"Before I leave, I want to mention a new comic due out soon [as far as I know, it's no joke, either] that combines all the latest comics fads into one book: teenagers, mutants, ninjas, and (serious) funny animals. It's... TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES".
- net.comics post from April 14, 1984
According to legend (one debunked by Peter Laird himself), the original inspiration for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a comment made by Frank Miller in an interview that “all Marvel publishes these days are teenage mutant ninja comics” (paraphrasing). The first issue of the original series by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird was dedicated to Frank Miller (and Jack Kirby), and the ‘80s Miller influence is all over the comic (the logo is even a riff on Ronin’s logo). The entire comic can be read at the Turtles’ official website.
The story opens with a bloody fight between the Turtles (Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello) and a street gang. When they return to their home in the sewers, their mentor Splinter decides it’s time to reveal the truth about their origins (it is their thirteenth birthday, after all). He explains that he was once the pet rat of Hamato Yoshi, a member of a group of ninjas known as the Foot Clan. (He explicitly labels them the “most feared warriors and assassins in all Japan,” suggesting that the Hamato Yoshi of the original continuity probably wasn’t that nice of a guy. The “Foot” of course are another Miller homage; a reference to the Hand ninjas featured prominently in his Daredevil run. Splinter's name is also a likely reference to Daredevil's retconned mentor Stick.)
Both Yoshi and another clan member, Oroku Nagi, were in love with a woman named Tang Shen. Shen rejected Nagi, and he responded with violence. Yoshi walked in on the incident and killed Nagi “in a red haze.” Shamed, Yoshi and Shen fled to America. Nagi’s younger brother, Oroku Saki, grew to adulthood hating Yoshi. At age eighteen, he was sent by the Foot to lead their New York branch. Saki renamed himself “the Shredder” and promptly murdered both Yoshi and Shen.
Without an owner, Splinter roamed the streets of New York, searching for food. One day, he witnessed a strange container fly out of the back of a truck. (It swerved to avoid an elderly blind man. The teenage boy who pushed him out of the way is another Miller homage.) The canister struck a boy’s bowl of pet turtles near an open manhole. Splinter soon found the turtles and the canister in the sewers. Within a few days, the ooze that escaped from the canister had transformed them into humanoid animals. He began teaching the Turtles the martial arts he learned from studying Hamato Yoshi, preparing them to one day confront the Shredder.
Splinter, claiming he’s at the end of his life, asks the Turtles to finally avenge the murders of Hamato Yoshi and Tang Shen. Raphael sends a message to the Foot Clan, demanding Shredder agree to a duel. The Turtles soon face Shredder and an army of Foot ninjas on the rooftops of New York. Shredder is defeated (after Leonardo runs him through with his katana blade), but he refuses to die with honor. He brandishes a thermite grenade, forcing Donatello to push him off the building. Shredder apparently dies when the grenade goes off. Their mission accomplished, the Turtles fade into the night.
Looking back, it’s hard to distinguish how much of this is supposed to be homage and how much is parody. The idea is played straight, without any emphasis on the inherent silliness of the concept. I guess, like any superhero comic, the absurdity is just a part of the appeal. Yes, a story about ninja turtles is a dumb idea, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining.
The title was originally supposed to be a one-shot, but it was such an unexpected hit, Eastman and Laird’s Mirage Studios quickly began a regular series. TMNT seemed to hit the market at the right time, riffing on Marvel’s mutant craze, the burgeoning ninja fad, and the increasing number of post-Cerebus talking animal indie comics. Within a few years of its release, the Turtles were already being merchandised as a new action figure line and syndicated cartoon. Archie Comics picked up the license to adapt the early episodes of the cartoon into a comic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures, and eventually began publishing new stories with the characters. This was a smart move on Eastman/Laird’s part, as it exposed the characters to a market that would’ve never seen an independent Mirage Studios comic at the local grocery store.
I have a reprint of the original three-issue Archie miniseries, released with a cassette tape acting out the story, published by Random House. The indicia indicates it’s the seventh printing, making me wonder just how many copies ended up in circulation. The three issues adapt the first five episodes of the cartoon series, introducing the Ninja Turtles to a kid-friendly audience. The designs of the characters are the most noticeable change, as the Turtles become rounder and cuter. Their masks now have distinctive colors, and their belts helpfully identify the letter their name starts with. The Turtles’ attitudes have also shifted, going from grim warriors to catchphrase-spewing teens who just love pizza.
These guys eviscerate coke dealers.
These guys want to be your best friend and buy you birthday presents.
In fairness, most of the Turtles do maintain personality traits that were established in the early issues of the original series. Leonardo is the stoic leader, Donatello is a technical genius, and Michelangelo is somewhat immature and childlike. Raphael was originally the rebellious loner, but that personality seems to have been altered to make him the clever, sarcastic member. Only now do I realize that many of these personalities seem to mirror the X-Men, with Leonardo acting as Cyclops, Raphael as Wolverine, and Donatello as Beast. Michelangelo is the only one without an obvious counterpart.
