Last week, I announced that, for the next few weeks, Tuesday’s would be “Turtle Tuesday” as I take a look back at the first few issues of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. After debuting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) in a one-shot comic, Eastman and Laird advertised their property through a media kit and advertisements so that interest in the TMNT grew, justifying not only the release of a second issue but also, in time, a spin-off comic book series, Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987 to 2010). The TMNT weren’t quite the multimedia juggernaut they would become, however, meaning that the original Mirage Comics run continued to be decidedly darker and more violent than its eventual animated incarnations, with the turtles still sporting the same red colour schemes and using their ninja weapons to maim and even kill their foes.
Last week, I looked at the TMNT’s seminal first issue in which Eastman and Laird first introduced this ridiculous concept to the world. Parodying the works of Frank Miller and inspired by the likes of Daredevil, the New Mutants, Ronin (Miller, et al, 1983 to 1984), and Cerebus (Sim and Gerhard, 1977 to 2004), the TMNT were grim, stoic turtles mutated by radioactive ooze and trained in the ways of the ninja by their aged mentor Splinter, a mutated rat. After being told of their origins, the TMNT set out to avenge the death of Splinter’s master by confronting his killer, the Shredder, and his Foot Clan of ninja criminals; after a bloody battle, the TMNT emerged victorious and, with the Shredder dead, returned home to the sewers…
Issue two opens with Leonardo reprimanding Raphael and “Michaelangelo” for sparring so loudly that Splinter can’t hear the television; immediately in these first few panels we see a few glimpses of the personalities that will, in time, come to define the TMNT: Leonardo is the stern voice of reason and authority, Raphael is focused only on fighting and training, and Donatello is tinkering with a piece of machinery. The only odd one out is “Michaelangelo” who still exhibits none of his now-characteristic lackadaisical, surfer-dude attitude and is, instead, just as keen to fight and train as his traditionally hot-headed brother.
The TMNT are distracted from their activities by a news report in which Doctor Baxter Stockman reveals his proposed solution to New York City’s rat problem: the robotic Mousers which, when set to task, devour up to five rats at a time. Naturally, this has our heroes deeply troubled considering their mentor and father-figure, Splinter, is a rat but it seems like quite the leap in logic for them to consider Stockman’s machines a threat at this point when it seems they’re only programmed (and capable) of hunting regularly-sized rats. After several weeks, Baxter’s assistant, April O’Neil, voices her concerns about a series of robberies throughout the city and suggests that the Mousers have gone rogue, somehow, and are responsible. Baxter then decides to show April the full extent of his work: a veritable army of Mousers with which he has successfully robbed several banks and also plans to use to hold the city to ransom for a cool $20 million.
It turns out that Baxter is literally out of his mind, willing to destroy several buildings (including the World Trade Center) and cause the deaths of countless innocents simply because it would be more fun than legally becoming a millionaire through his research. Escaping Baxter’s clutches, April is nonetheless close to being devoured by his Mousers when she is promptly rescued by the TMNT and faints upon seeing them in all their mutated glory. Awakening in their lair, April is briefed on the origins of Splinter and the TMNT (thankfully, unlike the vast majority of comic books at the time, Eastman and Laird simply direct readers to the first issue for the full story rather than wasting pages recounting the origin once again). After that, Baxter makes his demands, destroying the “Retxab” building (which totally isn’t the Fantastic Four’s famous Baxter Building) to show that he’s serious in his demands.
As she knows Baxter’s systems and security measures, April accompanies the TMNT as they move to confront and stop Baxter; however, despite taking the mad doctor out with little effort, the TMNT soon find that they’re trapped in the building with the entirety of Baxter’s army now reprogrammed to destroy the entire structure (and, obviously, them as well). While Leonardo, Raphael, and “Michaelangelo” desperately fight off the Mousers, Donatello (who is “familiar with some computer systems”) stays behind in Baxter’s office with April to try and find some way of shutting the Mousers down. With the Mousers closing in and close to devouring them all, Donatello is able to shut down the radio transmitter and render the Mousers harmless just in the nick of time.
Obviously, the most memorable thing about this second issue is that it introduces the TMNT’s human ally, April, to the canon for the first time; rather than being a yellow-raincoat-clad reporter, however, April is Baxter Stockman’s assistant and quite knowledgeable when it comes to computers and machines. While those skills don’t really factor in to the story at all (it is Donatello who does all the computer work which April merely advises), it is interesting to see this character who is usually so synonymous with being a hard-hitting reporter be portrayed so differently.
Also introduced in this story is, of course, Baxter Stockman and his Mousers, both of whom would go on to be recurring foes of the TMNT in cartoons, videogames, and other media. Rather than being a comical, Caucasian scientist, Stockman is, instead, a bat-shit crazy African American, which finally saw the light of day (for better or worse) in his madcap appearance in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (Green, 2016). It’s also worth noting that elements of this issue were incorporated into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Barron, 1990) live-action movie (specifically the way the TMNT meet April) and the cartoons, though Baxter doesn’t undergo his own metamorphosis in this issue.
This is also the first time the TMNT refer to each other by shortened versions of their names, which makes it much easier to identify which turtle is which when you can’t see their weapons as “Leo” takes up far less space than “Leonardo”. Not only do the TMNT also display a bit more of their individualities in this issue, even Splinter is given a bit more characterisation than just being the wise old master: he enjoys his television, despairs of his sons’ rough-housing, and even is a little snarky to April. Unlike the last issue, the TMNT get far less roughed up here; as they’re primarily fighting the robotic Mousers, there’s less “real” on-page violence (thought he Mousers do still seem to bleed when they’re cut) and the writing whole is far less serious than in the first issue. Instead, largely thanks to Baxter’s kooky dialogue and clichéd monologues, the story is far more whimsical than its darker predecessor. The TMNT are still mostly played completely straight but issue two establishes that their world has the potential to be even more ridiculous than just featured talking, ninja turtles, something which would be dialled up to eleven in the next issue.
What do you think about these original versions of the TMNT? Did you read this first issues when they were originally published or, like me, did you discover it after the TMNT took the world by storm? Did you know that April O’Neil was originally introduced as Baxter Stockman’s assistant rather than being a reporter? 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 in which the TMNT’s beloved master Splinter is mysterious rat-napped right from their lair!