God of Comics – IDW Publishing’s TMNT
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. TMNT. Turtles that are mutants, teenagers, and ninjas. Or heroes, if you live in the United Kingdom. Do they have something against ninja there? Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Whatever. We know who the Turtles are. Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michaelangelo. There’s four of them, despite what ill-advised live action television shows might tell you. They have a certain degree of dignity, despite what ill-advised Michael Bay movies might tell you.
How the hell did this ever become a thing?
Because, they are a thing. The Turtles hit back in the eighties and never stopped, returning to ever greater heights of popularity every decade from inception til present. People do not get tired of buying their toys or seeing their movies or reading their comics or playing their games.
Yes, there’s a hiatus here or there, but the Turtles always come back. They eat pizza, fight crime, and each have their thing – leadership, technology, violence, coolness – from one iteration to the next. Why did this happen? Why do we all know who the Turtles are, but maybe not remember things like Hamster Vice or the Pre-Teen Dirty Gene Kung Fu Kangaroos?
Hamster Vice was a parody of Miami Vice, sure, but the TMNT started as a parody, too. We’ve all seen Daredevil, right? The kickass Netflix series drew heavily from a series of stories that were created by Frank Miller, back before Frank lost his damn mind. Frank was doing some groundbreaking stuff, introducing the ninja master, Stick, and a group of enemy ninja called the Hand. Hell, Matt Murdock even pushed an old man out of the way of a truck and got covered in chemicals, much like…
This won’t be shocking for many of you. The Hand became the Foot. Ninja master Stick became ninja master Splinter, which led to another ninja master named Shredder. This stuff really just writes itself – the whole thing started as a parody, an ultra grim street comic starring the most unlikely heroes possible, but dealing with everything from time travel to street crime to aliens to racism to whatever else Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird felt like doing.
Presumably, the sheer weirdness attracted the attention of some cartoon executives, who got the rights to the characters and developed and incredibly silly cartoon with one of the best openings of anything, ever.
This secondary iteration upped the weirdness factor. Trapped alien brains became Krang, an exiled interdimensional warlord who was allied with Shredder for reasons. The TMNT became a little sillier, episodes paying homage to sources as diverse as This Island Earth to Aliens. It popularized the concept, and an entire generation of kids grew up on the adventures of the Turtles, as these cartoons perfectly balanced silliness and seriousness. We got individual episodes and a long running mythology that evolved over time.
It did so well that it even gave us three live-action movies of diminishing quality and a live-action musical performance of no specific quality that I loved as a kid. The Turtles of the movies, though, were a different breed than the original comics or the cartoon, but no one cared. Fans of the Turtles embraced all three as being different but equal, all of them adding to the mythos and establishing a ric tapestry that would allow other people to retell and add to the overall story.
Which is where Archie Comics comes in. Yes, Archie is currently doing reboots of their mainstays, but way back when they ran a line called Archie Adventure Series, which featured Bayou Billy, the Explorers of the Unknown, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These comics started as an analogue to the cartoon, but quickly went in their own direction, featuring more aliens and mutants and taking the story in radically different directions – and, once again, these stories existed as parallel but equal parts to the movies, original comics, and cartoon.
There was a general sense of excitement when a new cartoon series was announced in the early aughts, and again just a few years ago. The opening for both was not as strong as the original, but that opening is tough to beat. The episodes in the early aught series were a little but more in tune with the original comics series, but that changed as the series went on and it found its own voice. The more recent cartoon had its own voice right from the get go, and has already found a cult following. In both, new characters were introduced, and older characters were given a greater sense of urgency and dignity. It worked out well for everyone, and was, again, recognized as an equal but different part of the mythology.
And the early aughts version takes it one step further when playing with the idea of parallel but equal, as the original cartoon crossed over with that one in a special event movie called Turtles Forever, which featured the original TMNT in all their grim glory, and had cameos from Eastman and Laird themselves.
See, here’s the thing: the Turtles they created have become a cultural icon than transcends one generation to the next, building upon previous iterations while still keeping the integrity of each iteration intact. It’s a completely unique narrative flow, an on-going organic evolution that draws upon itself to go in new directions.
And nowhere is this more evident than in IDW Publishing’s comics.
What IDW has done is take everything from every iteration of the TMNT, thrown it all into a blender and hit puree, then distilled the very best parts and found new ways to tie everything together. It’s incredible, the build that’s happened here and the way it all fits together, and how much of an emotional punch it ends up holding – and it all starts with the four turtles themselves.
