Heroes In A Nutshell: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 25th Anniversary Collection’
While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is in the midst of a creative renaissance at IDW, with the current series making our own Best Comics of 2013 list, the publisher continues to release reprints and collections of stories that had been unavailable for years. Recently, IDW released a new hardcover edition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 25th Anniversary Collection, which was originally published in 2009 (the actual 25th anniversary) through co-creator Kevin Eastman’s Heavy Metal publishing house, re-mastering the artwork and providing some stories with color for the first time.
Unlike ComicsAlliance editor Caleb Goellner -- who seems to bleed green -- I’ve only read a few issues of the new series. I really, genuinely liked it, but felt like my memories of the original comics, if not the comics themselves, were better. For that same reason, I haven’t bought a single issue of IDW’s Classics reprints; just saw enough of the first collection to know that I didn't like the cold digital coloring. Really, I didn’t want to see TMNT with new eyes; I wanted it to remain great in my recollection, rather than diminished by the reality. I didn’t want to find out that literally the most important comic in my life was reduced to trash because of the passage of time and changes in perception.
Curiosity got the better of me.
First, here’s why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the most important comic in my life: because it introduced me to a world of other comics. When I got my initial copies of the First Comics collections I was about ten years old – that’d be 1988-89. Before then, I’d been an on-and-off comics reader, picking up a few issues of Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men books from spinner racks at convenience stores or in bundles at garage sales. Never set foot in a comic book store, because back then, you didn’t have to. I loved TMNT, but up to that point, all I knew of them were the cartoons and the action figures – until I met a kid who had a copy of Volume 1 of the First Comics collection. He let me borrow it, and my head split open like an over-ripe melon.
The original comics were miles away from the cartoons. Even Shredder, the hilariously overmatched villain whose schemes would never bring him ultimate victory over the colorful Turtles on the show, was killed, killed in the comics by the end of the first issue. (Spoiler alert for 1984.) The comics were gritty and violent, and had a raw energy that I hadn’t seen in any other books. TMNT got me to go into a comic book store for the first time, specifically to spend almost every penny I had on those collections, and got their hooks into me hard.
Once I became a regular reader, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird steered me into wild new directions. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles frequently mentioned other works readers should check out, whether on the inside covers, or in the panel backgrounds, which always seemed to be littered with advertisements for other great books: Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack, Swamp Thing, Cerebus, early Vertigo, and many other books that I probably shouldn’t have been reading when I was between the ages of ten and thirteen. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was my comics education, my gateway drug, a rabbit hole that emptied out into a strange world where I could keep chasing the rabbit.
But today, I can go back and read Swamp Thing, Cerebus, and Daredevil with a greater appreciation, a better understanding of what makes them classics. I feared the same might not be true for TMNT; that I would have to say “well, those sucked” and kiss my memories goodbye.
Happily, I found that’s not the case.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a simple comic, maybe even a crude one. Eastman and Laird stepped into emotional territories occasionally, and crafted powerful stories like “Return to New York,” and “City at War” every once in a while, but not often. Most of the time, they worked on single-issue stories or short, weird arcs where Eastman or Laird teamed up with others and sent the Turtles to space, or back in time, or both. Now we know this is because Eastman and Laird were so harangued with the day-to-day business of Mirage Studio that they split the issues up, working with other collaborators just so they could get something done until they had the time to get back to those bigger stories.
In that way, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 25th Anniversary Collection suffers – there’s only one story done by both Eastman and Laird, “Me, Myself, and I,” the introduction of Casey Jones, and that’s far from the best story they ever did together. Everything else in the book is Eastman by himself, with collaborators like Richard Corben, Eric Talbot, Jim Lawson and Mark Bode, and "Turtles Take Time" by Corben and Jan Strnad. It would have been nice if the book included more stories by both originators – Eastman himself has always said that Laird was the better writer – but as the solicitation copy promises, this book is a collection of Eastman’s favorite stories.
Even though some of my favorite stories didn’t make it into this collection – except for “The Shell of the Dragon,” which I must have read a hundred times between sixth and seventh grade – what’s here is still pretty good. Even with the application of time, cynicism, and a greater understanding of what makes good comics work, these tales are enjoyable. They’re fun. They're good comics. Eastman’s dialogue is occasionally goofy, but in many cases pretty natural, and he definitely knew how to plot a good story. His art, which I always felt was underrated, seems even more so now: his style was influenced by Frank Miller, but he had his own voice; the storytelling is solid, and there’s something about the way that he portrayed decay that was entirely his own.
The Turtles lived in some shoddy places – the sewers, run-down farmhouses, Casey’s crappy apartment, and 1980s Brooklyn when it looked more like current-day Detroit – and he always filled his settings with cracks in the walls, busted water-heaters, snow turned to muddy slush, and rusted-out cars. I feel like, even today, that’s not something you see much of in comics. And the martial-arts fight scenes – which only a few artists can really pull off – are genuinely top-shelf, showing a real sense of movement, shifts in momentum, and struggle. To see that, you need only look at the following page from “49th Street Stompers,” included in the 25th Anniversary book.
The coloring in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 25th Anniversary Collection is much closer to the First editions -- in fact, it looks pretty much the same as my memories, and when comparing these pages to the Classics reprints, I prefer these versions. It's warmer, more authentic, more like the original hand-painted colors. Some digital coloring is so cold and impersonal, it feels more like stills from a video game than comics pages. If I had my druthers, IDW would publish all their Turtles reprints like the 25th Anniversary Collection, with a concerted effort to keep the original colors intact, only touching up what really needs to be fixed.
In addition to “Me, Myself, and I,” “49th Street Stompers,” and “The Shell of the Dragon” are the over-the-top Raphael and Casey adventures “Complete Carnage an’ Radical” and “Fun With Guns,” the deliriously weird, Corben-drawn “You Had to Be There” and “Turtles Take Time,” and the best story in the collection, “The Unmentionables.” Kept in black and white, but with more subtlety in the gray-tones, in “The Unmentionables” Casey takes a trip around the streets of his old hometown to find that, as much as things have changed, they’re still pretty much the same. The same could be said for me and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Halfway through reading this collection, I was busting out comics I haven't read in over 20 years, smile frozen on my face as each issue matched my memories or surpassed them. It's still the most important comic in my life, and I'm glad to say that it was a pretty good one at that.
Not my life. The comics.