Tuesday, 12 June 2007
Originally posted on March 15th, 2006
Before the Saturday morning cartoon, before the hit movies, before the toys, games and all the merchandise, and yes, before the "Ninja Rap," the story of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began in the most humble of ways -- as the brainchild of two aspiring comic book artists named Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. In 1983, with a mere $1200 of their own money, the pair printed 3,500 copies of their quirky, gritty new story featuring a quartet of ninjitsu turtles and brought it to a comic book convention in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The oddly-named comic quickly caught on with readers of all ages and the initial run sold like wildfire, prompting the release of a second and third run shortly thereafter (nearly 50,000 copies in print, all of which sold in record time.) Thus, the Teenage Turtles were already well on their way to becoming virtual pop culture giants, a fact that would be solidified in 1987 with the production of a cartoon adaptation that would effectively bring Eastman and Lairds' characters into the homes of millions of youngsters. NES games, hit movies and Vanilla Ice songs would follow.
My intention today was not necessarily to gush uncontrollably over this particular issue, so if I fall from grace, it wasn't by design. That being said, if you take away nothing from this post save for a better appreciation for this incredible black and white piece of pop culture history, then I've served my purpose in life. Taking an affectionate look at the first issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures is one thing, but traveling back to a time when the property was still very much in its infancy somehow feels a bit more monumental. Thus, I present to you the comic book that started it all, the issue that gave the world its very first glimpse of the four terrapin crimefighters and their rodent master: Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles...
The first thing that hits you when you open up TMNT #1 is how visually striking the four turtles are. The beautiful group shot of Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Raphael featured on page numero uno, in which all four Turtles are fully poised and ready for battle, really puts into perspective just how much they've changed in appearance since their inception. A stark contrast to the bubbly, puffy cartoon characters we've all grown familiar with, these Turtles sport elongated "beaks" and have no visible pupils, giving them a very menacing look perfectly accentuated by the gritty black-and-white palette. Additionally, though not apparent because of the monochrome colouring, each Turtle wears a red bandana as opposed to the red, blue, purple and orange most Ninja Turtles fans are probably familiar with. (This is evidenced by the cover art of all issues belonging to TMNT Volume 1, which ran from 1984 to 1993. Coloured bandanas were introduced in 1987, in the new cartoon -- they were never a part of the original comics.)
"I hold my katana in a relaxed, ready position. To my left, Donatello and Michaelangelo follow suit with staff and nunchaku. Raphael guards my right side...I sense his body quivering with tense energy, waiting to be triggered into savage, slashing release!!" Leonardo acts as narrator for the first few pages of the book and introduces us to the other members of the quartet, as he and his bros find themselves cornered in a dank, trash-strewn alley by fifteen members of the Purple Dragons, "the toughest street gang on the East Side." Unlike the first episode of the cartoon, where the Turtles face off against a group of thugs in order to save a panicked April O'Neil, here the lanky Channel 6 reporter is nowhere to be found. Incidentally, neither are two punks by the name of Bebop and Rocksteady --they'd make their debuts exclusively on the small screen. This is 1984, mind you; Bebop, Rocksteady, and a plethora of other memorable characters including Krang, Slash, and Metalhead don't yet exist --they'd be created years later specifically for the Saturday morning cartoon. (Who 'da thunk it?)
Appropriately enough, the Turtles enter Chuck Norris mode and proceed to hand the street punks a beating -- though perhaps in a slightly more violent manner than those of us raised on the old 'toon would expect. Somehow, I'd always imagined the Turtles would avoid overly violent conflict and try to take on their enemies in a slightly restrained manner, but this is a different breed of Turtles, indeed. Case in point? About a page or so into the brawl, the toughs give up their primitive hand-to-hand tactics and break out the artillery, prompting Raphael to soar into the heat of the action and deliver a vicious punch that sends the receiver sprawling, and also sends a satisfying spurt of blood through the air. A few panels later, one of the street punks asks, "Who are these guys?", prompting another to whip out a pocketknife and answer, "Don't know...Some sort of freaks. But even freaks can bleed! Cut 'em!" Again as the narrator, Leonardo replies, "Yes, we can bleed...And so can you!" We then see a pair of knives soar through the air, accompanied by an even denser spurt of the red stuff. Violent, yes, but totally appropriate, given the black-and-white visuals and edgy art style. Suffice it to say, I'm totally diggin' it.
Next, the cops show up to inspect the commotion, forcing our teenage terrapins to escape to the sewers, away from all the unwanted attention. The four of them crawl down a sewer drain and traverse the mazelike subterranean passages to find their aged and grizzled sensei, Master Splinter, patiently awaiting them in the lair. After the students recount their harrowing battle, Splinter proudly congratulates them on their victory and goes on to say that their skills have finally reached their peak. The aging rat then confides to Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Raphael that they are finally ready to learn of their origins and that, in a short while, they will embark upon the mission they've been training for these many years.
