Originally published at InfiniteComix.com
In November 1983, a pop culture phenomenon was born on a kitchen table in Northampton, MA. That is where two struggling, fresh-faced comic creators came up with an idea that would spawn multiple animated series, a feature film franchise, video games, a toy empire, and one of the catchiest theme songs ever composed. But unlike their expansion into other media, the original creations were far less colorful and humorous – and instead much more violent – than those popularized by the movies and cartoons. Of course, I am referring to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
How Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created the famed heroes is entertaining due to the scenario’s simplicity – the two 20-somethings went back and forth trying to improve upon a sketch that Eastman drew as a joke – one-upmanship being the fuel to their creativity. Finally settling on a team of four, the duo began fleshing out their new creations. Laird’s copy of Jansen’s History of Art provided them the names of Renaissance artists, while their story drew heavily from their favorite comics, notably Frank Miller’s Ronin and Daredevil run, as well as the works of Jack “King” Kirby.
The following March, Eastman and Laird founded Mirage Studios, named for the publisher’s lack of an actual studio. Operating out of Laird’s living room, the upstarts used Eastman’s $500 tax refund, the last $200 Laird had in his bank account, and a $1,300 loan from Eastman’s uncle to print just over 3,000 copies of a single, black-and-white, magazine-sized comic. The leftover funds were used to run an advertisement in Comic Buyer’s Guide #545. The hype that Eastman and Laird were able to manufacture lead to their initial print run selling out, spring-boarding a one-off into an ongoing series. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In their first venture into the streets of New York, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles encounter the street gang known as the Purple Dragons. Narrated by their leader, Leonardo, the Turtles do battle with their would-be assailants, dispatching them with brutality and efficiency. As the police arrive, the Turtles retreat down a manhole, fearing the police would never understand or comprehend their existence.
Upon arriving at their subterranean lair, the Turtles are greeted by their master, Splinter, who congratulates them on their victory. Realizing that his students have neared the peak of their abilities, and that they have reached a certain level of maturity, he reveals to them their origins as well as the potential threat that they face. He was the former pet of a man named Hamato Yoshi, from whom he learned the art of Ninjitsu. Yoshi and his rival, Oroku Nagi, were members of the legendary “Foot” – a clan of warriors and assassins – and competed for the affections of a woman named Tang Shen. Yoshi and Shen began a romance which infuriated Nagi, who eventually threatened Shen’s life. To protect his love, Yoshi inadvertently killed Nagi. The two lover relocated to New York, partially due to the shame felt by Yoshi. Meanwhile, Nagi’s brother, Oroku Saki, swore to get revenge for his brother’s death.
Saki, as leader of the Foot, tracked down Yoshi, slaying he and his beloved Shen in cold blood. With his master slain, Splinter freed himself from his cage and ventured into the sewers of New York, where he discovered four baby turtles in a mysterious ooze. The ooze enabled both Splinter and the turtles to grow in size and intelligence, and he decided to teach them all that he had learned from his master. With their origins now revealed, Splinter asks that they use their skills to take down Oroku Saki, now known as the Shredder.
Splinter sends Raphael on a mission to deliver a message to the Shredder – a formal challenge of combat. Working past some of his men, Raphael embarrasses the Shredder in front of a prospective client. The next night, the Turtles assemble atop one of New York’s many buildings, calling out for Shredder to face them. The Shredder appears, with a number of the Foot in tow. After cutting their way through the Foot, each Turtle attempts to take down Shredder to no avail. The Turtles regroup and begin coordinating their attacks, working as a team. Shredder is dealt blow after vicious blow until Leonardo runs him through with his katana. With his last breaths, Shredder pulls out a thermite grenade, but Donatello knocks him from the rooftop – grenade in hand – where he meets an explosive end. The Turtles then disappear into the night.
For those that associate the Turtles with brightly colored cartoons, action figures, and Vanilla Ice, this debut for the heroes-in-a-half-shell is sure to be a shock. Unlike the lovable, sewer-dwellers that became a pop culture sensation, Eastman and Laird’s original creations are a grim and violent quartet. The plot itself is rather simplistic, but the execution by the creative team is what truly elevates the story from “okay” to “iconic”.
In many respects, they reflect the New York City of that era, and have undergone transformation throughout the years very much like the Big Apple itself. While the most recent feature film was a flashy, bloated endeavor (partially thanks to its $200 million budget an the presence of producer Michael Bay), this first issue would easily be at home alongside the other works at Small Press Previews. There is a meticulous attention to detail that permeates each panel, evidence of the care and effort that Eastman and Laird put into the book.
The impact of Jack Kirby and Frank Miller is clear throughout the issue. From the big, beautiful splash pages to the gritty, noir-based narration, Eastman and Laird make little effort to hide their creative inspirations. The dialogue, particularly Leonardo and Raphael’s internal monologues, is stiff and overly grim. At times, it appears that Eastman and Laird are lampooning the former Daredevil writer/artist’s style, albeit still maintaining an admiration for that work. In a way, it’s almost prophetic, as the comic’s legend in recent years has seemingly become a parody of himself.
In all honesty, it is the artwork by Eastman and Laird that is the true selling point of this book. Though there are occasions when backgrounds become sparse – particularly in the climactic battle against the Shredder – the duo’s use of shadows and texture more than make up for that oversight. Their combined art aesthetic makes the action feel more raw and real – or at least as real as a comic about giant, mutated turtles can be. Each punch has weight behind it. Each jump requires effort. Each sword-swipe cuts deep. The physicality that is brought to this issue is rarely seen in modern superhero comics.
1. The Turtles have enjoyed an illustrious career outside of the comics, including five (soon to be six) theatrical releases. The 1990 film, simply titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is a rather faithful adaptation of their first appearance. The original Eastman/Laird Turtles made an appearance in the 2010 television film Turtles Forever.
2. There have been multiple comic series starring the heroes in a half-shell. The original Mirage Comics volume ran for 62 issues from 1984 to 1993, which concluded with the 13-part “City at War” story arc. The continuity continued into a second volume, which ran only 13 issues from 1993 to 1995.
3. The famous colored masks are worn by the Turtles were a product of the beloved Fred Wolf cartoon with ran from 1987 to 1995. Prior to the show’s production, the Turtles all were depicted on cover art wearing red masks, while the comics themselves continued to be black and white.
4. Throughout their history, the Turtles have had crossover adventures with other fictional heroes in print and on television, including Miyamoto Usagi (Usagi Yojimbo), Savage Dragon, Archie (and the Riverdale crew), the Power Rangers (Power Rangers in Space episode “Shell Shocked”), and the Ghostbusters. A crossover with Batman is planned for December 2015.
5. The popularity of the franchise has made this first issue a premier collector’s item. Accordingly, the Mirage Studios website offers a guide for collectors on the difference between the various printings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, which can be found here.