teenage mutant ninja turtles megareview, part 1 (1984-1998)

teenage mutant ninja turtles, book i (comic 1984-85)

well, here it is. the comic that started it all. this graphic novel collects colorized versions of the first three issues of kevin eastman and peter laird’s original comics that conquered the world with a merchandising empire that no one saw coming, least of all them.

these comics did include some of the differences i’d always been told to expect from the turtles i’ve known and loved since the cartoons, movies, and video games of my early childhood, but not as many as i expected! true, it is a bit more violent, with the turtles being willing to kill some of their adversaries, but by the second issue leonardo is already telling his more hotheaded brother raphael that the turtles kill only as a last resort.

oh, that’s the other thing. i was primed to expect the turtles themselves to be nearly interchangeable, but they actually have much more fully-formed personalities than that even in these earliest days of the comics! leo was always the honorable leader and raph was always the hotheaded angy boy, all the way back in issue 1! and donnie has been the tech guy since at least issue 2, when he tries to hack baxter stockman’s computers to solve the mouser problem.

issue 1 of the comics does a lot, opening in media res with the turtles fighting the street gang the purple dragons. when they soundly defeat them, master splinter decides they’re “ready” and tells them the story of their origin as well as the origin of the shredder. the broad strokes of this origin story will be very familiar to those who have consumed much turtle media, but there are a few details that change from version to version and i’m not really sure there’s any single version that gets every detail right?

the main areas of divergence are often the exact origin of splinter and the identity of shredder. in some versions, splinter was a pet rat who mimicked his owner’s martial arts movements in his cage and then got transformed into an anthro rat; in other versions, he was himself the martial arts master and got transformed. in the comics, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the sillier of the two explanations–the pet rat who learned martial arts by mimicking his master’s movements from his cage.

the other area of divergence is the exact identity of shredder and the fate of splinter’s owner, hamato yoshi. in the original version in the comics, it is not oroku saki (shredder) who is rivals with hamato yoshi. rather, it is his brother, oroku nagi. he is jealous over yoshi’s greater advancement in the clan they’re both a part of, and also his romance with a woman named tang shen. one or both of these conflicts with yoshi is often transferred to oroku saki in later versions, skipping the middleman as it were. in the comic, nagi tries to kill yoshi and shen, but yoshi kills him in self-defense and flees japan with his love. it is then that oroku saki enters the picture, vowing revenge for his brother’s death and killing yoshi and shen in retribution.

the shredder is presented as a genuinely threatening big bad, but the turtles face him in a fight to the death in just the first issue of the comics! and that fight to the death does end in a promised death–shredder’s![1] “when the evil shredder attacks, these turtle boys don’t cut him no slack” indeed!

the second issue, as many future iterations will do as well, introduces baxter stockman and his mouser robots as the next villain the turtles face. it also introduces april o’neil, but not as a television reporter as you might expect! instead, she’s stockman’s lab assistant, but ends up taking issue with his methods and he decides to have her eliminated by his robot army. that’s when she meets the turtles and, as she usually does in later versions as well, faints. a lot of later versions also use this as an excuse to tell the turtles’ origin story rather than just having splinter decide “okay it’s time to do that now” after having apparently not told them anything about where they come from in all the years of raising them like he does in issue 1.

in the third issue, splinter is missing! this is another classic plot that gets reused in a lot of versions of the story. it’s also necessary for the turtles to abandon their sewer lair in this story, which is something some other versions retain. they don’t actually find splinter in this issue, as they spend the whole issue evading the cops before making it to april’s apartment and collapsing in four turtle heaps on her furniture and floor for some much-needed rest.

speaking of the police, back in the first issue when the cops show up to mop up after their confrontation with the purple dragons, leo narrates, “we do not like to run from those who would be our allies, but they would not understand us.” and i just gotta say, i’m pretty sure that should be your sign that the cops would not be great allies. the fact that you feel threatened because you’re different and you don’t think they would react to that well should tell you just about everything you need to know about them.

anyway, yeah! these comics are pretty terrific. they were also a lot more similar to all the things i know and love about my turtle boys than i was expecting based on everything i had heard, so that was pretty awesome. brank

teenage mutant ninja turtles, book ii (comic 1985-86)

you know, as i continue reading these, what i’m noticing is that while most of the turtles have more differentiated individual identities than i was told to expect, mikey doesn’t really stand out much at all yet! which if you’ve seen literally any onscreen version of the franchise is probably a bit difficult to believe, and i’m not gonna lie it’s kinda freaking me out!

