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No, Teenage Mutant Ninja Origins is not dead but I need to watch the 2000’s more anime styled series and the new series before I can talk about it further. In the meantime watch this.

NES and TMNT are up there in my personal favourite things list but last time they were combined we got the TMNT NES game and the world’s most difficult video game level; the underwater bomb disposal level. This is significantly less irritating.

 

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Here is a pitch for a film that would never get made in a million years.

So I have this idea to do a film right, and it’s based on this kids TV show but we’re going to put swearing and violence in it that means a lot of the audience for that show can’t go and see it. Also when they do eventually see it they’re going to be confused because we’ve changed how all the characters look and act and their origins. And the reason we’ve changed it is that this is actually based on a comic book which barely 3000 people in the world read.

Oh and did I mention the main characters are anthropomorphic turtles? Yeah, turtles. Turtles with ninja weapons. And we’re going with suits and puppeteers to get the turtles so that means we need to hire martial artists who can perform stunts wearing heavy and constricting rubber turtle suits. Oh and it means our stars can’t really act for most of the film as y’know, they’re puppets.

You go pitch that to a Hollywood exec today and watch how fast the door hits your ass.

Nonetheless they made it, and it became the highest grossing independent film of all time.

Yes, THE HIGHEST GROSSING INDEPENDENT FILM OF ALL TIME!

Maybe that’s not such a surprise. TMNT was basically the biggest thing in kids entertainment from its debut until Power Rangers came along and dethroned it. Certainly it was in North America if not the whole world. The desire to milk the franchise for all its worth was logical and inevitable and so of course a film would get made.

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But what was popular about TMNT in 1990 was the cartoon. Sure the comic was a moderate success by comic book standards (and a huge hit for independent black and white comic book standards) but for most people, and especially most children, the image of the turtles that they had in their heads (and also on their backpacks, lunchboxes and t-shirts) was that of the animated series.

So why not make an animated film? After all G. I. Joe and Transformers had done animated theatrical releases that had been moderate hits. In contrast He-Man had done a live action film that was a critical and commercial flop. A live action film might be slightly cheaper but you immediately run into the problem that your main characters are turtles and so have to be portrayed using actors in suits and expensive animatronics.

And why base it on the comics? The comics may be more mature and more serious but they’re also a lot less well known. You also quickly run into the problem that your audience is expected to take anthropomorphic turtle men seriously. That’s hard enough to do in animation or comics which both have a long tradition of animal protagonists but guys in rubber suits?

I’ve looked and looked but I can’t find any material about the decision making process that led to TMNT being made but however strange those decisions seem at first glance they worked. They absolutely worked.

So a brief plot summary. April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is a reporter covering a recent crime wave in new York City, a crime wave that has the police baffled and the residents of Japan town (is that a thing in New York) reminded of a similar crime wave by The Foot Clan some years ago. Basically April thinks that the crimes are being committed by dun dun dun Ninjas!

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And she’s sort of right. Actually the crimes are being committed by teenage delinquents being trained in the ways of Ninjitsu by the mysterious Shredder (James Saito but voiced by David McCharen). He sees April as a mouthy female that can ruin his plans (we never learn what his plans are incidentally other than steal stuff) so sends a team of Ninjas to shut her up. She is saved by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who take her back to their lair when she faints. There she meets Splinter and learns their origin.

Shredder tracks her to the lair though and a team of Ninjas destroy it and capture Splinter. The turtles, with nowhere to go, end up crashing at April’s place whilst they plot how to rescue Splinter.

Shredder becomes obsessed with stopping the turtles since he recognises their ninja style as his own and perceives them as a threat. Through one of his clan named Danny (the delinquent son of April’s boss) he learns the Turtles hiding place and sends another group of ninjas to kill them.

An all out brawl ensues and Raphael is greatly injured. As a result April, The turtles and their ally Casey Jones flee out to the countryside to recover and recuperate. After some time they get a spirit vision from Splinter and go back to New York where they meet Shredder in an epic show down and defeat him.

Then Splinter makes a funny.

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In many respects the film is a synthesis of the comics and the cartoon taking the best elements from both. The plot, for example, summarises the first 13 or 14 issues of the original comics, or at least those elements related to Shredder. The brutal ninja beatdown of a turtle (in the comics it was Leonardo but in the film it’s Raphael) the trip to the farmhouse and the first meeting of Raph and Casey Jones are all straight from the comics. Since the comics had much better realised plots than the cartoon using them as a story basis is a good idea.

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The tone though is much closer to the cartoon. These turtles crack jokes and eat pizza. The fights are full of flips, pratfalls and slapstick moments. This is all for practical reasons of course. This is a PG film and you simply can’t get away with the kind of violence that was present in the original comics* (poor Raph and Leo will never get to stab anyone outside the comics I fear). You’re also working with actors in suits who have somewhat limited movement for what are supposed to be expert ninjas so going the slapstick route is the smart choice. And it works. The tone it resembles most closely is a Jackie Chan film. You have a serious plot with real consequences and emotions all broke up incredibly silly fight scenes full of slapstick that nonetheless are real fight scenes with people hitting each other. It’s not executed even a tenth as well as a Jackie Chan film of course but the fight scenes are still pretty enjoyable to watch and are one of the few parts of the film that still hold up today.

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Character wise the film freely mixes and matches elements of both the comics and the cartoon, usually picking the best version in my opinion. The turtles have their colour coded costumes and love of pizza here but they’re treated as real people with real feelings not just catchphrase spouting jokers. Michaelangelo is the loveable goofball we know from the carton but Raph, rather than being the sarcastic wit he was in the cartoon is much closer to the angry lone wolf he is in the comics. Leonardo is the taciturn stoic he is in both versions. Donatello however gets the most changes; he’s voiced by Corey Feldman here (pretty much the highest profile celebrity in the film, which is saying something) and they make him more humorous and light hearted to match the casting. He’s basically portrayed as a slightly more intelligent Michaelangelo and other than fixing a van never gets to do anything particularly nerdy or intelligent. This is a shame since the turtles all have very distinct personalities in most versions and Donatello’s good humoured nerdiness makes a nice contrast with the other three. Making him into just another Michaelangelo makes both Donatello and Michaelangelo less effective.

