"Go check out the East Warehouse over at Lairdman Island."
I’ll be honest with you, when presented with a second choice of free comic for Free Comic Book Day, I was fairly indifferent. I was even thinking of picking up a second copy of Blackest Night #0 just to be a tool and sell it on eBay. But being the considerate guy that I am, I surveyed the stand to see if nothing else would catch my eye. My eyes stopped on a familiar image:
Is that the first issue of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’?
I checked the corner of the cover art, and sure enough it was signed ‘Eastman ’84’. Sounds about right. Looked at the back cover: ’25th Anniversary 1984 – 2009′. In my Sherlock-ian wisdom, I reasoned that okay then, this must be the 25th Anniversary reprint of TMNT #1. “I’ll take it!”
Now, before I read this comic, I’d have proudly declared my intimate knowledge of the Turtles mythos. I own 30+ Ninja Turtle action figures with weapons; the Turtle Van (or ‘Party Wagon’ as described on the box); four limited edition, fully-posable, hand-crafted Ninja Turtle figures based on the original comics still in their box; two copies of the Ninja Turtles Joke Book (which, you won’t be surprised to hear, is terrible); and a copy of their first (and best) live-action motion picture on VHS recorded from TV – NO ADS (it still hasn’t been released on DVD in Australia), among other things. I memorised the ‘T-U-R-T-L-E Power’ rap!
I worked hard for my Turtles fandom. When I was 6 years old and these mutant amphibian warriors set playgrounds alight the world over, my mother would not allow me to watch the cartoon because it was “too violent”. So what did I do? I watched it in secret. Four o’clock, Channel 7, every afternoon after school. I don’t even remember how I furnished such an elaborate lie, but I did, for an entire year before I was discovered. After which, my mother, in her Sherlock-ian wisdom (which she has since passed down to her son), allowed me to continue watching it, as she deduced that I had not become (noticeably) more violent over the past year. It took another year of wearing them down to get my first action figure. In the meantime I had to settle on a handheld Game & Watch-style Ninja Turtles game (which I got a lot of mileage out of) “and that’s it”.
My parents' first Turtles concession - "and that's it".
Next thing I know, I’m 8 years old and I’m holding my very first Ninja Turtles action figure (Raphael) “and that’s it”. This went on until I collected the whole set. Eventually, I think my parents gave up. They must have resigned themselves to the fact that Ninja Turtles and I were destiny. They wouldn’t let me see the live-action film at the cinema because it was, well, live-action (you can watch the cartoon series, “and that’s it”). When it aired on TV, my father recorded it for me and cut out the ads for me. Bless his heart. Bless both their hearts. Hopefully now you have a fairly accurate picture of my TMNT pedigree. Now, allow me to drop the megaton on you: I HAVE NEVER READ A NINJA TURTLES COMIC BOOK IN ALL MY LIFE. Until now.
This comic grabbed me, shook me violently, slapped me in the face multiple times, and rebuked me in a terrible, Shredder-like voice, “YOU KNOW NOTHING OF THE TURTLES FOUR!!”
When I read in words and pictures, black and white, the true origin of the Ninja Turtles, and their greatest foe, Oroku Saki, I was surprised by the marked differences between the comics, the cartoons, and the live-action film. To their (and their characters’) credit, Eastman and Laird have been more than flexible, adapting their creative property with a clear sensibility for medium and audience, but by the same token, I empathise with the true Turtles fan’s impossible task: to reconcile these clearly contradictory continuities into a cohesive mythology. I suppose it’s really no different to the task of any comic book reader (Marvel’s 616 Universe vs. the Ultimate Universe, DC’s pre-crisis Multiverse vs. the post-crisis Universe vs. the post-post-crisis Multiverse, etc.), but these continuities contradict and parallel each other to this day. For me, it’s simply a case of picking and choosing the bits that I like, and willfully ignoring the parts that I don’t. More ardent fans likely have to settle with juggling three or more separate Turtles universes in their heads at the same time!
To begin with, Hamato Yoshi was a member of the Foot clan in Japan, a guild of assassins by trade. Secondly, it was not Oroku Saki who competed with Yoshi for the love of the woman Tang Shen (a surprisingly Chinese name), rather his brother, Oroku Nagi (that’s right, ‘Oroku’ is the surname, and it is spoken first as is the custom in Japan). Oroku Nagi assaulted Tang Shen when she refused his love, and Yoshi in turn beat Nagi to death in his blinding rage. Yoshi, disgraced for having killed a fellow clansman, flees to America with his wife Tang Shen, while Saki swears vengeance for his brother’s blood at Nagi‘s funeral. Saki becomes the Foot’s most accomplished assassin by the age of eighteen, and is sent to New York to found their new base of operations in the U.S. As the Shredder, Saki tracks down and kills Shen and then Yoshi. And the rest, as they say it, is history – Splinter sends out his fully-trained Ninja Turtles on their first mission to avenge the death of his Master.
That’s right, the Ninja Turtles fight and kill their greatest foe – The Shredder – in their very first encounter; in the very first issue! That this one-and-done story spawned a series and a franchise is nothing short of amazing, and yet, at the same time, it isn’t. Laird defends the hasty disposal of one of comics’ most notable villains in his opening letter, and rightly so. It lends the story a raw power and urgency – as Laird confides, he wrote as if there was no second issue. He also mentions that Eastman and himself simply wanted an opportunity to play on the same field as their heroes Jack Kirby and Frank Miller (an odd couple if ever I heard one), and the two influences shine through in this issue. On the Kirby side of things, I could feel the energy and vitality of a story that may never be told again. In the Miller corner, I could see the grim and gritty visual style; the heavy line-work; the fascination with Ancient Japan; and even the *suggestion* of an intersection with Daredevil’s origin story (could the ooze that transformed the Turtles be the same chemical that blinded and empowered Matt Murdock?).
Daredevil: The Secret of the Ooze.
It’s indie; it’s lo-fi; it feels like rare vinyl and vintage jeans. The lettering and panel layouts are very rough, but all in all, I could really appreciate the inherent, visceral power of what is essentially a classic Japanese revenge tale.
Certainly the Ninja Turtles have since taken on a life of their own, larger than Eastman and Laird’s original vision, but damn if this comic wasn’t a great place to start. Otherwise 25 years would have been a bit of a stretch. Happy Birthday, boys!