Seek the Original: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

57% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

At least 5 comic book series, 4 television shows, 4 movies, a dozen video games and hundreds of derivative products spread out over the last 30 years. Something about this idea... It just keeps on giving. It's easy to forget the whole concept was based on an independent, black and white comic book published in the mid-1980's.

I've been working on this seek the original for over a year because now that I'm older and I can appreciate the original comic book series, I just didn't know what to say. There is so much to say about the original series compared to the adaptations it's overwhelming. Start with the original, the version of the Turtles I never knew until I was an adult.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman (Mirage Studios)

Splinter is a rat, a pet of Hamato Yoshi, in Japan. Oroku Nagi and Hamato Yoshi are members of the Foot Clan, an order of ninja assassins, and they're in love the same woman . Nagi tries to force himself on her, Yoshi walks in on them and in a protective rage kills Nagi. Rather than commit suicide to save his honor, Yoshi flees to New York with his love.

However, Nagi's 7-year-old brother, Oroku Saki, is filled with rage over his brother's death and vows revenge. The Foot Clan sees this and trains him up as a full member of the Foot. He is sent to New York to spearhead the American branch of the clan. Saki quickly changes it into an organized crime ring running drugs, smuggling weapons and various other things. He becomes so successful he becomes known as The Shredder. Saki takes the chance to carry out revenge on his brother's death. He hunts down and kills Yoshi and his lover in their apartment. Splinter, the pet rat, is the only witness to the murder.

Splinter wanders the streets until he and four turtles are exposed to some kind of chemical ooze that mutates them and makes them grow into humanlike beings. Splinter sees an opportunity to avenge his master's death. He spends the next thirteen years raising the Turtles in the ways of the ninja.

Now the Turtles have come of age, Splinter has taught them everything he knows, and it's time for them to fulfill their purpose: face the Foot Clan, kill Saki and avenge the death of Hamato Yoshi and his lover.

There is nothing in these comic books that makes me squeal "oh, I just GOTTA show this to the CHILDREN!"

This is absolutely absurd. ( said it best.) It's tongue-in-cheek hilarious because it's so stupid! It's the ultimate parody of the revenge story, the superhero origin story, and comic book melodrama all in one, and yet somehow you can't help but be drawn into it!

In issue two, they meet Baxter Stockman, a mad scientist bent on using his army of mousers to steal money from every bank in the city. His mousers are also weakening the foundations of every major building in New York, and he plans to hold the city ransom. Why is he doing this? His lab assistant, April O'Neal, points out that he would be a millionaire from the sale of his automated pest-control robots alone, so why use them for evil? Stockman's answer: "Because it's FUN!" The Turtles make short work of him and eventually shut down the mousers. But their lair in the sewers was trashed and Splinter is gone, so the Turtles take refuge in April's apartment.

In subsequent issues, the Turtles find out the ooze that mutated them is actually alien in origin. The aliens are bodiless brains who walk around in the stomach-areas of robotic exoskeletons. They operate from a company front called TCRI, and the Turtles accidentally get zapped to an alien planet where they meet an alien scientist who is trapped in a robotic body and hunted by a race of bipedal, sentient triceratops. This takes us up to issue 7. The series wastes no time getting weird, and keeps up this pace for quite some time.

The Turtles are violent, they curse, there's blood, they kill people... This isn't for kids.

Reading the original comic books has a very old school feel to it. The Turtles feel so... Original. Untainted by what they would later become in TV and movies. Part of it is the art style. It's very realistic and dramatic, not cartoony. Also, the Turtles have tails, and their bandannas are the same color, red. It's easy to forget the more popular versions on screen because the comics exist in a reality all their own.

As the Mirage series progresses, Shredder returns and destroys April's apartment, forcing the Turtles to fall back on her family farm. Their adventures become kinda mundane for a while, but soon enough we're back to crazy, outrageous encounters with mutants and aliens and Indian gods and all sorts of weirdness! It comes across very strongly as Eastman and Laird's imaginative creation, not modified and retooled to fit a demographic.

I wasn't a comic book fan as a kid, and I'm still not much of one. I'm not gonna lie, I think the stories in the comics are way too simple. Far too often the Turtles get pulled out of impossible situations instead of fighting their own way out. I never liked how comic books tend to be quick and oversimplified like that, but I have respect for the original. It started off as a one-shot parody of outrageous comic book melodrama, and ended up becoming a media empire! The original is dark, mature, action-packed, violent and serious. Now that I'm an adult, I like the adult Ninja Turtles better.

Compare that to...

