Recollecting Classic Comics: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Long before they were the pizza eating stars of their own kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the indie darlings of an edgy black and white comic that was definitely not for children.  For those of you only familiar with the turtle power of the cartoon, you don’t know the real Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Like most great ideas, the Ninja Turtles happened by accident.  Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were struggling artists sharing an apartment in New Hampshire.  One night, Peter was watching television and Kevin decided to annoy him by drawing a picture of a turtle wearing a mask and brandishing nunchucks.  He called it a Ninja Turtle and they both had a laugh.  Several hours — and beers — later, the boys had a complete drawing of all four turtles kicking serious ass.  And, of course, they had a killer title: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The first issue was self-published in 1984 on cheap newsprint devoid of any color, unless you count black and white.  3,000 issues were printed and promptly sold out.  The limited quantities of the comic meant that it was rare and thus extremely valuable, so much so that the original printings were sold for more than 50 times their original price.  Eastman and Laird now faced a problem they never thought they’d have: they were successful.  Fans were clamoring for a second issue, something Eastman and Laird had never anticipated.  Where do they go from here?
The correct answer is: wherever they want.  The great thing about having a comic with a concept as outlandish as mutated turtles that are teenagers and also happen to be trained ninjas, is that you can do whatever you feel like.  No idea is off limits.  Nobody can question believability because the very notion of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is absurd to begin with.  Want to send the turtles to another dimension?  Sure, let’s do it.  How about pitting the turtles against an army of machine gun toting triceratops?  Absolutely, do it twice!  Eastman and Laird have a license to create whatever they want and it’s refreshing to read a comic without boundaries or limitations.

While all of this may sound similar to the cartoon, it’s the tone and execution that’s markedly different.  The Ninja Turtles of the comic all retain their distinct personalities: Leonardo is the stoic leader, Raphael is the hothead, Donatello is the brains, and Michelangelo is the comedy relief.  But that’s where the similarities end.

Instead of spouting off cheesy surfer lingo — “Cowabunga!” — the turtles sound like superheroes ripped from the pages of Frank Miller.  When Raphael pummels a thug on page 22 of the first issue, the way it’s written is so positively dripping with Miller’s hard-boiled vernacular that Eastman and Laird probably used his fecal matter to ink it:

“We connect in mid air.  When we land I’m standing… He isn’t.”

You won’t hear dialogue like that in the cartoon, and you also won’t see the violent content that surrounds it.  The turtles of the comic are definitely of the ninja variety and their weapons are used for far more than just telling the characters apart — they stab, skewer, and dismember foot soldiers every five pages.  And it’s beautiful.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that not one slice of pizza is consumed within the panels of the comic.  Sacrilege?  Maybe.  But give the comic a look and you’ll never realize how bad you had it.  The animated series is a perfect gateway drug for children to experience the charms of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  It’s cheap pot, they’ll get a sh*tty high and want to try something harder.  And when they do, give ’em a hit of the original black and white comic.  Satisfaction guaranteed.