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TMNT Writer Jason Aaron Teases Why His Ninja Turtles Relaunch Is 'A Little Darker' - Exclusive Interview

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles new comic relaunch is bringing in major A-list talent for its upcoming run, with writer Jason Aaron ("Thor") joined by several fan-favorite artists — including Cliff Chiang, Rafael Albuquerque, Joëlle Jones, and Chris Burnham — to help navigate the new era of the mutant superteam. Following Sophie Campbell's epic run on the "Heroes in a Half Shell" ending last month, the Turtles are being taken back to their darker roots, with the upcoming story honoring the dark Mirage Comics versions of the heroes from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird while not ignoring the recent history of the characters.

The Turtles are in a great place 40 years after their debut in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" #1. The team most recently starred in the critically acclaimed animated film, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem," and in the dark comic story in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin," which is being adapted into a live-action feature film. Xoop spoke with Jason Aaron about "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and asked the talented writer about what inspired the new series, what tone readers can expect in the comic, and what it was like to work with an amazing line-up of artists in relaunching the series. 

On what inspired the new TMNT run

You mentioned in previous interviews that the original TMNT comics from Mirage — which loosely inspired the shows and movies — were what captured your imagination as a reader, noting the grit and grim of its tone. Obviously we've seen a lot of that DNA spill into the modern run of TMNT comics since then, with Leonardo becoming a brutal adversary in "City Fall," Donatello beaten to death at one point by Bebop and Rocksteady, and of course the future tragedy of "The Last Ronin." What is it about the Turtles that lends itself to that kind of spit-in-your-eye, blood-on-your-knuckles raw brutality? And given your inspirations, can we expect that same level of savagery — be it physical or emotional — in the story you're telling?

To me, the rawness and the action-driven storylines and art were kind of hallmarks of the original book, were kind of things that made me fall in love with those characters in the first place. So I mean, I don't feel like I'm trying to reinvent the wheel here — if anything, just focusing in on where these characters started, where they came from, the roots from which they grew. And what spoke to me personally back in the day, and especially this year and with the 40th anniversary, it seems fitting to look back to those earliest days for inspiration.

So yeah, I mean, it feels like I'm trying to take some of that and just do some of what I do, still bring something of myself to it, bring something to the kind of work that I'm used to doing and look backwards with these characters where they came from, but also take them forwards in a sense, and that we're doing a story that's still a little bit different than I think what's been done with these guys before.

Do you feel you're able to go as hard as you'd like with the story, given the universal, even all-ages appeal that still satellites the TMNT IP? Is that a difficult gap to straddle?

I wasn't looking to push them to doing an R-rated book. I definitely wanted to change the tone a little bit and go a little bit darker and grittier, a little more violent, a little more serious at times, but still a book about talking mutant ninja turtles. So I think Turtles from the very get-go has leaned into the ridiculousness of that. And while treating these characters as the real nuanced characters that they've become, you're also still not afraid to go to some crazy places. So no, I think the tone that we've established of the book was very much what I wanted from the get-go. So I don't think I needed to try to push it beyond that to have them lopping anybody's heads off or anything.

Taking the Turtles back to basics while not ignoring recent comics

You're taking the Turtles' adventures over as they are just coming back from an expansive story that tumbles between time and space, dealing with magic and advanced technology to fight what is essentially a gigantic cybernetic shark god who is eating time itself in Sophie Campbell's recently concluded run. To say that it has gotten expansive, then, is an understatement. You've mentioned that your run will take the Turtles to a more back-to-basics approach, as seen in those original Mirage comics. While those comics had gigantic extra-dimensional elements, of course, they still effectively wrangled them into street-level stories. Is it safe to say you're taking a similar approach in your run — merging the high-level sci-fi with the ground-level? If so, how challenging has it been to find that balance between grand design and grimy focus? And how has working on stories like "Thor" and "The Avengers" — which also contracted into more intimate stories before exploding outwards — prepared you for what some might see as an uneasy narrative distillation?

No, I mean, I don't think it was really a challenge. I mean, I think these characters have shown over the course of 40 years you can do all different kinds of stories with them, from something that's very street level, to, like you said, so much of what Sophie [Campbell] did over the course of the previous volume, especially with the huge final arc, had those characters bouncing around through time and into other dimensions and all that sort of stuff. So you can take these characters from the sewer to sort of the limits of your imagination and they can work in any of those kinds of setting, which is the kind of characters I feel like I always gravitate towards.

So no, I think again, it was just, you're right, the IDW series over the course of those 150 issues expanded the cast to a huge degree, doing all different kinds of stories. With this volume, with the relaunch, with the new No. 1 in honor of the 40th anniversary, we want to give people something that anybody can pick up and understand, whether you haven't read a single one of those previous 150 issues, whether you've never read a Turtles comic to begin with, right? Everything you need, the hallmarks of your emotional investment, your enjoyment of these characters should all be on the page that we deliver to you. You don't need to come in with any foreknowledge.