Thus, Splinter begins recounting the now-legendary origin story of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which has essentially remained unchanged since it first appeared in this very issue over two decades ago. Long story short, Splinter was once the beloved pet of a man named Hamato Yoshi, a member of the famous and elusive "Foot" clan, the most feared group of warriors and assassins in all of Japan. Both Yoshi and another member of the Foot, Oroku Nagi, fell in love with the beautiful Tang Shen -- the prettiest girl this side of the Great Wall of China -- who, in turn, admitted to wanting only Hamato's love. The sinister Nagi, being the jealous bastard that he was, became enraged and confronted Splinter's former master in a heated conflict. When the battle was over and the dust settled, only Yoshi was left standing.
The beleaguered ninjitsu master thus moved to New York with Tang Shen and an oh-so cute rat named Splinter in the hopes of starting a bright new life, away from Japan and the shame of public scrutiny. Years later, however, they are hunted down by Nagi's vengeful brother, Oroku Saki, who currently heads the NY branch of the Foot as the metal-clad Shredder. Splinter, now without a home or a master, scampers through the streets and lives off scraps of garbage, until a fateful accident one day leaves him wallowing in a puddle of glowing green mutagen along with four baby turtles. And the rest, my dear friends, is history. But you already knew that. Once the story is finished, Splinter asks the four brothers to carry out their ultimate mission: challenge the Shredder and defeat him in combat in order to avenge the brutal murder of Hamato Yoshi.
The scene then switches to Raphael, who's now assumed the role of narrator, as we follow the temperamental turtle into the heart of Shredder's headquarters. Inside the complex, Oroku Saki is busy offering his unique brand of professional "protection" to a couple of business owners, who seem genuinely interested in the offer -- until one of Raphael's sais bursts through the window, that is. The Shredder retrieves the handwritten letter wrapped around the blade and discovers an ominous message of challenge, beckoning him to face the Turtles in what will no doubt be a grueling final showdown.
The following night, the Turtles make good on their promise and trek across the city to confront the Shredder, who arrives in appropriately menacing fashion, flanked by a horde of battle-ready Foot ninja. The incredible interior splash that stretches across pages 28 and 29 conveys the ferocity of the battle that ensues, as Leonardo and his brothers are ambushed by the well-equipped Foot, who possess everything from traditional swords and daggers to the slightly more modern "spiky hook on a chain" and the ever-popular "sharp metal thing-on-a-stick." I'm wondering, though -- where does the Foot clan find all these weapons, anyway? Can they really pick those up in New York City? Or do they ship 'em direct from Japan? (I have trouble getting socks through customs...)
After slicing and dicing through the crowd of ninjas (and receiving a few scars along the way), the Turtles finally square off against the mighty Shredder -- who's definitely one tough cookie, despite being dressed like a cheese grater. All attempts to take out Tin Skin are ultimately in vain, for the ruthless Foot leader is much too powerful for any one turtle to handle, well-trained as they may be. The team quickly realizes that using group tactics is the only way to defeat the Shredder, so they break out the ninja stars and chip away at his defense with a series of well-focused attacks. Afterwards Donatello, sensing the lack of superhero bravura exercised by his brothers, declares, "This is the end for you, Shred?" It proves a little premature, however, as he's interrupted by a swift kick in the chest. Thus, it is up to Leonardo to deliver the final blow...
After inflicting this near-fatal injury, Leonardo outstretches one of his katana and offers Saki the opportunity to regain some of his honor by committing seppuku. (Which, if I've done my research correctly, is a type of ritual suicide by disembowelment formerly practiced by samurai. Thanks, Wikipedia.) Not suprisingly, the wounded Shredder spitefully refuses and stipulates that if he must kill himself, he's gonna take the whole goddamn rooftop along with him; he then whips out a thermite grenade and pulls the pin. Don, who's still wishing he could wear a cape and tights, sees a small opening and chucks his bo staff at the maniacal Foot leader, hitting him in the face and sending him tumbling over the edge of the building -- along with the live grenade. We then see the Turtles' battered and bloodied foe plunge to his death and are left to imagine his body being blown to bits by the ensuing explosion. Thus, the Shredder, the man who always escaped death in the old cartoon only to be hopelessly thwarted another day, dies in the very first issue of Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Ha, betcha didn't see that one coming.
And that just about does it for this first issue of TMNT; Shredder's now relishing his new role as a nice, albeit chunky, fertilizer; the Turtles are a little bruised but really none the worse for wear; and Splinter caught an episode of The A-Team while his students were out getting pummeled by ninjas. On one final note, this being the fourth printing of TMNT #1 I hold before me, the issue includes a nice interview with creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who divulge some fairly interesting tidbits about the origin of the franchise -- for instance, did you know that Shredder was originally going to be called Grateman? The comic also comes complete with five pages of early sketches and artwork, including the very first Turtle sketch and plenty of images showing the evolution of the distinctive art style that would eventually come to life in the pages of TMNT.
Regardless of whether or not one enjoys the quartet's more recent incarnations (e.i., 1998's dismal The Next Mutation and the newer, infinitely more satisfying TMNT cartoon airing on 4Kids TV), there's definitely something ingratiating about reading the stories that inspired and shaped the iconic world of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, animated or otherwise. Although their appearances have changed a bit over the years and various characters have come and gone, the backbone of the franchise has endured the test of time and has remained every bit as fresh and original as it was back in 1984.
Factor in the classic narrative, the superb artwork and the excellent black-and-white presentation, and what you've got is a monumental chapter in the rich mythos of one of pop culture's most venerable properties.