Thursday, April 3, 2014

Remembering the ORIGINAL Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

You might’ve seen the teaser trailer for the new Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie making the rounds lately. Geeks, fanboys, and mainstream audiences have formed all kinds of opinions on a movie that is still four months away from being released. Personally, I don’t care that much about this particular movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s great of it sucks; it will be just another installment in a long line of reboots of the franchise.
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Issue #1 was released in May 1984 at a comic book convention in Maine.
Still, a part of me is excited to see the Turtles back in the limelight. Much like Transformers, My Little Pony and G.I. Joe, the Turtles have seen a resurgence in popularity for a new generation. What we liked as kids, our children are now discovering and enjoying for themselves. It’s nice to share a common pop culture interest with the next generation, eh?

However (and sorry to sound like a hipster), I’ve always scoffed at the versions of the Turtles seen by the public since they have always been so much different than their original comic book incarnation. Lest we forget, TMNT started off as an independent black & white comic that was rather violent to say the least. The first issue ends with Leonardo impaling Shredder with his sword for Pete's sake!
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Probably not the image of the pizza-munching Turtles you're used to seeing.
While that image is so far removed from the kid-friendly, comedy-oriented Turtles from the cartoons and movies, it’s not an entirely accurate reflection of the original TMNT comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. When the series launched in 1984 it was an homage to Daredevil, Ronin, New Mutants and Cerebus. The Turtles weren’t marketed or depicted as generic comic book superheroes because they didn’t have super powers. Additionally, they weren’t so much vigilantes as they were samurais engaging in gang warfare with The Foot Clan and other street gangs. And though it’s not a gory comic book per se (except for that panel shown above), the implication is that the Turtles don’t just incapacitate their enemies; they fight to the death.
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They were badasses back in the day.
The earliest issues of the series take the Turtles on a whirlwind of adventure, mostly in the sci-fi/fantasy realm. Though they have their encounters with mad scientists and street thugs, at one point they find themselves transported to another dimension fighting triceratops in a coliseum while helping a buxom babe escape from a time lord while befriending an android, and then go back in time and fight alongside Cerebus in an epic Lord Of The Rings-style battle.
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By issue #8 the Turtles had been transported to another dimension and had their first comic book crossover.
Having re-read these comics recently, I had mixed thoughts on their quality. The art is pretty well done, though it does seem a bit amateurish at times. I notice Eastman and Laird can often go into exquisite detail in some panels, and leave backgrounds blank in others. They do make New York City a central character to the comics and seem to be drawing from real life, rather than just generic buildings.
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I love the level of detail Eastman and Laird put into their early work.
However, the actual scripts leave much to be desired. These comics are clearly regurgitating Silver and Bronze Age tropes with the plots often seeming trite and contrived. The dialogue itself is quite cheesy at times. Still, these early issues are fun to read because you can tell how much enthusiasm Eastman and Laird have for their creation as well as comic book history (the comics are peppered with subtle in-jokes and references). It’s an interesting amalgamation of 1970s-style chop-socky martial arts movies and sci-fi/fantasy of the Conan and Heavy Metal variety.

It didn’t take long for TMNT to gain traction within the comic book community. Mirage Studios launched a few mini-series and one-shots featuring supporting characters from these early days. When the animated series debuted in 1987, guest artists and writers were brought on to produce the comic book while Eastman and Laird oversaw the Turtles franchise. This continued for the bulk of the original series which ran until 1993 after 62 issues.
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These color TPBs by First Comics introduced me to the comic book Turtles.
It wasn’t until after the live-action movie was released in 1990 that I discovered the TMNT comics. A friend of mine had some trade paperbacks that reprinted the earliest issues in color. I remember being amazed at how different the comics were from the cartoon show, as well as being impressed by how closely the movie followed the comics rather than the animated series.

Naturally, I went to my local comic book store and started buying the current issues. However, this was during the middle of the original series run when Eastman and Laird weren’t writing or drawing the series. Many of these issues by the guest artists and writers were bizarre. There was no sense of continuity and even lesser sense of realism, so some of these comics were mindbenders or straight-up comedies, but rarely conventional stories. I found them baffling, albeit interesting because they were so much different than what I was used to as a comic book reader and as a TMNT fan.
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No, this wasn't one of the Archie comics, but part of the original series run.
It always drove me crazy that the comic book Turtles all wore red masks since there’s really no way to tell them apart by their appearance other than what weapon they’re holding. Though it’s kind of pointless for these characters to wear masks in the first place since they don’t have alter egos they’re trying to keep secret. The fedoras and trench coats they wore in the cartoon always cracked me up, though that’s animation logic for you.
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One of the mindbender comics by Michael Zulli.
As the title of this post indicates, this is just the first in a series of entries I’m going to spend discussing the original comic book run. I emphasize original, because there have been many  incarnations of the TMNT comics. This post initially started out as a guide to them all, but there’s already a Turtles wiki that does exactly that. What I plan on doing is delving into the series at about 10 comics at a time. I believe the entire series is available in TPBs and issue-by-issue reprints (in both physical and digital formats). If you’ve never read them, why not join me in reading them over the next few months.

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