Leonardo has always been the leader of the group, the reliable and dependable one. He’s serious minded and takes his duty as caretaker seriously. You see him struggle to look after his brothers in these comics, branching into things he’s not comfortable with simply to build a tie with the others. They sort of mock him for it, and so do we; we all believe the lie that villains are more interesting than heroes, like the decision to do wrong is somehow more interesting than the decision to do right. So, when Leonardo is kidnapped and has his agency taken away, his seriousness and discipline becoming negatives, it hurts his brothers and it hurts us. The pain of someone you rely on and take for granted becoming an absence rather than a presence is a shocking one, and it’s played to the nth degree here. Even once he’s rescued the pain remains, and his family and he both have to try and rebuild trust on both sides. Thing of it is, no one takes Leo for granted anymore. They know exactly how lost they are without him.
Donatello is the brains. This sometimes makes him a mad scientist and sometimes makes him a little geeky, and here he is more than a bit of both. In all iterations this is sometimes played for laughs – he’s the one that makes the tech the others use, the one that spends more time with machines than training. That holds true here, but he’s just as likely to be playing a MMORPG as tinkering with a weapon. He’s an introvert, shy some of the time and assertive when he has to be, a scientist who looks at the big picture in a way that his brethren can’t. Even more than Splinter, he’s the one that sees where the real dangers are, and sometimes that means that he has to walk alone, or drag the rest of his family to save the world from threats they might otherwise miss. His intelligence is catered to here, and his selflessness and need to do right nearly costs him everything.
Raphael – cool but rude, right? The one everyone likes, the bitter and sarcastic one, the angry one. He’s violent and only just in control of himself most of the time. His story is always about finding peace with his terrible sense of anger and capacity for violence. Raph is and always has been a study of toxic masculinity and the warrior’s credo. He loses control and thinks he’s going to do right, but ends up making things worse: he turns allies into enemies, hurts those he should be protecting, and, at worst, costs the turtles their leader. Raphael is a struggle, a child tearing himself apart as he tries to figure out who he is and who he wants to be. He’s not rude or cool so much as broken, by circumstance as much as design, and his efforts to do right sometimes cost him more than he can bear. He’s tragic, his moments of awesome tied to him overcoming his anger to be the person he longs to be, but he has yet to find a way to keep that sense of peace. There’s a good chance he never will.
Which brings us to Michelangelo. Little Mikey, the runt of the litter. The party dude, the fun one, the youngest who is and always has been played for laughs. Here, he’s given the role of the jester, and it’s a thing that both the character and we, as readers, often misunderstand. The thing about jesters is that they try to make us laugh, and for that reason they’re often allowed to speak their minds and say things the rest of us can’t or won’t. Jesters offer us a true vision of ourselves, and at their best they become the conscience of a society, and Mikey is very much the conscience of his family. He’s the one that demands that they stay good and not turn to the hate their enemies would force upon them, the one who’s willing to reach out to every broken soul and see into the heart of things. He’s young and naive, but everyone that knows him tries to live up to the way he sees them.
That’s the main four. The complexity of who they are and how they interact with one another would be more than enough for any other narrative, but they provide the building blocks for everything and everyone else happening around them.
Casey Jones and April O’Neil are the two most popular human characters from the turtles, following them from one iteration to the next.
Casey is a street kid vigilante, April a reporter or store owner or scientist. Both of them are expanded upon here: Casey has a rough relationship with his father, who was the head of a street gang and starts as a beaten down drunk. Casey’s urge to do right comes from not wanting to be his father, but his violence is a direct result of his father’s treatment of him. His meeting the turtles gives him hope and an actual set of ethics to live up to, and opens his eyes to a world that is longer than tomorrow. He’s a lost soul who finds hope and purpose, and tries to make good based on the family that chooses him. It’s a powerful story tied to every chapter of this tale, one of a man coming to define himself and what he means in the world.
April is a scientist, daughter of scientist parents. She’s working towards the betterment of everyone but she’s young and has to deal with the difficulties of being young and an attractive woman in a male-dominated field. She deals with both, and comes to terms with the weirdness of her life while also pointing out things that the others miss – her real strength comes from her open mind and her willingness to accept what is rather than what she’d like to be. By that token, however, she often wrestles with a flexible set of ethics that allows her to take dangerous action for what she thinks is the best. Her arrogance is dangerous, and she makes the same mistake a lot of smart people make, that people would come to the same conclusions she has if they had the information she has. It makes her compelling.
If April represents what youth can do in a positive way, Karai is the opposite. She’s just as capable and driven, and is responsible, full stop, for the resurrection of the Foot Clan in the modern era. She’s the descendant of the Shredder, and it’s her will and ambition that allows for the resurrection of the Foot in general and Oroko Saki in particular. She’s the very definition of someone who should have been wary of getting what she wanted, and once she gets it has second thoughts. Her lessons have been harsh, but her ambition and capability are second to no one else. She’s a fantastic foil, more interesting here than she has been in any other iteration of this series past.