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The suits, which were provided and operated by the Jim Henson company, are pretty great. The design keeps the big friendly faces from the cartoon rather than perpetual scowls of the comic which helps sell the emotions of the main characters. The actors in the suits also do a great job, they avoid the big over the top gestures most performers in costume opt for and they perform some fairly impressive stunts and martial arts in what must be restrictive costuming.

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 April is a reporter because April being a reporter is such a good plot device it’s insane to waste it but she also owns an antique store like she does in the comics. She’s also less ditzy than the cartoon version. Oh and she wears normal clothes not a banana yellow jump suit, although the film makers do give a visual nod to the cartoon version.

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Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) is pretty much directly lifted from the comics and is a much more nuanced and fun character than the cartoon version. They do play up his humour quite a bit in this, particularly by making him obsessed with sports, and especially hockey. I like that choice though since it produces some of the films best gags, for example;

Casey: Time for a new game (pulls out cricket bat) cricket!

Raphael: Cricket! Aw no not cricket! Nobody understands cricket. You gotta know what a crumpet is to play cricket.

 Casey smacks him in the face and knocks him into a dustbin

Casey: Hmm, 6 runs.

Casey is easily my favourite character in the film since he’s basically a fifth turtle here but with the benefit of being able to see the actor’s face and Elias Koteas just has this great laid back smug delivery.

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Splinter (Kevin Clash, most famous for being Elmo of all things but doing a pretty good impersonation of Peter Renarday from the cartoons) uses the (worse) original origin of being a rat that mimicked martial arts. Sigh. He’s basically a non-entity in the film since the puppet can barely move and he spends most of the plot tied to a wall.

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By far the biggest set of changes apply to Shredder. Rather than being based on the comic or cartoon version he’s pretty much a third version here. His origin is mostly like the comics but simplified a bit. He’s still Oroku Saki and he’s still a foot clan ninja but his brother Oroku Nagi is removed entirely. Instead Saki is the one in love with Tang Shen and the one jealous of Hamato Yoshi causing Yoshi, Shen and Splinter to flee to New York. He tracks them down there, murders Yoshi and Shen and Splinter scars his face before fleeing.

Because his face is scarred he starts wearing a mask and because he’s in New York now he decides, what the hey, let’s start building a new Foot Clan by recruiting delinquent youths and training them in Ninjitsu.

There are things I like about movie Shredder and things that simply don’t work.

On the positive side I like his simplified origin. Comics Shredder had a weird double standard problem where it was wrong for him to want to seek revenge for his brother’s murder (presumably because his brother was a dick) but totally okay for Splinter to seek revenge for his master’s murder. The movie wisely side-steps this issue by removing Shredder’s brother entirely and making Saki the murderer of Yoshi. The move also constructs the initial encounter between Shredder and the Turtles much more elegantly. In the comics the turtles are specifically sent out to kill Shredder making them little better than Shredder is himself. In the movie Shredder attacks the turtles first and kidnaps Splinter. The Turtles have a much more heroic reason to go up against him, they want to rescue Splinter and they also want to stop him using children to commit crimes.

I also like his costume which mixes the super villainy of the cartoon version (purple in the colours and the cape) but also looks like somewhat realistic samurai armour. He’s also just portrayed as very threatening and powerful. The cartoon was a straight comedy so wanted a comedic villain but the movie is an action adventure film with a light hearted tone. You need a serious and threatening villain for that to work and James Saito’s Shredder is decent in that role able to dispatch all four turtles with ease when they finally face him.

My main problem with him though is that whilst he’s intimidating to look at he’s absolutely terrible in a fight. He’s a vague mysterious presence for the first two acts seen briefly and with his power and menace only hinted at. The film builds him up to be this great and terrible threat and, quite logically, builds to a final fight with the turtles. And that fight is lame. Utterly, irredeemably lame. Shredder basically draws a stick along the ground, the turtles get defeated by editing and then Splinter throws him off a rooftop with a stick. It is such a huge and disappointing anti-climax.

Also many people have drawn comparisons between Shredder and Darth Vader. And it’s true, they do look alike. But that’s because they’re two dudes in capes and stylised samurai helmets. But movie, don’t draw attention to this problem by having Shredder declare “I am your father,” to the turtles. It isn’t cute.

I also have to question his plan. His motivation is fairly low key, steal stuff, but his method is bizarre. Train gangs of teenaged delinquents to become ninjas and employ them to steal the stuff. I think the idea is that you have to get them young to make them effective ninja but teenaged delinquents are not exactly famous for their obedience or work discipline. What are the odds that one kid gets sick of being hit in the face by nunchucks all day and decides to rat the operation out to the cops? I mean its not like their imprisoned there. Danny seems to be able to come and go as he pleases. And wouldn’t you know it, Danny rats Shredder’s operation out to the cops. Next time Shredder use either real ninjas or robots.

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This does lead to one of the film’s best scenes though with the ultimate underground hide out for teenaged kids. This thing has a half pipe, arcade cabinets, a pool table, a resident D.J. and all the cigars a 16 year old can smoke. This film makes joining the foot look pretty awesome. Hell I’m, 27 and I’m tempted to join if I get to spend my off hours playing arcade cabinets and pool.

The film has two other major characters not present in the comics, Danny and Testu.

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Tetsu is Shredder’s right hand man and he’s basically someone to do all the acting in scenes between ninjas in full face masks and turtles in full face masks. Since all he has to do is look menacing and yell instructions he’s fine but he has no character to speak of.

