I’ve mentioned it a couple of times before but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) really were an absolute phenomenon back in the day; kids in playgrounds all over the country were watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon (1987 to 1996), collecting the various action figures, or proudly wearing any piece of TMNT merchandise they could get their hands on (or convince their parents to buy). Growing up in the United Kingdom, I was obviously exposed to the more censored “Hero” Turtles but the mania the TMNT inspired in kids was infectious nevertheless.
It wasn’t until the release of the amazing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Barron, 1990) live-action movie that the majority of us kids were exposed to a darker, more violent version of the TMNT; I actually saw the under-rated sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (Pressman, 1991) first and, for the longest time, actually preferred it over the far darker first movie. In time, I’ve come to hold both in high regard as each showed a more serious, far lass neutered portrayal of the TMNT than the original animated series.
It was some time before I found out just how dark and violent the original TMNT were; created and self-published by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird back in 1984, the TMNT were initially inspired by the works of Frank Miller and comic book heroes both mainstream (like Daredevil and the New Mutants) and obscure, such as Ronin (Miller, et al, 1983 to 1984) and Cerebus (Sim and Gerhard, 1977 to 2004). As such, the four mutated ninjas were rendered in striking black and white and exposited their stoic, stilted dialogue (largely through text boxes) in a clear pastiche of Miller’s trademark art and writing style. Since then, the TMNT have gone on to be an enduring multimedia franchise, spawning numerous cartoons, movies (both live-action and animated), toys, videogames, and merchandise but, even when the TMNT were at their family-friendly peak, Eastman and Laird’s original, far more violent and serious comic book continued to be published until the rights to the TMNT were purchased by Nickelodeon in 2009. Back when I was a kid, in addition to the toys and cartoon and movies, I was mostly reading the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures (1988 to 1995) comic book published by Archie Comics and it would be some years before I finally read the original Mirage Studios issues. Having recently purchased the first Color Classics (2018) volume of the original TMNT comic, I figured I would rechristen Tuesdays as “Turtle Tuesday” for the next few weeks to talk about Eastman and Laird’s first few issues and revisit this cult classic that became a worldwide cultural phenomenon.
Issue one opens with the four titular turtles (Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michaelangelo [sic]) backed up against the wall in an alleyway by the Purple Dragons (“the toughest street gang on the east side”). Despite the gang’s youth, they’re not only “street tough” but also armed to the teeth; luckily, as their name may suggest, the TMNT are well-trained in the art of ninjitsu [sic] and make short work of the street punks.
When the police arrive, the turtles scatter, retreating to a nearby sewer and returning both to their underground home within the storm drains of New York City but also their mentor and father-figure, Splinter, a wise and aged mutated rat. Interestingly, it is Michaelangelo who reports on their great victory rather than Leonardo; as we’ll see in these early issues, it took some time for the turtles’ distinct personalities and unique characteristics to help separate them from each other. Until then, and especially in this first issue, it can be tricky to tell the turtles apart as they all wear the same coloured bandanas and are separated only by their weapons, meaning that you don’t always know who is who unless you can see their weapon or the dialogue mentions their names.
Nonetheless, pleased with their debut, Splinter finally decides that it is time to relate to his students and sons the details of their origin and the purpose for which he has trained them in the arts of “ninjitsu”. Splinter relates that, about twenty years ago, he was simply the pet rat of the martial artist Hamato Yoshi, the greatest shadow warrior of his clan, the Foot, the most feared warriors and assassins in all of Japan. Though merely a rat at the time, Splinter was still intelligent and dexterous enough to learn and understand his master’s moves and teachings and quickly became as adept in the ninja ways as Yoshi.
Yoshi’s rival in all things was Oroku Nagi; the two even fought for the love of Tang Shen, but she loved only Yoshi. In a jealous rage, Nagi beat Shen to within an inch of her life and, overcome with bloodlust, Yoshi killed him. Disgraced, Yoshi fled Japan with both Splinter and Shen, relocating to New York to begin their lives anew.
However, Nagi’s younger brother, Oroku Saki, swore vengeance for the death of his brother and, within a short time, became the Foot’s most cunning assassin. For his accolades, he was chosen to travel to America and establish the New York branch of the Foot. Rechristening himself the Shredder and donning razor sharp armour, Saki’s Foot become a burgeoning criminal enterprise and, when the time was right, he finally struck against Yoshi.
After the deaths of his keepers, Splinter roamed the streets half starved and wallowing in grief until, one fateful day, a young boy saved an old man from being hit by a truck and was struck by a canister of glowing, radioactive ooze. For those paying attention, yes, this is clearly meant to be a reference to Matt Murdock, the blind boy who would grow up to become Daredevil, heavily implying that the TMNT exist in the same world as the Marvel superheroes. The canister then goes on to smash a glass jar and the four baby turtles contained within are swept into the sewers, where Splinter rescued and cared for them. After only one day, both the turtles and Splinter had grown; Splinter’s intellect, especially, increased thanks to his contact with the ooze and, soon, the turtles were standing upright, copying Splinter’s movements, and even capable of speech. Seizing the opportunity, Splinter named each of the turtles after renaissance artists and spent the next thirteen years training the turtles in the ways of the ninja with one goal in mind: to avenge his fallen master by killing the Shredder.
