Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the most consistently popular properties in modern entertainment. Since their debut in May 1984 in the comic book pages of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, these viridian warriors have remained immensely popular with generation after generation of audiences through countless incarnations. And while the evergreen popularity of TMNT may perplex some who have never followed the adventures of four pizza-loving mutated turtles who fight crime in New York City with ninja skills, it is undeniable.
Every fan has his or her favorite incarnation of The Turtles. Some like the ultra-gritty parody of the original black and white comics. Others have overwhelming nostalgia for the kid-focused cartoon from the early ‘90s. Of course, the live action ‘90s film series has its legion of fans, as well, especially the first movie. And don’t forget the multiple comic book incarnations that followed the original, the darker 2000’s cartoon, the dozens of video games, the currently-running CGI cartoon, and the new live action film series. Each offer a different take on the heroes in a half shell while still remaining mostly faithful to why they became so popular in the first place.
But when it comes to distilling everything great about TMNT while also making something fresh, it’s the modern Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book from IDW Publishing that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Debuting in August 2011 and publishing monthly in the years since, the new series, written by co-creator Kevin Eastman and new arrival Tom Waltz, reboots the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with everything ever loved by fans yet without the staleness so often felt in these kinds of retreads. Whether you are a long-time fan or a brand new consumer of all things turtles, this is everything anyone needs when it comes to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and the vibrant world in which they live.
Iconic Characters in a New World
When IDW was given the rights to publish a new TMNT comic book series, they could have gone in numerous directions. But rather than pick up old plot threads or retread well-worn ground, writers Eastman and Waltz decided to start back at square one, but with an injection of brand new ideas. While the four turtle brothers and their rat sensei Splinter are still mutated into humanoid creatures by the ooze, they were now the reincarnations of Hamato Yoshi and his four sons after their murder in feudal Japan by Oroku Saki, aka The Shredder. This remixing of their origins blends both fantasy and science fiction elements within the origins of the turtles. And while they may seem like a strange mix at first, these elements have always been blended in the larger world of TMNT.
That bold new take on the origins of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is indicative of the IDW run as a whole. There are dozens upon dozens of characters that comprise the best moments of TMNT history, but these are scattered across various incarnations and each loved by different sets of fans. Here, Watz and Eastman integrate iconic characters like Karai, Rocksteady, Bebop, Krang, Rat King, Casey Jones, April O’Neal, Baxter Stockman, and more into the overarching narrative of The Turtles and Splinter versus Shredder and The Foot Clan. In addition, new characters like Old Hobb and Alopex become just as memorable as their well-loved counterparts. However, the series isn’t beholden to telling the same old story arcs or presenting them in the exact manner as before.
The series works hard to preserve the spirit of each character while also exploring the freedom to try new takes. As a result, these characters work as well-integrated pieces of the larger stories. Each character is introduced into the story in his or her given time, rather than being stuffed in as soon as possible. Over the course of the first 50 issues, a massive narrative is constructed; moving each piece into place as the forces of good and evil collide in ever escalating battles. It’s clear that there is a massive amount of long-term planning happening behind the scenes of IDW’s TMNT, as crucial plot threads are slowly woven into the narrative without immediate payoff. While smaller story arcs may break up the larger story, these function in an escalating manner that consistently raises the stakes. Even though the more recent issue #50 saw the climactic battle between the Turtles and The Foot Clan bring closure to the long-simmering storyline, Waltz and Eastman have seeded more than enough plot threads to make it clear that nothing is slowing down.
Importantly, the two writers maintain a balance between keeping the stories unpredictable yet also satisfyingly faithful to the source material. Every character is given his or her due as the larger story progresses. Those looking to see their personal favorite characters given a proper spotlight will find satisfaction sooner or later, but will also come to enjoy the many other elements at play.