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Danny is the son of April’s boss. He’s probably the only character in this film with a real character arc (you could maybe argue Raphael and Casey but it would be a stretch) since he starts out as a member of the foot clan and after meeting Splinter and the Turtles decides to repent. Ultimately he redeems his former bad actions by leading the turtles to Shredder’s base. Now in most films the character with the arc is the protagonist but Danny is barely in the film at all and we don’t get any scenes that give us any sense of why he joined the foot in the first place or what leads him to realise that stealing is wrong. Which is a good thing because the kid is a terrible actor. His range runs from mumbling and scowling to confused mumbling and scowling. He’s immediate death to any scene he shows up in. Worse he is given the challenge of spending most of his scenes acting opposite a largely immobile rat puppet. He is not up to this challenge.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Movie is ultimately not very good but considering the challenges inherent in adapting TMNT into live action it is miraculous that the film is as good as it is. The plot is utter bobbins, the fights are nothing special, the final fight is a huge anti-climax and it lacks anything in the realm of character growth or proper character arcs. Nonetheless it possesses a sort of goofy charm, there are some good gags in here and there’s just enough of a plot that it feels brisk rather than flabby. It’s a perfectly affable way to spend an hour and a half.

But as a kid I hated this film because of how different it was to the cartoon. I couldn’t get over the lack of the van or the blimp, or Kraang or Bebop and Rocksteady. Or why it was literally so dark, or who the hell these teenaged gang members were. However, I was an idiot as a kid and now, whilst the execution is lacking the conception of TMNT in this film is actually the one I prefer. Take an action adventure spine with real emotions and consequences but rather than wallowing in angst, gore and violence keep the tone light and breezy. Have the characters quip and fight with ridiculous slap stick moves but have them occasionally need to grit their teeth and get serious to put down a real threat like Shredder.

Oh yeah, and Sam Rockwell is in this film. Yes, that Sam Rockwell, the guy from Moon and Iron Man 2. See if you can spot him.

Next on Teenage Mutant Ninja Origins we’re going to look at the 2003 animated series but i have seriously underestimated the amount of research it’s going to take to review this so this feature is probably going to go on the backburner for a few weeks whilst I plow through the important episodes of the first four series.

 

*Although actually the film was widely criticised for how violent a PG it was. To today’s eyes it’s pretty tame stuff but at the time the use of martial arts in any children’s entertainment was considered controversial. Evidently the producers took this seriously enough that the turtles basically never use their weapons in the immediate sequel and the slapstick gets toned up even further. It also got heavily criticised for the language. There are at least three very loud “damns” in the movie and one scene where I swear a Japanese character says “kuso,” the Japanese word for shit. He kind of hisses it so it might just be the actor hissing but I listened to the scene a few times and I swear he’s saying shit under his breath.

 

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sorry guys but due to real life commitments this week’s scheduled look at the first TMNT movie is pushed back to next week and instead today we’re looking at the anime, enjoy.

As regular readers of this blog may know I lived in Japan for three years. As a video game and anime fan for many years prior to moving there I had a few preconceived notions about the country and its culture and actually living there shattered many of my preconceptions.

The main one being that I though Japan was the weirdest country on the face of the earth where the streets were lined with used panty vending machines, every TV show was a sadistic game show and women dressed as video game characters roamed the streets freely. Sadly the internet lied to me and continues to do so as even now a good 30% of the internet is devoted entirely to websites saying some variation of “Oh Japan, you so crazy.”* Including mummyboon itself at times. (Although my Japanese weirdness is 100% guaranteed eye witness real)

But Japan is depressingly normal for the most part and what incredibly bizarre things do crop up can often be explained and understood with the provision of a little context.

Let’s apply that context to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles anime or Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend. An original straight to video production consisting of two episodes that rejoice in the titles “The Great Crisis of the Super Turtles! The Saint Appears!”  and “The Coming of the Guardian Beasts – The Metal Turtles Appear!”

I’ve actually written about the anime on this site very briefly before where I described them as basically the most stereotypical Japanese thing imaginable cramming every cliche of Japanese pop culture into one incredibly insane package. I imagined that some executive took one look at anthropomorphic ninja turtles and decided, nah, needs more combining to form a giant robot.

But let’s instead examine why that might be the case.

American cartoons are very rarely successful in Japan. There are a variety of reasons for this both cultural and economic. In the main it’s because economic pressures force Japanese television stations to show predominantly Japanese produced content, foreign content is mostly banished to satellite and cable with a few exceptions. However if a foreign show has the financial backing of a Japanese company (in the case of the 1987 TMNT cartoon this was Takara who helped produce the toys) it can be allowed on a Japanese network.

However, even if it gets shown humour and storytelling conventions don’t always translate and regardless of the quality of the original show if the dub is done poorly then it will be regarded as a poor show.

So the 1987 TMNT show faced a lot of barriers to becoming a hit in Japan. Despite these issues it was a monster hit. Although not as popular as it was in Europe or America TMNT was a big deal in Japan in the 90’s.

There are a lot of reasons why this shouldn’t be. There were three competing dubs on the market for starters which confused casual fans. Also all three of the dubs chopped and changed episodes and showed them out of order ruining any continuity or any story arcs, again a barrier to enjoyment for a casual fan. Also the central conceit was two American guys doing a parody of Japanese culture and not a particularly well informed parody at that. For example Oroku Saki and Hamato Yoshi sound Japanese to a western ear but to a Japanese person they sound as authentic as two characters called Smith Jonny Johnson and Butch Rockhammer would to an American audience.