Raphael is sent to deliver an ultimatum to the Shredder to meet with the turtles in a duel to the death for honour and glory. Of all the turtles in this first issue, it is Raphael who gets the chance to stand out the most thanks to this solo mission; he relishes the outside world in a way his brothers do not and is only too eager to deliver Splinter’s message, indiscriminately killing some of Shredder’s men and disrupting a crucial meeting between Shredder and some potential clients as he does so.
Enraged at the insult and the challenge, Saki gears up and confronts the turtles on a rooftop; Shredder is no fool, however, and brings his best men along to soften up the turtles. A bloody battle ensues and, while the TMNT emerge victorious, they are covered in scratches, cuts, bruises, and blood; it’s absolutely mind-boggling to see the TMNT not only cutting their enemies down with their weapons but also bloody and cut up. Back when I was a kid, I always wondered why the TMNT never (or, at least, rarely ever) used their weapons offensively in battle and the only explanation ever offered was that they were for defence only so it’s refreshing to see them skewer their enemies without a second’s hesitation.
However, the turtles are initially no match for the Shredder; that is, of course, until they fight as a unit and keep their distance, throwing Shredder off balance enough for Leonardo to deliver a mortal wound with one of his katana. Bleeding and defeated, the turtles offer Saki one last chance to commit suicide and die with honour; Shredder, defiant and arrogant to the end, angrily refuses and produces a thermite grenade, threatening to blow them all to kingdom come.
Thanks to the timely intervention of Donatello, however, Shredder is knocked from the roof and perishes alone in the blast. Wounded and weary, the turtles head back home, nonchalantly tossing away a piece of the Shredder’s blasted armour as they fade away into the night. The TMNT has always been a ridiculous premise: four mutated turtles with the mindset of teenagers and the training of ninjas fighting the forces of evil. It’s ridiculous in the best way possible and this first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is no exception to that rule. In fact, thanks to its stoic dialogue and overly dramatic tone and art style, it’s perhaps even more ridiculous but not in a slapstick, goofy kind of way like the original cartoon and more as a parody of the dark, brooding, gritty noir-style adopted by the likes of Frank Miller.
While it helped no end when the TMNT took on their individual, iconic colours, there’s something very bold about seeing all four in red here; you know, just from a glance, that these are the tough, no-nonsense, serious TMNT rather than the surfer-dude, pizza-loving fools they are often portrayed as. There are glimmers of their personalities but they’re far less defined here than they would be in later issues and other merchandise: Leonardo is generally assumed to be the leader, Raphael seems to relish being in the outside world more than his brothers and is slightly brasher (he is the first to take on Shredder in the climax), but Donatello and “Michaelangelo” don’t really get to showcase much that separates them other than the fact that they wield different weapons.
Indeed, all four turtles even “sound” the same; there’s no distinctive dialogue to separate them and they are a uniformed whole in a way that they’ve never (or, at least, rarely ever) been portrayed since. Each of the turtles has the same grim, stoic mindset and commitment to honour and the teachings of their master and is as dedicated to the idea of avenging Yoshi’s death as the other. In a sense, they’re all comprised of Leonardo and Raphael’s later mentalities, with neither Donatello’s intelligence or the lackadaisical attitude of “Michaelangelo”s being present in this first issue.
Yet, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles works because it’s so ridiculous; it takes a ludicrous premise and plays it completely straight, as though it’s perfectly normal for these mutated turtles to be walking, talking, and kicking ass and, because of that, it’s very enjoyable to read. I can totally see how this self-published, independent one-shot of a comic would have turned heads and inspired a line of toys and subsequent issues but it’s crazy to see the Shredder be so casually killed off in this first issue considering that he would be the TMNT’s most enduring foe by far over the years and across all media. Eastman and Laird would refine the concept in subsequent issues and when the TMNT became a licensed commodity and, for those whose only exposure to the TMNT is the more watered down, family friendly iterations, this first issue is a shocking glimpse into the TMNT’s more darker origins and is all the better for it. Probably the best indication of how crucial and influential this first issue is to the TMNT is the fact that it served as the basis for the 1990 live-action movie, which faithfully recreated the TMNT’s origins and their battle with the Shredder almost exactly as it appears here and it has been returned to again and again over the years as the TMNT have been reimagined time and time again.
What are your thoughts on the original, more violent versions of the TMNT? Did you read this first issue when it first came out or, like me, did you discover it after the TMNT took the world by storm? Do you also find it amusing that Eastman and Laird killed the Turtles’ most enduring villain, the Shredder, off in the first issue considering how influential he became to the larger franchise? What is your favourite iteration of the TMNT or your favourite piece of TMNT merchandise? Whatever your thoughts and memories of the TMNT, feel free to leave a comment below and come back for next week’s instalment of Turtle Tuesday as the TMNT meet their most recognisable ally and battle an army of robotic mice!