Comics, Interviews, LGBTQ, News

Mutanimals: Renegades, Mutants and Queers (An Interview with Paul Allor)

Mutanimals #2, Paul Allor and Andy Kuhn. IDW Publishing, 2015.

Mutanimals #2, Paul Allor and Andy Kuhn. IDW Publishing, 2015.

Mutanimals is a rousing story about outsiders; mutants, freaks and monsters coming together to fight for their right to survive. Paul Allor coalesced a hokey team of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles spin-off characters into a band of renegade freedom fighters whose story is riveting from the first page of this miniseries to the last. Allor took a moment to chat with us here at Women Write About Comics about the Mutanimals, reclaiming agency in the face of past trauma, and the first queer character in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Please note that this interview contains spoilers (though we just think that makes it more fun).

One of the core tenants of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is family; not only the importance of family, but the fact that our families are what we make them, not what we’re born into, and that no matter the struggles we face, we are never alone.This came through beautifully in Mutanimals, building on relationships that were already established between characters while introducing new members of the team. How do you feel about how your miniseries fits into the IDW TMNT universe? Will we be seeing some of the new characters like Sally again in the ongoing continuity?

PA: I think they’re a group, like the turtles, but they’re going about what they do in a very different way. The turtles were basically an accident. Other than Raphael being apart from his brothers for a while, for the most part they were together from the beginning, whereas most of the Mutanimals were live experiments and many of them came up in a horrible way; many of them had to find each other later in their existence, when they were already broken. One of the cool things about IDW’s Turtle verse is that you have all these different evil factions what with Krang and the Foot Clan and Shredder, all sort of bouncing off each other in very interesting ways. I like the fact that the Mutanimals are sort of the same thing but in a more positive way; they’re another positive force that the turtles, and the Fugitoid and other groups can bounce off of.

It was really fun to work on their character directions. I liked the fact that all of the characters were very different, both from the turtles and each other. One of the most enjoyable parts of the mini was combining the mutanimals in different ways and seeing how they interacted differently with each other. The relationship between Mondo and Seymour is very different than the one between Mondo and Herman and so on. I also am very glad that we were able to build in a lot of quieter moments, like Mondo and Herman talking about how they each individually handle downtime, and Seymour and Pete talking about nightmares; I worked really hard to make sure that it wasn’t all just dominated by action, and that we were still able to come back to those moments that often get cut in comics, just because you’re so limited in space.

Mutanimals - Paul Allor and Andy Kuhn

Mutanimals, Paul Allor and Andy Kuhn. IDW Publishing, 2015.

I really loved those moments. I think that aspect of Ninja Turtles is just so underrated, and it’s so unfortunate; these introspective moments are one of the things I enjoy most about the franchise, whether it’s with the turtles or the characters you’re playing with in Mutanimals. I thought that it really heightened the emotional experience of reading this book; I really enjoyed the balance you created with the action and these really quiet, emotional moments too. I really appreciated that.

[Please note that the following paragraph contains spoilers]

I wanted to bring up the fact that one aspect of the book that I’m kind of proud of is with Seymour’s character a lot of his seemingly quiet moments are actually leading up to his decision to basically be a suicide bomber. We have this scene where he’s playing video games with Mondo, which seems like it could just be this very throwaway character moment, but it’s all leading up to his decision to use himself as a bomb. It was big enough that I wanted to justify it. Every scene with him following when he’s introduced and is basically suicidal, to where he’s trying to connect with the [mutanimals], and him observing Slash and Hob’s conversation–you can see that he’s taking Hob’s side, where he wants to do whatever they have to to keep this from happening. I really wanted to lay out the case, without people realizing I was laying out the case. I was kind of dinged in the earlier issues for that not being subtle, and people were right, it wasn’t subtle, but I wanted to make sure that I was strongly building this case for the decision he makes at the end of issue three.

I hope we see them all again, but I realize it’s a very crowded cast of characters. But I do know that the Mutanimals as a group have already been popping up and playing a role in the main book since the series ended, so one would assume that if the mutanimals are in it then our new guys are going to pop up as well.

Me too. The trials of mutants in comics have often been metaphorically representative of the struggles of brutally marginalized peoples such as people of color or the queer community. Was that a tradition that you drew on for Mutanimals, or do you see this miniseries as more divergent from that thematic device in comics?

I think often when you talk about themes, your reader is going to be able to tell you what your themes are. I know what I’m going for, but what I’m going for and what comes across aren’t necessarily the same. I will say that that wasn’t a big part of what I was focused on. I was more focused on telling a story about survivors and fighters. I feel like the mutanimals are marginalized, they’re marginalized from society because they’re mutants, but I believe that if they weren’t mutants they would still isolate themselves just because they have a mission and the mission is the most important thing to them.