Fred Wolf animated series
Somehow this violent, dark, bizarre, off-the-wall comic book series was adapted into a children's cartoon in 1987. It blows my mind to think about how this got off the ground in the first place. The Mirage comics were never meant for kids, and yet against all odds it became an animated TV series. Then against even more odds it became a hit and ran for ten seasons!

In the 80's, kids shows were lighthearted, goofy, and as nonviolent as possible. If there was violence, it was tempered with plenty of humor, including the villains, who were often humorized and their fiendishness was played up for laughs. The first animated series based on the comics followed this same convention.

(It wasn't until Batman: The Animated Series and Sonic the Hedgehog came around that people realized kids can handle something dark, dramatic and sophisticated.)

In this incarnation of the Turtles, they are the result of some chemical mutagen that causes whoever touches it to take on the form of the animal they most recently touched. Shredder has struck a deal with an alien stranded on Earth: technical knowledge to conquer the earth in exchange for a new body. April is once again a TV reporter for channel 6.

Most of the series is light, goofy, cartoony, full of pizza jokes and G-rated cursing. Also I notice everyone seems forbidden to say the words "die," "death," or "kill"; always replaced by "destroy!" The Turtles never call one another by nicknames. No Don, Leo, Raph, or Mike. They always say their full names. But they always call the bad guys by nicknames, and Shredder calls them by nicknames, too. I wonder if that was intentional.

The Fred Wolf series downsized the origin story. There's no murder, no revenge plot. Saki is Yoshi's rival who challenged him for control of the Foot Clan, and won. Yoshi fled to New York, and apparently couldn't get a job or decent housing, so he ended up living in the sewers with the rats as his only friends. (If I were Japanese I'd complain...) Hamato Yoshi himself is transformed into the rat. Simplified for the kids I guess, with most of the violence removed. Since there's no murder and revenge plot, there was no reason for Splinter and Yoshi to be separate characters.

People took a lot of ideas from the first issues of the Mirage series and reworked them for the adaptation. Take Krang for example. He's not in the Mirage comics, but his species more or less is: the race of brain-creatures who walk around in robotic bodies, controlling them with joysticks from the vantage point of the robot's stomach. But in the Mirage series, this alien race isn't aggressive or violent or from a world that is in constant war. Their ship crashed on Earth and they just want to go home.

One key difference between the comics and the Fred Wolf adaptation is the Turtles themselves. Eastman and Larid's Ninja Turtles don't have such stark personality differences. Leonardo is kind of the leader of the group, but he doesn't assert himself that much. Don seems to know computer systems and how to diffuse bombs, but he isn't treated as the only Turtle with brains. Mike isn't a party dude and Raph isn't angry all the time. The Turtles are portrayed pretty much as just... the Turtles. They don't have separate personalities, and why should they in a black and white comic book with no easy way to tell them apart? They're treated as a single character. In one issue, for example, Mike is heroic, serious and a bad-ass fighter. It surprised me to see Mike portrayed as anything but the clown of the group. I was surprised when I read that the separate personalities are a convention of the Fred Wolf series.

Same with the 80's slang. Cowabunga-tubular-gnarley-rad and every other 80's cliche` you remember about the turtles... it's barely in the comics. Sure, there's some because the comics were a product of the time, but it's nowhere near the extent hollywood injected into it. I guess they did that because everyone thought all the kids were talking like that.

(Did anyone talk like that? Really, did they? I always thought everyone was just making fun of the stereotypical 80's teenager. I didn't know anyone who actually talked like that unless they were referencing the Turtles, or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.)

Also, no pizza in the Mirage comics. Yup, the Turtles are not obsessed with pizza. That's refreshing, since the series took the idea and stretched it way further than it should've gone.

All of these changes were to make the Turtles more appropriate for kids, but some changes might have been for the writers' advantage, too. The animated series changed April from Baxter's lab assistant to a TV news reporter. I wondered why they did that, and now I think it had something to do with giving April a bigger role in the cartoon.

In Eastman and Laird's Mirage series, April is barely involved in any of the Turtles' adventures. She's more or less the ordinary person caught up in the action, and she has to stay on the sidelines while the ninjas fight. But she's always there to mend their wounds and give them a home base.

The Fred Wolf series gave April an occupation that allowed her to be involved in their adventures. She is often the reason the Turtles get involved in the first place, as her quest for a great story puts her right in harm's way. For a kid's show, it makes sense to have recurring characters instigating the action. And for the sake of a TV show in general, it had to involve a cast of regulars, not the ever-changing who's-who of heroes and villains in the Mirage series.

