Thoughts on the Second TMNT / Savage Dragon Crossover
In the mid-1990s, the last issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird had been written, and the series is now in its second volume with neither of the co-creators at the helm. Turtlemania has died down (thanks largely to the turd that is TMNT III), and the comics industry received a shot in the arm from some upstart publisher called Image Comics. Founded by some of the industry’s biggest artists, including Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, Image continues to be the destination for mainstream, creator-owned comics. And in the publisher’s early days, they managed to team up with Mirage Studios for a crossover between some of the 1990s most popular characters: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Savage Dragon. That successful crossover paved the way for a second one, published in 1995.
If you’re on this site, chances are you know a thing or two about the TMNT (in case you don’t, they’re four turtle brothers that were mutated, trained in ninjitsu, and named after great Renaissance artists). There is, however, a strong possibility that you’re unaware of Savage Dragon. Created by writer/artist Erik Larsen in 1992, he is a large, humanoid dragon with super strength and accelerated healing. He’s also amnesiatic – making his origins a mystery – and a Chicago police officer. For much of the 1990s he was one of the main pillars of Image Comics, alongside Spawn and Witchblade, and is the only one of the original Image books that continues to be written and drawn by its creator.
Written and illustrated by Mirage’s Michael Dooney, the story begins in media res with a rag-clad Raphael taking the train to Chicago. Almost immediately, the gaps begin to fill in with a flashback to Raph and his brothers watching a news report. The broadcast shows Complete Carnage on the loose in Chicago (for those unaware, this character first appeared back in TMNT vol.1 #27, also written and illustrated by Dooney), which triggers Raph’s need to deliver a beating. As they do, Raph and Leo have an argument while Donnie and Mike provide commentary from the sidelines. Ultimately, Raph storms off, and evidently makes his way to Chicago by himself.
Back in Chicago, Raphael gets busy making friends in the most Raph way possible (maybe a little too Raph). As the team’s resident hothead, he’s perfect for the tried and true trope of “heroes fight first, team up later.” The matchup between Raphael and this group of “superfreaks” (Savage Dragon’s term for mutants or metahumans) appears evenly matched when the Dragon himself appears and breaks up the party. Soon after, the two are on the hunt for Complete Carnage and engage the creature in battle. Seemingly overmatched, Raph’s brothers appear from out of nowhere to continue the battle. In reality, Leo, Mikey, and Donnie were transported by Dr. Raven Shadowheart aka Radical (also created by Dooney back in TMNT vol. #27). They manage to slow down Carnage by way of dropping a building on him.
Savage Dragon #22 by Erik Larsen sees not only the story continue, but the expletive with the five heroes screamed in unison as the issue end. It’s not a swear if it’s broken up across multiple issues – take that Comics Code Authority! Their battle continues, with each character getting their shots in. The battle ultimately ends with Savage Dragon launching Carnage into Lake Michigan, because evidently there are no man-made materials there. They plan to unwind back at Dragon’s place, but an unexpected waterbed issue causes the Turtles say goodbye, ending the issue.
Throughout this crossover, it is evident that Dooney and Larsen both fall into the infamous trapping of 1990s comics while simultaneously transcending them. The philisophical differences between the two publishers is observable too. The Mirage-published first part is much cleaner, with an emphasis on screwball antics and tighter storytelling. This can be attributed to Mirage having an established identity as a storytelling publisher. The art – particlarly post-1990 – was not the driving force behind the publisher’s creative output. This is especially true for the TMNT comics of the time, with “City at War” having wrapped up the first volume and the second volume under way.
While the writing may be consistent and solid, the art is a wholly different story. Dooney flutters back and forth between quality imagery and everything 1990s comics are accused of getting wrong. There were moments which would study each intricately detailed panel, and others where I had to put the book down because of what I was seeing. There’s one page in particular featuring Dragon and Raphael running into battle where the former’s head is ludicrously small compared to his body, and all I could see was the Goombas from the Super Mario Bros. movie.
Conversely, Larsen’s art is consistent from start to finish. As Savage Dragon is still drawn by Larsen, it’s an interesting exercise comparing his work in 2016 to that from 1995. While he has streamlined his work to conform to modern standards, it was a different ballgame back in the mid-1990s. The disproportionate bodies, the exploitative depictions of women, and excessive teeth-grinding of the era are on full display here. Despite these faults, there is a strong foundation of talent that would allow Larsen to continue as a modern comic artist while his contemporaries have largely faded to the background. His use of shadows and crosshatching to bring tangibility to the world is remarkable, as is his use of layouts. Savage Dragon possess a streamlined and clean layout structure in contrast to the busy and overly complex panelling in titles like Spawn, Youngblood, or X-Men.
Perhaps the most notable element of this crossover is the depiction of the Turtles themselves. Dooney and Larsen emphasize the “teenage” in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Because they are superheroes (debatable, but that’s another argument for another time), creators often depict them at a greater level of maturation than they should be. If the word “teenage” was not a part of their name, it’d be easy to think of them as in their mid-30s like other A-list comic characters. Here creators make the TMNT act and talk like real teenagers. Not a business executive’s idea of a teenager or a teenager for a pre-teen audience, but actual teenagers. They like violence. They use crude language. They notice women’s… assets. They’re blunt, and they’re offensive.
There are also reminders that the comic Turtles, especially the Mirage ones, do inhabit the black-and-white world of their Big Two peers. Theirs is world comprised of grays, which is what makes this crossover effective. There is Savage Dragon, the most traditional hero of the first-wave Image titles, and the Turtles, who shrug at the thought of the “bad guy” dying. While it is comical to see the Turtles embrace such a laissez-faire attitude regarding death, it does call into question the moral compass they’ve developed. While fighting for survival against the Foot can necessitate killing, should that be a universally adopted attitude. The antagonist of this story was a rampaging monster cloned from the original. Did it have complete control over its faculties? Yes or no, did it really deserve to die? The answer to these questions depends on the reader’s interpretation of the story.
Although this crossover with Savage Dragon may not be the landmark event that the first story was, it remains a noteworthy event worth checking out. It serves as a testament to the Turtles’ broad appeal and the depth of storytelling that could be achieved – even in the wasteland that is 1990s comics. With much buzz about the TMNT reuniting with Usagi Yojimbo, perhaps one day we’ll see Ol’ Finhead join the party too.