this volume sees the turtle boys locate splinter just in time to be accidentally teleported to a faraway planet by the krang! which, by the way, since the 1987 cartoon was my entry point to the franchise (like it was for many people my age), i always thought it was weird that krang was not an individual but rather a species in several of the more recent adaptations, but it perhaps shouldn’t surprise me to learn that that’s actually how it originally was in the comics!

the heroic ninja (see what i did there?) turtle boys find themselves in the middle of a war between some militaristic humans called the federation and the triceratons! in a fun bit of timing i happen to have just watched this arc in the 2003 show and i can vouch for the fact that while it expands on it a bit it’s actually super faithful otherwise, so that’s pretty awesome. and yeah i may or may not be super thirsty for the triceratons so i loved this arc. arank

teenage mutant ninja turtles, book iii (comic 1986)

the comics took a serious nosedive in quality in this volume. of the three full-length issues collected here (there’s also a fairly inconsequential short at the end), the first issue is pretty easily the best and it’s not even that good? the turtles are stuck in a building with the krang, who it turns out are good guys i guess, and the krang need to fix their teleporter before the cops and national guard bust down the door. they’re also reunited with splinter.

the second issue has some weird time travel shit, and it’s not good weird it’s bad weird. the third issue is a flashback to splinter doing a body swap with some japanese samurai elder who needs help to convince his grandson to keep the family’s samurai tradition going, and like that’s cool i guess but i’m not sure why we’re supposed to care? this just felt like a pretty nothing volume if you ask me. there’s even a few typos in the lettering, which is just embarrassing. it’s the first one of these i just haven’t really enjoyed reading. drank

teenage mutant ninja turtles, book iv (comic 1987)

not only did the comics immediately get back on track, they delivered what i consider to be their best stretch. in this three-issue arc, shredder returns, leo gets his ass kicked and thrown through a window, and april’s apartment is burned down, forcing the turtles, april, and casey jones to retreat to casey’s grandmother’s farm house.

that all probably sounds familiar to you since it formed the basis of the plot of the 1990 live-action film, though it was raph rather than leo who took a ride through the window, and this was shredder’s first clash with the turtles rather than his return. there was also an exceptionally faithful adaptation in a three-episode arc towards the late-middle of the 2003 animated series’ first season. i just think this is an exceptionally well-crafted story in every version.

one thing i was surprised about was that in the original comics, this story takes place during christmas, so leo is fighting the foot in the snow rather than in the rain. it does drive home the shock his brothers and april experience quite a bit more when they’re decorating a christmas tree and cooking dinner before their joyful peace is shattered along with the window leo is thrown through. i still pretty much always picture important turtles fights happening on rooftops either at night or in pouring rain, but this was pretty effective all the same. srank

teenage mutant ninja turtles (tv series 1987-96)

as a child i was obsessed with ninja turtles, star trek, batman, and sonic, basically in that chronological order. so ninja turtles was my first and for a while most intense obsession. i had a ninja turtles bedspread, i drew pictures of the technodrome with markers at daycare. it was a big deal to me. and the 1987 cartoon was where it all started.

i remember renting this one specific vhs with the first few episodes of the series from the video store an obnoxious number of times. i tended to annoy the heck out of my parents by wanting to watch the same things over and over and over.

revisiting the series now… there are a few episodes here and there that hold up alright, but for the most part the dialogue is pretty cringey and repetitive. like, you could probably make like 10-minute cuts of almost every episode just by cutting out lines or plot points that are repeated three or four times.

i know a lot of children’s programming doesn’t take its audience seriously, and i can’t get too too hung up on this, it’s just that sometimes you go back and watch stuff you watched as a kid and it’s batman: the animated series, and other times you go back and watch stuff you watched as a kid and it’s… this.

this next thing applies to a lot of earlier tmnt stuff. after being spoiled by rise of the teenage mutant ninja turtles having half the turtles voiced by poc and most of the good guy human characters (including april!) be black, it’s a bit frustrating just how white ninja turtles was in its heyday.

it’s not even just the fact that almost all the human characters with speaking roles are white, i mean the fact that the turtles are clearly supposed to be read as white, and their pop culture references skew very not just white but also weirdly adult? i can’t imagine very many children or teenagers especially related to any of it? so that’s just weird.

nevertheless, the glow of nostalgia ensures that while i can see its flaws quite clearly, watching it today still gives me a warm, comfortable feeling.

