That Is Just Weird: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles And All That Is Good With Comics

I completely missed SDCC. I did not physically go. None of the news has reached me. There was no monitoring of the twitter feed or checking of the comic book news websites. This past weekend I was a groomsman in the wedding of very good and longtime friends (Hi Nat and Kristen!) It is hard to follow the announcements when you are running around Chicago dropping items off flowers and eating at fancy restaurants. The fact that I dropped my phone in a lake two weeks ago also hampered my news monitoring. The only conversation I had about comics the entire weekend was rather fun conversation about The Flash. Not the relaunch, or the creators, or schedule lateness…the actual character. It was somewhat nice to talk to someone who had never heard of the Direct Market.

The weekend of SDCC is the biggest public relations weekend for comic books. New books are announced. Movie adaptations are hyped. Creative teams are crowned with the title of “It.” This all passed and I have not the faintest clue what happened. I could look it up but I want to be surprised at this point. (This site has an entire post summing up the news.) Personally, the beauty of a convention is in the camaraderie and not the announcements. To get that feeling you HAVE to be there.

My lovely weekend does not mean that there isn’t ANY news that I am excited about. Paul Montgomery, while digging around the dusty old corners of Amazon, found a listing for oversize reprints by IDW of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic books. To find these listings so close to the weekend of SDCC struck me as poignant.

If you are only familiar with the Saturday morning cartoon version of the Turtles than these reprints are going to surprise you. If you are one of these cartoon centric individuals, and there is nothing wrong with that, let me run a little experiment on you. Please list the first three things that pop into your head when I mentioned the Ninja Turtles.

I am letting you think.

Time is up. I am going to guess that a large portion of you immediately thought of pizza and color-coded masks. Surprise! The original comic books were in black and white; and pizza really does not come up that often. The comics are strange breed indeed. They were indie books of the Eighties.

Eastman and Laird’s original take on the turtles was a messy (at times amateurish) mix of satire, parody, action, sci-fi, and fantasy. The origin of the Turtles was homage to the origin of Daredevil. In this version, the blind man is knocked out of the way of the tumbling radioactive material, and the canister ends up irradiating a group of abandoned turtles. From there the series delves into the high action and melodrama of Frank Miller’s Daredevil. It crosses over with the fantasy epic of Cerebus. The Turtles are dragged across the galaxy in aid of a goofy robot. At times, the stories are comical while other times they are deadly serious. There was a lovely sense of randomness to the whole affair.

The art starts a bit rough but improves quickly as the book goes along. There are even a few rather dazzling detailed set pieces that I always love looking at. They include a chase scene in April’s van and floating alien world. There is softness to the work that gives the characters a levity that at times is at odds with the nature of the story.  The lack of color forced Eastman and Laird to give the Turtles very strong personalities. They possess strong enough personalities that it was easy to identify them by their reactions to the whirlwind of events around them. It didn’t take long for the creators to bank on these strong personalities by putting out one-shots focusing on each character ( I love the Christmas issue featuring Michelangelo.)

While these comics would eventually lead to a successful cartoon and movie franchise, there is very little media machination in these original comics. The idea is just too weird to think that they could extend beyond the cocoon of independent comics. Yet there was an undeniable allure to the characters. While they were mix of very familiar concepts like funny animals and martial arts epics, they were a unique enough mix to grab the attention of the masses.

If you have never read these books, they are worth at least a page through to get a sense of where the Turtles started. Personally, I love them. They have the misfit elegance that always draws me in. It is such an odd idea that it could only come from a medium where two creators are all you need to put together a product.

