couldn't bring myself to think too hard about it. I can sum it up in two points: 1) What is up with the downgrade in the Turtle and Splinter puppets? Why do the Turtles have so many teeth? Turtles don't even have teeth! 2. The first two movies were silly and fun, but it's another matter entirely when they drag poor, maligned history along for the ride.
Instead, I decided to treat you all to something I didn't to be doing in this blog: indie comics. I am staying on-theme however, by looking into the very first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Originally published by Mirage Studios, so named because there was no physical studio, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles only resembles what we now recognize as TMNT today in basic structure and premise. The characterization and tone of the subsequent animated series and films created a divergence that the original creators reportedly regret to this day. I'm going to put a pin on that for now, since I don't want to give away too much in my preamble.
Although, some historical context is needed. Firstly, this was conceived of as a one-shot, one that the fledgling comic creators scrimped, saved, and borrowed in order to afford to make. As was common for indie comics at the time, it was a black and white bare bones endeavor. Laird wrote the story and handled the inking. Eastman did pencils and lettering.
Interestingly, it is a stealth parody combining elements of four different popular comics of the day. There was Marvel's New Mutants, the first ongoing X-Men spinoff, featuring a younger class of teenage mutants. Secondly, there was DC's Ronin and Marvel's Daredevil, which both heavily feature ninjas, and Aardvark-Vanaheim's Cerebus, which featured a cast of anthropomorphic, talking animals. Teenage mutants... ninjas... and talking animals. Add them altogether and what do you get? Yes, I'm sure that's exactly how that brainstorming session went. The creators probably just looked at their pull list one week and these four titles just happened to be on the table next to each other and "Eureka!"
Even without color, this cover is pretty amazing. But then I notice Laird's signature down at the bottom of the page is from 1992. Apparently, this was the fifth reprint. I've also tracked down what I think is the cover of the original print, To be honest I'd much rather talk about the beautiful work on display in the later work, with its line work and shadows. However, it would be unfair of me to judge the internal art of the original by the same metric as the cover art of the fifth reprint, considering by then Laird had 8 more years of experience under his belt.
At first glance, I thought the original cover looked very busy due to the shading relying heavily on a crosshatching technique that resulted in the cover looking very granular and somewhat fuzzy, but I do think lends itself to the shadowy ambiance that Laird seemed to be going for. However, a point in the original cover's favor is that the rendering of the turtles themselves better resembles what we'll see in the comic itself, whereas the latter cover from 1992 illustrates Laird having refined their aesthetic over time. Both are actually pretty stunning, regardless. We begin our adventure this issue at the onset of battle. The brothers are striking an honestly badass team battle stance as Leonardo's voiceover sets the tone. There is a sense of pride and loyalty in his brothers and in just in their very prowess. They apparently took a wrong turn down a city alley and found themselves cornered by a gang called the Purple Dragons (a shout out to The Sword in the Stone, maybe?). Luckily, they are ready for the mean streets of pre-Giuliani New York and came with melee weapons.
He gives at least some basic insight into who they are. We find out that Donatello is the one with the bo staff and Michaelangelo has nunchakus, but we have slightly more details about himself and Raphael. He describes himself holding his katana as "a relaxed ready position," whereas Raph is described as "quivering with a tense energy waiting to be triggered into savage, slashing release. Okay, so we don't get too much insight into Donnie and Mikey, but we at least know that Leo and Raph's main attributes are set in stone pretty early. Leo isn't necessarily marked out as the leader, but he his stance suggests that he is a more balanced, even-tempered combatant. Whereas Raphael seems to have a lot of aggression he needs to get out of his system, which seems to be his key characteristic in every adaptation except the 1987 animated series.
|Everyone pose so you look cool before you go mainstream|
in three years!
|The Raphael Action figurecomes with flying fatality action.|
Now, had you grown up watching the original animated series, as I did, you may be taken aback by the fact that they're fighting actual human beings and not robot ninjas dressed like ninjas by way of the putty patrol. However, these aren't your father's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and they straight-up kill (or at least sliced open) at least one of these guys without hesitation.
Of course, even though they aren't graphic about...
...It's still pretty explicit.
