Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1

Original co-creator Kevin Eastman returns to bring the heroes in a half-shell back to their grittier roots.

Andy Hunsakerby Andy Hunsaker

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1

I'm about to admit something here that I likely shouldn't as a guy who writes about comic books for a living, but I never actually read the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles works from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.  I know the story, though.  The whole concept started out as a parody of Frank Miller's Daredevil and Ronin, with influences from The New Mutants and the Dave Sim indie book Cerebus, and it somehow grew into a ubiquitous kid-show franchise.  Being a child of the 80s who watched all the cartoons of the era (I know more about Jem and the Holograms than I should), the only comic books I actually collected back then were Marvel's Transformers series, but I did find the TMNT cartoon and movie amusing, and I dabbled in the TMNT role-playing game.  As I got older, I always heard tell that the original books were darker (as they'd have to be, to properly parody Miller), but I never really checked them out.

So now I'm trying to rectify that, as Eastman is back with a new TMNT series at IDW, only this time he's collaborating on the story duties with Tom Waltz, who is handling the scripting while Dan Duncan provides art based on Eastman's layouts.  They waste no time dropping us right back into things, as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 drops us into a street fight between the Turtles and the goons working for a one-eyed cat-man named Old Hob.  At first, I was a bit befuddled at noticing all the Turtles had red masks, but then I realized you can tell them apart by their weapon of choice, so it's not really necessary for Michelangelo to have an orange one.  Once I got over my silly cartoon notions, I was able to take this comic for what it is – a return to its roots.

Yes, it looks like we're getting a retelling of an origin story, complete with April O'Neil as a perky young intern at Stockgen Research, which is run by a guy who apparently answers to one General Krang.  Something tells me he's not going to be a guy with a brain in his gut.  He will, however, be pretty sinister, as they apparently engage in psychotropic studies and armor-building, while O'Neil thinks they're bio-engineering livestock to solve world hunger.  

The story that origin will be woven with seems to be the disgrace of Raphael, who is wandering around on his own, maskless and dumpster-diving for reasons we don't know.  One thing I remember being befuddled by in my youth was why Raphael was the leader in the movie while Leonardo was the man in the cartoon.  It didn't click with me until much later that the cartoon was its own thing, and the movie was ostensibly trying to base itself more on the original books, where Raph was a rebellious thinker.  In fact, there's even a dig on the old show, as Raph finds a T-shirt in a trash bin that says "Cowabunga" on it, and tosses it aside, saying "Oh, now that's just wrong."  That's all we need to know about the TV show here.

When Raph gets mixed up in trying to stop an ugly case of child abuse, we're left with the feeling that, yeah, this ain't gonna be some shiny upbeat 'party dude' tale all the time, and that's more than welcome.  We've seen that, we've played the video game.  Duncan's art is hit and miss – pretty good with the animals and mutants, but occasionally unpleasant with the human characters.  Not enough to derail interest, though, especially if you're a sucker for Turtle Power.  Come on.  Leonardo has a sword that can cut through crowbars and guns.  That's pretty cool. 

Overall, it'll take some getting used to, thinking that these goofball characters will be able to tell some really good stories instead of being flashy marketing tools, but honestly, some of the best comics involve the ability to swing from ludicrous concepts to surprisingly real moments with ease, and the Ninja Turtles could certainly accomplish that feat.  TMNT #1 is a good start in that direction.  We'll know more if and when we first see Shredder.