Ask Chris #322: A Tail Of Two Splinters
Q: Which is the better version of Master Splinter: Hamato Yoshi's pet, or a mutated/reincarnated Hamato Yoshi himself? — @RandallJSanders
A: Okay, first things first: The history and minutiae of the Ninja Turtles are weird. By its very nature as a franchise that started out as a goofball parody drawn on a kitchen table over pizzas, and then became the breakout hit of the '80s black-and-white boom that then became Literally The Most Popular Thing In The World, and then became a tenured franchise that's spawned multiple iterations over the past 30 years, things get really complex, really quick when you start trying to figure out how it all works.
And for Splinter, that's even more true than it is for the Turtles themselves. As their mentor figure, the one who's responsible for handing down all the ninja knowledge that makes up a full quarter of their identities, his complications spring from an entirely different set of problems --- and that's before you start figuring out how a bunch of turtles wound up with a rat as their dad.
The two competing origin stories for Splinter that you brought up in the question are the same ones you might remember from pop culture, if you're an old like me who spent his youth obsessed with the Turtles. First, the idea that he was a pet rat of unusual intelligence who mimicked Hamato Yoshi's training so often that he himself became a ninja master (as seen in 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie), and second, that he was Hamato Yoshi himself who was mutated into a rat-man by the same mutagenic ooze that turned the turtles into #teens (as seen on the 1987 cartoon series).
Honestly, neither one of those is really all that satisfying. If he's just a rat who watched a bunch of karate happen, it's really difficult to believe that he'd know enough to be a full-on ninja master who trained a team of amphibious Storm Shadows to be the most effective fighting force in New York City --- although it would explain why they weren't actually that good at being ninjas and were instead just super into skateboarding and pizza. I mean, if Splinter is himself a mutated animal just like the Turtles, then it stands to reason that he's also a teen, albeit one who is definitely pretending to be older so that he can be in charge.
That pretty much makes him less of a Father Figure and more of a Bossy Older Brother Figure, and, well, we already have Leonardo to fill that position.
The other option, that he's a man who becomes a rat, is also not really that great. It explains how he's able to actually pass down the knowledge and training to the Turtles, but it also adds a level of tragedy to his story that feels a little bit out of place.
I mean, Hamato Yoshi already has a tragedy, right? His family was murdered by Oroku Saki --- you know, the Shredder --- and he was exiled from his ninja clan. That, to me, seems like it's enough of a motivation, especially since Splinter is always going to be a supporting character. He can step into the spotlight occasionally --- TMNT has actually always been pretty good about fleshing out the weirder corners of their universe through its one-shots and "micro series" specials --- and like Casey and April, he's a cornerstone of the cast, but at the end of the day, the book ain't called The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles And Their Dad.
Making Splinter a human who mutates into a rat also separates him from the Turtles by giving him the reverse of their origin, but more than that, it's actually a pretty big downer. An animal who gets to turn into a human is a pretty inarguable upgrade --- even if you take a pretty dim view of humanity, you have to agree that opposable thumbs are, well, handy --- but a guy who turns into a rat and then has to go live in a sewer? That is rough, even if you're a zen master who has accepted his incredibly strange karma.
Also, and this might just be an idea that stuck in my head from reading character profiles on the back of action figure cards when I was a kid, but I always felt like there was a clear delineation between the heroes and villains in terms of who got mutated into what. The good guys --- like the Turtles, or Mondo Gecko --- were animals who mutated into humans, while the bad guys were humans who mutated into animals.
Again, that might just be because Baxter Stockman as the Fly was one of the few villain action figures I had, but it's something that stuck with me. Although if that is the case, I suppose there's a little value in having Splinter as a the one who doesn't go bad as a symbol that mutation is itself not a "punishment," but again, it presents a tragedy that's never fully addressed.
There is, however, an option that works better, and it's the third one you mentioned: reincarnation.
The current IDW TMNT series is extremely fascinating to me, not because it's good --- although it is legit one of the best things going in comics today --- but because its status as a ground-up reboot means that it gives Kevin Eastman a chance to do the entire franchise over again. That extends to the other creators as well, but Eastman's the one who's been there since the beginning, who co-created the whole thing with Peter Laird back in the '80s, and who now gets to oversee the process of taking all of these bits and pieces that evolved organically for the comic's first two decades and using them as existing building blocks that can be arranged into a whole new form.
And a lot of that comes from context. I don't know for sure, but it makes all the sense in the world to me that the idea for Splinter as a rat came directly from the fact that a rat is something that you'd also find in the sewers. If you change that context to somewhere else that you could find a rat, somewhere that also allows you to make a connection to mutagen and experiments that could expand that rat's intelligence to a human level, you get an entirely new pattern to fit these characters into.
The way the current series ties offbeat sci-fi into kung fu movie mysticism is one of my favorite things about it, and the idea of the mutagen helping to expand Splinter's (and the Turtles') consciousness to contain their reincarnated spirits so that they can fulfill the destiny of battling a seemingly immortal Oroku Saki? That's complicated, sure, but it's the kind of complicated that a book called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles can thrive on. It's like three high concepts happening at once, and it all manages to work without the problems of the other two options.