Comic Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Donny reviews a Daredevil parody that became ludicrously successful.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #’s 1-11,
Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo one-shots
Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird (story & art)
(TMNT #8 also included contributions by Dave Sim and Gerhard)

TMNT sprang from some silly drawings Kevin Eastman was doing in his sketchbook one evening while watching “bad TV” with his friend and collaborator Peter Laird. They thought it would be fun to turn the characters into a one-shot comic. They worked out of Eastman’s kitchen and used money from their tax returns and borrowed some more from Eastman’s uncle to self-publish a single, one-shot issue that was a loving parody of Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Wolverine and Ronin comics.

The first print run of TMNT was 3,275 copies. It was soon reprinted three times to meet demand. TMNT #2 sold 15,000 copies, clearing Eastman and Laird about $2000 each, allowing them to quit their day jobs and pursue making comics full time. If you happen still own one of those 3,275 first editions of TMNT #1, it’s now worth a sweet $4000 on eBay. Here, by the way, is an important lesson for all those fools who want to get rich investing in comics: Collectables go up in value when they are rare! The much-promoted “Death of Superman” comic sold millions of copies and is still today worth the same $1.75 on the cover – if that! And yet gullible morons in 1992 bought multiple copies of it in vacuum-sealed collector bags. End PSA. Back to the Turtles.

I love how the Turtles look in the first couple of issues. Very soon, they became more human in their proportions, but early on, in the first couple of issues, they have stubby, little limbs and look like killer muppets. The first issue is basically a Frank Miller send-up. The Foot is a goof on his ninja clan, the Hand. They actually riff on Daredevil’s origin story: A blind man almost steps in front of a truck carrying radioactive material. A tween-age Matt Murdock pulls the blind man away. The truck wrecks and a glowing canister breaks loose and hits Matt in the face (blinding him and giving him super powers). The canister bounces into a bowl of baby turtles carried by a little boy, shattering the bowl and dumping turtles and mutagenic canister into the sewer. The book also pokes at Frank Miller’s shtick of having oodles of ninjas covering the rooftops in a fight. When I was teen, I remember we used to joke about how it seemed like ninjas were mail ordered by the dozen. There are other little, comic geek inside jokes. The first two thugs Raphael and Casey Jones beat up are Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in cameo. On the floor of the Turtles’ lair rests a copy of Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and a billboard on the street advertises “Marble Super Heroes Stupid Wars!” which was a current bestseller at the time TMNT #1 came out (and crushing the struggling small press, indy comics). In the second issue, Baxter Stockman destroys the “Retxab Building” – which is an obvious copy of the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building with the name spelled backwards. (Less funny for us, today, is when he next threatens to topple the World Trade Center towers. Awkward!)

What really struck me re-reading TMNT for the first time in 20 years was how imaginative this book was. It’s full of so many far out ideas. There’s the Turtles themselves, of course. Then we get a mad scientist and killer robots, then space aliens and a wacky Star Wars type adventure, then time travel, wizards, and ninjas… The Turtles was such a versatile platform; its spirit is very much like the old Silver Age superhero books like FF, Superman, and Avengers – just one wild idea and new direction after another, issue after issue.

My favorite issues (with the exception of Raphael) are the solo adventures which were published as four one-shots. Michelangelo is a fun, goofy, heartwarming Christmas misadventure. Donetello is an endearing tribute to Jack Kirby (who had recently died, 1984). Leonardo is a mostly silent comic, powerfully juxtaposing Leo being ambushed and beaten nearly to death by the Foot with everyone else back at home decorating April’s apartment for Christmas. Another high point is the TMNT-Cerebus team-up. (This was before Dave Sim’s bizarre religious conversion when he went all misogynist and coo-coo.) That story also has a great goof on Jack Kirby’s Galactus in the form of Lord Simultaneous, whose appearance at the end of the issue still gets me to laugh out loud – it’s almost like a Mel Brooks gag.

In 1987, they licensed the characters to CBS for an animated series. Until then, Eastman and Laird had done pretty much all of the first 15 comics themselves (1-11 and the four one-shots), but this deal allowed them to bring other writers and artists onboard – which is why for this review I re-read just those first fifteen, pre-CBS comics. The CBS cartoon series was aimed at kids and toned-down the violence and introduced a lot more comedy, including catchphrases like “Turtle power!” and “Cawabunga, Dude!” and the Turtles’ love of pizza. I was fortunate enough to first encounter TMNT through the comic book rather than the Saturday morning kids’ cartoon. In fact, I was almost Marvel zombie, and TMNT was really the first non-Marvel book (as well as the first black and white) I seriously collected, and I’ll admit that in my high school years I was a pretty big Turtles fan. But I’m not among those comic fans who see the cartoon as a sell-out. Well… I think I did when I was 14, but now I cut Eastman and Laird a lot more slack.

The first TMNT issue, in keeping with Frank Miller’s work in Daredevil and Ronin was very violent and bloody. It opens with a lethal fight between the Turtles and a street gang, and the Turtles kill their opponents – stabbing them in the guts with swords and busting heads open… At the end of the fight, Leonardo’s sword is dripping with blood. There was, in that and subsequent issues, a fair dose of comedy mixed in, but the martial arts fights were always depicted with graphic realism. Now, realistically there is no way a Saturday morning cartoon in 1987 is going to show Raphael stab a guy in the neck or Leonardo lop off a guy’s arm…  So why not have the cartoon and toy line for the pre-teens and still have the comics for teens and adults? To me, now, this seems less like a sell-out and more like a win-win… but back in the late-80’s a lot of snooty comics fans were appalled by the TMNT cartoon and merchandising.

