Oct 14, 2020
3 horrifying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles moments Michael Bay will never use
If you’re a Millennial (the vaguely established generation everyone over 40 loves to heap all the world’s problems on because they play with their smartphones on the bus and don’t spend money on flavorless beer, chain restaurant food, or bar soap), you’re forced to watch your favorite childhood TV obsessions get dressed up like a Westworld robot prostitute and sold off for public consumption that your own children will ignore in favor of pop culture that consists mostly of the streaming YouTube version of the Two Minute Hate.
The traitor Goldstein of our generation is Michael Bay, a man who’s built a career upon the frustrated tears of thirty-somethings by turning their fading childhood nostalgia into a terrifying vortex of explosions and Ebonics-spewing Transformers. The results unfortunately speak for themselves, as the Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchises have earned approximately infinity billion dollars since 2007. That said, those of us who remember the Ninja Turtles from before the original cartoon turned them into a toy-generating Möbius machine may occasionally recall that the original comic series contained moments that didn’t really scream “Hollywood blockbuster”. Here are three of those moments.
1. When Shredder exploded and got decapitated
You’d never know this if you’re only familiar with the bright, colorful world of the cartoons and movies, but the original comic series was shockingly dark. Both thematically and literally, because it was produced as part of the “Black and White Explosion” of the 1980s, when lower printing costs led to a trend of independent artists printing and distributing their own work in black and white (a trend that also gave us The Tick). So why present a silly concept as a dark and gritty story? Because the original Ninja Turtles story is actually a satire, specifically of the work of Frank Miller.
Yes, even the cover of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 is a parody of the first issue of Frank Miller’s Ronin, while the story itself is a satire of Miller’s relentlessly grim version of Daredevil, to the point that the Turtles’ origin story is technically just Matt Murdock’s origin story, except the cannister of glowy gunk finds a different victim.
Even the Turtles’ arch-enemies the Foot are really just parodies of the Daredevil villains the Hand. Okay, it’s not the most imaginative parody name, but it’s not like they knew their insider-nerd joke was going to eventually appear in multiple Hollywood movie franchises.
That said, an original addition to the setting was the main villain Shredder, who’d go on to become the most iconic bad guy of the entire franchise. Even Krang is a distant second, and Rocksteady and Bebop are so cartoonishly incompetent that they’re a bigger danger to themselves than the Turtles. Which is why it’s so shocking that the Shredder originally met with a very gruesome end in his first appearance.
Eastman and Laird had no real plans on using Shredder again, so they had the story end with Shredder first getting skewered like a suckled pig, then blowing himself up with a grenade when he attempts to suicide bomb the Turtles like a dick. By the time the cartoon was in the works, the comic series didn’t really have an overarching villain (not helped by the fact that they had only made like 12 issues before they got bogged down approving toys and counting money), so the cartoon went with Shredder as the main villain.
The comic eventually brought him back in the 1989 “Return to New York” storyline, which lasted an entire year and revealed that the Foot had scraped up the Shredder gibblets from the street and resurrected him with magic clone worms. Seriously. And then, Leonardo promptly chops his head off.
To add insult to injury, the Turtles decide that they aren’t taking any chances this time, and dump Shredder’s headless body in the Hudson and set it on fire to ensure that he can’t come back again. And… he never did! Yes, the most famous villain in the entire franchise has actually been dead for twenty years. It’s like if DC really had killed off the Joker in his second appearance like originally intended, but everyone else just sort of ignored it and kept casting new ones to be in the movies.
2. When Splinter raised the Turtles to perpetuate a blood feud
One thing that’s stuck throughout all the various Ninja Turtles incarnations and increasingly shameless cash grabs is their mentor/foster father Splinter, originally a reference to Daredevil’s mentor Stick from Miller’s run in the comics.
Yes, Eastman and Laird were really into obvious name-based jokes when they made this. The most well-known version of Splinter is the ’80s cartoon, where he was originally Shredder’s human rival Hamato Yoshi, whom Shredder framed for attempting to assassinate their clan leaders. Upon arriving in the US, Hamato took to living in the sewers (and you thought immigrant housing is bad now), and eventually stumbled across four turtles doused in glowing muck. Hamato gets some of the gunk on himself, and the rest is history.
However, this wasn’t Splinter’s original origin. In the comics, Splinter began life as an actual rat living in Japan, under the ownership of the real Hamato Yoshi, a member of the Foot Clan. To be fair, the Bay movies did use the part about him being a rat. What they didn’t use was the reason why Shredder and Splinter were in New York in the first place. See, in the comics, Hamato Yoshi had a girlfriend named Tang Shen. Another member of the Foot, Oroko Nagi, wasn’t thrilled that she chose Hamato over him. So, in a completely rational response, he tried to kill her. Hamato wasn’t thrilled about this, and expressed his displeasure via beating Nagi to death. Being given the choice between ritualistic suicide or exile (apparently, ninjas don’t belive in prison), Hamato took Tang Shen and went to America. Problem was, Nagi had a younger brother who wasn’t happy about suddenly being an only child, and his name was Oroko “Shredder” Saki.
