For boys (and most girls I’d imagine but having never been one I’m speculating here) there are certain toylines from your childhood that hold a special nostalgic place in your heart. These are the products that not only kept boredom at bay through long afternoons but shaped your imagination and the person you’d ultimately become.
Some people have Transformers or He-Man or G.I. Joe but I’m slightly too young for those venerable toylines which had all shot their bow just before I was born. I was aware of these and had a few toy Transformers but I didn’t love these properties.
Instead my affection was for Thundercats (which I made the mistake of re-watching once. Hoo boy is that show terrible) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Oddly enough I am not a furry despite my childhood being focused on two anthropomorphic animal teams. I feel I made a lucky escape there.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuted in a set of black and white comics in 1984 two years before I was born but the cartoon show launched in 1987, when I was one year old, and ran until 1996! When I was 10! That’s 9 years! That is an absurdly long time for a kids’ show, let alone an animated kid’s show.* And that’s not surprising considering what a monster cultural hit TMNT was. TMNT merchandise was everywhere in the 90’s: clothes, lunches, backpacks, their own cereal and special snack cake, video games, movies, even a touring stage show and an album!
And it spawned a slew of imitators trying to cash in on the formula of anthropomorphic animals with catch phrases that fight bad guys. Street Sharks, C.O.W. boys of Moo-Mesa, Cheetahmen, Biker Mice from Mars, Battletoads.
There has never been a time in my life before TMNT was a cultural phenomenon and so of course I just accepted it as part of the zeitgeist like Spider-Man or Batman, Football or Star Wars. These things have always existed to me and always been popular so I never had cause to think about why they were popular.
But if you step back from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for just one second you realise.
This is a profoundly weird concept.
4 brothers, turtles, mutated by alien ooze and named after renaissance artists, that are trained in ninja arts by their master, a mutated rat, live in the sewer and fight bad guys including robot ninjas using high tech gadgets including a blimp and a van.
There are at least 7 bat shit crazy concepts in that last sentence. Just read it again, let the insanity soak into your head. Isn’t it amazing?
So how did something so odd come about? What incredible drugs were the creators on to come up with that random hodge podge of insanity and why did anyone think it would ever work, let alone become the monster hit it did?
Well as most of you reading this probably know Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started as a comic from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird and either intentionally or not it reflects the prevailing popular comics of the day. Really you can break the four word name into four aspects that directly reference popular comics from 1984. Why are they teenaged? Because Teen Titans at D.C. comics was a huge hit featuring young adult heroes learning to come to terms with the adult world both literally and in super heroic metaphor. Why are they mutants? Because X-Men with its mutant heroes was the most popular comic in America and the word mutant or an x on a title really helped it sell. Why are they ninjas? As well as Ninjas really breaking into American pop culture in the 80’s in a big way they hugely influenced comics, especially Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil which was revolutionising the way comics were actually told. That book was a masterpiece and it was full of ninjas. Finally why are they turtles? well this was a black and white self published comic and there really was only one prominent black and white self published comic at the time, Cerebus the Aardvark (who would actually team up with the turtles shortly in their first comics run). He was an anthropomorphic aardvark so in celebration of that success why not make another funny animal comic?
Conceived of that way there’s a certain mad logic to it. If all these four things are popular why wouldn’t a combination of them be four times as popular. In practice that kind of thinking never works out but there is a strange alchemy to TMNT, taking several disparate ingredients and producing from their interaction something wholly new and wholly unique.
All of which is a preamble to me announcing my next big blog project. I want to look at the origins of the Teenage Mutant Turtles every time they get a new origin. The original comics, the 80’s, 2000’s and modern cartoons, the anime and the first film. I’m going to examine what’s the same and what’s changed, what works and what doesn’t, what tone is aimed for and whether it’s hit or missed. Ultimately I hope to get to the core of the question, why does the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles work as an idea at all?
So lets start with the earliest example of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the 1984 black and white comic from Mirage studios.
Mirage studios were so named because the studio was a mirage. It referred to Eastman and Laird’s living room, a shared drawing space for the two friends where they cranked out home made comics for fun and failed attempts at profit. TMNT was the studio’s first official production with a print run of 3000 issues. That print run cost Eastman and Laird every penny they had and some more money borrowed from a relative to produce. They sold out in less than 3 months. That’s small potatoes for a major publisher like Marvel but for a home made product this was an absolute monster hit.