That said, this is not a reboot like it's a relaunch. So we're not throwing out any of those characters or any of that previous continuity. This book is one piece of IDW's overall Turtles publishing plan. So they've already announced different books that you'll have coming that have focused on other mutants, other parts of the Turtles universe, and that will continue to grow and change as we move forward. In the same way, you can pick up Batman or you can pick up Nightwing, and you see how they're connected and you can enjoy them together. You can also enjoy them separately. They're each going to give you a different tone and a different focus and explore a different part of the same universe.

On setting the tone for the series

The series really starts off in an Alpha issue with a 10-page story on Donatello as a "tone setter" as you've called it. We know you don't have a favorite Turtle, but without spoiling anything, why did you choose Donnie as the kick-off to your run? Was that a conscious decision based around the character, or is it because he was really the focus of the latter part of the last series? Is there a single issue or storyline from the 40 years of Turtles that you can point to in order to give fans an idea of what to expect from this run?

Yeah, I mean, I think you'll see me taking inspiration from different storylines in the original Mirage series. I mean, the arc is titled Return to New York. Plot-wise, it's not the same sort of story as the original Return to New York arc from those Mirage days, but I think you'll see references and connections from time to time. In terms of Donnie, that's a good question. A lot of it does have to do with the previous volume and what Sophie [Campbell] took Donnie through in that last arc and where she left him. If you haven't read issue 150, I encourage you to go grab it and enjoy the end of Sophie's amazing run.

When we pick up with Donnie, he's been through a lot. He's been through more really than his brothers have, and that's left him in a state where he is a bit worse off than the other guys. And that's not a throwaway thing. That'll kind of chart a big portion of our story going forward is sort of what state Donnie is in. When we pick up with the four brothers, they're all in wildly different parts of the world, in the middle of very, very different kinds of stories, but none of them are in quite the same state as Donnie. We'll explore more about why that is and what happened in the year, the gap. Roughly a year has passed between the end of 150 and the beginning of our new volume, and you'll get teases as to what happened that caused the Turtles to sort of go their separate ways. And now, even though they're brought back together, everything isn't back to the old days. Everything isn't back to normal. And in particular, Donnie is still going through a lot.

The Foot Clan will return in the beginning of the story you're telling, kind of marking a return once again back to those original stories. But you've also mentioned there's going to be a new villain for the series. Do you have a particular favorite in the TMNT robes gallery? And did any of their DNA make it into this new character? What did you think generally makes a good Turtle villain, particularly ones that you can kind associate with the past while forging something new?

That's a good question. I think that Turtle villains kind of run the gamut. They're all kind of bigger than life. I think with this character, again, we're kind of going back to the core DNA of the series and all the things that kind of fed into what [Kevin] Eastman and [Peter] Laird were doing with those original issues. So I think this is a character who's not connected directly to any specific piece of Turtles lore or any other characters. He's a wholly new construct with a connection to the Foot Clan. But I think he can see he kind of comes from the same mixture of ingredients as what was feeding into the story back in the '80s.

Working with a legend in Kevin Eastman

Kevin Eastman has continued to play a part in the current TMNT comics; is he involved with this upcoming run? What was it like to have him as a resource?

He hasn't been directly involved with this run, but certainly, he's very involved and very hands-on with everything that's happening in the Turtles universe at this point, which of course is amazing to still have him around, still helping chart the way from new stories with these characters. And in particular, The Last Ronin storyline, which I, just as a fan, before I ever knew I was going to get the chance to work on the Turtles, was a story that I flipped forward and have thoroughly enjoyed. I'm super excited to see what he and Tom Waltz are cooking up with the new stories and sit in that world. 

Visually, the Turtles have had so many interpretations, from the sort of thick gristle of Eastman and [Peter] Laird, to Sophie Campbell's inimitably deceptive simplicity, to most recently, the great stuff from Vincenzo Federici. You are also working with a cavalcade of incredible artists, each with their own distinctive styles: Joëlle Jones, Cliff Chiang, Rafael Albuquerque, and Chris Burnham. What is it like to team up with artists with such distinct styles and kind of launching alongside that?

Yeah, I think like you said, Turtles are those kind of characters that can work in a lot of different styles. There's so many comic artists who grew up as Turtles fans, who've always been huge Turtles fans. So it's always cool to see different amazing creators be able to bring their own take to the characters. And yeah, I think with this volume, with what we're trying to do with coming out of the gate with these issues that focus on different Turtles, it made perfect sense to start off with four different artists. We were very lucky in that IDW was able to line up just straight-up murderers row of incredible artists. And like you said, they're very different. Joëlle and Cliff are not the same, and Chris is a crazy man who's sort of off coming from his own corner of the universe. And then Rafe is one of the group that I have worked with before, though just briefly.

