Ask Chris #289: The Best Of All Possible Turtles
Q: Childhood nostalgia aside who is, once and for all, the best Turtle from TMNT? -- @drawesome86
A: The thing about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that, more than almost any other team in comics, they're less of a group and more of a single unit. As much as the four Turtles might have individual personalities and quirks --- and, y'know, favorite colors that make them nice and toyetic --- it's hard to imagine ever really separating them out into four distinct characters that don't have an equal place within that unit. So on one level, asking to pick out the best one is like handing me a slice of pizza and asking if I prefer the cheese, the sauce, the crust or the toppings. It's all one delicious thing.
But on another level, I really like ranking things, so I think we can probably get you an answer. And honestly, I'm pretty sure what you're actually asking here is "Who's better: Michelangelo or Raphael?" because we all know it ain't gonna be Leo or Donnie.
Don't get me wrong, Leonardo and Donatello are actually really great characters and I like them a whole heck of a lot, but when it comes to looking at them as individuals, they're the ones that are clearly out of the running.
See, the thing about Leonardo is that he's the Ninja Turtle who's the most Ninja Turtle of the whole bunch --- or at least the most ninja. His concerns are the concerns of the group, and his problems all relate to his role within his family and within his team. It's actually one of the reasons that the big City Fall event worked so well, because having Shredder brainwash Leo into being the chunin of the Foot Clan plays directly off of that idea. It attacks the Turtles by removing their leader and leaving the team dynamic off-balance, and it attacks Leonardo himself because it makes him doubt his position, leaving him weaker and less confident even when he makes his return.
The problem is, that role tends to define his character and overshadow anything else about him. That's the big joke about the theme song to the current TMNT cartoon, right? When it comes time to list off the characters, Leo just basically gets "he's the leader in blue," and when all you have to go from is his team role and the color he wears, it tends to limit how he's perceived as opposed to the others. And he's always going to be defined by how he relates to the others.
While building a character around leadership, duty, and concern for others by no means makes them a bad character, it does tend to put them in the role of a baseline. He inevitably has to play the straight man for Donatello's wild ideas, Raphael's struggles with authority and Michelangelo's comedy bits, and while that's an important and valuable role, it's inherently less appealing than the others.
Donnie, on the other hand, has a different problem, in that he's a huge nerd.
And by that, I mean that he's the one on the team who's the least ninja --- and maybe the most mutant, now that I'm thinking about it.
Again, that's a role that's necessary on the team, especially in a book like TMNT, where you're dealing with everything from sci-fi fantasy to ninja mysticism to other dimensions, all of which need to be explained and contextualized for the other characters in order to set the stage for the show. It's another thing that the IDW series has done really well, contrasting Leonardo's honor-driven immediate concerns with Donatello's obsession with the big picture, fate-of-the-world problem of the Utrom invasion. It shows how they see things, and it also helps to divide them among genre lines --- Leo's the one who's all about the ninja stuff, Donnie's the one whose adventures lead him to sci-fi.
But in the same way that Leonardo provides the baseline, Donatello is another character that only really works well in the context of a group. The explanations require someone to be explained to, which is probably why even Donatello's solo adventures tend to end up building a supporting cast outside the other Turtles --- characters like Harold and Nobody.
Plus, to be entirely real about it, the best ninja on a team of ninjas is never going to be the guy who's the worst at being a ninja, even if they are all actually pretty good at being ninjas.
So that brings us to our two most likely candidates, and of those, the obvious answer here is that it's Raphael.
The one thing that I tend to value more than anything else in a truly great comics character is adaptability --- a character who can work in multiple settings, alone or with a group, and still be equally entertaining. And traditionally, that's been Raph.
He's the one who's always storming off to go solo, the one who can be driven by an internal conflict on his own as well as within the group. He's the one who's always pushing for direct action, and the fact that he's so often driven by anger means that it makes sense for him to go off on his own and fight his own battles. And, because there's still enough personality left among the other three that you can still have tension and conflicts between them, Raph's absence from the team doesn't hurt the dynamic as much as, say, Leonardo's. Since he's built as a character who can logically have his own adventures, who needs to leave every now and then to cool off, it doesn't leave the team rudderless when he does.
If we're talking about who best embodies those four words in the title, then Raph's claim is easy --- he's the one who's by far the most Teenage. Not in the goofy, I-love-video-games way that you get with Mikey, but in that he's sullen, moody, takes everything super-seriously and doesn't like being told what to do. And when you're a kid --- and the record will show that TMNT has always had a huge amount of appeal to kids --- that level of teen angst mixed with ninja weapons and a domino mask is the coolest thing in the world.
Plus, if you're going into this book looking for action above all else, Raph's the one who's going to deliver.
At the end of the day, though, Raph comes in at a close second. The best turtle's Mikey, dude. No question.
I think there's an argument to be made here about how a preference for Michelangelo over Raphael just comes down entirely to whether you value "cool but rude" over "party dude," but I think it goes a little deeper than that. See, for this entire article, I've been talking about how each of the characters emphasizes a different aspect of the high concept that you get in the title, but for Mikey, it's different.
He's a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
The entirety of TMNT as a franchise relies on the fact that it is the dumbest, most amazingly goofy premise that anyone has ever come up with --- and I mean that in the best way possible. Eastman and Laird did, after all, doodle those first sketches of the turtles as a joke, and the entire massive, genre-spanning franchise that's been sprawling out over the past thirty-plus years rests entirely on that one simple gag. And for that joke to work, you need to create a world where that premise is not only valid, but where it's all very, very serious.
It's one of the reasons that the current series works so well. There's danger on all sides, and it's a danger that's built around characters that are equally over-the-top and goofy --- a dude who is literally covered in knives and a squishy little brain who rides around in a robot's tummy --- but who are still very realistically threatening.
The problem is, as serious as it has to be for the premise to work, you're never going to get away from the inherent goofiness of what you're doing. Every single thing about the franchise from the title on down is a reminder that you're dealing with the weirdest possible premise, and while you don't want to point that out all the time and poke holes in what you're doing, you need some kind of textual acknowledgment to keep it from collapsing under its own weight. It's the problem that you often get from overly serious superhero comics, just on a much weirder scale.
Thus: Michelangelo. He's the teenagiest teenager, the goofy one who lacks Leonardo's focus, Donatello's brains and Raph's anger, but still stays committed to what they're doing. And that makes him work in a way that the others simply don't.
In terms of adaptability, his solo adventures might not stack up against Raph's, but he has the unique ability to serve as a foil to every other character. He's the goofball to Leo's leader, the kid who needs Donatello to explain the weird stuff, the one whose quips and slapstick can take the edge off of Raph's anger and sarcasm, and the one who's emotional and heartfelt enough that all the serious stuff that's going on can affect him in a deep, personal way. He's the team's heart, the one who knows how important and serious all of their conflicts are, but who still serves as the living, textual acknowledgment of how ridiculously fun it all is, and why we should be having so much fun reading these stories.
Also, nunchuks are the single best ninja weapon, and that is a fact.