Once the four have slashed, stabbed, and bludgeoned the Purple Dragon into submission, they hear the approach of police sirens, so they slip into the shadows and down a storm drain, as is the way of jinjitsu. Check your handbooks. All ninjas travel by sewers.
The Turtles return to their home where they tell their father, a rat about their first battle. It would behoove us to take a second to reflect on that sentence and contemplate what a reader in 1984 would make of this without a 90 second animated theme song explaining it to them. Four giant anthropomorphic martial artist turtles just came home to their father, who is a giant anthropomorphic rat. Mm-kay. There's high concept and then there's reading your mad libs outloud.
Their father Splinter is proud of his sons and decides that tonight they have proven themselves after one battle against a bunch of nameless mooks and that they are now skilled enough for a task that he has had in mind since he first began their training 13 years ago, but more on that later. He can't issue their orders without providing an extended backstory on their own origins, ostensibly for the Turtles' benefit.
Now, if you've seen anything except the recent Michael Bay films, you know at least some variation of this origin story. Their origin story is actually what originally gave me the thought that reviewing the third film in the franchise might have been an interesting idea. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, by the very nature of their origin are inexorably linked to Japan (the rat is even in the Japanese zodiac), and yet they are incredibly Westernized characters. In fact, allegorically Splinter and his sons could easily be read as an immigrant father whose first generation children are culturally so different from him that they practically look like they come from as completely different walks of life as a rat and a turtle.
But on with the backstory.
Twenty years ago, Splinter was a mere pet rat in Japan. His owner, Hamato Yoshi kept him in his dojo. This makes me wonder why he ended up with a name like Splinter. A community pet tends to have more cutesy names like Snowball, Nibbler, or Mr. Squeaks. Of course, I don't speak Japanese. According to google translate, Splinter is 破片, which transliterates to "hahen." Even so, I'm no Japanophone, so I have no sense of what sounds "cute" in Japanese... except for anything this lady will ever say.
Splinter learns the art of ninjitsu by observing and replicating Hamato Yoshi's training from his cage. Yoshi himself being the greatest shadow warrior of his clan. The initiated might be surprised to learn that said clan was in fact The Foot Clan. Yes, generally the main villains (or the he henchmen thereof) of the Turtles in most incarnations. This causes me to wonder whether Yoshi's own hands were clean, proverbially speaking. One could make the argument that either they only turned to crime after Yoshi's departure or that the antipathy is the result of a vendetta, but come on. They are essentially a yakuza crime family. I think Splinter doesn't dwell too heavily on Yoshi's occupation because he didn't have first-hang experience of him in that context, only the master-pet/sensei-student context. I'd be curious to see if that little detail later comes back to challenge Splinter's sense of identity later on in the comics. Of course, Splinter does skip that little plot point completely in both the animated series and feature films, so perhaps it does get addressed in the comics. Who knows?
|Rat see, rat do.|
Hamato Yoshi had a lady love in the form of Tang Shen. Shen had eyes only for Yoshi, but unfortunately she had an unwanted admirer who was also from within the ranks of the Foot Clan by the name of Oroku Nagi. It's And it suddenly occurs to me that there are quite a number of fictional properties with an Othelloic love triangle triangle very central to its mythos, where there is a true and enduring pair of lovers and either a villainous or unpleasant hypotenuse in the equation. The X-Men has had actually quite a few, at least one involving clones and cosmic deities, but I think the Cyclops/Jean/Wolverine pairing is the most readily familiar (even if it's never a big a deal in the comics as in the films), Reed Richards, depending on the continuity and the era, had to contend with both the morally capricious Namor and the outright egomaniacal Dr. Doom for Sue Storm's affection, Guinevere had to choose between her marital duty to Arthur or her passion for Lancelot, hell, Gargoyles had two such pairing tethered close to their origins, and knowing that series' tendency towards Shakespearean allusions, I doubt it was unintentional.