There are plenty of robots in the Fred Wolf series. For a long time it seemed that's all the Turtles fought. Robots. But in the Mirage comics the Foot Clan is all people. Real people. Real people who shed a lot of ink-black blood when sliced with Leo's swords. Of course, that's not very kid-friendly, but you can slaughter robots by the millions and still get a G rating, hence the need to make the Foot Clan into a legion of robots created by Shredder.

So much changed to make it kid-friendly, but one thing did not: the Turtle's outrageous adventures. In every incarnation the Turtles really do get transported to alien worlds, pulled through time, meet other strange creatures, get involved in gladiator combat on other planets. It's all still there, just heavily altered and humorized for the kids.

It was my favorite as a kid, and I do not want to watch it again now that I'm an adult. I'm afraid I'll realize how stupid it actually was and my childhood will be ruined. I do remember it was light, happy, cartoony, weird...and probably a little corny with some great one-liners and fourth wall jokes thrown in for the adults.

Now compare that to...

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
starring Judith Hoag and Elias Koteas

The first live-action movie. In this version of the turtles, a crime wave has swept through New York City. April O'Neal is a TV reporter for channel 3 news. Splinter and the turtles are the result of some mysterious chemical ooze that made them grow. Shredder is taking teenagers off the streets into a crime gang, stealing everything they can and... doing something with it that makes Shredder's crime empire thrive.

Much like Jetsons the Movie, it was one of those movies I watched so many times as a kid I have it memorized. Even today I knew what characters were going to say before they said it.

How is it after all these years? Well, surprisingly, it's not a bad movie. It's weird just how seriously it takes this outrageous concept. Much like the original comic book, it is both a parody of the superhero origin story and a serious installment thereof.

The movie had a real identity crisis. The filmmakers wanted to base it on the original comic books, but at the same time the Fred Wolf cartoon series was such a big hit and the Turtles had millions of pre-pubescent fans all over the freakin world! They were the audience for the Turtles, not adults, so the movie had to be this weird hybrid of the two: dark and violent, but also lighthearted and kid-friendly. It didn't turn out badly, but now that I'm an adult I yearn for a literal adaptation of the Mirage comics for the adult audience it was intended.

Shredder and the Foot Clan got downgraded big time. Now the Foot Clan is a bunch of teenage thugs who steal stuff for the clan. That's Shredder's master plan? Get teenagers to steal stuff for him? Come on, an evil Ninja master would have to have a bigger agenda than that! What does he do with all of that stuff anyway, resell it on the black market? Ah well, he had to be softened for the kids, and the movie didn't have the budget to do anything with aliens, and like hell they'd turn Shredder into a mob boss. Way too adult.

It is a technical marvel. The animatronics still look amazing, even by today's standards. This wasn't computer animation. Somebody had to build human-sized turtles and a rat and make them look real. Even knowing these are men in rubber costumes and Splinter is a puppet, I still got drawn into thinking of them as real. Again, there is something about this idea that just pulls you in no matter how bizarre it gets!

Can't say the story is particularly deep or well-executed though. The Turtles themselves never really get involved in the story. They fight the Foot Clan, but they never learn who the Foot are, or why they're fighting these guys. All the other characters do. The Turtles are the fighters. They fight and spit out one-liners, but remain totally ignorant of what's actually going on. Very strange if you think about it.

The fight scenes are spectacular and fascinating to watch. Martial arts is hard enough to perform in regular clothes. Somehow these guys did it wearing big rubber suits. It's an entertaining, fun little movie. It pales in comparison to the comics, but given the budget and technology they had to work with at the time, they did a great job bringing the Turtles to life, finding a unique balance between the dark violence of the Mirage comics, and the humor of the cartoon.

It does take the ancient 80's slang a bit too far. Gnarly tubular awesome bodacious dude! Ok, guys that's enough, you're embarrassing yourselves. Well, of course it would show its age. Again, did anyone really talk like that, or did grey old men in big Hollywood offices only think that's how all teenagers talked and try to speak their language?

One thing I noticed as an adult: a gay joke! Don tells Casey Jones "you're a claustrophobic." Casey responds "you want a fist in the mouth? I never even looked at another guy before!" I backed up and listened to it a second time to make sure I heard him right. Casey, is there something you wanna tell us? You know what they say: the more defensive you are...

I glanced at the soundtrack on Amazon and I wish it had the more of the orchestration and not just the pop songs. The music is so serious and big and dramatic for such an absurd concept it begs for more attention. But at least we have TURTLE POWER!

And that's not all!

The second Turtles movie: Secret of the Ooze
Goofier than the first. I remember liking the lighter atmosphere more as a kid, but man the story isn't nearly as good this go 'round. Although I like that the Turtles are now more involved in the story, it became pretty campy because it didn't even try to take itself seriously.

