Retro Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 (May 1984)

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Every first issue is a gamble.  Some roll off the end of the pier without a single ripple, others build something interesting that nonetheless fails the test of time.  This one shattered every single expectation and created a worldwide phenomenon that’s now working on its third decade…  Your Major Spoilers review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 awaits!

TMNT1CoverTEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES #1
Writer: Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman
Artist: Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman
Toning: Peter Laird
Letterer: Peter Laird
Publisher: Mirage Comics
Cover Price: $1.50

Previously in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: After a very fallow period in the mid-1970s, mainstream comics went through an upswing at the beginning of the 1980s, while independent publishers found a meaningful foothold for the first time in nearly a decade.  Into that landscape came two young men, Eastman and Laird, with a concept that actually originated as a joke, proving that the line between dumb joke and high concept is often razor-thin.  Using their tax refund and all the cash they could borrow, they created the first issue as a parody/homage of several different books, including Frank Miller’s work on Ronin for DC Comics.   As this issue opens, we get narration from Leonardo, explaining how he and his brothers made a fatal mistake in allowing more than a dozen goons from the Purple Dragon gang to corner them in an alley, forcing them to make a choice: Fight back or perish!TMNT11The goons quickly discover that they’re incorrect on a number of levels, and the thought that the heroic terrapins are wearing some sort of costumes is only the first.  As the gang opens fire, they discover the second misconception: Guns aren’t as useful against full-scale ‘ninjers…

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Having read a lot of independent comics, I’m still impressed with how solid the art and dialogue are in this, the creators’ first professional work, especially in how solid the figure work is for our heroes.  As the Turtles pull out the stops, we get some lovely Frank Miller-inspired battle sequences, and it’s pretty entertaining stuff across the board…

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“…but so can you!”  As someone who once got paid to watch Turtles cartoons, it’s still a bit of a shock to remember the violence of which they were capable in these early issues, escaping into the sewers as the blood of the Purple Dragons fills the gutters.  The police arrive just in time to find the remains of the gang, while Leonardo and his brothers return to their home ground and their adoptive father.

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Master Splinter’s decision to withhold the truth of the Turtles’ mission works for me, for some reason, and even though he launches into a lengthy monologue, it’s still pretty successful as origin stories go.  20 years ago, he explains, he was but a normal rat, the pet of Hamato Yoshi, a notable ninja master.  I will say that the sight of a rat learning martial arts by observation and mimicry is still a goofy one, but it’s one of the few moments in this issue that make me giggle at the absurdity of the premise, an impressive feat for such inexperienced storytellers.  Splinter continues the story of his origins…

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Yoshi clashed with his rival for Tang Shen’s affections, and lost his cool long enough for his fighting skills to kick in, leaving Oroku Nagi dead.  Hamato Yoshi and his lady were forced to abandon their life and their clan, moving to the United States and starting a new life.  Unfortunately, Oroku had a sibling, a younger brother with vengeance in his heart…

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The Shredder lived up to his murderous nickname, leaving man and wife dead as the price for his brother’s accidental death.  Of course, he paid no attention to Yoshi’s pet rat…

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In case you were unaware, the setup here, with the young hero knocking a man out of the way of a radioactive container, is a reference to the origin of Daredevil, a Marvel hero recently (as of 1984, anyway) brought to prominence by the work of Frank Miller.  I like to imagine that it IS the same accident, the same radioactive sludge, the same Matt Murdock blinded above while the reptiles are mutated below.  In another deviation from the cartoon/movie stories, Splinter reveals that he has raised his sons for one goal:  Seek out and kill Oroku Saki in revenge for the loss of his beloved master!

So, that’s weird.  Splinter then sends Raphael, the sneakier of his boys, out to send Shredder and The Foot clan a message that their doom awaits…

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Their message delivered, the Turtles assemble the next night on a rooftop awaiting their enemy’s arrival.  “Do you fear us?” cries Leonardo into the night, bringing their enemy out into the open for the first time…

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Oooh, dirty pool, Shred-head.  There is a lot of melodrama in this issue, and during the battle it does threaten to overwhelm the story, as it were, but it serves as very effective (if loving) parody of Miller’s source material, while also serving as a decent adventure story in its own right.  The Ninja Turtles apply lethal force with extreme prejudice (whatever that means), and cut the ninjas to ribbons, leaving only the leader to contend with…

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Each turtle attacks, and each turtle is slapped down, one-by-one by Saki’s superior abilities, proving that the legend of The Shredder isn’t built entirely on myth.  Luckily, where one turtle can fall, FOUR turtles can succeed…

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…even if that seems a bit unfair.  Super-heroes often get to attack one foe en masse, and never get called on it, even though the same tactics in a wrestling match will lead to disqualification and stern words from good ol’ Jim Ross.  The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, on the other hand, beat their foe down, smashing his armored helmet, and leaving him beaten.  He snarls for them to finish him, but Leonardo refuses, offering him another option…

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Dishonorable tactics?  Not on Donatello’s watch!

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So, yeah, Donnie just totally killed a guy…  There’s a real sense of power in the Eastman/Laird art (they never really specify in the credits who does what), one that kind of reminds me of 50′s Kirby work, though admittedly not as polished, but you can clearly see how the contents of this issue led to its popularity and triggered the multi-media merchandising firestorm that the Turtles became, especially the final panel…

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Often, when you read a first issue, there’s little to no evidence of what the character or title will become, but this issue lays out the basics of the Turtles’ world pretty perfectly, making it clear why this issue commands the kind of money that it does on the back-issue marker.  And while the wacky, pizza-loving, color-coded cartoon TMNT are a slightly different breed, the seeds of those tales are here as well (especially given that one of the boys’ first words is, in fact, pizza.)  All in all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 has aged better than many of the comics of the 80s black-and-white boom, and is still a pretty decent read, if an unexpectedly dark and violent one if you only know the cartoons, earning a very impressive 3.5 out of 5 stars overall.