But what does work for Japanese people is the tone. The mix of slapstick, parody, light hearted humour and serious dramatic action storytelling is something Japan has always been fond of and has excelled in for years. Seriously look at any anime that is popular in Japan (Atom Boy, Naruto, One Piece and not exactly anime but any super-sentai show) and you’ll see many similarities with the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon.

Obviously, when working with dubbing you aren’t going to change too much of the story or the characterisation. You need to keep the plot roughly similar in order to use the existing animation that you’ve bought. So there were no changes to the origin, characters, motivations, etc from the 1987 cartoon when adapting it to Japanese tastes.  But there were some changes. In the most popular of the three dubs (which shares its voice talent with the OVA we’re discussing) the comedy was played up even further with a lot of ad-libbing to the extent that characters would be talking even when the animation clearly showed their mouths were shut. Some names were changed too. Shredder goes from Oroku Saki (which, um, is a girl’s name) to Oroku Sawaki and Splinter goes from Hamato Yoshi to Yoshihama Takeshi. The voice acting also changed some personalities a little so Donatello becomes quite manly whereas Raphael is weirdly effeminate. Shredder becomes a lot more put upon and complaining and Krang, ye gods Krang. The original Krang had a bizarre voice with weird grunts and burps and was very high pitched. The Japanese Krang however sounds like an angle grinder. It’s pitched so high that many of his lines can only be heard by dogs. Yet it’s weirdly endearing after a while.

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I also like the logo they gave the show in Japan. It’s similar to the western effort but I like the ninja mask over the first kana, it just looks cool.

So the show ran for 102 episodes and then got cancelled. But 102 episodes of an American cartoon was basically unheard of at the time and Takara was still cranking out toys even after the cancellation so they thought, let’s just make some more ourselves.  We’ll do some straight to video episodes to promote these new toys we’re making.**

And so was born the TMNT original video anime (or OVA).

So here is a brief summary of what happens in the two episodes of this show.

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The first episode starts with a flashback to an episode that does not exist so right from the beginning we’re getting into some strange stuff but I’ll explain it all later. Krang discovers a dark muta-stone, a counterpart to the turtles own muta-stones (just stay with it I’ll explain later). Inside the stone is a fairy called Dark-Mu with the power to destroy the universe. He hopes to awaken her and use her power to destroy the Earth. Meanwhile on Earth the turtles fairy friend Crys-Mu (nope, it is never explained where the fairy friend comes from) alerts the turtles that Dark-Mu is being awakened and this is causing problems for the Earth such as hurricanes, tidal waves and earthquakes. The turtles set out to stop Krang but he sends Shredder, Be-Bop and Rocksteady to stop them. They arrive and use the powers of the muta-stone to turn into respectively some kind of robot dragon, a New Wave Rock Star and a cross between a rhino and a lizard.

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The Turtles respond by using their own muta-stones (which they got in the episode that never happened) to turn into incredibly buff and disturbingly handsome green skinned humans wearing shells and carrying ridiculous weaponry (Raphael has the spinning top of super violent wind and Michaelangelo appears to have some kind of robot fish). The two groups fight and Dark-Mu awakens sending a tidal wave that submerges Tokyo. She reveals her powers by causing Shredder to grow into an enormous robot dragon and sending another giant ball of black energy to destroy the Earth which splinter just deflects with his bare hands because in this continuity Splinter is basically Chuck Norris. The turtles defeat Shredder by tricking him into dropping a building on his own head but Dark-Mu flies into space where she can destroy the world.

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So the turtles form the turtle saint, a giant robot turtle complete with wings (yes, you did read that correctly) to fly after her. They attempt to stop her but cannot because, well, I’ll let this quote from Donatello sum it up.

“how troubling, if we don’t sync with each other we can’t defeat her”

So Crys-Mu flies up and fights Dark-Mu. She thinks she can seal both herself and Dark-Mu back in the Muta-stones but she needs the turtles help, so they use their “mega final saint break” attack and turn both Crys-Mu and Dark-Mu back into stones.

I’ll, I’ll let that sink in for a moment guys.

Have you digested that? Good, prepare for more insanity.

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So in episode 2 the world is fine (…okay, sure) and the turtles travel to Japan at the behest of some “real” ninja. Shredder also has gone to Japan and this leads to a brief scene on the Shinkansen (bullet train) where Shredder loses to some “real” ninja which I think might be symbolic of something, hmmm. Anyway the turtles arrive in the ninja village where they have a magic mirror with some stones on the back and someone is trying to steal it. That someone is, unsurprisingly, Shredder who has been sent there by Krang to get the stones which turn out to be Muta-stones from the back of the mirror. When he realises this the head ninja pulls a chain WHICH EXPLODES THE HOUSE THEY WERE ALL IN AND CAUSES A GIGANTIC CASTLE, WHICH IS APPARENTLY THEIR HIDDEN FORTRESS, TO RISE FROM THE GROUND!!!

It was at exactly that point that I decided that this is actually my all-time favourite version of TMNT.

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Oh and at some point before that the Turtle got ninja armour, because ninja armour is totally a thing despite the fact that this show has approximately eleventy trillion ninjas in it and none of them have worn armour before.

So now they all race to the top of the castle and Shredder gets there first and gets his muta-stones. This causes robot animals to fly from OUT OF MT FUJI! Then they meet up with Shredder, Bebop and Rocksteady and form robotic samurai armour for them. Shredder gets white tiger armour, Bebop gets a fish and Rocksteady gets some kind of Hydra. So we have the spectacle of a warthog mutant wearing armour that makes him look like a fish.

Ow, sorry guys I may have to pause for a moment, I think that might have been an aneurysm. Or can the rest of you smell purple now too?

