When I was a wee-lad growing up in the 1980’s I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And I don’t mean I just liked watching them on television or playing with their toys, I was obsessed. And I was the norm. It seemed like every boy my age loved the Turtles, and what was there not to love? They were ninjas, they were young, they kicked ass, ate pizza, and even cracked a few jokes along the way. Plus, their theme song was totally tubular, dude.
As was the case for most, my interactions with this new era fab four was mostly contained to television, until the movies started coming out. Sure I knew the Turtles existed in the print form as well, I saw them fairly frequently in the check-out aisle at the grocery store, but always thought the TV show came first. Those were the turtles I knew best. Then the first film came along and changed things up a bit, most notably the Raphael character. He was a hot-head on film and kind of hard to predict. On TV though he was the wise guy known for breaking the fourth wall. Even though the television show never adapted the stronger personality of movie Raph, that was the persona that took over the character for me.
Little did I know that was how Raphael was always intended to be. For as many are now aware the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually first found success in the print form through Mirage Studios. Created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the original story set the stage for all future endeavors and introduced readers to the four turtles we know best: Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and their sensei Splinter. It’s intended as a bit of a parody of early 80’s comics, especially Frank Miller’s Daredevil. The concept of four anthropomorphic turtles roaming the sewers of New York City is about as far-fetched as it gets. And Eastman and Laird didn’t stop there, for like the television show with its forays into sci-fi, Eastman and Laird take the Turtles across the galaxy and back.
Yes, I’ve been well-aware of these Ninja Turtles for quite some time, and have even seen some of the comics long since my obsession faded away. Never before though have I actually taken the time to read through these early works. It hit me out of no where sometime last summer, a need to see how my beloved childhood heroes were supposed to be portrayed. It probably started a little earlier with the 4 Kids Entertainment television movie Turtles Forever, a feature that tried to blend the cartoon from the 80’s with the cartoon from 2003. It also included the original Mirage Comics turtles and was a really fun production, though nothing stellar. I found that the old trade paperbacks printed off during the 90’s collecting the old works were quite hard to come by at this point. I was pretty frustrated with the prices I was seeing on eBay and trips to my own local comic book store proved fruitless as well. My spirits were elevated though when I came across a new TPB on amazon.com set for release in the coming months. I pre-ordered it right away and then began to wait, and wait, and wait…
I had pretty much forgotten about that pre-order when I finally received a notification in December that my copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection – Volume 1 had shipped, more than three months after it was supposed to ship and six months after I had ordered it. I wasn’t mad about the delay or anything, I just had simply forgotten about the thing and actually thought it might have been cancelled. I’m glad it wasn’t, as I quite enjoyed my foray into Classic Turtles and I’m going to tell you all about.
First of all, this collection is very well put together. It’s hard cover and oversized when compared with a normal comic book. The artwork inside has been enlarged over the originals to accommodate this format and is presented in its original black and white. The cover features new artwork from Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman and both he and Laird have a brief write-up following the first comic. Eastman breaks down each issue page by page and offers some nice insight and really does a good job of putting the reader in a frame of mind to look at the Ninja Turtles from his perspective back when this thing all got started.
The company is IDW Publishing who acquired the rights to the printed turtles in early 2011 and wasted no time in getting this out. Mirage, now controlled by Laird, is actually not involved with this at all. Laird’s sparse commentaries apparently were taken from his blog (with his permission) and it doesn’t look like he contributed really at all to this release. Eastman, more or less, abandoned the TMNT in the 90’s so it’s a bit surprising to see him team-up with IDW to put out new TMNT comics. In addition to working on this collection, he is overseeing a new line of comics that began hitting shelves sometime late last summer. Perhaps his funds are running low and he needs to turn back to old reliable once again.
If Eastman was burnt out on the Turtles in the 90’s he no longer is, or hides it well. As I said, he does a great job of taking the reader back to the infancy of the Turtles and shows great exuberance. He comes across as someone who loves to talk about the Turtles and is truly excited about this project. If I have one minor quibble with his commentary it’s that he may be a little too reverential about his own work. He seems to love everything he and Laird did, and maybe that’s true, but I feel like most artists when looking back on their old works would notice some areas for criticism. Maybe he just wanted to keep things positive. Despite that he doesn’t really come across as stuck-up or anything, he just sounds like a super fan.
The actual stories should be familiar to anyone well-versed in Ninja Turtles lore. Both the animated show and the film borrow heavily from the comics when discussing the origin of the Turtles though neither adapted it completely. In both the cartoon and film, Hamato Yoshi’s chief rival is Oroku Saki but in the comic book it was Oroku Nagi. Yoshi kills Nagi while defending his love and it’s Nagi’s younger brother, Saki, who seeks revenge. From there, it’s basically the same as the film with Yoshi fleeing to New York and Saki eventually following with his own faction of the Foot Clan. Saki kills Yoshi, but during the scrum Yoshi’s pet ret is able to escape who would go on to become Splinter.
