Turtles live ages
But even the strongest fall
The Last Ronin, by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, is a return to form decades in the making.
If you’re old enough to have been a fan at the beginning, you’ll recognize these turtles, their allies, and their enemies immediately; like going to a distant high school reunion and making eye contact with your old best friend. You both went separate ways, and there wasn’t any animosity to your parting, but now that you find yourselves together again, time melts away and it’s as if you were never apart.
If you became a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because of the cartoon, toys, or Archie Comics line, this book isn’t for you. That’s not to say you won’t enjoy it, but if you thought turtles were cute, funny, playful, colorful and always getting into wacky adventures that wrapped up in 22 minutes, capped off with pizza and a rousing shout of “cowabunga,” then you may not even recognize these characters. The names are right, but the dystopian nightmare of darkness and death feels off; almost as if the turtles were put through a “gritty reboot” generator akin to The Dark Knight Returns.
But much like how The Dark Knight Returns is one of the purest Batman stories, the same is true of The Last Ronin for the TMNT series.
Roll forward in time to a New York City that’s familiar, but wrong...and that wrongness is part of the familiarity. Set roughly 20 years in the future, our illustrious heroes are reduced to a single member - I’m not going to spoil which one survived, but I’m proud to say that I successfully figured out which one it was before the reveal at the end of the first issue, and I think if you’ve been a fan of the turtles from their outset, you will, too. The city is run by a megalomaniac (again, not going to spoil it by saying who) and the people exist and live at his whim. They’re “free,” so long as their freedom coincides with his desires. Anybody standing up is quickly put down by his law enforcement robots - unthinking, unfeeling automatons who make no distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law, and who obey their master unflinchingly.
This is where that wrong familiarity becomes eerie. The actions of the NYPD over the past twenty-plus years makes one realize exactly how real this “fictional” New York actually is. You’re always free...just so long as you don’t ask questions, and you always obey orders. It’s a terrifying concept, made all the more real by the fact that it’s already happening throughout the US, and while it was once simply a clever catchphrase for police to claim they were the biggest gang in the country (or world), it’s no longer a joke. Between Civil Asset Forfeiture, Qualified Immunity, and the power of police unions, the very people tasked with protecting and serving are now the greatest threat to public safety.
Neil Gaiman said “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
This is the power of The Last Ronin.
It reminds us that hope is never fully lost, and that there are always those who are ready, willing, and able to stand up to bullies and bad guys. It tells us that it’s okay to mourn those we lost, and reminds us that there’s no weakness in receiving, or asking for help - and in doing so, we are never alone. That doing the right thing is oftentimes hard, painful, frustrating, and unappreciated...but that it is still the right thing to do.
The past forty years have seen the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles go through endless changes; what started out as a parodic love-letter to Daredevil has grown so far beyond its humble origins that most people don’t even know them anymore, which is a bit sad because it’s a wonderful story and an amazing journey to see. After Peter Laird stepped away from the franchise entirely, it looked like we’d never see a true Eastman & Laird Turtles story again, so we all owe Netflix a debt for reuniting the old friends in season three of The Toys That Made Us. There have been good TMNT stories over the years - and having Kevin Eastman maintain his presence kept it at least somewhat grounded throughout, but The Last Ronin proves that the best TMNT stories are told by their creators. So pick it up - it’s been selling out so hard that there have been multiple printings of each issue, you’ll have no problem finding them. Like the title suggests, it is a tale of tragic beauty that is inspirational to its core, and a story we can all stand to know and remember.