But what affection and positive criticism there was for the issue had a lot more to do with the idea and potential of the book than the actual story contained in the first issue; which is workmanlike at best and downright bad if you’re inclined to be mean. Judged by the standards of two guys working at home this is amazing stuff but judged against popular comics of the day it is clearly amateur hour.
Mostly the problems are in the art and even then only in two places. The figure work and the backgrounds.
Eastman and Laird’s figures have a crudeness to them that’s kind of charming but definitely looks amateurish. The proportions of the human characters are just slightly off. Not in a stylised way either, if that were the case then the proportions would be consistently off in the same way each time but instead character’s facial features seem to wander about their heads with eyes moving up and down or getting closer together or further apart.
The turtles also don’t look like they will in any adaptations or even as they will later in the comics run. They have big heads, big hands and big feet but relatively small bodies and skinny short arms and legs. It’s not bad, in fact it almost a has manga-ish super deformed feel to it but I’m more used to seeing the turtles with more human proportions (except obviously shorter and with the larger than average torso) By about issue 4 or 5 the more human proportions have started and the hands and feet have shrunk considerably.
The biggest problem is the line they employ. An artist’s line really defines an artist’s style, whether it’s thick, thin or even invisible if you’re aiming for photo realism. The problem Eastman and Laird have is the line is inconsistent, and not from panel to panel but within part of a drawing. They’ll draw an arm and rather than draw a line of even thickness to delineate the edge it will vary in width. It gives the whole thing a crude and amateurish feel.
It’s also a problem that clears up by around issue 3. Although there never stops being something, slightly off about the proportions the line issue gets cleared up and a thinner, straighter much more confident line starts being employed.
Then there are the backgrounds or rather the lack of them. When the artist bothers they’re perfectly capable of drawing backgrounds (although again there are issues with the fuzziness of the line) but they opt not to draw them most of the time. That’s partly because it’s a black and white drawing and they want their figures to pop out from the background more so opting not to draw a background leaves you focusing on the figure in question. However when you compare it to the professional standard at the time the lack of background is noticeable. You would never encounter a panel in a fight scene in X-Men or Teen Titans with the background missing because taking the background away has a distancing effect on the reader and undercuts the reality of the world the characters inhabit. Again this stops being such a noticeable problem in later issues.
Oddly though these are the exact opposite to the art problems you’d expect to find in a juvenile effort. Most artists master figures before they move on to try and tel a story, they get taught how to sketch still images long before they try and put a comic together. So what trips them up is learning how to tell a story in sequential art. Eastman and Laird have no such problems. Their panel to panel storytelling is clear and efficient and even uses some inventive grids. They make great use of splash pages and generally pace fight scenes well. There’s nothing especially flashy in here but that’s a good thing. Learn the essentials before you start experimenting. However based on this the essentials were already down pat.
The fact that the storytelling is much better than the lines might be attributed to the unusual way Eastman and Laird worked together. Rather than one inking and the other pencilling or trading off pages they aimed to work together on each page. Presumably the fact that line wanders in thickness is a facet of this as one artist drew a thicker line than the other.
One issue with the storytelling though is just how much of it there is to tell. Look at a page like this
that is crammed pack full of words. Show don’t tell guys, we’re reading a comic not a novel.
Although I don’t blame them for taking short cuts, the issue is 39 pages long which is about half extra the length of a normal comic. Even with the extra space though they need to introduce the origins of the turtles and splinter, the origin of the shredder and his conflict with splinter and have a fight with shredder and his foot clan (who are a parody of the hand from Daredevil by the way, explaining the bizarre name).
That’s a lot of material to cover guys.
The origin of the turtles themselves is pretty much the same as it is in any adaptation. A boy has four pet turtles in a jar, they are struck by a canister of mutagen which smashes the jar and the turtles and canister fall into the sewer. The mutagen covers them and they grow up to be kind of humanoid turtles. Splinter then finds them in the sewer and teaches them in the ways of ninjitsu.