Saki spent ten years training obsessively to avenge his brother (sure, he was a woman-beating asshole, but it’s the principle of the thing). When he turned 18, the Foot chose him to form and lead an American chapter of the clan. Saki of course didn’t give a single shit about franchising ninjas, but jumped at the chance to track down Yoshi. For whatever reason, he decided he had to do this while wearing kitchen cutlery and took the name Shredder. After tracking down and brutally murdering both Hamato and Tang Shen, Shredder turned the American Foot into a crime empire (maybe that’s what he was supposed to do? The comic was kind of vague on exactly what the Foot’s purpose was). Foolishly, Saki missed the fact that Hamato’s pet rat had sworn a blood oath against him. At this point, you all know the story: cannister of mutagen, baby turtles in the sewers, yadda yadda. However, what you didn’t see in the cartoon was that Splinter only trained the Turtles so they’d kill Shredder for him.
Yeah, kinda ruins his paternal image, doesn’t it? Splinter apparently didn’t raise the Turtles out of the goodness of his heart; he did it so he could hedge his bets and make sure at least one of them managed to kill Shredder. This would probably account for why the early comics are rather disjointed, since there isn’t actually any overarching story due to the Turtles achieving their purpose in life in the very first issue. Granted, they had to kill the guy a second time, but they didn’t know that. They just thought they’d finished their goal in one afternoon. Which brings us to our third entry…
3. When the Turtles started a gang war
Yeah, remember how I mentioned that Shredder turned his version of the Foot to organized crime? One thing the Turtles hadn’t anticipated when they offed the Shredder the second time and made sure his minions couldn’t Frankenstein him back together again was that the Foot didn’t just up and vanish when their leader died. Suddenly, New York was full of unemployed ninjas without the life skills to switch to a less stabby career. Thus kicked off the 1993 “City at War” storyline, which began with a literal bang.
While both the 2003 and 2012 cartoons half-heartedly tried to adapt this storyline, neither came close to touching how dreary and miserable all the characters are here. The Turtles are suffering from severe depression and malaise, having lost all purpose in life (probably unavoidable when your whole purpose is killing one guy); April and Casey Jones have split up and left town; and Splinter has exiled himself to the countryside. And that’s before the Foot turns New York into a war zone with different factions fighting for control, while the remains of Shredder’s elite guard run around killing everyone they can get their hands on, having decided that everyone else is dishonoring their dead boss (you ever get the feeling these ninjas just make up their code as they go along?). In the middle of this, Karai, a representative of the Japanese Foot, arrives to try and bring the New York Foot under control. It does not go well.
The comic constantly switches between the Turtles trying to keep the Shredder Elite from turning New York into a charnel house, and the increasingly traumatic lives of their former pals April (her dad dies from a stroke) and Casey (marries a waitress who almost immediately dies on him). Oh, and Splinter is trapped in an abandoned silo with both his legs broken and is slowly starving to death. Yeah, seriously, that’s Splinter’s arc in this story: starving and slowly going insane in the middle of nowhere.
Karai makes a deal with the Turtles that the Foot will forgive the death of Shredder and cancel their blood debt against them if they help take down the Shredder Elite and stop the war. But first, Karai dresses up like the Shredder to trick one of the Elite into committing suicide. Michael Bay can put together a movie that’s just explosions and Megan Fox’s midriff, but this scene might be a hard sell for the studio.
The remaining Elite aren’t quite terminally dumb enough to fall for the ruse, and what follows is a rather gruesome battle, with our heroes emerging victorious with just a few more bloody wounds and accompanying mental trauma. On a side note, this is one of the few times you’ll ever see the Turtles use a gun… well, one that doesn’t just shoot pizzas, anyway.
After that, the story pretty much wraps up. April and Casey return to New York, the Turtles have achieved some measure of peace by murdering even more people, and Splinter has stopped having an Apocalypse Now moment at the bottom of a silo and healed enough to escape. This story was probably supposed to be some sort of closure for the characters, since it capped off Volume 1 of the original comics, but most of it is just a study in psychological breakdown and disintegrating family bonds. Presumably, this was the creators’ way of dealing with the realization that their legacy to comics would mostly be remembered for a mountain of crappy toys, an unrecognizable animated series, and the Vanilla Ice singing, “Go Ninja go!”