So they fight the turtles for a bit and then the turtles get the mirror which causes them to get robot animal samurai armour too because just being turtles with ninja armour, that’s lame, kid’s won’t like that. Raphael gets a phoenix, Leonardo gets a dragon, Donatello gets a lion with wings and a dragon’s tail (???) and Michaelangelo gets some kind of cross between a lion, a spider, a crab and a turtle. And his attack is called the “beef bee tonic” so that’s also cows and bees and….I have honestly no idea what animal he’s supposed to be. I don’t think the creators did either, or cared.

So they fight for a bit, the turtles win and Shredder and his gang run away. The Ninjas are happy, the end.

…..

Now based upon that you’d be inclined to think, this is insane. There is no rhyme nor reason to what is happening here, the creators are completely round the bend loco. They are one crayon short of a box. They are not in their right minds. They are cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

And I had the same thought when I saw the trailer for it on youtube lo those many years ago.

But if you watch the entire show you realise pretty much in the first three minutes that THEY KNOW. The creators are fully cognizant that the story they’re telling is completely and utterly certified bat shit and they’re doing it on purpose. Rather than this being an example of Japan naively adapting a western property to Japanese tastes by adding giant robots and transformations it is a parody of all those conventions of anime and super-sentai. And they’ve crammed literally every cliché they can think of in here; giant robots, people combining and having to sync up their hearts, transforming heroes and villains, robot animals and animal themed armour and powers, mystical forces, ancient ninja magic, villains making their minions grow. If you can think of a shonen anime or super-sentai cliché it’s probably in here. And that extends to the visual style as well which incorporates every clichéd image and money saving trick ever used in an anime.

And that’s entirely appropriate.  TMNT the comic was kind of a parody but mostly played straight, TMNT the animated show had its tongue firmly in cheek but TMNT the anime pushes the jokes into pythonesque surrealism. I mean just look at some of the visual gags like this foot soldier in a Hawaiian shirt.

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Or indeed the…everything, about this.

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There’s also some brilliant visual gags I can’t show you here because they’re animated. My favourite being a series of images of the world being destroyed; Tokyo Tower crumbles, the Eiffel Tower crumbles, and then it cuts to China where….a picture falls off a wall.

The dialogue as well is so tongue in cheek it’s gone right through the other side. That’s why we have gems like, “I don’t object to destroying the earth but where will we live afterwards?”

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If you want further proof the very first scene is a flashback to an episode THAT NEVER HAPPENED! So all this stuff with fairies and muta-stones is just there and is never explained. Because it doesn’t have to because you know what the muta-stones are, they’re a macguffin like whatever the sentai-rangers need to power up this series.

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Other than all the parody stuff the characters are actually remarkably similar to the originals in appearance and personality. The 4 turtles are basically unchanged (until they mutate into incredible hunks or metal samurai). April O’Neil is basically the same except for, ironically, having a smaller chest (you’ve disappointed me Japan, where is your incredible perversion when I need it? Although Dark Mu does kind of make up for it). Splinter is the same in appearance and personality but has been elevated to monumental badass. Not only can he deflect huge energy blasts but he can project an illusionary image of himself that is LARGER THAN THE MOON!***

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Shredder is the only character to get a re-design and weirdly he gets two. In the second episode he has a look that’s quite similar to his movie appearance but without his trademark blades that make him, y’know the shredder. In the first episode though he has a very different helmet with a sort of red crest on it. He also doesn’t  have his shredding blades but instead has absolutely enormous shoulder pads. Oh and his eyes have become anime eyes and decidedly more expressive.

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He’s barely in this shape before he turns into a satanic robot dragon though so, whatever.

As far as alternative versions of the turtles go it’s beyond stupid and far from definitive but incredibly enjoyable. The creators looked at the original slightly weird and fun concept, looked at the utterly bizarre toys they were being paid to advertise and just said, “let’s make the weirdest, silliest, stupidest version of this show we can.” And they succeeded, and the result is wonderful.

You can check out the insanity for yourself on youtube, the starting link is embedded below.

I also want to direct you to who has a fascinating article on the complicated history of the turtles in Japan which was very helpful in writing and researching this post.

*For the curious it’s 30% ridiculous stuff from Japan 30% cats, 35% porn 4% memes and 1% misc.

** This is something I used to think was particularly Japanese, that if something is popular once they will never let it die. Gundam and Sentai Ranger for example have been going pretty much continuously since the 70’s but every series has a new setting and characters just shared themes, ideas and elements like the costumes for sentai ranger or the robots for Gundam. See also Final Fantasy, Mario, Gatchman, Transformers, etc, etc. And this was something that never happened in the west so when something like TMNT got cancelled, that was it, it was cancelled, over and done and with very few exceptions not coming back. Of course now Hollywood and western television is obsessed with remaking stuff that works before. And I also realised that all those properties that get constantly re-made in Japan, they’re not mainstream properties but nerdy ones. This is because Japan realised two things long before Hollywood did. 1. Nerds spend a ton of money. 2. If you give nerds something they already like but just change it slightly, they will buy it all over again and hence why we went 7 years for a TMNT remake the first time but less than 2 this time.

*** As everyone knows, old people in Japan don’t get older they just get smaller and more powerful as their power becomes more concentrated. If you ever find yourself in a group of heavily armed thugs, say there’s about 50 of you, armed with machine guns, and you come across a single old Japanese man with a cane, run! Run away immediately because he is going to destroy you utterly.

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There is a tension inherent in adaptation.

When you adapt something from one medium to another you have to change things, that is simply unavoidable. Mostly this is due to the strengths and limitations of the medium you’re adapting the story into.  To give a comics example; you can’t do the Dark Phoenix saga in a film the same way yit was done in the comic because a film lasts 2 – 3 hours and tells a single story. A comic runs for years and tells a new story every month so you can have a slow burn sub-plot like the corruption of Jean Grey into the Dark Phoenix happen in the background every issue until you suddenly make it the main story. You could also do that on television, or possibly in a novel if it was lengthy enough but not in a film.

