The publication of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics has always fascinated me. The story of how Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created pop-culture icons is one of the great tales in comics history. Their influence by Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Jack Kirby’s… well, everything he ever did, is well known. Their publisher Mirage Studios is a great tongue-in-cheek joke as the “studio” didn’t actually exist – it was just their apartment. While fortune would find them thanks to television shows, movies, and merchandising, their comic continued chugging along. The first volume wrapped up in the early 1990s, followed immediately by a 12-issue second volume. The third volume would make its home at Image Comics before license expired and the property would return to Mirage for a fourth volume by writer Peter Laird and artist Jim Lawson. Though unfinished (as of today), it remains the most fascinating and weird version of the Turtles to date.
Editor’s Note: To avoid confusion, this series will be referred to as “Mirage Volume 4” for the remainder of this article.
Peter Laird used Mirage Volume 4 to right a couple of perceived wrongs committed in the past. The first, and most superfluous, is the correction of Michelangelo’s name from “Michaelangelo.” Personally, I always saw the typo as a fun quirk befitting the character. However, if Laird saw it as something that needed to be fixed, who am I to argue? The second was to do away with all the changes made during “Volume 3” over at Image Comics. IDW is currently reprinting that volume as TMNT: Urban Legends, and anyone who has checked it out knows that creators Gary Carlson and Frank Fosco made big changes to the Turtles in their series. These changes polarized the fanbase, proving largely unpopular at the time and resulting in the series’ cancellation. Laird did not see these changes as aligning with his vision for the TMNT, and so that part of Turtles history was stricken from the official Mirage canon.
What readers were given with Mirage Volume 4 was a quirky character study that focused less on action and more on the souls of its protagonists. It may have been more appropriate for the series to be called “Mutant Ninja Turtles,” because they were no longer teenagers. Rather, they were full-fledged adults, living life independently and on their own terms. Because of this, Lawson and Laird take the title in truly weird and interesting directions.
The assumption of Mirage Volume 4 is that the Turtles have aged in real time, in part to reflect the changing demographics of comic readers, which continues to skew older with the passage of time. Rather than cater to the tastes of teenagers, Laird’s story is slower and more methodically paced. With the characters spread out, he takes the time to ensure they are given their due. However, unlike Volume 2, readers do not feel like the series is wasting time getting through certain plot points. Each element of the story has its purpose. And unlike Volume 3, certain things like the physical alterations to the Turtles are earned after issues of setup rather than rushing because of a desire to differentiate them other than their weapons.
In addition to Peter Laird’s return, readers are also treated to the return of artist Jim Lawson, who turns in arguably the best work of his career. This is not the Lawson who turned in solid but unremarkable artwork over the course of Volume 2, but a wiser, refined version. His imagery now has more definition and depth of field, which the characters are much more expressive and fluid in their movements. As the Laird’s script grows weirder by the issue, Lawson manages to straddle the line between believable and absurd. It is his work alone which makes tracking down this volume’s issues worthwhile.
What makes Mirage Volume 4 special is that Laird uses each issue to challenge readers with what Ninja Turtles could be. At the time this series was launched, the TMNT tv shows and movies had given many an idea that the Turtles should be emotionally immature whose weapons were merely decorative and not for actual use in battle. Those that read the original first issue (it’s been reprinted by my estimation a bajillion times) may be under the impression that the only other direction to take the Turtles was really dark, unaware that first issue by Eastman and Laird was as much a tribute as it was a satire of Miller’s Daredevil. But Laird realized his creation could get weird – really weird – and Mirage Volume 4 embraced that potential.
Laird begins the series with an alien invasion, which makes it possible for the Turtles to just walk around the streets of New York casually. Sure, they look like big turtles, but everyone just assumes they’re extra-terrestrials. Raphael undergoes a secondary mutation, making him look like a turtle/tyrannosaurus hybrid. Michelangelo begins a courtship with an alien, only to end up captured and in bondage out in deep space. Donnie is shrunk to a diminutive state, and Leo is off jumping between dimensions. This is just a high-level summary, but it should give you an idea as to where Laird took these characters.
The series also saw its fair share of emotional moments, from the Turtles’ choosing to go their separate ways to the death of a beloved character, Laird’s story is not afraid to step back from the zany and allow the story to genuinely pull at the readers’ heartstrings. Laird excels at these moments, and I do wish this series had more of them.
Of course, the current legacy of Mirage Volume 4 is that it remains – as of the date of this article – unfinished. Despite a deal that allows Laird to publish 18 issues of his own TMNT book per year, a new issue has not been published since 2014, which itself marked the end of a four-year gap between issues. Laird has stated on his Blogspot page that he hopes to one day finish the storylines of Mirage Volume 4 but has no clear timetable.
For now, this series exists as a peculiar part of the Ninja Turtles’ history. Though there are other stories that take place chronologically later, Issue #32 is currently the final story within the Mirage Studios continuity, ending with several major plot threads still open. And while the lack of a final, official resolution is frustrating, the 32-issue journey is worth every minute of it. The story is character driven, tragic, funny, and weird. So basically, it is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in its purest form.