So again, it works. They were kind of doing four very different stories to start the series. Each one focused in on one of the brothers and kind of different locations they found themselves in. It works to have four different styles. So I think that said, everybody is still kind of pulling in the same direction that I think everybody sort of gets the tone we're going for with this new series. I think Chris kind of set that, like you said, with that short story and the Alpha, and then Joëlle very much nails it and knocks it out of the park with the Raphael in prison story that you get in issue one. So everybody's kind of able to bring their own talents to bear and flex their own particular muscles while still feeling like we're all rowing in the same direction.

On working with a team of great artists

Is there a consistent visual thread that kind of permeates through each of the Turtle's stories? And if so, will we see it with this run of artists?

I don't know that there's a particular visual thread, because I think, again, these four issues are four different kinds of stories. I think they all have their own certain grittiness in a way. But the settings are different. What the Turtles are going through is different. Of course, the brothers themselves are very different. These stories are about accentuating, exploring what makes each of them who they are; not in relation to anybody else, but just on their own.

So I think there are four different kinds of stories that will look different and feel different somewhat. But I think the level of sophistication and the tone all still lines up and propels you forward to issue five, which is when we explore this new villain in a big way.

You mentioned that if given the opportunity, you'd love to do a Turtles and Thor kind of book. Could anyone in the Turtles universe lift Mjolnir? And if so, why?

It's a great question. Yeah, I think I could have a lot of fun with doing that crossover. I think that there would be lots of characters. I don't think it would necessarily be just one. I think if Splinter was still around, I think he certainly would be able to lift the hammer, and I think a flying super rat god of thunder would be pretty awesome.

Working on the TMNT, I think you've described it as kind of a dream gig. But are there any other properties from your younger fandom that would benefit from a Jason Aaron take?

I feel like over the course of my career, I've always looked at it like I'm not just chasing properties or things I was a fan of as a kid. Thor was not a book. If you'd asked me when I was 14 years old what were my favorite comics, Thor I don't think would've made the list. Not that I didn't love the [Walt] Simonson stuff. I absolutely did. But I didn't read that much Thor. So I think as a creator, I've always looked at what felt right at that moment in time and what do I feel like I can bring something to, what do I have a connection to, and kind of gone from that.

That said, yeah, there's certainly a short list of properties that I've loved my whole life that I'm always excited to get the chance to work on. Conan was one of those. I've been reading Conan — I first read Robert E. Howard's stories at a very formative time. I've always walked around for years just wanting to get a shot at that, but it was still a matter of time of waiting until the time was right. So yeah, there's a list, and I'll still keep it to myself for now as to what else is on the list. Well, Uncle Scrooge was on the list, and I'm getting to mark that one off this year also. But yeah, there's still a couple more names on there.

Jason Aaron's TMNT is coming soon

Who do you consider the most powerful character in the TMNT lore and why?

I think people can get very caught up on one character being more powerful than another. And to me, as I think in particular as somebody who's a big sports fan and particularly big football fan, loves basketball, loves boxing and MMA, I think power rankings are so subjective. And that if they weren't, Vegas would be broke. Otherwise, It would be easy to bet on the Super Bowl. And yeah, there are times you feel like this game is a huge mismatch, and this one team is a massive underdog, and 99 times out of 100 you know who's going to win. But 99 out of 100 is not foolproof, right? There's always that one where we get a massive upset where Buster Douglas knocks out Mike Tyson, right? The upset's so huge that Vegas didn't even have a line on it, right? Only a couple of places you could even bet on it.

So those are the stories we remember, right? It's still, you know, tell me the story of how Squirrel Girl beat Galactus. Can she do that 99 out of 100? No, but maybe she sneaks around and gets that one. So that's my long-winded answer of saying I don't ever really buy into power levels.

Check out Rafael Albuquerque's cover art below, followed by a text solicit for the issue.

New Series Premiere! New Jumping-On Point! The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have all left New York to pursue their own interests, but there are forces gathering that will pull them back together—whether the bad guys like it or not. First up: Raphael! But why is everyone's favorite brawler in prison?! When a surprise attack behind bars puts Raph's position in jeopardy, he needs to figure out how to get out of jail and warn his brothers that trouble is coming. Superstar writer Jason Aaron (The Mighty Thor, Batman: Off-World) teams up with Joëlle Jones  (Lady Killer, Catwoman) for the first issue of a new TMNT series that will start a bold new era, celebrating the TMNT's 40th anniversary while setting them up for the next 40 years to come!

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" #1 arrives in comic book stores and online retailers on July 24, 2024.

This interview has been edited for clarity.