Revisiting Image Comics’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
2017 was a noteworthy year in the comics industry, as it marked the 25th anniversary of Image Comics. Founded by the biggest artists at that time, Image has firmly established itself as a haven for creative freedom in an industry dominated by corporate owned properties. And in 1996, Image would be the temporary home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, publishing 23 issues of “Volume Three” until the series’ cancellation in 1999. The series would take the TMNT in a direction that was far different from anything seen to that point, and frankly we haven’t seen anything like it since. Even though it has been disavowed by co-creator Peter Laird (as evidenced by Mirage Volume 4) and yet to be reprinted in any form, those looking for a Ninja Turtles comic that fully embraces how weird this series can get owe it to themselves to track down some of these comics.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Image TMNT is how it exists as a microcosm of 1990s comics. These issues check all the boxes for what people remember this decade for. An “extreme” take on characters? Check. Flashy, over-stylized art? Check. Late shipping? Check. Crossovers with other titles? Well, that still happens now, but it’s often cited as a 1990s problem, so… check. But despite these problems, the creative team still managed to put together an interesting story. It also returned the Turtles to their black-and-white roots after the colorful 13 issues of Volume 2. With that came a restored sense of the TMNT as a small, indie title where anything could happen. And, more often than not, it did.
Published under the Highbrow Entertainment studio of Image Comics, one of the first things to happen to the TMNT was to team up with another green superhero – Savage Dragon. Being that Highbrow was the studio operated by Erik Larsen, it was a natural fit for the foursome to team up with the iconic character. The series itself was written by Larsen’s mentor, Gary Carlson (dubbed the “Grandfather of Image Comics”) with art by Frank Fosco. After the slow, decompressed storytelling of Volume 2, Carlson and Fosco set out to make the new TMNT a fast-paced, no-holds-barred action title. In fact, the first issue kicks things into high gear with Splinter and Donatello being captured, Raphael suffering horrible facial scars.
Aside from blurbs on Wikipedia and the Mirage Licensing website, there is very little evidence that this series ever existed. It has not been reprinted or collected in any fashion. It never even had a proper conclusion, having been cancelled after 23 issues. While there has been some interest by fans (most notably, Andrew Modeen’s unofficial #24 and #25) and even Image in giving the series a proper finale, it has slowly faded into obscurity. That is why we will be revisiting this series issue by issue over the course of the next several months, in painstaking detail. Is this series, forgotten by most comic fans and stricken from canon by the TMNT’s creators, worthwhile? Hopefully the answer is yes, otherwise, this will be a big waste of my time, and by extension, yours.