaposition of characters here. The Foot soldier no longer runs, but continues to act in a state of pure terror. Opposite him is the embodiment of composure, as this figure calmly walks over and in one deft motion separates head from body.
After much buildup, our main cast finally undertake their respective journeys. We visit Casey as he peels out of his Northampton homestead. April stares out the window as her plane takes off. It’s never clear where April as departing out of, and maybe that’s not important. However, with the attention to detail provided to every other character in this issue, it’s surprising that so little is known of April’s overall state.
What is not a mystery is where the Turtles are and where they’re heading. “Comfortably” seated atop an Amtrak train, the foursome pass by White Plains, NY on their way to the Big Apple.
Back in Mr. Busheyev’s apartment, we see that the news report has moved him to tears. Sunken in his chair, the television declares that this coup may be the final nail in the coffin to the Soviet Union. As tears stream down his face, it becomes clear that he’s not just some random civilian living in New York – he’s an immigrant that escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. Despite this, he cannot help but feel a sense of loss as the place he once called home has been broken apart.
After all of this build up, the bomb finally goes off, taking the sex shop and Mr. Busheyev’s apartment along with it.
Once more, Eastman and Laird use the shattered glass to depict the state of the Turtles and their friends. While earlier their were merely cracks in their relationships, they are now completely separated, with each one going their own ways. The use of solid black in the negative space makes each character’s isolation more noticeable. It’s simple, but effective use of the comic medium.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #50 ends as it began, with a double-page splash of Splinter in meditation. Only now, the lush foliage is now withered. The trees that surround him are barren, and the creek has dried up. Fall has come to Northampton.