Welcome, or welcome back, to Read Pile, where I, Keigen Rea, and hopefully a large, ever-growing mass of individuals will be, as EIC Dave Shevlin put it, “reducing our read piles to read piles,” and writing about those books, one at a time.
This week, we’re joined by Ali Selby (if you’re unfamiliar, check this out ), and I could not be more thrilled. This is her first piece at CFC, but I hope to see her more regularly, both here for Read Pile’s and in the main site. She’s brought Eastman & Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so let’s gooooooooo.
In 1987 you couldn’t walk through a mall or past a television without hearing about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They were the very definition of a cultural phenomenon at the time and have gone on to spawn a massive multimedia empire spanning thousands of action figures, numerous animated series, several films and even a musical show that debuted at Radio City Music Hall. At the time I was but six or seven years old and absolutely ripe for Turtle Mania. My brother and I never missed an episode of the wildly popular animated series, and we couldn’t leave a department store without begging Mom for one of the latest action figures, which frustrated her endlessly despite indulging us more often than not.
The Turtles never quite left my consciousness since becoming a fixture of the pop culture zeitgeist way back then. Though I fell away from them in my tweens, I always had a soft spot for the Turtles. Which brings me to now as a perfect storm has arrived to reawaken my adoration of those lean green ninja teens. When I received an offer to write an entry of Read Pile I had no idea what to pick as a selection to read, let alone write about. Then a friend and Turtles expert on Twitter suggested (Thank you, Josie!) reading Sophie Campbell’s IDW Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles run. So I did, voraciously. Once I’d finished those I was soon starving for more Ninja Turtles content to devour. I immediately knew what I should cover for my Read Pile column, I’d go all the way back to the beginning and read the original comics from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird which were published by Mirage in 1984.
Much has already been said about these issues and their relationship to Frank Miller’s Daredevil run which served as inspiration for them, their strengths and failings, and their status as prominent works of the comics medium. So, I won’t bore you with my take on those particulars – this is Comfort Food Comics after all. Instead I’ll simply share my experience reading the genesis of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles we know and love. I’d always wanted to read the original Eastman and Laird run when I was just getting into comics in the early ‘90s. However, the issues were already the stuff of legend back then and I never once saw them on the wall or in back issue boxes at any of my local comic shops. Thirty years later, I finally have them in front of me. So let’s dive in and have a look shall we?
The first thing that became evident to me upon beginning my read was the enthusiasm and joy that Eastman and Laird had in making these comics. The art just leaps off of the pages, it’s stark blacks and whites create a gritty and punk mood that permeates the entire run. It has an amatuer look that is infectious and fun and decidedly not Big Two comics. As I continued reading I was met with the darker tone of the story and characters I’d heard tales about over the years. These are definitely not the same Turtles as the 1987 animated series. They’re violent, bloodthirsty, and 100% set on getting revenge for their Sensei, Master Splinter. They mince no words and often speak in gritty overwrought statements. They never smile or play or train with Splinter or even enjoy a pizza together – the focus here is singular; eliminate Shredder.
As for characterization, there’s barely any distinction between the Turtles at all and often the only way to tell them apart is by the weapons they’re equipped with. You’d think this would be detrimental to the story but it’s clear that there was no plan for it to continue past the first issue so it doesn’t really affect the story either way. They’re very one note, and are only here as vehicles of the plot. The same can be said of Master Splinter, he just eggs the Turtles on for vengeance, Shredder just antagonizes them. It’s a very simple story. The dark tone and the attitude of the Turtles themselves is hammered home when Shredder meets his demise at the end of the first issue after being offered an opportunity to commit seppuku by Leonardo.
Though the story wraps up nicely and doesn’t do much to make the Turtles distinct you can see the bones of what became the multimedia powerhouse that we now know as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In that regard it’s a very interesting comic book, especially if you’re someone like me who came to love the Turtles through the ‘87 animated series and films in your childhood. Back then I was already using cartoons and movies and comic books to escape the reality of my day to day life. The tension of Mom and Dad constantly fighting. Dad arriving home late at night drunk and violent and the jumpiness that engrains in you due to hearing things being broken night after night. I would often go to bed and pray to wake up as a girl only to awaken devastated in the morning. Like the Turtles in these ‘80s comics, my life was darker both emotionally and physically at the time, and in the years since I’ve become better and more defined in who I am. So have the Turtles. While I look back at the 80’s and see the bones of who I would become, I now too see the bones of who the Turtles became.
Finally reading these comics after wanting to for so long is a bit bittersweet. With no nostalgia for them in place having not read them before now, I can see them for what they are. They represent a darker chapter in the life of the Turtles, but one that is no less important. It’s responsible for putting them out into the world and allowing them to become what they became. That’s not so different from my own experience. I don’t look back on my childhood particularly fondly, but it was necessary. It gave me a foundation to grow and learn from. While I have a few good memories from that time, it’s most definitely a chapter of my life that is now closed. Which is how I see these original issues. They’re a beginning, one that the Turtles have now grown beyond. They’re no longer violent instruments of revenge. They’re characters who inspire heroism, touch our hearts, and help us make new friends and find new family. I’m no longer a little girl trapped in a little boy’s life who is yearning to be seen and loved. I’m a grown ass queer as hell trans woman, an equal rights advocate, and a card carrying nerd. The Turtles and me have both grown beyond our beginnings and as odd as it sounds this comic helped me to see that growth in myself and to be proud of it.
I didn’t expect starting this project to take such a personal turn but, well… here we are. The Turtles as they are now represent a lot to me; found family, personal growth, taking care of one another, fighting for what is right, and now I feel like in a way that the trajectory of their story has mirrored my own. In my youth the Turtles were a comfort blanket of sorts. It’s been a real treat to rediscover that comfort blanket thanks to this project. You never know what you’ll find when you open up the pages of a comic book, and that’s why they’re so precious and valuable. They help us cope, and grow, and become friends, and family. They tell us stories, and help us to tell our own.
Thank you for reading, and thank Ali for gracing me with her wonderful words! Next time will be Reagan Anick, with WicDiv, which means I’m extremely excited check it out!
Also, if you read this, @ me (@prince_organa on Twitter) with people you’d like to see write a Read Pile, especially people of a marginalized gender or race. I’d love to find some new favorite critics to highlight here, so if someone comes to mind, let me know! Then they can make some money or something.
Thanks for reading!