Baxter Stockman is another character who has been in every iteration of TMNT. Notably, he was a white down-on-his-luck scientist who became a mutant fly in the original cartoon, but he is something much more compelling everywhere else: a wealthy African-American industrialist, a sort of Tony Stark gone evil. He’s never been as fascinating or as terrifying as he is in this comic, a chess master who plays high-stakes games with everyone from trans-dimensional warlords to ninja masters to literal gods. His losses are setbacks that he twists to his own advantage, often gaining access to new resources or knowledge even in defeat. He’s a representative of greed and pride, the very worst of the 1%, a Randian Objectivist ideal or Nietzschean Ultraman, and an often over-looker power who uses everyone around him as a tool and discards them as needed. These comics even worked the mutant fly into their narrative, and made it work.
These comics make everything work. Hun, initially introduced as a gang lord and heavy in the late nineties cartoon? He’s Casey’s father here, mutated by the Foot and put back to work, trying to do right by his son in all the wrong ways. His need for redemption drives him further and further towards self-destruction. Bebop and Rocksteady? Music loving punks who fail at everything except violence, but when it comes to busting heads with brute power there’s no one better. Their quest for acceptance and respect is stymied by their general cluelessness, a couple of idiots who remain frightening because of what they’re capable of.
Some characters are expanded far beyond their initial scope. The Rat King was a deranged homeless man in the original comics, then a mostly neutral oddity in the cartoon. Here, he’s tied to a new character named Kitsune. Kitsune appears first, working with the Foot Clan, a mysterious and magical presence who is explained by the appearance of the Rat King – who, here, is a literal god. He and Kitsune raise the stakes of the conflict, adding a spiritual quality to the war we’re all familiar with, and delving into divine philosophy and questions of destiny and free will.
Yes, this is a comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes, it is fun as hell to read, but that doesn’t keep them from exploring some pretty heavy and heft concepts, and you’d be wise to pay attention to what they’re doing here, and any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story is only as good as the core conflict, which is that between Hamato Yoshi and Oroko Saki. Splinter and Shredder, iconic characters who have transcended the medium they were born in.
Splinter is a rat who happens to be a ninja master. He’s a quiet philosopher, a gentle soul who happens to be one of the most terrifying warriors to ever walk the world. Shredder is a force of nature, a man driven by unshakable pride and ambition, and he has never been more capable than he has been in these comics.
These two characters enjoy a relationship more complex than any previous iteration gave them, a battle waged over lifetimes. They’re adoptive brothers whose war is more about idealism and understanding and coming to terms with what they’ve both done and why than any physical conflict. Both possess a sense of gravitas and dignity, both of them unafraid to mix it up when they must. When either of them gets involved in a conflict it lends that one fight a scope it would not have otherwise, and when both of them get involved in a single event it changes the flow of the narrative entirely.
For four years, IDW Publishing has crafted one of the most interesting and involved rivalries in comics, a war of philosophy and expectation waged from one incarnation to the next, both of them unable to escape the other. And here, finally, we get a resolution that is so much more than mere violence. It is a war where ideals clash and both come to a realization they did not have before, where they can be angry about what has happened between them but can still see who they were and what they could have been, how their lives could have been richer if they could have spoken to one another instead of killing one another. Maybe in their next incarnation, we can see the two of them together, as the brothers this iteration shows they could be.
And that is why this works – a narrative that started as a parody but became (arguably) more popular than the source material. There is a sense of not good and evil here, but of complex and nuanced people driven to be the best they can be, and the complex lives they catch in their war of philosophies. It’s a exploratory essay on ambition, forgiveness, betrayal, and redemption that features a talking rat and four turtles who are also ninjas and mutants and teenagers. It is about youth inheriting and seeking to resolve the sins of their parents, and sometimes managing to do so.
It’s about people struggling to overcome and define themselves, and it has someone and something for everyone. That’s why this tale lasts, the persistent core that links every iteration (save that thing by Michael Bay) together, and it is a concept that IDW Publishing has taken, distilled, and perfected. We haven’t even touched on classic characters like Krang or the Fugitoid, or new characters like Alopex and Old Hob, but they more than hold their own here. It’s fantastic, expansive – an incredibly well built narrative that continually manages to exceed every possible expectation.
If you’re not reading these comics, you should. They’re brilliant, and IDW Publishing has the trades available for purchase here. You should buy them: if you’ve ever liked any version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you’ll love these comics, feeling right at home as the writing and art draw you in and keep you there.
We can’t recommend this series enough, and whatever iteration comes next is going to be hard-pressed to out-do this one for sheer quality. This comics is more than mere nostalgia – it is a benchmark of excellence, and one we can all measure ourselves against.