‘TMNT’ flashback: Mirage Vol. 1 No. 24-26: ‘The River’ (1989) (Comic book review)

“The River,” Issues 24-26 of Mirage “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” Volume 1 will always be one of my favorite Turtles stories because my 14-year-old self loved it. I have a soft spot for stories involving rivers or lakes or nature (maybe because I grew up in a river town, or because of tubing trips down Minnesota’s Ottertail River, or because I think Springsteen’s “The River” is neat), so combining all that with a Turtles story easily won me over.

“The River” still holds up quite well, as writer-artist Rick Veitch delivers what is arguably the pinnacle of the guest-author contributions from this three-year period when Eastman and Laird handed off the reins. But on this re-reading, I have to admit it’s not on par with E&L’s best work – the return of Shredder (“Leonardo” and Issues 10-11) and “Return to New York” (19-21). Veitch’s visual incarnations of the Turtles and Casey aren’t exactly what I look for (I could’ve done without the Turtles wearing athletic supporters in Issue 24), and his grasp of the characters – although not necessarily off base – is certainly shallower than E&L’s.

Still … it has so much cool stuff in it! While Veitch’s narrative pontificating about rivers basically being the heartbeat of life on Earth is cheesy, I kinda love it nonetheless. Most importantly, this whole story takes place in nature, except for a trip to the evocatively corrupt small town of Booder’s Falls, Mass., in Issue 25. From the Turtles marveling at the baby turtles nipping at their toes to Bloodsucker revealing himself by emerging from the dark shadows as he putters upstream toward our heroes, “The River” really puts me in the heart of a mystery/adventure story on the Connecticut River in the summertime.

“TMNT” needed a good villain at this point, and Bloodsucker – who mutates by sucking Raphael dry of mutagen – fits the bill. Granted, he’s only a one-story villain, and no replacement for the Shredder. However, he would be an amazing horror movie monster. I think “The River” could really play well as a “TMNT” movie if anyone ever wanted to go there – its sense of melodrama (see Splinter dramatically NAMING their new nemesis, as if a camera is on him) would translate well, particularly the villain’s aforementioned reveal. Another worthy scare comes when Bloodsucker sneaks up on some kids fishing on the riverbank in Issue 25.

I like the emotion of Raphael’s “Benjamin Button” journey, and I think it fits with this point in the saga. Splinter – who spends most of this trilogy spirit-walking into other people’s auras – senses that Raph is the “weakest” (not merely the angriest) link among his four students. As we saw in “Return to New York,” Raph is dangerously impulsive and reluctant to be a team player. Veitch portrays him as the most playful Turtle, which at first glance would seem to be a mix-up with Mike. But it’s close enough that I’ll let it pass. E&L had established Leo as the Turtle who desperately wants to be a good leader, Don as the most naturally mature and calm one, and Mike as a loyal brother with an imaginative inner life. Raph’s the one who lets his emotions get the best of him, but Veitch adds a new wrinkle by showing that his mood swings don’t always manifest as anger; it might be fairer to say Raph is psychologically imbalanced.

So when Raph shrinks to the size of a baby turtle by the end of Issue 24, and reaches out to go with his brothers on their journey to find Bloodsucker, and April says “Not this time, baby” and kisses him on the head, I feel sorry for him – it’s a magnificent sequence of panels. Sure, Raph could be a pain in the rear, but he’s not a bad guy at heart, and he didn’t deserve this fate.

Veitch – who would go on to write one more issue in Volume 1 and a two-issue Casey Jones series in Volume 2 — nicely grasps the overall TMNT mythos (particularly with the mystical battle between Splinter and Old Man River in Issue 26, building on Splinter’s dream-land powers shown back in Issue 9). Without fanfare, he makes the decision to keep the gang at the Northampton farm after the events of “Return to New York,” understanding that they don’t HAVE to move back to their old sewer den just because they defeated the Foot. After all, if the farm’s more comfortable, they should indeed live there. Maybe they can move back to the city in the winter. (What’s easier to heat – an old farmhouse or a sewer lair?) And he isn’t shy about putting someone else’s characters through some serious paces. Too many other artists play it safe with the Turtles themselves and save their imaginations for their own supporting characters. In “The River,” Raph seems to be in genuine peril right up until Veitch smartly finds a way to bring him back to full size, and this whole experience brings the brothers closer together.

Despite one shortcoming (not enough personality for Leo, Mike and Don) and one example of excess (too much pontificating about the river), “The River” is one of my favorite TMNT stories. I wish there were more TMNT stories like it, but I also love it because there aren’t any.