That’s just one example and there are many more. In adapting something to a new medium some changes are necessary.

However, if you’re bothering to adapt a story then there must have been something in the original worth adapting. It must have been popular enough that someone thought it was worth spending the money to make it into a film or TV show. The tension comes from making the necessary changes to adapt it into the new medium whilst preserving what made the original work in the first place.

So a certain amount of change is necessary.

But then you get the changes that have nothing to do with conventions of the medium but happen in adaptations anyway.

For example, Gimli the dwarf is presented an entirely serious character in the original Lord of the Rings novels. However in the films he increasingly becomes a comic relief character, prat falling and spouting one liners. There is nothing inherent in film as a medium that demands a comic relief character, this was a change the creators decided to make because they thought it would improve the film that was not entirely necessary.

These changes are unnecessary. But they’re not necessarily bad. There are plenty of examples of a creator adapting something and improving upon a flaw in the original text.  Batman the Animated Series was so good at this that many of their changes, like Clayface’s origin or Two Face’s personality, were absorbed back into the original comics.

More often than not though they are bad, or at least neutral, and they infuriate fans of the original work.

I’m a die hard comics fan, I have been so since I was 9 years old and I have heard more than a few people whine; “why did they have to change it? It was great before and now it sucks!” whenever anything from a comic gets adapted.

Indeed I’ve said it myself on occasion.

I say all this as a preamble to my next statement. The adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from gritty black and white comic book to Saturday morning cartoon may be one of the most successful adaptations of a property from one medium to another of all time.

I say this not because I think the 1987 TMNT cartoon is better than the comics (I don’t) nor do I consider it to be an amazing cartoon (it really isn’t. the animation and storytelling do not hold up well at all) but because I think the cartoon is a better and more successful at being a cartoon than the comic is at being a comic.

As evidence just look at the history of the two properties. The comic was cancelled one year before the cartoon was and whilst it has been brought back and cancelled a few times since and was a big hit for an indie property it was never a number one, nor even a top ten, selling title.

In contrast the cartoon was at one point the longest running American animated TV show (until The Simpsons overtook it). It spawned countless imitators and a huge host of licensed products and spin-offs.

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For most of the world, the 1987 cartoon is the definitive version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it in every way supplanted the original comics. Indeed it introduced some changes and improvements that would be carried forward into pretty much all other adaptations.

So, what did it change?

The biggest change is an overall change in tone. TMNT the comic is played straight. Ridiculous stuff happens but the threats are real threats, the dangers are really dangerous. Characters die and suffer. It is a dramatic adventure story.

TMNT the animated series is a comedy. Dramatic stuff happens, the turtles use their weapons and fight bad guys but there is never really any sense of threat or danger. At all times the tone is light and comedic. We have bumbling incompetent villains, fourth wall gags, nod and wink references, parody characters and puns, a constant non-stop torrent of puns.

Now if you were a fan of TMNT the comic in 1987 I imagine you’d be furious at this. It seems for all the world like the cartoon is making fun of this comic you love. It really isn’t though; it’s making fun of anything and everything it can get its hands on and just embracing the fact that, well, the basic concept of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is kind of ridiculous.

And I think this was the smartest decision the producers could have made.

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Most narratives, especially in genre, are all about hitting the audience’s expectations and giving them moments they specifically come to see. In porn it’s sex, in comedy it’s a joke, in horror it’s a scare. For a dramatic action story it’s an action sequence. And your audience will forgive anything in the story itself if you hit these pay off moments well. A film with a very basic plot but excellent action sequences will go down well with fans of action films.

But action sequences that are exciting to watch are hard to do in animation. It can be done but it requires a lot of time and money to animate well and TMNT just doesn’t have that budget. Comedy though is kind of easy to animate. That’s why most animated television shows historically have been comedies and only recently have we had serious attempts to do dramatic story telling in western animation on television.

And let me just pause at this moment to critique the cartoon as a whole. In preparation for this review I watched the first 5 episodes of TMNT 1987 again and hoo boy are they rough. The animation is largely appalling* with tons of mistakes (my favourite is when the wrong voice comes out of a turtle’s mouth) and just the worst editing in a cartoon I’ve seen in outside of Hanna-Barbera. The plots are perfunctory and riddled with plots holes (how does the turtle van drive to a vast subterranean cavern?), the action is unimpressive and tedious (mostly it’s turtles dodging lasers) and there is never any dramatic tension even for a second.

But, as a comedy, it still works. Even though it’s aimed at kids and plenty of jokes don’t work there were more than a few lines in these episodes that had me smiling.

“We’re the news media. Who’d want to hurt us?”

“This is great! I must really be onto something hot if they’re trying to kill me.”

“No April, you wouldn’t last five minutes in a ninja pizza parlour (turns to camera) I love saying lines like that.”

There’s also just plenty of sight gags and situations that had me giggling too, such as an old lady pulling a giant machine gun out of her shopping cart when she sees the turtles.

Trying to do the TMNT cartoon as a drmatic action piece in the manner of the comics would not have worked with the restraints the producers had. Playing it as a comedy could have though, and it did.

So they changed the tone, what else did they change?

Most significantly and most successfully, it changed the appearance of the Turtles. The actual characters are slightly taller and slightly more humanly proportioned than they’re drawn in the comics. They also look friendlier and have pupils in their masks that make them more open and human looking which helps with the comedy.

But best of all they have colour coded bandannas.

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Hallellujiah!

Now I know colour coding wouldn’t help much in a black and white comic but even in later volumes of the comic that are in colour the turtles all have red bandannas. Considering the turtles are drawn to look identical to each other this makes it incredibly annoying to figure out which character is talking. Literally the only way to tell is to see what weapon they’re holding. Yes, it doesn’t make sense for a ninja to jump around in bright primary coloured cloth but these ninja are all green to begin with so shut up logic. The colour coding is such a massive help in telling the turtles apart that it was naturally carried forward into every other version.

