Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: How the Heck Did We Get Here?

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It’s been thirty years since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuted in the pages of Mirage Studios comic books. Now, another live-action interpretation is about to hit theaters and honestly, it doesn’t feel like there is any buzz at all. Perhaps it’s because Michael Bay is a producer on the project and fans fear that Bay will completely misrepresent the characters as he’s done in his four Transformers movies. One of his stars from Transformers, Megan Fox, met with much fan derision when she was cast as April O’Neil, the Turtles’ staunchest friend and ally.

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Or maybe the problem is in the look of the Turtles themselves? These new incarnations are gigantic and look more like humans than ever before—they have lips! Other elements of their design make them look like they should show up in Rob Liefeld’s X-Force. The rumor that the Turtles will be of alien origin has been seemingly debunked, but a revelation like that would certainly be in keeping with Bay’s M.O. While the trailers for the film have had their moments, it certainly does feel like each new revelation about the film has been more horrible than the last. We won’t know until the movie opens just how awful or great it is, but we still have to ask the question, how the heck did we get here?

Inspirations: Daredevil, New Mutants, Cerebus, and Ronin

Inspirations: Daredevil, New Mutants, Cerebus, and Ronin

It’s amazing how there has been so much hand-wringing about the origins of the Turtles in the new film when you consider that the characters originally were a parody of the comics Daredevil and The New Mutants—the teen X-Men, basically—as well as Cerebus and Frank Miller’s Ronin. So, when the characters’ origins start out as a joke, can people really get upset when moviemakers change them around? I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, of course—making the Turtles aliens would be dumb.

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The characters I’m speaking of, obviously, are Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo—four turtles discovered by a rat named Splinter all of whom were mutated by toxic waste. Splinter’s owner was killed by Oroku Saki, better known as the Shredder, and Splinter trains the Turtles in ninjitsu to exact revenge. Created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the comic became a cult hit, but it wasn’t until they licensed the Turtles out to Playmates Toys and scored an animated television show that the Turtles really took off. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a phenomenon, launching into every conceivable avenue of merchandising. The property cooled in the late 90s into the 2000s, but they have had a little bit of a renaissance—no pun intended—over the last few years with a new show on Nickelodeon and, of course, the new movie coming out this month.

Not nearly as intimidating as the comic book.

Not nearly as intimidating as the comic book.

Like most, I discovered the Turtles through the first cartoon—there have been at least three—but I quickly gravitated to the much darker and violent comic books. I liked the cartoon all right, but I thought it was the weakest interpretation of the characters. The Turtles were typical teens, but the creep factor that pervaded the comics wasn’t there. And it really shouldn’t have been, since it was a cartoon for kids. The Shredder, who was supposed to be the Turtles’ main adversary, was relegated to henchman status in the cartoon as he served the alien Krang. I would later learn that the cartoon cannibalized and mixed and matched elements of the comics to create the show—Krang’s alien species showed up early in the comic’s run, but had no connection to Shredder or his Foot Clan. It was just very kiddie and sanitized. Once I discovered the Turtles were based on a much cooler comic book, I sought that out, being interested in a more mature take on the characters. I didn’t object to buying the original Turtle action figures, though.

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The early comics were collected into four oversized volumes and colored—the individual issues were black and white. I wasn’t an avid collector of the comics, but I had my favorite stories of those I bought. I really enjoyed the Book Four collection which collected Leonardo #1 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #10 – 11. This arc told the story of the return of Shredder and the Foot Clan. Set at Christmas, Leonardo gets ambushed by the Foot and is horribly injured. The rest of the arc documented the fight between the Foot and the Turtles and the Turtles’ subsequent escape. Issue #11 focused on the healing of the team. A lot of this story was adapted into the first live action movie in 1990, but the filmmakers replaced Leo with Raphael. Raphael has always seemed to be the focus of the films, even the 2007 animated TMNT. I think this stems from the fact that Raph is supposed to be like the team’s “Wolverine,” or the wild, unpredictable one. I was always partial to Leonardo, but I like swords and the color blue.

If you’re a TMNT fan, find this arc if you can.

If you’re a TMNT fan, find this arc if you can.