A few ideas from the comics would make their way into the second movie though. The Turtles discover the ooze is a product of some scientific company, TGRI. But due to budget and the limits of technology, there are no aliens. It's just an accidental mixture of discarded chemicals that got released down the sewers. Very cheap, but the Turtle costumes themselves sucked up most of the movie's budget, so it's forgivable.

At least the first movie somehow took a ridiculous idea and treated it with respect. Not this movie.

Turtles 3
...fanfiction gone wrong. I think somebody wanted to make a movie about feudal Japan but couldn't get the project greenlit until someone tossed the Turtles into the conflict.

2003 animated series
I admit I haven't seen very much of this series, so I can't compare it too much to the Fred Wolf version. From what little I have seen, April is Baxter's lab assistant again, the Turtles have even more separate personalities, and Shredder is a real threat, not a comedic villain.

I like the darker atmosphere, the edgier plot elements and Splinter being more active in the adventures. The Turtles don't spew out endless 80's slang all the time, and that's a welcome change, too.

What I hate are the Turtles. I hate their eyes... They have no eyes! Their eyes are white, which looks freaking creepy! I know this is how they were drawn in the original comics, but I didn't like it there either!

Also, I hate Leonardo. In the comics, live-action movies and everything else, Leo is just the leader of the group. But in this series, he's a self-righteous prick! He lectures everybody on morality, walks around with this air that he knows everything and disagreeing with him is foolish, and this makes him much less likable than he should be. Raph is angry and gruff, not just lightheartedly sassy. Don's intelligence is at the forefront of his character now. Mike doesn't just make pizza and party jokes all the time. Those are upgrades! Leo is an insufferable asshole in this series.

TMNT 2007 (Movie 4)
This movie builds on the tropes of the 2003 animated series. It's cool and exciting, but the story makes no sense. The movie isn't bad. It looks awesome! The look of the movie is incredible, dramatic, and exciting. I enjoyed watching it.

But what happened? What was the story? I’m still confused about what exactly happened 3,000 years ago. What did opening that portal achieve? Why were monsters released into our world? Why was Winters’ family turned to stone? What happened to the monsters during those 3,000 years? Why didn’t he take over the world after opening that portal? What stopped him if he was immortal? It’s a good action flick, but the back story wasn’t clear, so what was the point?

Oh, and Leo is still a prick. He's not on the side of right--I'm actually on Raph's side! Why is Leo telling Raph he can't go out and fight crime anymore? The Shredder is dead, and the Turtles just stopped fighting crime? What, did all the criminals flee to Philadelphia for safety and now New York is at peace?? Why aren't the Turtles fighting crime? Why is Raph the only one still doing it, and why is Leo telling him he can't? What is Leo's problem?! Nothing in this movie makes sense!

Archie comics
It seems pointless to adapt a comic book series into ANOTHER comic book series. But this one was based on the Fred Wolf series and aimed at kids. I wasn't a comic book reader as a kid, but I did eat these up. I glanced at them again, and man, I can't believe how... uh... bad the artwork is. I remember it being much better than it is, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. All things for kids have to be goofy and funny after all, and these comics are pretty much that. It keeps up the spirit of the Mirage series by sending the Turtles on all sorts of crazy adventures around the world and in space.

I really, really liked the subliminal romance between Raph and Ninjara. That was a pretty adult thing to do in a kid's comic, but it's barely in the series. A panel in one issue would show them embracing. Another panel two issues later would show Raph helping her up or something. That's about as far as the romance went, and it ended rather disappointingly. Just as well. They never did use Ninjara's character very much anyway. Then again, I've always been a sucker for fox characters.

syndicated comic series
I've only seen archives of this on the net. I had no idea it was a syndicated newspaper comic strip through much of the 90's! It's a typical gag-a-day comic series, making the turtles look like morons for the sake of comic strip jokes.

Wow. Just look at all of that! The Ninja Turtles have been adapted so many times it's gotta be a record! I haven't even touched on the video games, TV movies, spinoff books, numerous other comic series, the live show, the live action TV show, and the upcoming movie and animated series!

If you're a Turtle fan and have not checked out the original, you owe it to yourself to have a look at what Laird and Eastman actually made. It's an eye-opening experience, nothing like the adaptations. Very different, very original and creative. The more it's adapted, the further away from the original it gets, and it makes me wonder which version will be remembered. I often wonder how they feel about their own work overshadowed by other people's remakes. Do they yearn for people to remember what they created? I suppose it's enough to know that the right people will remember.

Never settle for someone else's remake. Seek the original!

(PS--personally I think the Fred Wolf series will live on the longest, simply because it touched so many kids' lives over the years.)


Popular Posts