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TMNT: Last Ronin writer on how they found the right R-Rated tone for this hit series

Last Ronin #1
(Image credit: IDW Publishing)

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have had dalliances with dark, adult storylines over the years, but in the new series Last Ronin these turtles are swimming with it.

For longtime TMNT writer (and sometimes editor) Tom Waltz, their original plans were "even more R-rated" but they pulled back. 

"We wanted to go darker with this story, but certain things just felt gratuitous and unnecessary once we saw them laid out," Waltz tells Newsarama.

The R-Rated sweet spot they found turned out to be a hit, as October 28's TMNT: Last Ronin #1 has sold over 150,000 copies in print, and even more digitally. 

Originally conceived nearly thirty years ago by TMNT creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Last Ronin sees one last Ninja Turtle fight his way through a technological dystopia after the death of his brothers at the hand of Shredder's family, which rules New York City. Read our rundown of TMNT: Last Ronin #1 here.

With #1 going back for multiple printings and #2 on its way January 27, Newsarama sat down with Waltz to discuss his experience on The Last Ronin, its R-Rated tone, and of course the big reveals of who the Last Ronin is and what he's up against.

Newsarama: In an interview with Kevin Eastman before Last Ronin #1 came out, we learned Kevin showed you the idea for Last Ronin right around the time of IDW's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #100 in 2019. Can you take us back to that moment? What was going through your head?

Tom Waltz

(Image credit: IDW Publishing)

Tom Waltz: Honestly, we (Kevin, editor Bobby Curnow, myself) were all focused on two things at that point - getting to issue #100… and then what to do post #100.

We'd set out to tell a story from way back in issue #1, and #100 was going to be the culmination of that narrative. We were trying to decide which direction to go once #100 was complete and published, whether it be continuing with me writing the series or switching to a new voice. 

I still had stories set in the IDW ongoing universe bouncing around in my head, but the reality was that if we were going to make the switch, the events of 'City at War' were laying a perfect foundation for a new status quo for our heroes (and their allies and enemies), which in turn offered a great opportunity for a new writer to come in and take the series in a fresh direction. The veritable fork in the road, and in the end we made what I consider a fantastic decision, which was to bring in fan-favorite writer/artist Sophie Campbell to take the reins.

So, with the knowledge that #100 was going to be the end of my run on the ongoing, I was in an interesting spot - still loving the TMNT, still wanting to tell stories, but knowing that it would have to be in a different format/title than the long-running ongoing series.

Enter my brother from another mother, Kevin Eastman! He pulled out The Last Ronin outline he'd had in storage for 30+ years and shared it with me for my thoughts. And I thought it was… 'Amazing!' I was absolutely gobsmacked by what he and Peter Laird had put together in 1987. It was fun, tragic, different… and eerily prescient. I was hooked from the start, and when Kevin stated that he wanted to adapt the outline and develop/produce it for a modern TMNT audience… and then asked if I wanted to be a part of the collaborative/creative process… I couldn't say 'Yes!' fast enough. It felt like the natural next step for our joint TMNT journey, and here we are!

(Image credit: Esau & Isaac Escorza (IDW Publishing))

Nrama: Last Ronin had a long road to publication, with creative changes, release delays, and, of course, a global pandemic slowing it down. What was that wait like for you? How were you feeling the night before this book finally hit shelves?

Waltz: I'd be a liar if I said there weren't moments when I was a little worried about what would happen with The Last Ronin, especially after original artist Andy Kuhn had to step away from the project due to personal reasons. Andy had already completed about 20 pages of great artwork and it was scary to think we'd have to bring in new artists to finish the project - I mean, what if the two styles were so different as to turn off readers and retailers? 

Fortunately, Kevin was able to recruit the fabulous Escorza Brothers (Isaac and Esau), and IDW and Nickelodeon really stepped up to the plate when they approved a complete restart of the project from page one, allowing us to create a visually cohesive and consistent comic book series. Add to that the amazing talents of co-artist Ben Bishop, colorist Luis Antonio Delgado, letterer Shawn Lee, and, of course, captain of the IDW TMNT ship, editor Bobby Curnow, and a potential disaster turned into an exciting new opportunity for publishing success - delayed yes, but ultimately worth the wait I like to think. It turned out so great, that I was absolutely confident fans - old and new - were, at the very least, going to be ecstatic about the look of the book once they got their hands on it.

It also felt like we were telling a very cool story, though I'll admit… the night before release I was a bit nervous/unsure about the reaction we might get, as I'd been telling TMNT stories for 10 years in the ongoing utilizing a very consistent and personal storytelling style, and The Last Ronin is written in a very different fashion. It is highly adaptive of Kevin and Peter's original outline, and created in an extremely collaborative process, wherein Kevin and I work together to make each and every word in each and every balloon/caption in each and every panel on each and every page something we are both satisfied with. 

After a decade of writing the ongoing, I felt able to accurately predict readers' reactions to each new issue, month in, month out. But The Last Ronin was (and is) very new territory for me as a co-writer, and I was biting my nails the night before release. What Kevin and I and the art team and Shawn and Bobby and, of course, Peter Laird, had created felt big and important and new… but would anyone else agree? Turns out, they did!