However, that was nothing compared to the brouhaha that was going on behind the scenes in the publishing world. In the 1980’s (and on into the early ‘90’s) tensions between comics creators and publishers (specifically DC and Marvel) were quite high. In 1988, Eastman and Laird hosted a gathering in Northampton, MA to draft the Creator’s Bill of Rights. The first draft was sketched out by Scott McCloud (Zot!) and the group included self-published masters Richard Pini (Elfquest), Larry Marder (Beanworld), Dave Sim (Cerebus), and Rick Vietch (Bratpack). Their declared rights included:

  • The right to full ownership of that which we fully create.
  • The right to full control over and creative execution of that which we create.
  • The right to prompt payment and a fair and equitable share of profits from what we create.

Pictured: Peter Laird, Donatello, Kevin Eastman

1990 saw the release of the first TMNT live-action movie, with the Turtles created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Like the cartoon, it’s less bloody and more jokey than the comics, but it actually stays reasonably true to the original story and characters – even improving on the story by rearranging events and details to improve the pacing and suspense. Naturally they toned-down the violence; 90% of their audience was under the age of 14. And while the movie is jokey, the comics were hardly ultra-serious. I mean, Casey Jones was parody of the Punisher using sports equipment as his weapons and the Shredder was a villain based on a kitchen utensil. I will go to bat for the 1990 TMNT movie, and, although it only received 41% on RottenTomatoes, this is still the highest rated TMNT film… and the only one worth watching; it spawned two sequels that were f-ing awful.

Now financially secure, Eastman’s desire to put the Creator’s Bill of Rights into effect led him to start Tundra, a creator-friendly publishing house, in 1990. Scott McCloud explained the appeal: “Self-publishing was attractive in many ways but also intimidating. Many, like me, just wanted to draw and be left alone. The prospect of devoting half our energy to packing boxes and filling out invoices was not appealing.” (Reinventing Comics, 2000) Tundra would help cartoonists by managing the printing quality, the marketing, and the distribution while allowing the creators to own and control their work. Tundra gave cartoonists at Marvel and DC a place to publish personal, non-superhero work that the “big two” weren’t interested in. Eastman ran Tundra almost like a non-profit. He provided advance money so these cartoonists could stop doing Spider-man for six or ten months and instead do that book they’d been dreaming of since art school – and then he allowed them to keep the bulk of the profits after Tundra made it’s money back.

As a result, Tundra put out a spat of the greatest comics from the early ‘90’s and gobbled up Eisner and Harvey awards. From Alan Moore came Big Numbers (with Bill Sienkiewicz), From Hell (with Eddie Campbell), and Lost Girls (with Melinda Gebbie). From Dave McKean came Cages. From James O’Barr came The Crow (which spawned a few movies and a TV show). Without Tundra it’s unlikely any of these masterpieces would have seen the light of day. Unfortunately, Tundra was never profitable. Eastman lost between $9 and $14 million on Tundra, and had to sell it off to Kitchen Sink Press in the mid-90’s. Remember, this was also the time of the crash of the speculators bubble in ’93, and even Marvel went bankrupt in ’96. Still, Eastman’s vision of a creator-owned comic publisher was successfully adopted by Image and Dark Horse, proving that a publisher can be successful while allowing it’s creators to own and direct their creations.

Connected to Tundra and the Creator’s Bill of Rights was also the strong desire at that time to get more mature and non-superhero books into mainstream bookstore so that comics could reach a wider audience. In an effort to help bring some European creativity into the American superhero ghetto, in 1992, Kevin Eastman bought Heavy Metal, the American re-printing (mostly) of the award winning French, adult, sci-fi and fantasy comic Metal Hurlant. (He sold Heavy Metal in 2014.) And in 1992, with some of that money the TMNT movie, cartoon, clothing, and toy franchise was bringing in, Eastman opened the Words and Pictures Museum in Northampton, MA, the core of which grew from his own collection of Jack Kirby original art. (The museum closed in’99.)

Peter Laird was too busy managing the TMNT empire to run a publishing house like Eastman, so he came up with his own way of helping outsider cartoonists by starting the Xeric Foundation. Each year, Xeric would give money as an endowment to new self-publishers. While we were in art school together, my friend Jay managed to get his comic book published with the help of a Xeric grant.

Eastman and Laird reported spending very little time together after the movie franchise started, and Eastman sold his remaining Turtle interests to Laird in 2003. By 2003 TMNT was a billion dollar industry, and they produced a new animated series with Peter Laird more closely involved. It was closer to the original comics, but still toned-down the violence.  In 2009, Laird sold all TMNT rights (except for the comic book rights which he still owns) to Nickelodeon, which promptly released a new CGI series, and then in 2014 Michael Bay released his monstrosity (RottenTometoes score: 21%, “The dullest movie ever made about talking, biped reptiles”). Michael Bay, why must you keep ruining my childhood?

The story of TMNT is interesting because it can look like two guys who “sold out” and played into the popular misconception that comics are for kids (“Cawabunga, Dude!”)… or like two underground, indy comics artists who invested their time and money into supporting the art form they love and sincerely trying to help it grow up and grow out of the comic shop ghetto.

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1 Response to Comic Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

  1. Donny says:

    Correction: I said above Jack Kirby had recently died in 1984. “The King” actually died in ’94.

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