Nagi, being the aforementioned Iago in this love triangle, did not take being spurned lightly. His reaction, being a one-dimensional villain with no redeeming characteristics was apparently attempting forcing his way into Tang Shen's home and "demanded that she love him." When she refused him, he did what any sane, reasonable MRA would do and proceeds to beat her. So, yeah. This looks like a textbook case of a violent case of selfish love, or what TV Tropes refers to as an "If I Can't Have You."
|So, are we supposed to think Hamato Yoshi was a good guy or what?|
Fortunately for Shen, Yoshi arrives shortly into this assault. The sight of his lady love battered at Nagi's hands sends him flying into a blinding rage and he kills Nagi. I have to say this issue has a talent for being non-graphic in its violence and yet completely transparent. Even in black and white, cutting from an enraged Hamato Yoshi to a closeup of his balled fists dripping with blood is pretty effective.
Being that he is an honorable ninja/assassin in a fairly fetischized version of late 20th Century Japanese culture, having slain his fellow clan member leaves him with two possible options. There's always good, old, classic seppuku, honorable suicide, or getting the hell out of dodge. Well, the latter option provided him the opportunity of continued nooky with the woman he just committed homicide for, so he packed up his girlfriend and his pet rat and traveled to New York City.
Now, I'm sure you're wondering why this sounds slightly different than other versions of the Turtles' backstory you might be familiar with. That might be because in most other versions, Hamato Yoshi's rival later becomes the main series antagonist, Shredder. Pretty hard to become a Shredder when you've just been shredded. Well, it turns out that this isn't the character you're thinking of. Oroku Nagi may have died at Yoshi's hands, but his little brother Okoku Saki, though a wee bairn at the time, swore his revenge. Ever look at Spider-Man's rogue's gallery and counted out how many of them have been the descendants and/or younger siblings of villains Spider-Man defeated but hadn't managed to keep from getting themselves killed?
Although, the origins of their conflict are a lot more petty than any of your legacy Spider-foes. It's a lot more like how on Gargoyles, the Canmore family, aka The Hunters, swore vengeance against Demona for generations because she scarred their great-great-great(x30) grandfather because she scarred his face with raiding their pantry. Yeah. That's basically this.
While Yoshi and Shen settled in America and established a well respected martial arts academy, Saki trained for years and climbed the ranks in the Foot Clan. Apparently, you can join up practically straight out of the womb because at the tender age of 18, he had risen to the point where not only was he considered leadership material, but they trusted him enough to send him to the other side of the globe and open a branch of the Foot in New York. Imagine applying that same logic to a kid who was hired by McDonalds at 16 and showed a lot of potential, then sending her off to open up a brand new and as soon as that high school diploma is in her hand, she gets shipped off to open a franchise in New Delhi. I'm just going to keep this mental image of the squeaky-voiced teenager from The Simpsons cosplaying as Shredder for the remainder of the issue.
|As long as he gets a signature of a parent of legal guardian first.|
After setting up shop in NYC, Saki's Foot Clan set up a criminal monopoly, particularly as assassins. It was during this time that he earned his title as The Shredder. He had already adopted his tradmark blade-encrusted helmet, gloves, and epaulets. Hm... was Shredder the patient zero of gratuitous spikes, impractical, arch shoulder pads in the 80s the same way Longshot was the genesis of mullets, flashy eyes, and bandoliers? Now, if only
Time in the backstory elapses so that we are now 15 years out from where Splinter started. The average lifespan of a rat is 3 years. Assuming he was a little pup (yeah, I had to look up the term for baby rats. It's either that or kittens) and bought at the pet store a few weeks before Yoshi and Nagi's fateful confrontation, he would have already been in a state of advanced old age.
Shredder enacts his revenge, first by killing Shen, then laying in wait for Yoshi. He guts Splinter's owner like a fish, but in the struggle, Splinter's cage gets smashed and the little aged rodent scrambles away from the crime scene and ends up living in the sewers.
So far, this sounds more or less like any other version of the Turtle's origin story you've heard before, right? Well, buckle in, kiddies. Things are about to get weird.
One day, while digging through a trashcan, little rat Splinter effectively witnesses Daredevil's origin story. Remember how I cited both Daredevil and Ronin as inspirations for the "Ninja" of TMNT? That is true, but while Ronin's influence brings in the honorable ninja warrior ethos, Daredevil's influence brings in this wonderful instance of silver age logic.
|I'm surprised there isn't a Stan Lee cameo in this sequence.|
So, Daredevil's origin story has young Matt Murdoch jump into the street to rescue a blind old man from being hit by a truck carrying radioactive materials. The old man get's rescued, but a barrel rolls out of the truck and drenches young Matt Murdoch with the materials, causing him to lose his eyesight, but enhancing all his other senses tenfold. Sidebar: Daredevil #1 is probably going to be an entry on the blog one day. Stan Lee's inadvertent homoeroticism cannot go unaddressed.
