As soon as 1990 began one of the biggest crazes of my youth hit CBBC. A brand new cartoon featuring four reptilian mutants who happened to be trained in the way of the ninja and who would increase the number of pizza parlours across the land. Along with their rat master and their all-American lingo the four "heroes-in-a-half-shell" won the hearts of children everywhere and became the number one show, number one toy range, number one... well, everything!
Not bad for four teenagers:
The TV show originally aired in the States in 1987 with a five-part story acting as a pilot for a possible series. Proving massively popular it was picked up for the 1988/89 season but they didn't arrive on these shores until January 1990. These days this is unheard of, when selfish pirates and illegal streamers could damage a property and its possible future if there's any form of delay, but in the 80s we didn't have to worry about that and so we could all enjoy the launch together. Enjoy it we did!
Based on the original black-and-white TMNT comic created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird which had proved only moderately successful up to this point, the cartoon series lightened the darker tone up considerably and changed a lot of the background elements in doing so. Splinter's backstory had been that of a pet rat belonging to disgraced ninja teacher Hamato Yoshi, but in the cartoon he was Hamato Yoshi before the mutagen transformed him and some baby turtles someone had flushed down the sewers. In the cartoon they immediately mutated into teenagers while in the comic Splinter had raised them by hand. Krang, the alien brain we all remember from the cartoon also wasn't in the comic though a similar alien race was, the Turtles were now referenced by their full artists' names rather than shortened nicknames and another example was the Foot Soldiers; robots in the cartoon, teenage delinquents in the comic. Both scenarios may sound familiar because interestingly the first live-action movie in 1990, which was very much produced thanks to the success of the cartoon, changed these elements back. I remember thinking the movie had changed things, or was incorrect at times, but I now know this wasn't the case.
However a couple more changes were to happen before the cartoon reached British shores, contributing to the wait being even longer.
While I haven't watched or read anything to do with the franchise since those early days, the recent live-action movie has proved popular (and I really must get around to watching it!), a sequel is in the works and for years now there's been various cartoon and comic incarnations all baring the name "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". But that's not how we knew them. To us they were originally the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.
The word "Ninja" was deemed too violent for British and many European audiences when it came to cartoon heroes and so the title was altered along with the wording of the theme music and Michelangelo's nunchakus were edited out of every episode of the cartoon, even though they'd still appear in the toy line and in the comic for the most part. Even the movie released that same year with the original title had quite a lot trimmed from it for the cinema and video releases. So much so that many moons later around the year 2005 when I bought it on DVD, even though so much time had passed I noticed a raft of extra bits added back in again!
Not that any of this mattered at the time of course (though the ending of the movie had felt rushed and a bit confusing and we didn't know why), we loved every second of what we were allowed to watch and within four short weeks of the beginning of the series a brand new comic had already appeared on the shelves from Oink! publishers Fleetway. Entitled Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures it was a 32-page fortnightly comic on very odd-shaped paper. As tall as our piggy publication but a good deal thinner horizontally, this strangely tall, thin comic made for a unique look and feel, like it was even taller than its actual size, which made it feel like something unique and special:
|The only non-comic strip page from #1|
Just like Marvel UK's The Transformers the Turtles comic would alternate between bringing us the American strips and originated British material. Unlike The Transformers however the British strips paled in comparison, for me anyway, and I couldn't wait until the next story from the USA.
In America alongside the original dark TMNT a comic entitled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures appeared, which was directly tied into the TV series. Starting off with a three-issue mini-series which told the story of those pilot episodes across five chapters these were our first experiences of the Turtles in comic format. Fleetway's first issues had no features and simply contained thirty pages of strip action, meaning we got the same chapters of varying length to this adaptation in each of our first three issues too. Reading it now it rattles along and is light on characterisation and overly simplifies the fight scenes but I can remember loving this first issue in particular and reading it over and over.
Below are four pages where Splinter explains the origin tale to April O'Neil, their new reporter friend and I recall being particularly impressed with the mutation image on the second page here. Adapted from the teleplays by David Weiss and Patti Howeth, the comic strip version was written by Michael Dooney who also pencilled the artwork. Inks are by Dave Garcia, letters by Steve Lavigne and it's all coloured by Barry Grossman. Here is a small section from part one of Heroes in a Half-Shell!:
The American comic strips were excellent at switching between the ninja action and the comedy at a moment's notice. Below are four pages from later in the same issue which show you exactly what I mean. April has got herself caught while investigating (something she had a habit of doing) and the turtles, in hilariously bad disguises, are searching for her in The Big Apple. A deserted Big Apple I might add. This was something which was glaringly obvious in the cartoons, the City That Never Sleeps was always handily empty whenever our heroes had to go above ground.
