Monday, January 5, 2015

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: The Comic Strip - December 10, 1990 to January 22, 1991

Credits:  Dean Clarrain (writer), Dan Berger, Jim Lawson, Michael Dooney, &  Ryan Brown (art), Mary Kelleher (letters)

Summary:  While patrolling the sewers, Raphael comes across a woman with a small child.  Raphael rescues her doll after she drops it.  The rest of the Turtles arrive and share a pizza.  They discuss Splinter, who’s been missing for two weeks.  They follow the trail of the mystery woman and discover she’s a part of a homeless community.  Raphael returns the girl’s doll and the Turtles learn that Splinter regularly visits the group to provide holistic medical treatments.  The group says Splinter left days ago for a deeper level of the sewers, “The Falls.”  The Turtles follow his trail, but are forced to flee an infestation of rats.  After escaping the rodents, they run into a dark area of the sewers populated by alligators.

Continuity Notes:  The opening week of the strip has Splinter recounting the Turtles’ origin.  It’s the cartoon’s origin, the same one used in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures series.

Pizza References:  The Turtles seem obligated to mention pizza at least twice a week.  Michelangelo wonders how large a pizza the turtle in the Hindus’ creation story could “scarf down.”  Later, Michelangelo brings a pizza he got for free (“free with eight or more items”).  The pizza is Raphael’s favorite:  whole wheat, double cheese with onions, mushrooms, peppers, pepperoni, rhubarb, kiwi fruit, fried clams, and peanut butter cups.  Later still, while searching for Splinter, Michelangelo begins fantasizing about pizza, which makes the other Turtles hungry/angry.

Review in a Half-Shell:  I promise I wasn’t cutting Ninja Turtle comic strips out of the newspaper and saving them in a scrapbook.  Had I known the newspaper strip existed, I’m sure I would’ve read it as a kid, but I wasn’t quite that obsessive.  Scans of the strip do float around the internet, however, and I thought it might be entertaining to look back on them for a few days.

The newspaper strip, distributed by Creators Syndicate during the height of Turtlemania, features many of the creators you might remember from Archie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures.  Stephen Murphy, writing under his pen name Dean Clarrain, is here, along with artists like Dan Berger and Jim Lawson.  The tone is noticeably kid-friendly in the opening weeks, although some of Murphy’s pet themes have already appeared.  Not the environmental activism, although Murphy’s revelation that the Turtles share the sewers with New York’s homeless does read like one of his attempts to present a real life issue to a kid audience.  Instead, it’s the recurring theme of creation stories, as Splinter finds a way to incorporate both North American Indian and Hindu beliefs into the Turtles’ origin story, on the basis that both believed a giant turtle held the world aloft.  Some of Murphy’s quirks grow old quickly, but I kind of like these little touches.  I’m not quite sure why Murphy is so interested in various creation beliefs, but it does add some personality to his stories, and I can’t think of any instances of it truly distracting from the real stars of the story.

I’m not going to pretend that I have a deep affection for daily action strips.  I’ve never come across one I wanted to follow on a regular basis, and only read the Spider-Man strip because it’s reprinted in chunks in Comic News Weekly.  The pacing of most action strips seems outrageously slow, presumably because the creators don’t know how many chapters a week the average reader is exposed to, so information is constantly repeated and the action is always stalled.  (Also, how much continuity can be advanced in three panels anyway?)  I have to say that Murphy’s pacing is pretty ambitious by the standards of the format, and so far, he rarely seems to be killing time.  The opening week is arguably filler, but I think opening with an origin story is a defensible decision.  Murphy actually moves too fast once he begins the initial story arc, or at the very least gives the reader a clumsy introduction to the story.  Over pizza, the Turtles casually mention that Splinter’s been gone for two weeks, and hey, maybe it’s time to go looking for him.  Having the Turtles search for Splinter is a standard TMNT storytelling trope, but…where is this coming from?  Splinter was last seen, literally, two weeks ago recounting the Turtles’ origin, but it’s not as if the strip itself reads as if any time has passed between the opening recap and the start of Raphael’s patrol in the sewers.  And why exactly are the Turtles waiting so long to go look for their sensei?

Much like the Adventures comic, the art in the strip is all over the place.  Most of these artists do the standard “friendly” Turtles of the era quite well, but that flow’s broken anytime a Jim Lawson strip pops up.  To be fair, Lawson’s real talent lies in drawing the original Turtle designs, not the kiddie ones, so it’s not as if he’s a random nobody who ended up doing TMNT work.  His style doesn’t seem compatible with the curvy, cute merchandised Turtles, however, and it’s glaringly obvious every time one of his Turtles appears.  I believe Lawson did draw one of the best strips in this batch, and it’s one that doesn’t feature the Turtles.  Instead, it’s a creepy image of a sewer rat escaping the approaching shadow of Raphael, and while it lacks much continuity significance, I bet it stood out that day on the funny pages.  (My favorite Adventures penciler, Ken Mitchroney, doesn’t seem to be one of the artists listed online for the strip, but some of these panels look very much like his work.)  

So far, Murphy and the artists seem to be having fun with the format. The humor, for the most part, isn’t too goofy and the stakes seem to be suitable for an action strip that has to please kids. Amazingly, the strips involving sewer rats don't lead to an appearance by the Rat King, but I guess the strip wasn't under any obligation to help sell Playmates toys.  

The creators break up the monotony every few days with some experimentation with the form, whether it be an “all darkness” strip (with only cartoon eyes visible), or a one-panel strip that forces the reader to dwell on a specific image.  New Year's Day 1991 is acknowledged with one of the one-panel strips. And the cartoony Turtles accidentally stumbling across a solemn gathering of the local homeless, with only an awkward “Umm…Happy New Year..?” for dialogue really is one memorable New Year's strip.  I doubt that’s how the Family Circus rang in 1991.


Erik said...

I promise I wasn’t cutting Ninja Turtle comic strips out of the newspaper and saving them in a scrapbook.


Matt said...

Wow, I had no idea this ever existed. I probably would've checked it out too, but like you, I never got into daily strips like this. I remember reading a bit of the Batman strip that coincided with his 1989 movie, but dropped that in a hurry. And my newspapers never carried Spider-Man.

Nowadays I enjoy the occasional collection of strips, though. I appreciate the effort put into keeping them accessible every single day, and I like the black-and-white artwork.

Also, I'm with you -- that one strip you posted looks totally like Ken Mitchroney's work.

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