In this version however, it goes slightly differently. The canister literally bounces off the boy's face. Unless that thing was porous or there was some toxic material smeared on the closure of the container, there is no way he would have become Daredevil in this timeline. That canister must be made from elastic because it bounces around like a rubber ball until it hits a boy carrying a fishbowl with four baby turtles in it, shattering the bowl and causing both the turtles and the canister itself to fall down an open manhole that apparently the kid was just standing in front of, just in the hopes of being part of an improbable Rube Goldberg scenario. Who leaves an open manhole unattended? Where the hell are this kid's parents? God, it must have been both really liberating and dangerous to be a kid in pre-Giuliani NYC.
Now, I know this is nitpicking, but it kind of makes me laugh that Splinter mentions how various debris in the sewers cushioned their fall and yet it's in that same debris, after having bounced several times on the hard concrete up above, that the canister finally shatters and douses the turtles in ooze. Splinter had scurried down to the sewer and gathered them up in an old coffee can and ended up getting covered in the ooze too in the process of wrangling them up.
|"They can say my name? I'll train them to be assassins, obvsly!"|
The origin pretty much follows the standard set from this point on. Soon they began to grow in size and intelligence, the latter more markedly in Splinter's case. Eventually they began talking and walking upright. Splinter names them after four Renaissance masters from an old book he found in the sewer and spends 13 years training them in the art of ninjitsu. Oh, and another layer of Daredevil riffing is now upon us. Just as Matt Murdoch received his training from an old man named "Stick," the Turtles were trained by an old rat named "Splinter." Follow the clues, ladies and gents.
I find it incredibly improbably that in the interceding 15 years, with nobody to talk to other than his sons, Splinter, who was already incredibly old by rat standards prior to his mutation, never started yammering on about the good old days. However, he explains why he waited a decade and a half to explain their existence (and to be fair, their existence is fairly tangential to the discussion at hand).
Now that he recognizes that his sons' skills are at their peak, again he comes to this conclusion after they had engaged in all of one combat scenario that he did not witness firsthand, it is time to send them on a murder quest. Yup. You read that correctly. The heroes of later iterations were just trained assassins in this one. He has had a score to settle since before he even attained sapience. He must avenge the death of his fallen master by slaying his killer, Oroku Saki.
And I will not tell a lie: this popped into my head to the tune of a certain 1939 MGM film song... "We're off to kill the Shredder!"
|He wants to be part of your world.|
|Give her some sais and the resemblance is uncanny.|
Raphael: Reptilian Combat Ready Disney Princess. Make this movie happen, Disney! Live action. None of that CGI shit.
Now where was I? Oh, right. The plot.
Splinter has tasked Raph with a particular aspect of the mission: calling Shredder out. Yeah, apparently the act of honorably challenging your ninja opponent is a lot like telling your schoolyard enemy to meet at the flagpole at 3 for fisticuffs. Of course, being a ninja gang leader Shredder has a cadre of goons around his lair. Not that Raph has the slightest compunction about slicing up a bunch of hired goons. Remember: these Turtles are much more violent than they are in later iterations and Raph has rage issues, as a Disney Princess is wont to.
Once he has cut down his opposition, he sends a sai with a message wrapped around it flying through the window and lodging it into the wall of Oroku Saki's office. This happens just as he was wrapping up a meeting with some "constituents" about why they need his "protection." They question why they should be paying protection money to a man who can't keep armed men out of his compound. It is doubtful that under normal circumstances, Shredder had bothered responding to Splinter's challenge. After all, he's an unabashed mafioso and isn't bound by the demands of an honor code. However, making him look bad in front of men that he had just about put to heel changes the matter entirely. Shredder cares more about losing face in front of his subordinates.