The initials on the belts though…not entirely necessary guys.

The turtle’s origin is tweaked a bit as well. The turtles falling into the sewer and the mutagen falling into the sewer happen on different occasions. This is neither an improvement nor a loss really but does remove the Daredevil parody.

The mutagen doesn’t come from aliens this time either but from Shredder in an attempt to kill Hamato Yoshi.

This brings me to Shredder, Splinter and Hamato Yoshi.

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In this version Hamato Yoshi and Shredder (Oroku Saki still) are both ninjas in the foot clan. Yoshi is the leader and trainer of the branch of the clan they both belong to.  Shredder wishes to be the leader and so when a revered sensei of the foot comes to visit he literally stabs Yoshi in the back. Well, nearly. He stabs his robe to the wall meaning Yoshi can’t bow, and then when Yoshi removes the dagger he appears to have pulled a dagger on the sensei. Yoshi has been framed by Shredder and is apparently disgraced so he flees to New York.

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For some, inadequately explained reason he ends up destitute and living in the sewer. Kay. There he makes friends with some rats, and then the turtles. One day he and the turtles get exposed to the mutagen turning them into turtle-men and he into a rat-man, Splinter.

This is so much better than the comic.

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For starters it means we don’t have to buy kung fu rats in tiny cages. Yoshi becoming Splinter means he would of course know martial arts from his time in the foot. Indeed he’s already shown to be a teacher of ninjas.

It also provides a much more interesting dynamic between Splinter and Shredder. Rather than being a clichéd “you killed my master” kung fu set up Splinter has multiple reasons to hate Shredder. He disgraced him, forced him out of the clan and turned him into a rat man. Shredder also has better reasons to hate Splinter than revenge, he’s jealous of his superior martial arts skills and fears that he might take back the foot clan. It also gives the turtles a better reason for going after Shredder than revenge; they want to turn Splinter back into a human. That’s a much more noble motivation than they had in issue one of the comics. And it adds a tragic element to Splinter as a noble man betrayed and forced down to the level of a rat but who still has dignity and appreciation for art.

Considering this series isn’t aiming for high drama it does a better job of setting up dramatic conflicts between the main characters than the comic does.

Of course they had to change the origin. The original version had too many murderings and love affairs for a kids cartoon. But even if it’s an accident it’s a happy one.

There are some problems with the new origin though. It makes Shredder out to be the unequivocal bad guy, he’s the betrayer and the attempted murderer when in the original comic he has been wronged by Yoshi and so is a bit more nuanced. It also doesn’t explain why Yoshi goes to New York and then sets out living in the sewers. There are homeless shelters in New York dude, sewer should not be your first option.

Other than the origin changes the Turtles and Splinter are much the same as they are in the comics with clearly defined personalities. Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool but rude and Michaelangelo is a party dude. Why it’s all there in the (still fantastic) theme song. The only real change is Raphael who is usually portrayed as the angrier more violent turtle but you can’t really do that in a Saturday morning cartoon so Raph here is more of a sarcastic quipster.

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The series also introduced a lot of stuff we associate with TMNT. The surfer talk catchphrases (Cowabunga, Radical) were created for the series. Incidentally it’s fun to see in the first five episodes things that were obviously meant to be catchphrase that never caught on (“Turtles fight with honour” and “let’s boogaloo”). It also introduced the idea that the turtles order really weird pizza like whipped cream flavour, or adding breakfast cereal as a topping. In fact it’s the first version to suggest that the Turtles are obsessed with pizza at all. While the weird toppings idea didn’t stick around the concept the the Turtles love pizza has certainly become ingrained in their make-up. This series also introduced the Turtle Van and Turtle Blimp. This is typical Saturday morning stuff  (put some vehicles in for kids to buy toys of) but the Turtle Van is so well designed and so iconic (I love the frowny face with the spare tire as a nose) it’s been brought back a few times too.

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April O’Neil is much changed from the comics. For starters she isn’t a scientist’s assistant but a news reporter. This is another great change from the source material. There’s a reason Superman and Spider-Man work for newspapers, it’s just a great story telling engine to insert into your narrative. Rather than being reactionary and limited to New York April O’Neil is out there chasing stories and that provides an excuse to send her around the country and get the turtles involved when threats become too big for her.

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Her appearance is much changed too but this is the iconic April O’Neil most people think of. Red head, yellow jumpsuit and, two features in particular that everybody remembers.

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Yeah, April O’Neil is pretty much the first woman I ever had a crush on. And I think she cemented my fondness for red heads forever.

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April brings with her a lot of new characters from her news channel. Her boss, Burne Thompson, her rival reporter and cameraman Vernon Fenwick and her friend and secretary Irma Langinstein. These characters provide broad comedy in most episodes with varying degrees of success but they’re pretty one note stereotypes.

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Casey Jones shows up but he’s a much reduced character than in other adaptations. He’s presented in a manner that very closely matches his earliest appearance parodying vigilantes and cop shows like Dirty Harry with his extreme violence (well, as extreme as a Saturday morning kid’s cartoon can get). The thing is in other versions of TMNT Casey is allowed to grow beyond that role and become an ally to the turtles and a well-rounded character. Here he never does.

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By far the biggest sets of changes apply to the villains. We’ve already discussed some of the changes to Shredder’s origin but there also changes to his appearance and personality here. The original comics Shredder was just a ninja, a particularly dangerous ninja with a Darth Vader helmet but still just a ninja. In this he gets elevated to full on super-villain. He has plots to take over the world (well eventually, most of the time he has a more short term goal that he needs to achieve before the world conquering stuff can start) and although he does have a ninja clan he also has a vast array of high tech weaponry, vehicles and resources, access to an extra-dimensional army and a crew of mutated street punks. His appearance makes him seem less like a stealthy fighter and more like a flamboyant Doctor Doom style villain complete with purple cape.