… you know, like a ninja turtles bedspread.

teenage mutant ninja turtles: the ultimate collection vol. 3 (comic 1987-89)

we run out of first graphic novels at this point, so i switched over to idw’s ultimate collection, which collects the color classics reissues of the original mirage comics just like the first graphic novels used to. it’s actually pretty appropriate that this is where i ended up switching over, because the last issue of book iv (#11) was the last issue that eastman and laird exclusively did all of the art and writing on together. i’ll talk about this a bit more when we get to the next volume, but eastman and laird were starting to get too busy managing the larger phenomenon that ninja turtles had become to be as involved in the day-to-day production of the comic as they were up until that point.

the first bunch of issues collected here were all written by either eastman or laird, but never both.[2] and the quality of these issues was, in this reviewer’s opinion at least… uneven? not that a shared eastman and laird writing credit was without fail always a guarantee of quality, mind you,[3] but it seemed to work out more often than not.

the last three issues in this volume, the “return to new york” arc were the only in this volume that were written by both eastman and laird, and neither had an art credit on any of the three. this arc was noticeably better than the rest of the collection. though i do have two fairly major complaints about even this arc.

even though i knew it was coming, i was pretty disappointed with the whole weird worm clone explanation for shredder’s return. like, he can just be back, guys! also, the leo/raph conflict at the beginning of this arc… i gotta say, i think this has been handled better by nearly every screen adaptation.[4] and the resolution was just kind of… they completely ignored it when leo, donnie, and mikey arrived in new york and kept going like it never happened? just really not great character writing here, in my opinion.

still, this three-issue arc is easily the best part of this collection. the fights were great, and the turtles’ (especially leonardo’s) grim determination to defeat the returned shredder was great.

also i’m finally starting to see why everyone always says the comics are so much darker and more adult. the previous volume was trending that way, though given that parts of it were directly adapted by the first feature film it’s hard to say it was that much of a departure, but from here on out things do get a bit grittier for sure. crank

teenage mutant ninja turtles (arcade game 1989) & teenage mutant ninja turtles: turtles in time (arcade game 1991)

these were always the first arcade cabinets i ran to in any arcade or chuck e cheese as a kid. well, these or x-men. the gameplay and story (such as it is) are very simple but it translates so much of what i loved about the cartoons. everything is big and obvious and colorful. it really is like a playable version of the cartoon.

these are both pretty simple beat-’em-ups, but they’re loads of fun to play with friends and a great way to scratch the ninja turtles itch in an interactive way. i’m a huge fan of these. brank

teenage mutant ninja turtles (movie 1990)

i actually have much stronger memories of the second ninja turtles movie, i think because i watched it more often. the first one i think we just rented once or twice. and it’s not difficult to see why in retrospect because the second one is way more kid-friendly. still, anything and everything ninja turtles related was very important to me. and i’m only marginally more discriminating now. i love me some turtle boys.

i remember being pleasantly shocked how well this held up the first time i revisited it as an adult. and watching it again now, it’s kind of amazing what they were able to do in those suits, especially fighting. and i really appreciate the way they managed to make the foot and especially shredder feel genuinely threatening.

on a less happy note, the movie unsurprisingly has the exact same frustrating race problems as the contemporaneous cartoon. black people especially didn’t get any representation except for a few background kids in the foot clan, and given how huge the black population of new york city is that kind of thing is always just especially glaring in movies set there. and almost all the human characters with speaking roles are white, aside from a few asian baddies. and once again the turtles themselves sound painfully white, and their pop culture references still skew weirdly adult. still, i love my turtle boys, and this movie did a pretty good job with them! so i can’t complain too too much! just, yknow. i’m really glad things are getting a lot better representation wise these days. arank

teenage mutant ninja turtles ii: the secret of the ooze (1991)

y’know what? aside from a few problems it shares with its predecessor (you know the ones), this holds up a lot better than i remember it holding up the first time i revisited it! yeah, it’s clearly rather intentionally pushing the tone in a more kid-friendly direction–toning down the violence and seriousness–but it’s still pretty hecking good! like, i really get why i watched this over and over as a little kid. it gets so much right, and really brings out what’s appealing about these characters.

alsoithassomegreatbondagejustsaying. arank

teenage mutant ninja turtles: the ultimate collection vol. 4 (comic 1992-93)

so yeah, things got… weird for a few years there. after the “return to new york” arc eastman and laird were too busy overseeing all of the various facets of the dizzyingly massive popular culture empire their little comic book had spawned, and consequently the comics kind of got away from them. to put what they were busy with in perspective, the ninja turtles appeared in 2 feature films, 108 episodes of television, 4 major video games, and who knows what else in this period of time. there was a lot on their plate.