The weapons are all here but the individual aspects of the turtles haven’t been fleshed out yet. For starters all the bandannas are red (although it’s a black and white comic so colour coding them wouldn’t help much) so visually they’re all identical anyway. Personality wise in issue one the turtles are total cyphers, only Splinter and Shredder have any personality and they’re stock archetypes. It wouldn’t be until the series continued that the turtles developed distinct personalities, but they are the personalities you’d expect for each turtle. Raphael is the wild, rude, sarcastic one who likes violence a bit too much, Donatello is the smart one who tinkers with gadgets and expresses wonder and amazement, Michelangelo is the goofy one who tells jokes and Leonardo is the stoic driven one concerned with living up to his master’s ideals and protecting his brothers.
What is different though is that the mutagen accident is actually part of the daredevil parody of the book. You see Daredevil is a marvel super hero whose origin involves him leaping into the road to save a blind man from a careening van. he does so but is struck with radioactive waste from the back of the van, blinding him but giving him super powers. As for the turtles universe, I’ll let the page speak for itself.
Then there is the origin of Splinter which differs from the cartoon and is way, way worse.
Most of you probably think that splinter is a human named Hamato Yoshi who was turned into a rat man when he touched the mutagen and then a rat. Nope! No, originally he is just like the turtles, a rat (specifically Hamato Yoshi’s pet rat) who turned into a rat man.
Why then is he proficient in the ways of the ninja? Because he learned them when he was a ninja’s pet rat by watching him practise and practising in the cage himself.
No, I am not kidding, here is the evidence.
This raises many questions. Even if we assume that Splinter mastered martial arts routines in his little cage he has never had a chance to put them into practise, nor will he be aware of how to do other ninja tasks like scaling walls, making smoke bombs, etc that he teaches to the turtles.
And let’s not even get started on how he’d be able to teach the turtles how to use their signature weapons. Did Hamato Yoshi craft tiny little katana for his rat to practise with?
There is a rule about suspension of disbelief that the audience will accept any one impossible thing so long as the rest of the story follows logically from that. Aliens made a mutagen that turns animals into people and people into animals, fine, that’s your impossible thing. But the world of the comic also asks us to accept that rats can stand on their hind legs and master karate by watching it…which I’m not buying.
Shredder gets a much more nuanced and complex origin in the original comic too. Shredder is Oroku Saki. Shredder’s brother Oroku Nagi and Splinter’s master Hamato Yoshi are both ninja in the foot clan. They’re also both in love with the same woman Tang Shen (who presumably is Chinese because that is not a Japanese name guys). Shen prefers Yoshi and Nagi, in a jealous rage beats her. Yoshi discovers Nagi in the act of beating his lover and kills Nagi. Having dishonoured himself Yoshi flees to New York with Shen( and his pet rat Splinter of course) to set up a new life.
Nagi’s brother Saki is tasked by the foot clan to kill the traitorous Yoshi and fueled by his hatred for the man that killed his brother he forges himself into the Shredder and sets up the New York Foot clan. He then kills Yoshi and Shen and leads the New York Foot as a criminal gang.
Splinter then tasks his sons, the turtles with killing Saki, now Shredder, as revenge for killing his master.
That’s a pretty classic origin and it makes Shredder somewhat sympathetic. His desire for revenge is understandable even if we cannot condone it and even though his brother was a dick.
In fact Shredder isn’t all that villainous in this and it causes a problem because what are supposed to be his villainous qualities are all qualities present in our ostensible heroes.
Yoshi, by his own moral standard, is a coward. He has killed a man but rather than face punishment (which presumably will require he commit seppuku) he flees to America. Okay it wasn’t murder but self defense but right there Yoshi has harmed Shredder and so Shredder’s desire for revenge is understandable. You’d expect the plot to take the line that while we understand the desire for revenge the heroic thing to do is not give in to it…but that’s exactly the opposite of what happens. Splinter basically sends the turtles on a revenge mission. He’s all “Shredder killed my master so you should go kill him for me” and the turtles go “okay” which is EXACTLY THE SAME THING that shredder does (bar killing Shen who is the innocent in all this.) Splinter has an opportunity to stop the cycle of violence but instead he’s all in favour of it, Splinter totally thinks two wrongs make a right in the comics.
He’s considerably wiser in other adaptations.
So the turtles fight Shredder and beat him and try and give him the option to do the honourable thing, which is commit seppuku. And Shredder refuses, which would be a bad thing except, Yoshi did exactly the same thing too. So they kill him.
Yup, issue 1, Shredder, the turtles’ ultimate big bad gets deaded.
He does get better though, I mean this is comics people.