Now all of these changes are to make him more like a standard cartoon villain of course. The set-up with him having vast technological resources means you can tell a lot more stories with the same starting point. Shredder needs thing n so he uses x special weapon which causes y problem for the Turtles. Rinse and repeat. At least in his first few appearances he is still treated with dignity and comes off as a viable threat. However, by the time a few seasons have rolled around he’s been reduced to a comically inept villain.

This is also the series that cemented Shredder as the Turtle’s big bad. In the comics he dies in his first appearance, and although he does return the Turtles deal with a variety of threats in that book. In the cartoon he appears in nearly every episode. Again standard Saturday morning stuff but it helped define Shredder as the Turtles bad guy.

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Krang also appears in nearly every episode and he is by far the best thing about the 1987 TMNT series. Instead of being a race of brain aliens Krang is unique in this setting. He’s actually the conqueror of an alien dimension (Dimension X) and he used to have a body before losing it in an unseen accident that also blasted him to our dimension. Krang, more than Shredder , really drives the plot. He either wants to get a new body, or bring his army over from Dimension X or empower his vast tank the Technodrome** but being a brain without a body he can’t enact any of these schemes himself hence his allying with Shredder. Krang is written and acted as amazingly sarcastic. He just owns Shredder repeatedly with cutting put down after cutting put down. Their relationship is akin to something like Ren and Stimpy or Brian and Peter in Family Guy. One intelligent guy constantly sniping at his stupider friend at a level that often goes over Shredder’s head. It’s such fun to watch.

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Bebop and Rocksteady were original creations for the 1987 series that were fondly regarded but don’t seem to have shown up in any other versions. In one sense I don’t know why. They have really great designs and provide a striking visual. They’re also a nice concept. In this continuity Shredder has the mutagen himself and he uses it to turn his street gang allies into powerful animal men. Great idea, it means Shredder can routinely produce new monstrous foes for the Turtle’s to battle and it provides an endless source of new animal men designs for Playmates to make toys out of. However the main reason they’re usually not used elsewhere is that they’re a bit redundant. They’re henchmen for Shredder who already has an entire ninja clan at his disposal and they’re bumbling comedy henchmen at that. Bumbling henchmen is a venerable old trope but the problem with including it in TMNT 1987 is that the relationship between Shredder and these two is basically the same as that between Shredder and Kang so they’re a touch redundant.

Incidentally the foot clan in this version are all robots. This is incredibly stupid and makes no sense but was necessary because FCC restrictions at the time would have precluded the turtles using their weapons on real people. So it’s either robot ninjas and Raphael gets to stab things or human ninjas and he doesn’t. I feel the show made the right choice there.

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Baxter Stockman was the second villain the turtles encountered in the comics and so he is in the TV show too in a fairly faithful adaptation of his initial scheme involving small dangerous robots called mousers. Whilst Stockman is a recurring character in the comics he is mostly a technological foe attacking the turtles in a cyborg body for example. The TV show already has a technological foe in Shredder and Krang though so Stockman is another redundant character.

Until they turn him into a fly in a parody of, what else, The Fly.

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Yeah, that happened.

Oh and he was black in the comics and isn’t in the cartoon. I don’t know why.

The show also created a few new villains or elevated some existing villains into a much bigger deal. Of these Leatherhead and The Rat King are probably the most prominent and well remembered.

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Leatherhead is a Cajun Alligator-man. Unless you really like Cajun jokes there isn’t a lot to him.

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The Rat King is a bit more interesting. He’s a homeless guy with the power to control rats, initially with a flute and then later with just his mind. Since Splinter is a rat this understandably causes a few problems for the turtles. Rat King is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly he’s really more of Splinter’s enemy than the turtles which allows for some rare Splinter focused episodes. Secondly he isn’t a bad guy so much as he is chaotic neutral. He believes rats are superior to humans but mostly is content to just hang around in the sewers with his rat buddies and whilst he often is in conflict with the turtles he will sometimes aid them if something threatens the sewers. For an 80’s kid’s show that’s surprisingly nuanced characterisation.

Also props for taking a design like this

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And rendering it in a way that it can be animated; that took some skill guys.

So ultimately what do I feel about the 1987 turtles cartoon?

This is my childhood in TV show form. This thing is pure raw unfiltered nostalgia. And unfortunately it pretty much sucks. It’s got bad stories that are badly animated. I have very fond memories of this show but it does not hold up well at all. The only thing that hasn’t aged is the comedy and I was pleasantly surprised with how funny I found it as an adult when I had a sneaking suspicion going in that it was going to be a Scooby Doo level of bad, bad puns.

But I think the ideas and concepts in here are better than the comic. They’ve taken what was a promising idea and refined and improved on it. The characters motivations and personalities in here are just superior to the comic and it adds some concepts (colour coded bandanas, eating pizza) that just work and will show up in later adaptations.

Basically if you could take this show complete with light tone but combine it with more logical stories and better animation you’d have the platonic ideal of TMNT.

But what if you didn’t animate it at all? What if you did it as a live action movie? Join us next week when we look at the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie.

*Although by the standards of the time it wasn’t that bad actually. Of all the American cartoons produced between 1980 and 1990 really only stuff done by Disney and some of the Sunbow stuff (i.e. Transformers) was better animated. But it has not aged well at all.

** More kids cartoon stuff. TMNT like any 80’s cartoon existed to shift toys so Shredder and Krang often employed tanks and vehicles that screamed “buy me!” to their audience. The biggest and best was an enormous vehicle called the Technodrome which was basically a Death Star on tank treads with a giant eye on the top. Gaze upon it! I love the designs in this series, they’re so creative and so bizarre.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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