(Image credit: Kevin Eastman/Esau & Isaac Escorza/Luis Antonio Delgado/Shawn Lee (IDW Publishing))

Nrama: How did you feel about the (massive!) reaction to The Last Ronin #1?

Waltz: Let's just say the response has been far above and beyond what I expected or was even hoping for… both critically and overall (and continued) sales. Absolutely freaking amazing and I couldn't be more grateful and humbled by the continued positive reactions and unbridled anticipation for more from readers and critics alike. 

I'll say it 'till the day I die - I've been very blessed and very fortunate to be allowed to be a part of the TMNT creative universe, and The Last Ronin is certainly no exception. It makes me want to work even harder on the remainder of the series… and beyond.

Nrama: So let's talk about issue #1, our introduction to the world of Last Ronin. One thing a casual TMNT fan might be surprised by is the dark, R-Rated nature of this story. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle: Last Ronin #1 excerpt

(Image credit: IDW Publishing)

As a writer, were you surprised by how dark a TMNT story could be? Or do you think there's already been some pretty dark stuff in TMNT lore?

Waltz: [Laughs] Actually, my initial script was even more R-Rated… lots of swear words that we ultimately cut, etc. It was Kevin who rightfully pulled me back from the hard-R precipice -- as he stated, it just didn't need it, and he was 100% correct. We wanted to go darker with this story, but certain things just felt gratuitous and unnecessary once we saw them laid out. 

That said, we still got our cake and ate it, too - both IDW and Nickelodeon were awesome in allowing us to push the envelope in a more mature direction than much of what is seen in TMNT these days - though, to be clear, I've always felt our ongoing series had some pretty grim, dark, and mature moments… starting with the execution deaths of Hamato Yoshi and his four young sons in Feudal Japan as presented way back in issue #5. 

So, yeah, it's not the first time we've gone dark with the heroes in a half shell, but it's certainly the first time we're doing it in a consistent fashion - from page one to the final page, The Last Ronin's going to be a gritty adult read. I don't think I'm spoiling much by stating you won't be seeing any Pigeon Petes showing up and acting silly in this particular tale (as much as I adore that goofy bird-man).

Nrama: Out of the many surprise reveals in Last Ronin #1, one that's sure to get fans talking is the unveiling of the series' antagonist: grandson of the Shredder and current head of the Foot Clan, Oroku Hiroto. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle: Last Ronin #1 excerpt

(Image credit: IDW Publishing)

Without spoiling too much, can you tell us what drives this villain, and how he managed to kill three of the four Ninja Turtles?

Waltz: No spoilers! But… I will say this. There is far more (or maybe far less is a better way to put it) to Oroku Hiroto than has been presented so far. His story, like those of our protagonists, will be unpeeled and unveiled as the series progresses… including his dark history with the Hamato Clan, as well as his 'interesting' relationship with his comatose mom, Oroku Karai.

Nrama: Despite their defeat, it seems that the citizens of New York City (which is under Hiroto's iron rule) are at least aware of the Ninja Turtles. What does the average resident of Hiroto's NYC believe about these four brothers?

Waltz: Without giving too much away, most folks in NYC either don't remember the mutants, or think of them as myths/legends (much like folks thought of Batman at the beginning of Frank Miller's classic The Dark Knight Returns). 

One person in particular will be ecstatic to find out that the opposite is true… and that person isn't April O'Neil. But you'll just have to keep on reading the series to find out who it is (one of many great surprises we still have lined up).

Nrama: Speaking of, what has April O'Neil been doing in the years since the Turtles were defeated by Hiroto?

(Image credit: Sophie Campbell (IDW Publishing))

Waltz: Well, I'll tell you what she wasn't doing - she wasn't just sitting around and pouting about Hiroto's despotic reign over NYC. No… she's been very busy, despite great odds against her… and despite great past tragedies she's had to overcome. All will be revealed… starting with issue #2.

Nrama: And since we're talking about surprise reveals, I have to ask about what has been, so far, the biggest mystery surrounding Last Ronin. That is, the identity of the last surviving Ninja Turtle. At the very end of issue #1, we learn that it is, in fact... Michelangelo. Out of all the potential survivors, why did you and Kevin Eastman go with Michelangelo for this story?

Waltz: Kevin wanted to go with Mikey from the start, and I was completely on board with the decision. Michelangelo was the first-ever TMNT brought to life (in Kevin's original sketch way back when) and it seems apropos to me that he's also the last TMNT - at least in this tale we're telling.

Nrama: How has Michelangelo changed since his brothers died? Will we recognize any of his old self in this new, black-clad Ninja Turtle?

Waltz: Mikey's battling a lot of personal demons - survivor's guilt being the worst of them. It's a terrible kind of PTSD to handle, and so far he's been handling it alone (well… if you don't count those strangely familiar voices that are always talking to him from the shadows). He's in a very dark place at the beginning of our story, with vengeance being the only healing salve he can identify. But the surprise reunion with April will provide him with different paths he can follow moving forward. Question is - is he too far gone to step away from the vengeful/suicidal trek he's set for himself? keep reading!

Keep reading with our list of all the new TMNT comics, graphic novels, and collections in 2020 and beyond.