The marginalization metaphor is definitely very prominent and maybe if I did more with these characters in the future, I think I would explore that more, but in this mini it wasn’t a direction I was consciously taking.

Well, I know that the mutant metaphor is largely applied to X-Men, right? But in X-Men we’re focused on a cast of largely white male characters–take Charles Xavier, a wealthy, hetero, cis white dude, for example. Yes, he’s being oppressed because he’s a mutant, but it also begs the question of whether X-Men is just a platform for this imagined oppression of white people. I thought it was very interesting in the context of Mutanimals, a book about these monsters and mutants and freaks who are ostracized, but don’t come from any place of privilege whatsoever.

Anyway. From what I recall of the Archie Mighty Mutanimals and the Archie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, those stories often touched on themes of environmental preservation and activism. Your mutanimals are dealing with some much heavier, but equally pertinent issues. Can you tell us about some of the themes you incorporated into your miniseries?

I always feel kind of silly and pretentious talking about the “high minded” themes of a Ninja Turtles comic book, but it is what it is! I do feel like Mutanimals is a book about working through trauma and not letting a traumatic past define you. I guess not define you, because that may indicate that that might be something to be ashamed of and I definitely don’t think it is–I suppose it’s more not letting your trauma dictate your actions. I wanted this book to focus on restoring agency in the face of past trauma.

Seymour’s arc goes about exploring that in a big way. I also think that it’s about the importance of people who have been through some heavy shit to reach out to others who have had similar experiences and to form a community to help each other through it. Layered on top of that, I was also exploring the theme of where the line is drawn between terrorism and freedom fighting. Basically trying to figure out if you can be on the wrong side of it, or if there’s any line at all–if it’s completely subjective. Those are the big things I was looking at doing with this book.

I think that all came across well. I think one of the greatest things about Ninja Turtles is that it can be whatever you want it to be. It can be totally silly, slapstick pizza fart jokes or it can be this really heavy, metaphorical vehicle for examining what it’s like to have these experiences of being ostracized or marginalized, or serious trauma.

I’d also like to say, for the people who haven’t read this book yet, that it’s also funny! In addition to being grueling to read there are also jokes!

I do love the jokes. Yes, I love how you wrote Pigeon Pete and the dry humor of the CEO–

Null, yeah she’s great.

Yeah! I really appreciated that panel where she’s calling them out on the trope of the moment.

Yeah, that was also kind of a joke about myself. Probably the biggest criticism that I get in reviews of my comics is that they can be kind of predictable. And that’s probably true, and it bugs the crap out of me, so Null wasn’t just mocking the mutanimals, she was mocking me too.

Well it’s good to have a good sense of humor about yourself and your work. And to be fair, all stories have already been told, we’re just telling and retelling them over and over again, right? One of the things that makes this book unique is how character driven it is, and I do think each of the characters in your Mutanimals mini really do have a chance to shine.

Thanks, it was pretty important to me to make sure that happened.

I think I tweeted about this, or maybe I even tweeted at you, so I’m going to be honest–when Lindsey’s ex-girlfriend was introduced and we learned Lindsey was queer, I kind of lost it, you know, in a good way. Lindsey and the relationship with her ex is a huge part of this comic! From my understanding, she’s the first canonically LGBTQ character in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise.

That’s insane!

I KNOW! It’s totally insane. TMNT is thirty years old! So how did that come about? Was it an uphill battle, or was IDW amenable to the idea? I feel like IDW is more open to being more inclusive in its representation of characters across the gender and sexuality spectrum in its franchise comics; Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell’s Jem and The Holograms is a fantastic example of that.

When creating them I actually thought that they were the first canonically queer characters in IDW’s turtle books and it wasn’t until the book came out and people started saying that they were the first queer characters in the franchise I was just like, no, that can’t be right! You gotta be kidding me. I didn’t even know that it was as big of a deal as it was when I was working on it. It was the exact opposite of an uphill battle, in fact, IDW and Nickelodeon were wildly supportive of it. It didn’t even originate with me, IDW editor Bobby Curnow said to me early on that he had been wanting to introduce a gay character into the TMNT universe for a while, and he basically said that if that works with the story you want to tell on this, then feel free to do that. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too. I was really happy that we could not only do it, but make it central to the story we were telling. I was really thrilled and honored to be able to do that.