But anyway, back to the matter at hand. As I mentioned above the Foot Soldiers had been changed to robots as part of lightening up the comic for TV and here's the comic book adaptation of their first encounter with the fantastic foursome, with some nice little quips thrown in for good measure and their first sighting of the mysterious Shredder, also played for laughs:
I loved everything about this comic from the very start, right down to the unique page shape and size it all screamed out as something special. It was rare for a British comic to have cover-to-cover strips when usually they'd only take up a certain amount of space while the rest of the pages were filled with features and extra bits and bobs. I placed a regular order and after those first three issues the comic moved on to publishing the regular monthly American strips every fortnight. I was hooked, I even drew a picture of Michelangelo for it while babysitting one night and sent it in, but then with #15 something changed which should've been for the better.
British strips. These first came to us in four special Poster Mag issues which instead of being the regular 32-pages in length folded out into a giant poster with a new story on the rear. Obviously the American strips simply wouldn't fit so native creators to these islands brought us four one-off stories, which I remember as not that great, being too light and fluffy and feeling like filler material to prop up the poster. I didn't really mind though, they were special issues and with #19 we were back to the original format and more from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures strips from across the pond.
The American comic had diverged from the cartoon early on and gone down its own storytelling route with exclusive story arcs, its own recurring guest characters and a darker feel to it than the cartoon which saw it sideline Krang, Rocksteady and Bebop completely to concentrate on developing a darker and more honour-bound Shredder. It never went back to the imagery of the original comic and kept itself strictly within the TV series' Turtles universe but it was definitely a grittier take while keeping the humour and flavour of what it was based on. They were great stories and really felt like they were adding further depth to what we watched every week on the Beeb.
But from #21 the British strips returned and would alternate with their American cousins for page space. Apart from the odd occasion when the imported strips ran for two issues in a row we'd mainly get a full American strip one issue, then two smaller one-off British ones the next. But unlike The Transformers comic where the British strips added to the ongoing stories and eventually branched out into their own epics, these homegrown Turtles strips were a pale imitation of what we got to read from the USA and it was the need to go through these stories every-other-issue which led me to cancel my order less than a year into the run.
Now this might sound sacrilegious to readers of a blog which has spent these past few years celebrating the very best of British comics talent, and which recently has gone wild for the excellent UK creators who worked on the previous titles in the Beyond Oink! series. So stopping my Turtles collection for this reason may sound just plain weird. But I'll show you what I mean below.
However, let me skip forward a bit first. It'd been about a year-and-a-half since I'd bought a single issue but I was still watching the cartoon and had really enjoyed the movies, so one day I wanted a comic to read and with my pocket money in hand I walked up and down the newsagents' shelves looking for something and decided I'd give the comic another go, even though it was an issue with two of the British strips. This was that issue and while I had to buy the premiere edition above from eBay for this post, this issue below is my original copy:
For whatever reason I ended up not actually reading it all until a few weeks later, I forget why. I'd read one of the strips and then a whole month passed before I picked it up again, to read in school during some free time we were being given that day and I can distinctly remember sitting and reading it and getting the shock of my life. Why? Patience...
First, let's have a look at the first of the two strips. Called Robowar!, written by James Nicholas and drawn by Alonso, it's a 14-page complete story featuring Splinter and Krang's plan to use robots to infiltrate banks and steal the city's wealth. However the robots are all distinctly humanoid with no special powers for the specific job they were created for and may as well have been the Foot Soldiers, and the Turtles win far too easily by simply reprogramming them in a matter of moments while the bag guys seemingly wait patiently. The strip then ends with the supposedly fearsome Krang and Shredder sweeping the streets of New York while the Turtles make a corny gag.
The main thing about these strips was that they were very clearly aimed at a younger reader. While the American ones were based on the cartoon and weren't as dark as the original comic, they were still written for the teenage fans who were surely the main audience given these were teenage turtles. However whereas they were also suitable for smaller readers, the British ones felt very much like they were being written solely for a much younger group.