The turtles don’t act like heroes in this issue they act like a street gang. You whacked one of ours so we’ll whack one of yours.
Which leads me into discussing the tone. The original turtles’ comics are generally described as being darker and grittier than later adaptations and for being quite violent. Certainly the comics are much darker and more violent than the cartoons but in general this is a bit over exaggerated. In issue 1 the turtles aren’t heroes, they’re ninjas. They’re motivation is honour and their goals are violence and death and yeah they straight up kill a guy with ninja weapons, something they can not do in the comics or the movies. But by issue 4 or 5 they’re basically superheroes with ninja powers and much more concerned with saving innocent people.
And as for gritty, this comic includes robots in issue 2, aliens in issue 3, a trip to space in issue 5 and magic in issue 8. And the central premise is ninja turtles. This is a comic with plenty of out there and crazy ideas. It’s as over the top and odd as your standard super-hero comic and aside from the more serious attempt to do a ninja story in the first issue it swiftly becomes a super hero comic. But it is a super-hero comic played straight. There are jokes but no pun filled banter, 4th wall breaking asides or inept comedy villains. The turtles are in real danger in real fights and what humour there is arises from the incongruousness of giant turtles battling for their lives or the odd sarcastic quip.
It’s also not any more violent than comics of the time were but it is certainly a lot more violent than a kids cartoon can be. Leonardo doesn’t use his swords to deflect laser blasts in this, he just stabs people with them.
In fact it’s a bit less grim and gritty than most early 90’s comics and the comic even lampshades this with the introduction of Casey Jones. 90’s comics are notorious for introducing a new breed of violent anti-heroes that killed their opponents, angsted about their own horrible lives and narrated in bad faux noir prose. Casey Jones is an archetype of these cliches, a faceless personality free cypher who exists purely to beat minor criminals like muggers to death. His initial story arc is all about Raphael, the most violent turtle, thinking that Casey goes too far in his violence and trying to tone him down. This happens in between issue 4 and 5 and considering the turtles in the first issue were a murderous gang highlights how far from the original conception the characters have moved.
The other two characters key to the turtles mythos that get introduced early in the comics are April O’ Neil and Krang.
Well not really Krang, but instead these guys.
Those are Utroms and appearances aside they’re actually nice guys here just to observe earth and certainly not the villainous conqueror Krang was. They’re also the aliens responsible for the turtles since they made the mutagen (it was a canister from their space ship) that mutated them in the first place.
April O’Neil shows up in issue 2 as the assistant to a mad scientist Baxter Stockman. She’s not a reporter (boo) but she does have a jump suit (yay) but she only has it for one issue (boo) and she’s not a red head (double boo). Instead she’s a completely normal girl that provides a sort of audience surrogate character constantly reacting to the turtles bizarre adventures.
The turtles eventually move into her apartment rather than live in the sewer which makes for some nice comedy when you get the surreal sight of a turtle in a bathrobe.
They then ruin April’s normality and the nice contrast she provides with two very stupid changes to her neither of which happens in the original run of comics.
Firstly they turn her into a super hero named nobody which is meh and only lasted for a short time.
Secondly they reveal her secret origin, April O’Neil is actually…a drawing come to life.
Yup, in the comic continuity April O’Neil is a drawing that comes to life with the aid of a magical crystal and has no idea she is a drawing. This serves to allow a cliched and hackney identity crisis arc for the character (who am I? am I real? can I die? etc) which does give April something to do other than react to turtle or Casey Jones stories but really really undercuts her role as normal girl in weird circumstances.
Overall the comics are very good and well worth seeking out. It’s the core idea of ninja turtles played completely straight and if you like fun super hero comics it’s a good example of exactly that. There are problems early on ,especially with the anti-hero nature of the turtles and the art but they get ironed out relatively quickly and from about issue 3 onwards it’s a very strong super-hero series at least as far as I’ve read. I’m led to understand that the storytelling quality takes a nose dive once Eastman and Laird start devoting their time to running the merchandising side of things but for the first two volumes of IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection you won’t get a bad story.
But whilst the comics are the original turtles, they certainly aren’t the definitive ones. Next week let’s look at TMNT the animated series.
*although there are some longer running examples. Ed, Edd and Eddy ran for 10 years Rugrats and Spongebob for 13, Arthur for 16 and the Japanese show Sazae-San has been running continuously since 1969