After the issue came out I actually had some readers say things like they were glad that we introduced the characters as queer in the quote unquote right way, you know, organically instead of forcing it down people’s throats, and when I heard that it kind of made me want to write a book where a gay character bursts out of a rainbow and starts blasting everyone with their gay gun. It kind of ruffled my feathers a little bit to hear people saying oh, you did this in the correct way instead of making a big political point about it, but I was definitely trying to make a point, guys. I’m glad they felt it worked well for the story but I would hope that’s more good writing.

I agree, I mean, reading it did feel very organic; it didn’t feel hamfisted at all, it just is.

With that, I would have been totally cool, but there was kind of a tone to some of the comments that implied that they were glad that we didn’t do it the “wrong way” or “force it down our throats like some other books are doing right now” and honestly, we need queer and minority and female representation in comics right now so I don’t really care if it’s a little hamfisted as long as you’re getting it done. That’s the most important thing.

Mutanimals had such an emotional impact; it felt like it had more parallels to Grant Morrison’s We3 to me than anything else that’s happening in the TMNT run right now just because of how hard hitting it was emotionally. Both presented a cast of animals that were more human than the humans attempting to subdue them. How did you find the humanity of the mutanimals?

I think I found their humanity just by writing them the same way I would any other character. I tend to gravitate towards a lot of non-human characters, both with my TMNT work and also a lot of my creator owned stuff, so it’s always really important to me to make sure that they are real, fleshed out characters. I don’t think that I would want to write them just as humans because then you’re disregarding their unique experiences; their personalities are going to be shaped by their experiences and their backgrounds and part of that is the experience of not being human. That said, they should still be relatable and you should still be able to have empathy for them. They’re intelligent, sentient beings, and I think intelligent sentient beings are going to have a lot in common regardless of whether or not they’re people or mutated pigeons.

I was impressed that you made the protagonist (the canonical asshole) Old Hob such an incredibly sympathetic character. Did you find it challenging to transform him from a villain into a hero, or at least a protagonist?

I don’t really see Old Hob as a hero, even in this story. I guess a lot of people might call him an anti-hero, but I feel that term is a bit overused to the point of meaninglessness at this point. But since you said protagonist–he’s definitely the protagonist. I definitely wanted to make him a strong and relatable protagonist, and to accomplish that I basically just tried to make sure that his goals were very clear and his motivations were very understandable; even if you didn’t agree with his beliefs and what he was doing you could still see how he was doing was shaped by his experiences. The change he undergoes later in the book was also understandable based on what had happened to him in this mini. Even at the end I still see him as a somewhat villainous character. At the end he’s still up to some pretty shady stuff.

In the end I wanted to go for a one-two punch, with that scene with Ray where we learn that Hob isn’t necessarily entirely onboard with Slash’s ideas and that he’s still keeping track of these scientists and discussing how they might in fact have to murder them if the project starts up again, then goes back in front of the team and is very Norman Rockwell and says what an honor it is to be among them. I really don’t think he’s lying in that scene, at all, I think both things are true. I think that he’s a complex character and he genuinely does think it’s ok to go behind the other team members’ backs to do what he thinks is right, but he also thinks it is an honor to be working with them.

In my original script that scene was much darker; there were implications that Ray had actually already assassinated the scientists. I think he was covered in blood? And Nickelodeon, understandably, was just like, no. We’re not going to do that. And I was just like, well, they let me turn Seymour into an attempted suicide bomber, so I guess I really shouldn’t push on this one since they’ve already let me do quite a lot.

Mutanimals - Paul Allor and Andy Kuhn

Mutanimals, Paul Allor and Andy Kuhn. IDW Publishing, 2015.

Well, I’m glad you weren’t overly censored.

No no no, not at all. In fact, the moment that I thought would be the biggest NO was the end of issue one when Seymour puts the gun up to his own temple and says “If you’re here to save me, save me.” I thought when I wrote that that there was no way in hell that Nickelodeon was going to let me do that, with a property that is a Saturday morning children’s cartoon! And then I get this note from them that said “really great moment!”, so I guess you just never know.

 

That’s a fantastic moment. I’m so glad they let you keep it.

Me too. Again, I think that moment was very important to understand his decision later on. And I feel like Andy [Kuhn] really nailed that moment. And we’ve been talking about all these emotional moments in the book, and Andy and Nick [Filardi]’s work is even more so key to those moments than the script, even. They did such a wonderful job with those emotions and making these characters come to life, and Ronda Pattison who did some of the colors in issue four as well. Without them this would have been a radically different book.

I think the art just suits the story so well even though it’s a bit of a departure from the main run at the moment. I think it was a fantastic creative collaboration between all of you. Could you tell us a little more about the relationship between you as the writer and the rest of the creative team?