that whole period of the comics is considered non-canon, so a lot of essential collections pick back up in the 40s or so. #45 is where things start being canon again, this collection picks back up with #48. basically you get a two-issue arc where casey accidentally kills somebody in self-defense and goes into a bit of a spiral, and then everyone just sorta goes their separate ways for a little bit. april heads off to california, casey separately heads off to california, not knowing that’s where april’s going as far as i can tell. splinter heads off to do some really vague meditating and zen stuff that seems to frustrate him, eventually setting him up to meet the rat king in the concluding pages of this volume.

meanwhile, the turtles head back to new york. oh, that’s the other thing, they ended up back on the farm? not too sure what that was about, and it’s never really clarified. but anyway, now they’re back in new york without splinter or their human friends, and they’re being very angsty boys and just feeling very in over their head with the foot clan and lots of other gangs at war with each other. there’s some really pretty art in a lot of these battles, but i gotta be honest the storytelling isn’t really there to back it up?

there’s a lot more yelling between raph and leo, and even leo and donnie get into it at times? just a real lack of consistent characterization there, in my opinion. i think they still didn’t have a lot of these characters as nailed down as it felt like they did during the first few issues when the character writing was quite a bit more minimalistic.

overall this is a so-so volume. more consistent in quality than its immediate predecessor, but lacking any real defining moments to buoy it. crank

teenage mutant ninja turtles: the ultimate collection vol. 5 (comic 1993)

so ends the eastman and laird era of teenage mutant ninja turtles.

over time, it got a hell of a lot more grimdark. i’ve seen a lot of people say that this was the highpoint of the comics for them, and i’m happy for them that they were satisfied. personally, this really isn’t my cup of tea. it’s not so much the overall tone as it is the way it bleeds into the characterization. the longer the series went, the more it became clear that eastman and laird’s original intentions for these characters just… aren’t my turtles.

my leo is loyal. my donnie would never look down on anyone. my raph has depths of compassion that make it hard to feel as deeply as he does sometimes. my mikey is a font of enthusiasm and encouragement.

i’m glad these characters eventually evolved in the ways they did outside of these comics, and i understand now why everyone says the comics are so much darker and grittier than everything that came after them. i really didn’t need all this misery porn with april and casey to be happy for them.

karai wearing shredder’s armor throughout this arc was badass, but she’s so much more interesting in literally all the other versions of her. some of the battle scenes in this were awesome, but it lacks… joy.

i’m glad i read these, i’m glad i know where this all came from… but i gotta say, i probably could’ve stopped reading around #11 and been happier for it. crank

teenage mutant ninja turtles iii (movie 1993)

i don’t really remember much about watching this as a kid aside from the fact that i definitely did, and yeah wow is it ever not even a little memorable. except for april in boy clothes and surprisingly a lot of closeups of turtle feet, which hi yes please in both cases.

but yeah the suits were awful this time and the movie as a whole was pretty underwhelming. i know it’s a boringly uncontroversial take that this is the bad one, but it really is. crank

we wish you a turtle christmas (tv special 1994)

this would be almost as bad as the star wars holiday special if it weren’t drastically shorter. why do their faces look like that??? this gave me nightmares. drank

teenage mutant ninja turtles: legend of the supermutants (ova 1996)

… you know what? i’m just gonna transcribe the increasingly frantic voice messages i sent to people while we were watching this.

9:55 pm: pardon the interruption. um. we are watching a ninja turtles ova where the ninja turtles are… they transform into zords. they transform into zords. like. there’s also an intermediary where they’re sort of like zentai-looking things. i… i… and… also in their normal forms they’re just the 1987 cartoon version? so it’s kind of jarring seeing them… transform… into zords. okay. i’m done. sorry. this is a real thing that… we’re seeing right now.

9:55 pm: oh yeah that’s the other thing. um. we’re literally on the op? there was like a voiceover explaining all of this, and like, and like a little montage and an op. that’s literally… we haven’t even started the story yet and this is already completely unhinged.

9:58 pm: actual dialogue that just happened: “why wouldn’t you just destroy the earth first?” “because i have the personality… of a kitten.” the first one was shredder. the second one… krang.

10:00 pm: they… they have a fairy [laughter] that explains things to them. april is giving them like a powerpoint mission briefing… and then she can’t answer a question, i guess. and neither can splinter. soooo… they… they… have a fairy, that… that explains things to them.