The new origin has elements of the original comics, but obviously a lot of the material is toned down and sanitized. Hamato Yoshi is now a teacher in the Foot Clan, who is targeted by a jealous student named Oroku Saki. Saki pins Yoshi’s robe to the wall, preventing him from bowing before the Foot’s master teacher. Yoshi is kicked out of the clan for disrespecting the elder, while Saki goes on to lead the Foot into crime. Yoshi moves to America, where he’s forced to live in the sewers. One day, he discovers four pet turtles after they’re accidentally dropped in the sewers. A mysterious liquid soon enters the sewers, transforming whoever touches it into the animal they’ve most recently had contact. The turtles mutate into humanoids because they last had contact with Yoshi, and Yoshi transforms into a giant rat because he was closest to the rats. Later on, we learn that Oroku Saki, now the Shredder, sent the ooze into the sewers, hoping to kill Yoshi.
The new continuity eliminates Oroku Nagi and Tang Shen, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s been streamlined. (The portrayal of the ooze is simpler in the original continuity, which is probably one of the reasons why the movie continuity sticks closer to the original comics. The Daredevil homage is also eliminated in this version, although for years I thought it was included in the origin recap on the back of the action figures.) The Foot Clan also undergoes a makeover, as Shredder’s soldiers are now robots. Now, the Turtles can slice and dice their opponents without offending network censors.
The early storyline of the cartoon/Archie series has TV reporter April O’Neil (a lab assistant to the deranged Dr. Baxter Stockman in the original comics) targeted by Shredder because of her investigation into the city’s crime spree. While running from Shredder’s goons, she’s rescued by the Turtles. They quickly become friends, setting April up as the Turtles’ connection to the human world, and as the perpetual damsel in distress, of course. April may be the reporter, but it’s the Turtles who discover a matchbook with a major clue.
The Turtles visit Ninja Pizza, which just happens to be a part of a ninja strip mall.
The stores are a front for Shredder, which April discovers while snooping around a nearby security firm. She’s quickly kidnapped, and used to lure the Turtles into a trap. After the Turtles defeat a few Foot Soldiers, they’re trapped inside a flooded building.
The comic really doesn’t do this scene justice, because I can assure you I found this sequence in the cartoon thrilling as a kid. In the comic, it just sits there.
The first five episodes of the cartoon were designed to showcase the action figure line, so new characters are thrown at the audience at a staggering rate. Since Archie is trying to fit this into three issues of a comic, that means new characters show up on what seems like every other page.
Krang is an alien brain from Dimension X, exiled to this world as punishment. He’s teamed up with Shredder in the hopes that Shredder can provide him with a body.
Bebop and Rocksteady are two thugs mutated into a human boar hog and rhino by Shredder.
Shredder hires Dr. Baxter Stockman to develop an army of Mousers, tiny robots originally designed to kill rodents, in one of his early futile plans to destroy Splinter and the Turtles. (Baxter Stockman receives his own makeover, as he was originally black in the Mirage comics but is made white for the cartoon. Presumably, the producers didn’t want one of the few minority characters in the Turtles canon to be a villain.)
When Shredder decides to open a portal to Dimension X and find new weapons, the Neutrinos escape. The Neutrinos are peace-loving teens in flying cars that briefly cause the Turtles trouble before they realize they’re on the same side. (Looking online, it seems that there weren't any Neutrino toys until 1991.) Dimension X also brings us the Stone Warriors, Krang’s loyal soldiers who predictably can’t handle the Turtles, either. Before the story’s over, we’re also introduced to some vehicles and playsets, such as the Turtle Van, Shredder’s Terrordrome, Kang’s giant robot body, Foot Clan ATVs, and the Turtle Blimp (which really was an awesome toy).
Since Splinter actually is Hamato Yoshi in the new continuity, the character is given a new motivation to explore. He wants to become human again, unlike the Turtles who enjoy their mutation. This idea does have potential, but it’s dismissed in the final chapter when Splinter destroys Shredder’s retro-mutagen gun, the only device that can restore his humanity. Splinter declares that it’s his karma to live life as a rat (which makes him oddly happy), before leading the Turtles in a battle that sends Shredder and Krang to Dimension X.
The comic adaptation is written and penciled by Michael Dooney, and adapted from scripts by TV writers David Wise (incorrectly credited as "David Weiss") and Patti Howeth. The three issues of the comic have to adapt around 100 minutes of TV action, which results in a rushed, cramped comic that often has between six and nine panels per page (just think of any Marvel or DC movie adaptation comic). Some of the humor manages to translate, but a lot of the jokes are just flat. And teeny tiny panels rarely do justice to action scenes. Archie still has a few more TV adaptations to go, and then the Adventures series really takes off.