What else can possibly be said about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Since 1984, the TMNT have been a media juggernaut that has become something of a rarity over the last decade. The Turtles have had their influences known in the realms of animation, video games and even breakfast cereal. It is not a dramatic overstatement to say that there is an entire generation (or three) that has been raised on the Turtles. But everything that we know about the Heroes in a Half-Shell stems from the black and white pages of an indie comic book by two unknown creators whose publisher, Mirage Studios, was something of a pun. But more and more these days, we here from fans both young and not as young, that the first versions of the Turtles, the dark and gritty indie comic book version, is far and away the best one to this day. While I don’t agree with this sentiment, let’s take a look at what makes the first issue, and by extension the first volume from Mirage Studios, so iconic and revered by fans.
First printed in May of 1984, Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles begins with our four heroes with their backs to the wall. Leonardo holds his katana relaxed and ready, Donatello and Michelangelo follow suit while Raphael guards Leo’s right side…ready for combat against the young yet vicious street gang; the Purple Dragons. They wait for their enemies to draw weapons before they make the first move. What follows is a bloody and merciless battle that will see the Turtles brutally beat down and possibly kill fifteen gang members. As the fight rages on, the reader follows Leonardo’s narration as he describes the fighting styles of him and his brothers and how each Turtle effortlessly down multiple opponents and briefly revels in their victory before the authorities arrive. As the Turtles race to the nearest manhole cover, Leonardo utters a final and oft-imitated line that has become synonymous with all things TMNT in the last thirty five years:
“We strike hard, and fade away…into the night.”
The initial concept for the Turtles was born from two artists that were doodling to briefly forget about the pressures of getting their own creator own comic book company off the ground. Kevin Eastman first drew the sketch of a turtle standing on it’s hind legs brandishing a pair of nunchucks and wearing a mask. Kevin passed it to his friend and business partner, writer/artist Peter Laird. Kevin told him that it was a ninja turtle while hoping that the absurdity of a quick and agile turtle with the skill set of Bruce Lee would bring a smile to his face. In turn, Peter Laird drew his own version of a masked ninja turtle and the two went back and forth merely trying to one-up each other and had no intention of creating the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But that is exactly what they did.
Taking inspiration from creators Jack Kirby and Frank Miller (the first issue is dedicated to them) and comic books like Kamandi, Daredevil and Cerebus the Aardvark, the creative duo went about creating a comic book with the simple and worthy goal of making a book that could pay the rent and nothing more. By now everyone knows the story of how this comic book came to be and the impact that it had, but what is most interesting to me is that this book was only supposed to last a single issue. The mutagen, TCRI, purple capes and Technodromes would all come later and as a direct result of this issue.
The origin story of the Turtles is intertwined and only briefly mention within the backstory of the Turtles quiet and humble master, Splinter. While many fans of this book who came to it much later in life as I did, may have quaint visions in their head of Splinter/ Hamato Yoshi being a humble man who not only sounds like Peter Renaday, but only taught his Turtles the deadly arts of ninjitsu to protect them from a world that would most surely misunderstand and hate them, they may also be shocked to find out that this single issue almost paints Splinter to be almost manipulative and somewhat distant. While Splinter was mutated into his current form by the same mysterious ooze that changed four pet shop turtles to the heroes we know today, Splinter was at first the pet rat of a master assassin and ninja know as Hamato Yoshi. Yoshi was murdered before Splinter’s eyes by the treacherous and vengeful Oroku Saki, the Shredder. Splinter trained his four Turtles, his sons, in the ways of the ninja, as he mimicked his own master’s movements from the relative safety of his cage, with the express intention of taking vengeance for Hamato Yoshi’s death.
What follows the Turtles own origin story is a brief introduction to the issue’s villain, Oroku Saki/The Shredder, a rowdy beatdown between the Turtles and the Foot Clan and a bloody brawl with the Shredder himself. While this issue doesn’t shy away from the heroes being hurt, it is almost awkward seeing the Turtles being pushed to such visceral extremes, especially if your only reference for the TMNT is the ’87 animated series and the Archie comics as I did when I first read this book back in 2012. Everything is played straight for the first page onward. The Turtles are skilled, dangerous and not the least bit cheeky in this first issue, and there is barely any room for character from the four Turtles, save for some introspection from Raphael, as he lament not exactly loving living in the sewers, and Leonardo proving that he is the leader by calling out commands in the heat of battle. Michelangelo and Donatello barely get a word in to suggest they have any character at all outside of “ninja turtle”. But none of that mattered when this story first saw publication.
The first issue was a runaway success, selling out of local comic book shops almost as quickly as they were stocked. The first issue saw five reprints that still cost a pretty penny in the aftermarket both in stores and online. And funnily enough, as comic book store were calling up Mirage Studios asking if there was going to be a second issue, Eastman and Laird were still working nine-to-five jobs as they didn’t think there was going to be a TMNT series, let-alone a second issue, but alas, in January of 1985, before TMNT #2 even hit store shelves there was a whopping pre-order of fifteen thousand copies.
While the first issue of the TMNT is dynamically different from virtually everything that followed, shades of what has come since can be found within this first issue. Subtle references to Daredevil not withstanding, the Turtles are a family first and foremost, a family skilled in both stealth and their signature weapons. The Foot Clan as a whole is their primary antagonist, and infamous villain Shredder is proven to be a deadly adversary that is almost too much for the mutant ninja turtle teens to handle.
While the debut Turtles comic is something of a mystique to Turtle fans nowadays, when it first came out, it was a breath of fresh air that, while being a parody of superhero comic books like the X-Men, it was also a story that took itself and the reader seriously by grounding it’s characters in a world that closely mirrored are own and set the stakes high enough for the reader to believe that the heroes may not make it to the second issue.
The terms grim and gritty get thrown around so much nowadays that they have virtually lost their meaning today; unfair comparisons to books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns do not apply to the Turtles as those books didn’t exist in ’84. The Turtles have always done their own thing. Their first animated series did not resemble popular show like He-Man or Transformers, and their first film didn’t feel the need to dumb down its tone in order to appeal to a wider market and don’t even get me started on their NES games. While the Turtles continue to evolve to this very day, everything started with a comic book that came to be purely by the passion of two guys who just wanted to write and draw for a living. That passion perfectly describes what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle means. They are a symbol to everyone that you can create and be creative. It’s a symbol that your stories matter and that you can have an impact on the world with nothing more than a sketch intended to make your friend laugh.