10:02 pm: the turtles are drawn exactly like the 1987 cartoon, but they’re reacting like anime characters. they’re having anime character reactions! and they’re… i can’t… i cant

10:05 pm: [i posted a screenshot of krang holding his tentacle up in a fist and telling shredder, “you stupid. the foot soldiers are having a day off. they went on vacation.”]

10:09 pm: [uncontrollable laughter.] they… [laughter] … they… i didn’t–i thought they were just gonna use the vacation thing to explain why there were no foot soldiers? but… they showed them on vacation! they’re at miami beach, and… they are wearing their full foot soldier outfits? with hawaiian shirts over them! and having a barbeque! and the hawaiian shirts match? and i’m not making any of this up! i am going to sound like i’m high when i try to explain this movie when i review it!

10:32 pm: they’re trying to fight on top of a bullet train? and i understand why my turtle boys are up there because they’re kind of dumb–uh, april followed them? and i’m not really sure what… how she saw that going? and shredder just said, “oh, i see, we’re in my home town… japan.”

… yeah, so. this isn’t even everthing that happened in this that was wild??? my girlfriend, vanessa, who wasn’t watching this with us asked me to rate it on a scale of one to cats, and i said “double cats”? i just. i just. wow, guys. i don’t even know what else to say. wow. this was a journey. brank

ninja turtles: the next mutation (tv series 1997-98)

so remember how bad the suits were in teenage mutant ninja turtles iii? sweet. imagine if they were even worse, and maintained on a tv budget.

like… we’re not talking as bad as we wish you a turtle christmas here (*shudder*), but still. it really limits what you can do. i’m really pretty genuinely confused why they decided to go live action here. was it to capitalize on the popularity of the movies? because it feels like the time to have done that would’ve been, y’know, at least five years beforehand.

and i guess it wouldn’t be so bad if the writing weren’t consistently terrible but, uh, funny story about that…

look i’m sorry i know hating on this show is like the least original approach ever, but i’m literally not sure what else to do here. they didn’t give me a lot of options

of course the most famous thing about this show is the inclusion of a female turtle, venus. and like… i love the idea of a female turtle and i’m pretty sad they’ve never really tried to do it again, but… yeah, this was… extremely not great.

first of all, they decided to shoehorn in the idea that the turtles are not actually brothers, they’re just “like brothers,” and they include very heavy-handed references to this fact in dialogue seemingly every few episodes because it’s such a radical departure from everything before and since that they have to be sure to beat you over the head about it. and their reason for doing this was because they wanted to have venus not be related to them so there would be a possibility of her being romantically involved with one of the boy turtles (*sigh*), but they also thought it would be weird if she wasn’t related to them but they were all related to each other, so yeah, they did… this. and it’s just really dumb and bad and i hate it.

they also… didn’t give her a weapon? her weapon is magic. and she’s kind of bad at it? but like, there are so many iconic ninja weapons you haven’t used that you could’ve given her?

oh, but also she isn’t a ninja, she’s a “shinobi”? which is… a synonym of ninja. but here it means that she’s trained in mystical arts instead of martial combat. all of this is just so weird and dumb. just bizarre choices all around.

and her personality is like… she does all the boys’ emotional work for them while they’re being immature dumbasses and also constantly jockeying for her affections, but also like she’s super clueless about basically every facet of western life and is constantly trying to use idioms but saying them wrong?

i just. i hate all of this. all of it. they did everything they possibly could have done to undermine this character, to the point that you kind of wonder why they even bothered.

oh, actually, here’s something kind of hilarious. in the show’s closing credits, you see the turtles playing in a band. if you want to pay real close attention (and let’s be honest, you do; we’re all nerds here) leo and raph are on guitars, donnie is on a bass, and mikey is on the drums. so you’re thinking, “oh, cool, so venus is like the lead singer? i guess that makes sense.” and it would, but she’s not! she’s on a fucking tambourine. and if that isn’t the perfect visual shorthand for how her character was developed and written, i don’t know what is.

anyway, this show was so poorly received that its cancellation represented the first time there hasn’t been a teenage mutant ninja turtles series in production since 1987, and the franchise’s onscreen break would last all the way until 2003.

notes

1. apparently at least somewhat attributable to the fact that eastman and laird fully believed this was going to be a one shot. whoops.

2. many of these issues were drawn by whichever of the two wrote them, but a few of them were drawn with credited help due to eastman and laird’s increasingly unmanageable schedules. there were even a few issues that weren’t written by either one of them, which this volume has skipped and i believe are largely considered not canon.

3. just refer back to my review of book iii of the first graphic novels for an example.

4. except for the next mutation. i mean, yikes.


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