My other favorite comic arc of the original run was “Return to New York,” (Issues #19 – 21), where the Turtles regroup and return to the city to face Shredder again, which Leonardo does in a brutal one-on-one battle at the end of issue #21. The art from that arc was done by Jim Lawson and I loved the way he drew the Turtles. His art was very detailed and dynamic. When I would attempt to draw the “Heroes in the Half Shell,” I tried to emulate Lawson. He has drawn the Turtles for over 20 years and his style has since evolved to a more cartoony look, but his work on “Return to New York” was breathtaking. It was just a great and—upon learning Shredder’s secret for survival—creepy epic that tied in elements from past adventures.

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My interest in the comic books led me to check out the pen and paper Ninja Turtles RPG. If the comic was freaky, the RPG was the stuff of nightmares. It was all right reading about human-like Turtles and their rat ninja master, but imagining all the possibilities of all these different mutated animals—especially with the art that went with them—was borderline horrific. It was cool, no doubt, but it felt dark on a level that I felt could warp me, if that makes any sense. I think it was the haunting artwork most of all that made me feel that way. Of course, none of my friends at the time were really into RPGs, so I never got to play the game hands on.

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One game I did play, though, over and over again, was the hard as balls Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for Nintendo. The game was released by Ultra Games—a subsidiary of Konami—in the United States and was an adventure game that bordered on impossible, unless you knew the trick to secure victory. That trick was the 99 scrolls trick. The scrolls were a supplemental weapon the Turtles could pick up that unleashed a wave of energy that tore through enemies. In the third level of the game, there was a section the player could return to again and again to find the constantly replenishing scrolls. You would send each member of the team in multiple times until each Turtle maxed out at 99 scrolls. Then, you moved on. It made the game easier to handle, but not a cake walk. It was a really tough game—remember the dam section?—with a fantastic 8-bit soundtrack. The graphics were very good for the time too. Each Turtle had his own attributes. Donatello was the strongest, but slow, while Raphael was the fastest with zero range with his weapon. Mike and Leo were about the same strength-wise, but Leo clearly had the better range with his katanas. It was a fun, but highly frustrating game. You had to beat it in one sitting—no passwords or save function here, wussies. I remember impressing a couple of friends by beating it, but all credit went to Nintendo Power and the 99 scrolls.

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Of course, the other big game was the four-player arcade game, also released by Konami, which was eventually ported over to the NES. That game was fun too, but I thought the first NES game had more personality and more variety. The Arcade Game was similar to several other games of the “Beat ‘em Up” genre—X-Men and The Simpsons come to mind, though Ninja Turtles predated both those games.

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Of the Turtles’ cinematic adventures, my favorite has always been the first film from New Line Cinema. I liked it at the time because it hedged closer to the comic book origins and was pretty dark for a film that was meant to lure children into the movie theater. The suits for the Turtles were designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and, quite honestly, they look better than the new CGI Turtles in Michael Bay’s latest incarnation.

Cover to the First Issue

Cover to the First Issue

For me, though, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will always be comic book characters first and everything else comes second. In the comics, they were treated like real people even though the series started out as a goof. By the time the second live-action movie—Secret of the Ooze—was hitting theaters in 1991, I was already losing interest in the property. I think it just hit at the wrong time for me. I grew up with G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Star Wars, but when the Ninja Turtles became known to the general public, I was moving into middle school and leaving cartoons like that behind. I had to move onto more adult interests…like Uncanny X-Men.

Stuff is about to go down in TMNT (Vol. 1) #10

Stuff is about to go down in TMNT (Vol. 1) #10

Doug Simpson is an author and blogger. As one half of The Hodgepodge Podcast, he talks movies, music, TV, and pop culture with his partner, Dirty A. He also writes a ton of movie reviews, which can be found at Doug’s Reviews and The Hodgepodge Podcast. His first Young Adult novel, Great Big World: The Trouble with Dr. Beamo, will be available in Summer 2014. Please follow him on Twitter

Doug Simpson

Doug Simpson is an author and blogger. As one half of The Hodgepodge Podcast, he talks movies, music, TV, and pop culture with his partner, Dirty A. He also writes a ton of movie reviews, which can be found at Doug’s Reviews and The Hodgepodge Podcast. His first Young Adult novel, Great Big World: The Trouble with Dr. Beamo, will be available in Summer 2014.

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