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Published from 1989 to 1995, Archie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures feels a lot like the end result of a game of Telephone: ostensibly based on the first cartoon version of the property, it decided pretty early on that it’d rather be interesting instead. As the book wore on, it shed the trappings of its source material with increasing gusto, until it became unrecognizable, featuring stories that were less about Shredder and Krang’s nth attempt at world domination and more about having future versions of the turtles travel back in time to fight both Hitler and his brain, and then being responsible for the Führer’s suicide.
Although I, like seemingly every other kid back then, was swept by the original turtles phenomenon, it was the Archie comic that made the most impact on me. While I wasn’t a regular reader, and I wasn’t always sure what was going on, it didn’t really matter: conceptually and tonally, these were stories unlike anything I had ever seen at the time, and even though they don’t hold up to more critical scrutiny, they remain some of my favorite bits of TMNT lore. Given that, it was hard not to get excited when IDW Publishing began reprinting these stories; sure, it’s highway robbery at $20.00 per volume—meaning $5.00 per issue—but the chance to revisit the title’s earliest days, which I had almost no memory of, was too good to pass up.
Despite the “2” on the cover, this volume contains the Archie series’ very first original stories–the book up until then had consisted of adaptations of cartoon episodes–arguably making this the actual start of the series proper. The difference between it and the source is pretty much immediately noticeable. Sure, the Ken Mitchroney art is clearly inspired by the cartoon, and characters and elements that would later be abandoned, like the Turtle Blimp and mainstays Bebop and Rocksteady–are still being used, but even then there are a host of subtle differentiating details dotting the book, foreshadowing the turn it would eventually take. Most importantly, stories are less cynical: whereas the cartoon felt like the product of people who knew they were creating something utterly disposable and therefore didn’t require things like sympathetic characters or stories with proper weight, the creators here care and want the reader to care. Less noticeably, the various characters have been made different in ways subtle and not: the turtles are less reliant on their theme-song quirks; the Shredder and Krang feel more like legitimate threats than annoyances, April, despite having only a cameo, appears long enough to have her professional context altered.
In retrospect, the first story of the volume, “Something Fishy Goes Down”, feels like an outlier, being the only story of the four that isn’t directly connected to the others and featuring the kind of plot that probably would have made it into the cartoon. The Shredder, armed with a submarine, is set to ruin Independence Day by blowing up the Statue of Liberty, and its up to the turtles and marine biologist-turned-mutant-manta-ray Man Ray (of course) to stop him. It’s a nothing sort of story, and while there’s nothing particularly wrong with it, it’s by far the weakest of the lot.
Things start hitting in their stride in “Of Turtles and Stones and Mary Bones”, which introduces the book’s version of classic TMNT character Leatherhead and tells us his story. Curiously, the character shares almost nothing with his animated namesake, essentially being an entirely new concept in a familiar body: instead of being a crocodile mutated by toxic ooze, this version of the character is Jess Hartley, a petty thief who is turned into a leatherhead by bayou sorceress Mary Bones. The story is told primarily from Jess’ point of view, as he literally falls in with the Shredder and is convinced that the turtles are responsible for his plight and may be able to reverse it. Aside from a rather painful internal monologue at the beginning, it’s a fine story, and a good example of how to get the most out of the original cartoon’s setup.
The best of the four stories is by far “Intergalactic Wrestling”, in which the turtles are kidnapped and taken to an asteroid where they are forced to fight in a wrestling match. The setting allows the creators to go wild, and the issue just throws character after weird character at the reader, and while they’re more gimmicks than anything else, they’re great gimmicks. Highlights include Ace Duck, a banana-hammock-sporting Duck bodybuilder/wrestler, and Cudley the Cowlick, who requires far too many adjectives to elegantly describe, and who became one of the more enduringly popular characters in the book.
Finally, there’s “Wild Things”, in which the turtles are returned to Earth just in time to take on the duo of Wingnut and Screwloose (the names fit their personalities) aliens whose planet has been ravaged by Krang, and who have made it their lives’ mission to find the warlord and defeat him. For reasons unexplained, this involves breaking New York City skylights.
Although the four stories are for the most part self-contained, there is a fair level of interconnectedness between them. Not only do three of the four stories lead directly into one another, there are hints of a larger story at work throughout. Additionally, all four stories introduce characters who will eventually become a vital part of the comic book, and who were either original or not prominent in the cartoon—Leatherhead is the exception–further differentiating the two.
Dean Clarrain has been one of the writers most closely associated with TMNT comics—the name is a pseudonym for Stephen Murphy, who is responsible for a good amount of Mirage-published books in addition to most of TMNT Adventures‘–and I was surprised to find that this is probably the most consistent work I’ve yet seen from him. While it’s not his most memorable by any means, there’s a level of focus that is missing from his latter work, which I’m tempted to credit to Ryan Brown’s collaborator as co-plotter. It’s also interesting to learn that Clarrain’s concern with environmental issues, which is the closest thing Adventures has to an overarching theme, was present from the very beginning.
Ken Mitchroney is the artist for three of the four issues, and his art is perfect for this particular era in the book. It doesn’t quite try to replicate the actual look from the cartoon, it manages to suggest it while being its own thing. Long-time Turtles artist Jim Lawson draws the last issue, and while his art was very rarely a good fit for this book, his work here—inked by Gary Fields, who also serves as the book’s regular letterer–is probably his best when it comes to this particular title.
With the Ninja Turtles currently undergoing yet another renaissance, it’s nice to revisit its past to see what one can learn from it. Recently, I’ve realized that a huge part of what makes the TMNT work for me is the weirdness, a love for Concepts That Make You Go “!” and makes the works interesting even when the stories aren’t terribly good. On those terms, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures: Volume 2 succeeds admirably: not only does it feature solid stories, it stands as a testament of the wide variety of stories that can be told with these characters.
Serves as a decent nostalgia trip, and a good example of how one can make a less serious take on the turtles work. Still, perfectly ignorable if one isn’t a fan, despite “Intergalactic Wrestling”, particularly given the price. 3 out of 5.
A fair amount: it’s the first appearances of a bunch of important characters, and the very beginnings of a subplot that will run through the book’s first year,
Nothing in particular. If you’re familiar with the setup of the original cartoon, or really, with the turtles at all, you’re set.
The original Mirage TMNT, for a good idea of how the two titles could be so different and yet so similar. Or, if you can find it, the TMNT: Future Tense Trade Paperback, to see where the Archie book eventually ended up.