With a licensed book it’s a little less direct; with creator owned stuff you’re constantly in contact with the art team and working with them very closely. On these TMNT books it would mainly go through Bobby [Curnow], though that wasn’t always the case. When Andy would have questions spur of the moment as he was drawing he would e-mail me and ask “hey, what was your intention with this” “what should this look like?” and I would respond. I think it was a really good collaboration. Andy and I worked together previously on the Utrom Empire miniseries so we already had that level of comfort and familiarity there, and because of that experience I was able to write to his style much more for this one. Andy is fantastic and any time you get the opportunity to work with an artist of his caliber it’s truly amazing. It was a really good collaboration and I think we worked together really well. Every time I got the pages it was just jaw-dropping how well he nailed the emotional content of it.

I really like the roughness to Andy’s style on this book–not to say that it isn’t polished or gorgeous, but it just feels a bit rough with heavier lines and a quick, almost sketchy intensity. I feel like that really suits the story.

I really like that about it. And I feel like Nick’s colors both fit with that while at the same time provide a counterpoint to it; they’re very lush in this book, which is very interesting to see over the sketchier look of the line work.

The original Mighty Mutanimals met a rather grisly end (what with the part where they all die)–but despite the darker, more mature take on the team in your mini, it was still so hopeful. Given the epic drama of the current IDW TMNT run I honestly thought the ending of this miniseries was going to be so much uglier; yet you chose hope. Can you tell us a little bit about that choice?

It’s interesting that after issue three readers were like “well, this is going to end ugly” and I was just like “well, not really…” But with what’s going on in the current ongoing run there’s really only so much darkness the readership can take. It’s probably good that I didn’t go too dark with this one either. But honestly, I don’t want to say it wasn’t a choice, because when you’re writing fiction everything is a choice, but there was never a point where I sat down and asked myself if this should be darker or more hopeful; the ending really grew out of the decisions I made before. Whereas I think the characters in this book have a lot of big revelations and big personal moments that are driving towards a place of tentative hope. Seymour realized that he did want to live, Hob realized that he was not always right, and that there are other ways to fight this war other than the way he’s always done it, and Pete got to pitch his blueberry cola idea directly to the CEO so he was happy. And I do feel like those things were all driving toward the ending that we had.

But I also feel like I set up a dynamic that could go dark again very quickly. These characters are a team, and they’re a family to a certain extent, but I do think that some of them could definitely turn on each other on the right circumstance. It’s not really a team where you know they’re going to have each other’s backs through thick and thin forevermore; I think they could, and I think they care about each other very deeply, but you know, I don’t think that they’re quite in that place of being a completely solid team just yet.

I’d love to see that play out! I was so disappointed to find out that Mutanimals wasn’t going to be ongoing! Any chance you and the mutanimals might be taking another spin with more miniseries or an ongoing in the future?

I would love that. Any time they want me back I would be absolutely thrilled, but there are no immediate plans right now. I think the readership has responded to it really positively, much more so than I might have initially anticipated. I’ve done a couple of cons since then and the reaction of readers at those cons has been unbelievable, unlike any of my other previous turtles work, so that’s been really fascinating. IDW has a fairly limited bandwidth with these books and I know there’s a lot they want to do with the TMNT books, so I guess we shall see.

In the meantime, readers can pick up the collected miniseries in a trade, right?

Yes! The trade is out!

So what are you working on currently? What are you up to, moving forward?

I also have another trade that just came out through IDW called Strange Nation, and it’s a print collection of a Monkey Brain comic I worked on over the last few years with an artist named Juan Romera. I think people who like my lighter turtles work would like Strange Nation. It’s about a tabloid reporter who is investigating a conspiracy involving Sasquatch and aliens and a doomsday cult, and her sidekick is an old man who may or may not be Elvis Presley. It’s a really fun book with a lot of heart but it also has some serious themes to it as well about the truth and the burden of trying to get the truth out there even if it might destroy your life somewhat. And on September 9, the first issue of a creator owned series was released through IDW. It’s called TET with artist Paul Tucker, and that is a story that takes place during the Vietnam War and in Vietnam in 1984; it’s a story about a war-torn romance, with some crime thrown in there. It’s one of the things that I’ve done that I’m most proud of. I’m really thrilled with how it came out, so I would encourage everyone to check that out because I think it’s pretty good and I’m eager to see what other people think of it as well.

Thanks so much, Paul!

The Mutanimals trade is available for purchase, and find the first issue of TET in your local comic book shop (and the digital comics sphere).