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“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 1” – History on a Half-Shell

by on January 2, 2012

Despite being an active comics collector at the time, I managed to completely miss out on the first coming of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I remember being at least vaguely aware of them, but I didn’t really encounter them until well after they had become over-exposed icons on the pop-culture landscape. My first real encounter with the characters in their TV cartoon didn’t exactly leave a positive impression, either. However, I was still interested enough in the characters that I didn’t want to pass up the chance to read their original adventures and I’m pretty glad I did. Nickelodeon and IDW are reprinting all the original Turtles comics in oversized, deluxe hardcover editions, starting with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 1, containing the first seven issues and a Raphael one-shot.

The Turtles get a pretty conventional superhero origin story in the first issue of their comic: pet turtles and a rat who gain intelligence after being splashed by a mysterious ooze (which comes out of suspiciously familiar circumstances, at least if you follow Marvel Comics), hiding in the sewers of New York City. Of course, this being comics, the rat happened to be the pet of a ninja master, and learned the shadow warrior’s art through watching his owner through the years. After passing his knowledge to his four young charges (who are given their names from “a battered copy of a book on Renaissance art” fished out of the sewer), Master Splinter commissions them to take revenge on Shredder, the evil ninja that slew Splinter’s master. The Turtles’ continuing nighttime sojourns in the streets of New York leads them to cross paths with April O’Neil, an assistant to a mad scientist who becomes the Turtles’ first human friend; the evil Foot ninja clan, bent on the death of the Turtles; Casey Jones, another costumed vigilante using a sports theme for his activities; and the mysterious firm known as TCRI.

I had always been led to believe that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a parody of the trends in American comic books at the time, where Chris Claremont’s X-Men were beginning an expansion that continues unabated to this day and the minor ninja boom of the period led to every other superhero revealing some secret shinobi past (and a resulting evil ninja horde). After finally reading these original comics, I must admit that I have been laboring under a pretty big misunderstanding for years, because I don’t think Eastman and Laird were really intending to parody anything. It seems more that they were just writing and drawing a comic composed of things they thought were cool, but through a slightly outlandish talking animal prism. This is definitely not meant as a criticism of the comics, though, because their passion leaps off every page of these comics. These comics are definitely not the glossy, established style that prevailed in Marvel and DC’s superhero titles at the time. The most accurate description of these comics is also “amateurish,” with often crude plotting, heavy-handed expository dialogue, exceptionally thin characterization, and more than a few spelling, grammar, and continuity errors. However, I also greatly admire the way that these comics overwhelm all of their technical shortcomings through sheer enthusiasm and an overabundance of energy. One can really feel the passion of two creators simply having a ball, emulating their artistic role models (largely Jack Kirby and Frank Miller) in what is clearly a labor of love. It’s also simply impossible not to get caught up in their passion, partially because their enthusiasm is so infectious and partially because the comics themselves are just kind of stone cold crazy. Just when you think the Turtles have established themselves in the superheroic mold, Eastman and Laird fling them off into outer space for a few issues of sci-fi adventures, caught between warring factions of humans and bipedal dinosaurs with a robot scientist caught in between them. There’s not much in that sentence that isn’t pretty awesome, and you can practically hear Eastman and Laird cackling like maniacs in the background of every insane panel.

There is a definite market trend in the American comics industry for deluxe reprints of historical comics, often in hefty oversized editions with behind-the-scenes bonus features, high-quality printing, and top-dollar price tags. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 1 definitely fits with this trend, packing 319 pages in a hefty hardcover just a shade smaller than a DC “Absolute” edition. There was a joke on the earliest Monty Python DVDs that claimed they offered “all the pops, scratches, film grain, and monaural sound of the originals presented in perfect digital clarity,” and something of the same is true of this volume. I’m sure that IDW worked with the best source material available, but I suspect that even at their best, these earliest Turtles comics weren’t very high-quality to begin with. However, the reproduction is surprisingly good as long as you can accept the low-budget limitations that Eastman & Laird were working under initially. I have no idea how much improvement was done in remastering these comics now, but they sure look good here. The oversized print and the nice, thick paper stock also assist in some of the massive splashes and two-page spreads, revealing some pretty astonishing levels of detail tucked away in tiny corners.

The hardcover reprints the original black-and-white versions of these comics, not the color reprints from the collections by First Comics starting in 1989. However, the covers to these comics were in color, and their reproductions in this volume are vivid and sharp without looking over-processed or entirely redone in the way that many remastering projects do. Each issue also gets some commentary by Eastman and/or Laird, as well as a page or two of annotations by Eastman. My only complaint about these is that the page numbers of the annotations are for the comic, not the collection, but many of the comic book pages themselves have no page numbers. As a result, the annotations will refer to “page 29” of the comic, which is actually page 185 of the collection. It’s a small but non-trivial annoyance. There are also a handful of pencil sketches and pinups at the end of the volume.

Fans of the Turtles will find plenty to like about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 1, and the historical importance of the comics themselves makes this a pretty good addition to any serious follower of the American comic book industry. The $50 cover price may be a bit hard to swallow for a less dedicated fan, but the book’s quality and production values definitely show why the book commands such a high price tag.

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