It is no secret that Hollywood has coming knocking at the door of comic books. Movies and now television have seen the wealth of ideas that waiting to be exploited in our little fiefdom. Right now, the money from Hollywood is the lifeline that is keeping our comic book ecosystem viable. We live in the era of the elevator pitch and movie option.  Neither of which sync up with aesthetic I love. ALERT: ME. I AM ONLY SPEAKING FOR ME! I do not intend this to be a complaint directed at creators. They are just people like me trying to make a living at something they enjoy doing. Right now, that living is a hell of a lot easier to achieve if you can get some transmedia interest. (Sidenote: I am actually excited for comics to make the jump to TV. I think the serial nature of TV fits the strengths of comics. TV allows you to tell stories that do not necessarily pay off right away. It has some natural breathing room)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an example of getting that interest while still keeping the weirdness. Imagine listening to that elevator pitch. “They are turtles, who are ninjas. Like Bruce Lee but turtles. A rat teaches them martial arts. He also talks.” Comics has been a haven for the weird and marginal since the dawn of the medium. Characters like Superman and Spider-man have achieved an incredible level of worldwide notoriety in the mass consciousness. At their core, they are weird, just like humanity. They, like the TMNT, are the products of a unique vision that touches something very primal inside of our minds. Reading about Turtles fighting evil ninjas is just a great reminder that our favorite medium is wonderful nest for these unique visions.


Tom Katers likes pizza.


  1. I do love how in the origin of the turtles, they actually drew in the young Matt Murdoch and old man, which kind of makes this a giant Daredevil “What If?” i guess?

  2. Thanks for bringing the original E & L books to our attention again, Tom. Learn them kids some knowedge, I say.

    The original TMNT was near-perfect satire for the mid-80s, poking fun at the then current obsessions with teenaged herores (X-Men, New Mutants, and The New Teen Titans), mutants (X-verse in general), and ninjitsu (Daredevil, Wolverine, and again, the X-Men). And turtles. Everyone loves turtles.

    But, the Fugitoid wasn’t goofy. He was a fine, fine character. Misunderstood, perhaps, but not goofy. Well, maybe a little.

  3. Goofy is not a criticism for me. Goofy is a good thing.

  4. I have never read these old issues.  I can’t wait to check out this collection.  The weirder, the better.

  5. Can’t wait to read these.

  6. I remember hearing that Eastman and Laird originally pitched this to Marvel (their origin was going to be legitimately tied to Daredevil’s origin but Marvel said no.  Good thing, too, since I doubt they would have taken off like they did otherwise.

    I just always loved how thinly veiled the first issue is a parody of Frank Miller’s Daredevil.

  7. I remember the moment I realized the Daredevil connection. For some reason I was a total dunce and didn’t put it together until years after I first started reading those original turtle stories.

    This is a great article. To its credit, the animated series actually did a pretty good job translating the completely off-the-wall science fiction stories that the comics veered into.

  8. @flakbait  I didn’t intend to put down the cartoon, which I do love and think did a good job. It is just a slightly different beast than the comics.

  9. I’ve wanted to read these for a long time. Nice to know I will finally get my chance!

  10. I have the original trades sitting in my collection, some of my favorite comics of all time. You should check out the sideshow TMNT statues! So beautiful! The exclusive Raph one has his sai with the letter wrapped around it he used to challenge the Shredder.

  11. @ThomasKaters  It’s a VERY different beast than the comics. I also love how the first TMNT movie is just about a shot-by-shot remake of the comics, when about 90% of the audience for the movie was going because of the cartoon.

  12. This is an excellent article. Great points all. And, I love the irony that two of the richest men in comics are Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, among the first to cash in truckloads of money from Hollywood. Beats the hell out of Ben-10 money, I’ll tell you that. If these guys could get so much material traction with such an off-the-wall concept, it can happen again — again and again, in fact. And it all started with an obscure, amateur B&W comic.

  13. Yeah I love these. First comics I think I ever read and a perfect example of why comics are great. Weird imagination + paper + pens = bizare universe and sci-fi goodness. Super fun characters to draw growing up. Not sure where all the pizza cowabunga stuff came from, but whatev, they can’t take these awayfrom us, right?

  14. I had a cat named Klunk once.

    I feel like these are a bit expensive though. The two hardcovers’ content doesn’t even add up to the original $16 trade paperback content. Glad that IDW is doing something with these old books, but wish it wasn’t so pricey.