Plus British writers trying to write American teen lingo was painful! A case in point is the (over)use of the word "geek" on this first page:
This jarring of the two different styles of strip didn't sit well with me or some of my friends who also collected it; one of them even cancelled his regular order and just picked up the ones featuring the ongoing American stories and arcs. I'm not one to just sit here criticising, I'm very aware of who they were aimed at and I'm sure plenty of the younger readers really enjoyed them, they were of great quality for comics aimed at the younger market after all, so I won't take that away from them. But to our age group they were just too simplistic and throwaway for us.
So anyway, back to sitting in that classroom and after being disappointed with the first strip I casually flipped the page, glanced down and gasped at what was on the bottom of the first of two letters/pictures pages:
I'd had no idea this was in it, so while the rest of the comic didn't change my mind about collecting it, obviously I was thrilled I'd decided to give it one more go! That's why this issue has been in my possession ever since while the rest were given away, and to think it'd also sat in my bedroom for nearly a month while I unknowingly ignored it. It was a hell of a coincidence picking up this one issue, especially given the length of time since I'd drawn the thing!
I was chuffed and eventually, after the comic got passed around a lot, I settled in to read the second strip, buoyed by the inclusion of my drawing.
I soon realised though the British strips hadn't really progressed any since the year before. The second story was called Computer Chaos and was written by Andrew W. Donkin and Graham S. Brand, with the artwork by Morale. The first few pages sets up a somewhat interesting premise of Shredder taking over the Wall Street computer systems, with his face plastered across every screen and locking out the traders. Surely younger kids would have limited interest in that and we were going to get a slightly older-feeling adventure at last? Nope, a page or two later and the old cliche of strapping a metal band around the heroes' heads and wiring them into a computer 'transported' them into a digital world to fight robotic-looking "machine coders" and "computer bytes", but not after jumping on a digital number and surfing it across the cyberspace.
Seriously. I remember sitting there thinking this was ridiculous and what on earth did it have to do with the ancient fighting and honour elements of the Turtles; remember in the first story they'd won by reprogramming some robots far too easily as well. Not exactly ninja-y! Reading it now as an adult those same feelings came flooding back and reading only these two issues for this post they really are worlds apart in terms of what their target audience seemed to be:
Did you also notice the British strips have Mikey fighting bare-handed (or not at all) so as not to include those pesky nunchakus? Even though they were there in every fight scene of the American strips. That one element kind of highlights the problem with the comic. The American strips were still continuing in the issues either side of this and I'm left wondering what on earth Fleetway were playing at. Did they even read the stories they were importing so they could work out their own original contributions accordingly? Did they know what to do with this unique martial arts-based and very American property?
It made for a comic of two distinct halves but it was definitely a success for those who didn't mind the mix and for those younger readers too of course. As it turns out only two issues later the last British strips would appear, then the comic turned monthly from #73 onwards so that it could print the American strips without the need of new material at a time when the British comics industry was facing a bit of a crisis. It also changed its front cover design to reflect this by using a top-corner boxout on the cover US comics like so much. In addition all the covers from that point on were reused from those comics (including many by original Turtles co-creator Peter Laird) instead of the original British ones used up to that point. Not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as how often the American strips would have a bright, cheery and quite childish cover in complete contrast with the darker contents within.
The comic lasted right through to #84 in January 1994 which isn't bad at all! However it just ended. No big finale, it just stopped with the story from #51 of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures title, which continued in the States for another twenty-one months right up to October 1995!
It's certainly a little oddity in the history of British comics. It's shape and size made it great fun to read the main ongoing storyline from the US and certainly those issues were simply superb, among my very favourite comics from my youth. But by that stage I was now in grammar school and the homegrown strips just didn't feel like they were properly thought out in advance to accompany the imports, ultimately putting me off collecting the comic for its whole run.
Such a shame, as Fleetway could easily have had their own Transformers on their hands here, but I'm sure they were still very happy with the sales and the length of time the comic was published for.
Definitely a bit of a change of direction from the comics I'd collected before. A mix of original and licenced characters made this anthology title a hit with me from the start. I had never read anything like this! It was certainly not what I expected from the usually squeaky-clean Marvel and that intrigued me as soon as I saw the first issue. Surely this one would last? Alas, no. So I'm back in a fortnight to shed light on another forgotten title. See you then.