The first comic is both an introduction to the Ninja Turtles and a revenge piece. After their first taste of live combat, the triumphant Turtles return to their master who finally shares the tale of how they came to be. This sets the wheels in motion for a showdown with Oroku Saki, now called The Shredder, and Splinter dispatches Raphael to send a message to Shredder to meet the Turtles for a fight to the death. True to their word, the Turtles do battle Shredder to the death, which closes out the first issue.
The artwork is quite rough. The style suits the Turtles but the human characters look oddly proportioned. The scenery is sometimes too busy as well, as the background clouds the action scenes at times. The writing is also fairly amateurish. The ideas are there but Eastman and Laird struggle to bring them out from a literary perspective. I do like the approach of the opening though, with Leonardo serving as narrator, and the layout and pacing of the book is anything but amateurish and easily the book’s strength. The violence that everyone speaks of when referencing the original books is a bit exaggerated. Yes there’s more violence here than what was present on TV, but I feel it compares to what was presented in the first film, only with blood and actual death. There’s no gore really, and while the Turtles aren’t a bunch of wise-cracking butt kickers I wouldn’t call the mood of the book “dark.” Gritty yes, but not dark.
Short-comings aside, the first issue is actually quite enjoyable. The action sequences and sheer uniqueness of the characters is what sells it. Issue 2 brings in April O’Neil and Baxter Stockman. O’Neil is a lab assistant for Stockman, not a news reporter, and Stockman is busy perfecting his mousers. The Turtles end up encountering O’Neil in a similar manner to how they have in every other medium and do battle with Stockman and his creations, who hold a more sinister agenda than simple rat extermination. Stockman is fairly clever and devious, a far cry from the bumble-head shown on television, and proves a formidable foe though he too is ultimately dispatched. Not before, however, apparently claiming the life of Master Splinter leaving the Turtles devastated and without a home.
The rest of the comics carry forward the narrative as the Turtles search for answers regarding Splinter’s disappearance. Their story takes them into space, of all places, where they meet the benevolent Fugitoid and the nefarious Triceratons. The more sci-fi stories are less interesting for me, but it’s enjoyable to watch Eastman and Laird’s abilities improve for each issue. The artwork improves, and though it never rivals a Frank Miller or Allen Moore, the writing does improve as well. Their imaginations should certainly be commended, if nothing else.
The collection includes the first 7 issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and also includes the Raphael one-shot “micro” issue. Each turtle received his own issue at one point and this collection includes Raph’s which introduces the character Casey Jones. Jones is designed to hold up a mirror to Raphael and show him what he’d become if he gave into his rage wholly. Jones shows no mercy when dealing with common street punks and Raph basically has to save the criminals from him. They duke it out in a pretty brutal contest before eventually becoming pals. Their relationship in the first film was pretty faithful to how it’s presented here.
If these issues have one major short-coming for me it’s with the actual characters of Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael. Leonardo is given the most attention and he’s clearly the most mature and the one that takes after Splinter the most. He’s not given the title of leader, he takes it. Raphael is shown as a bit of a loose cannon, but not to the degree he was in the film. He really isn’t shown to have much of a rivalry with Leo, which is something that surprised me. Donatello is shown to be more studious than the others and does get a few chances to show off his tech-savy abilities, but nothing to the degree that the television show would adopt. Michaelangelo ends up being the least developed character and has no real personality to call his own. He’s shown to be a pretty talented fighter in a sparring match with Raph, and some of his care free persona shows through but only slightly. And if anyone who’s never seen the stories is curious, no, there’s no pizza or surfer talk. In one panel Raph actually asks April to fetch him a beer.
All in all, this compendium did meet my expectations. I always assumed the self-professed hardcore TMNT fans oversold the original works in terms of its violence and tone and found that to be mostly the case. While I was surprised by some developments, this was mostly how I envisioned the Turtles came across in print. IDW exceeded my expectations with the quality of this release, and I suppose they should have since the MSRP is $50! Amazon sells it for much cheaper for those interested and I’d say any TMNT fans looking for a collection should check this one out. I don’t know how many of these Eastman and IDW are preparing but I have Volume 2 already pre-ordered which is currently slated for release at the end of March. It will include the next 4 issues plus the rest of the micro books which I hope will add more depth to the individual turtle personalities. I look forward to getting my hands on it in the coming months.