The Turtles await their foe up on a rooftop. As Shredder approaches, he seems to be more concerned about why he is being challenged over the murder of Hamato Yoshi after 15 years more than the fact that he is being challenged by a bunch of giant anthropomorphic turtles. Even when he does acknowledge that they are turtles, he never seems to so much as raise an eyebrow over this. His men certainly think it's odd. One even called them kappa (ancient Japanese demons). It makes me wonder whether he's a furry and seeing giant anthropomorphic turtles simply doesn't phase him.
As I said, he is an unabashed baddie. So despite being instructed to come alone, he comes with a small legion of Foot Soldiers. The Turtles acknowledge that they're good, but not good enough. They manage to cut down everyone between them and Shredder, but Shredder is keen to point out that they've been bloodied up too in the scuffle.
One by one the brothers confront him, but Shredder is no hired goon. Then, oh right. The turtles remember this isn't Street Fighter and they can attack him altogether. Three of them launch throwing stars, throwing daggers, and even throwing sais (or just normal sais) at Shreddrer and while he is thrown off, they trip him, Donny whacks him from behind with his bo staff and even knocks off his mask before Shredder kicks him right in the nads. Finally Leo puts the kibosh on this battle by making Shredder a kabob, running him through with his katana.
It wasn't a killing blow, however. The Turtles prize themselves on being honorable and give Shredder an opportunity to commit honorable suicide, with Leo extending the hilt of his own bloodied katana to him.
It wasn't a killing blow, however. The Turtles prize themselves on being honorable and give Shredder an opportunity to commit honorable suicide, with Leo extending the hilt of his own bloodied katana to him.
Shredder has a contingency plan up his sleeve. Literally, the plan was up his sleeve as he happens to have stuffed a thermite bomb up there before heading out. It's kind of like stuffing a $20 in your shoe, in case you get mugged on the street. Except, you know, 'splodier. If he's going down, he's taking the Turtles with him. But Donnie is quick to stop him by hurling his bo staff at him, presumably with the intent of knocking the bomb out of his hands, but instead, knocking Shredder himself off the side of the building. Fortunately, Splinter had chosen a building set for demolition for the location of their battle, so we don't need to think about any innocent lives lost when Shredder and the bomb hit the ground and a bright explosion lights the air below the Turtles.
|A+ swordsmanship, F-- punmanship|
I have to admit I appreciate Leonardo a lot more than when I did as a child. Granted, it simply means he's second to least favorite instead of least favorite, but still... Leonardo is generally depicted as the eldest and treated as the leader by this virtue and the presumptive role of the eldest sibling to look after his younger ones. What I can't help but think about now is having a mini marathon of the old cartoon show and see how this plays out with an adult's perspective. I don't really remember his characterization all that clearly other than being the leader, but I like to imagine he's that one kid who's trying really hard to be an adult to the point where his friends just can't take him seriously outside of combat situations. And suddenly I realize Leo and Scott Summers should probably form a support group. But yeah, Leo doesn't get to be the "fun" one. Raph is the badass (Wolverine), Donnie gets to fill the role of the affable inventor (Beast), and even Mikey, when he isn't being annoying as hell is fun to be around (Iceman). Being Leoclops is a thankless task.
Now that I'm through with this apologia for Leonardo, Leo tosses the gauntlet aside as as the Turtles prepare to make their way back to the sewers. Leo's narration punches the point home their nature as ninjas. They fought hard, but now they slip away as though they were never there.
I have to admit, for as different as this is from what would later follow it, this is incredibly good work. Both the pencil and ink work are incredible, and also manage to display a fairly wide range between cartoonishness and realism that still manages to fit the same story. I do have to wonder why a comic that was conceived of as a one and done story devoted as much time to backstory as it did, but considering it was technically a late bronze age comic, long and wordy exposition sessions were de rigueur for the day. I think Donnie and Mikey get the short stick in terms of development, but their personalities typically don't drive narratives the way Leonardo's drive to be the perfect son/disciple and leader and Raphael's hot temper and individualism tend to. Oh, and I guess April retroactively gets short shrift, considering the origin story usually gets told for her benefit in later iterations and she hadn't been created yet. I know it's a cheat to put this is the "good" column, considering this is a story written with no intensive continuity behind it, but I do think it deserves props for borrowing from four very different source materials and creating a fusion that is unrecognizable as anything othe than what it says on the tin... you know, besides that blatant Daredevil parody.