There’s a balance to the risks taken throughout TMNT. The writers manage to consistently shake things up while still maintaining enough of a status quo as to consistently appease fans. After all, a TMNT book that eliminates its core mechanics will never fully satisfy fans. As new enemies appear and old ones resurface, each of the four brothers are tested in their own way. Raphael is separated from his brothers in the first year after their mutation, which causes his anger issues and difficult integration within the group. In the major story arc “City Fall,” Leonardo is subjected to brainwashing by The Foot Clan, which turns him against his brothers. This is followed by Donatello being brutally and near-fatally attacked by Rocksteady and Bebop. And most recently, major developments concerning the heroes alienate Michelangelo from his brothers.
This all occupies a massive world that includes mutated animals, ancient magic, alien warfare, time travel, and lots of kung fu. While that may seem like too much for the story to handle, the beauty of comic books is that there is more than enough time and energy that can be devoted to these many disparate elements. No film adaptation can come close to the breadth of storytelling found here and even the cartoon television shows find constraints in how far their narratives can stretch. In the years since its start, the main TMNT series has been supplemented by numerous one-shot comics and miniseries that help to flesh out relationships and backstories. It’s a precedent set by the original Eastman and Laird comics that lives on through an even more robust modern interpretation. This is a world that is far too easy to get lost in, but that’s a high compliment for any piece of fiction.
Serious Fun with the Turtles
As time and numerous incarnations have shown, it’s just as easy to make TMNT too goofy to be interesting as it is to make it too self-serious to be enjoyable. Thankfully, Eastman and Waltz strike the right tonal balance throughout their run.
Yes, the turtles fight against serious stakes and there are multiple deaths throughout the series that often come as shocking developments. But there’s also loads of fun to be had. This is a bright and bold comic book, even if it isn’t always cheery. Dark stories focused on the core conflict like “City Fall” are often broken up by fun tales like “Turtles in Time” or introspective arcs like “Northhampton.” The result is a series that knows levity and appropriate tonal variety helps make the light moments lighter and the dark moments darker. When applied to the epic sweep of the story being told here, the IDW TMNT manages to stay almost always fresh issue after issue.
The battles are intense and kinetic, with fights ranging from down and dirty street brawls against local gangs to team ups against the massively overpowered Krang to the honorable ninja combat staged against The Shredder. While the series has been illustrated by numerous artists across its multi-year run, special mention must be made for Mateus Santolouco, whose expressive and detailed yet slightly exaggerated work has brought to life some of the series’ best story arcs. Best of all, the turtles don’t have to fight against robotic enemies like the ‘90s cartoon or refrain from using their weapons completely like the neutered TMNT 2: Secret of the Ooze. While they aren’t the blood-thirsty murderers of the original comic, these heroes are serious combatants who fight hard while still showing respect for the sanctity of life.
Just as crucial as tone and action is the way each character is brought to life throughout the series. The four main turtles and Master Splinter cleave close to their well-known characteristics while also being given greater depth. Leo the Leader, Mikey the Joker, Raph the Hothead, and Donnie the Genius create a wonderful dynamic that has helped power this franchise for nearly 30 years, so why change it now? But the challenges they face cause character growth that, shockingly, actually sticks as the series progresses. The same can be said for the villains. A major antagonist like The Shredder is given greater humanity in relation to the supreme evil of Krang. Casey and April provide a strong emotional underpinning to the stories. A selfish criminal like Old Hobb begins to act like an anti-hero over time. The mindless monster that is Slash soon becomes one of the most beloved side characters in the series. Even Rocksteady and Bebop are turned into two of the most dangerous villains in the entire series, even though they still have elements of their bumbling original incarnation. By making each character more interesting and unique, there’s a greater emotional investment into their individual fates, leading to better stories.
There’s simply too much goodness packed into the IDW Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book series for any fan, both hardcore and casual, to pass up. And while the past 30 years show that the turtles will likely live on in many more incarnations in the decades to come, Waltz and Eastman’s ongoing series now represents the true heights that TMNT can reach.