Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

by Richard Rosenbaum

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Celebrating the persistence of Turtle Power

Raise Some Shell critically and cleverly examines the origins, evolution, and impact of the Ninja Turtles phenomenon — from its beginning as a self-published black-and-white comic book in 1984, through its transformation into a worldwide transmedia phenomenon by the middle of the 1990s, and up to the sale of the property to Nickelodeon in 2009 and relaunch of the Turtles with new comics, cartoons, and a big-budget Hollywood film. With the eye of contemporary cultural studies and the voice of a true lifelong Turtles fan, Rosenbaum argues that the Turtles’ continuing success isn’t mere nostalgia, but rather the result of characters, and a franchise, that mutated in a way that allowed the to survive and thrive in a post-modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770905221
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Series: Pop Classics , #2
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 152
File size: 633 KB

About the Author

Richard Rosenbaum is a fiction editor at Broken Pencil (Canada’s magazine of the underground arts and independent culture) and a regular contributor to overthinkingit.com. He received his Master’s degree in communication and culture from Ryerson University, and this is what he’s doing with it. He lives in Toronto, Ontario. His favourite Turtle is Donatello.

Read an Excerpt

Raise Some Shell.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

By Richard Rosenbaum


Copyright © 2014 Richard Rosenbaum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77090-522-1



The early 1980s saw a radical transformation in the medium of comics. The mainstream was growing darker: writer and artist Frank Miller was drawing Marvel Comics toward the shadows with his run on Daredevil (May 1979–February 1983) — blind lawyer by day and superpowered crimefighter by night. Particularly with his creation of the ninja assassin Elektra and his greater focus on issues of corruption, drugs, and organized crime, Miller was at the forefront of the wave of "gritty" titles that surged in popularity over the next decade. At the same time, he published his groundbreaking miniseries Ronin (1983–1984), in which an ancient Japanese warrior is reborn in a futuristic New York City and attempts to bring a destructive gang war to an end. Ronin heralded a deepening interest in Japanese culture and tradition within American art — actually influenced by the art coming out of Japan itself. Ronin's largest debt was to the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub, and Miller later created original covers for the series when it was eventually published in North America.

Meanwhile, Miller's colleague at Marvel Chris Claremont was carrying the other side of the banner for the avant-garde of mainstream superhero comics. In 1975, he was given writing duties for a second-tier title called X-Men and was well on his way to turning it into the bestselling comic book of all time. X-Men (and later The New Mutants) told stories of a group of superpowered humans born into a world that hated and feared them, who nevertheless fought to protect that world from others born with similar gifts and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. The depth of Claremont's characterization combined with his strong understanding of how to deploy symbolism and social metaphors struck a chord with readers, and X-Men became the model of what a successful comic looked like for the next two decades.

At the time, Daredevil, Ronin, and X-Men were the domain of comics' most brightly shining stars. But in the medium's darker corners lurked a different sort of animal. Specialty comic book stores emerged in the early 1970s (culminating in the formation of Diamond Comic Distributors, which, by the late '90s, had practically monopolized the direct market for comics), creating a new space for family-unfriendly fare, and artists around the world used this channel to find an audience for more serious work in a form that was too often dismissed as kids' stuff. The most notable of these new underground comics was Cerebus the Aardvark, created, written, and drawn by cartoonist Dave Sim from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Cerebus started out as a straight-ahead parody, a comedic mash-up of Marvel's Howard the Duck and Conan the Barbarian featuring an anthropomorphic aardvark mercenary named Cerebus who adventured through a magical and very anachronistic continent called Estarcion, seeking fortune and ... well, pretty much just fortune. Cerebus proved to be a success against all odds, and Sim became a leading figure in the creator-owned comics movement. Cerebus ran for 300 self-published issues (between 1977 and 2004, which Sim convincingly describes as the longest continuous work of narrative in recorded human history); it wandered far from its roots and turned into a deep and controversial meditation on contemporary issues such as politics, religion, and gender — often tackled with humor, and just as often provoking outrage among its readers, or increasingly its ex-readers. Despite its later years, Cerebus served as a model and Sim as inspiration for countless other artists who wished to work in the medium of comics but whose subject matter was either not commercial enough or too antisocial for the mainstream publishers.

By the time 1984 rolled around, most comics fans were reading about teenage mutants like the X-Men, ninjas like Daredevil and his foes, and funny animals such as Cerebus the Aardvark.

Enter Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.

Artists and friends, Eastman and Laird were plainly obsessed with the work of Frank Miller and Dave Sim, as well as that of Jack "The King" Kirby, who co-created most of the Marvel Universe in the 1960s and was known for the powerful fluidity of his action sequences, which cemented the visual grammar for superhero comics forever after. Eastman and Laird wanted to make their own mark on the world of comics, and they'd seen some small successes. One evening, Kevin Eastman, in an attempt to irritate Peter Laird while he watched television (as is every good roommate's wont), sketched a turtle standing upright with a pair of nunchucks strapped to its arms and the words "NINJA TURTLE" written above it. Laird looked at the drawing and laughed, redrew it in his own style, added the words "TEENAGE MUTANT," and handed the page back to Eastman. The two of them knew that they had something. They didn't know quite what yet, but it was something they'd created together that made them laugh, and as they refined the idea — eventually creating four Turtles, each wielding a different weapon — they grew fascinated with the concept. They decided to delve into the world of these Turtles: who they were, where they came from, what they were all about. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 was a 40-page black-and-white martial-arts science-fiction story; guided by Ronin stylistically and by Cerebus in terms of its non-corporate, do-it-yourself production process, the book was financed with tax returns and a loan from Eastman's uncle. They printed only 3,000 copies in a weird, magazine-style oversized edition (because the printer they hired had never done or apparently even seen a comic book before) and debuted it at a local comic convention in the spring of 1984.

The book sold out in less time than it took to pronounce its hilariously unwieldy title. The Turtles phenomenon had officially begun.

The name of the game: pastiche. Pastiche is a literary technique where an author takes the major tropes from one or more existent works and uses them to create something new. Pastiche can be limited to a single passing reference, can overrun an entire work from beginning to end, or fall anywhere between the two extremes. When pastiche is used primarily to highlight the weaknesses of the original work in a comedic way, either affectionately or derisively or both, that's parody or satire. When done poorly, pastiche can be little more than barely concealed plagiarism, by artists who are either not talented enough to come up with anything original or so cynical that they think they can cash in on the success of something that's currently popular — or both. In the parlance of literary/cultural theory, that's called a ripoff. The third major form of pastiche is homage, and it tends to be used to call attention to the tropes it's co-opting, sometimes by explicitly subverting them.

A pastiche works best when the audience doesn't need to be familiar with the works being referenced in order to enjoy it. So, for instance, you can dig Star Wars without ever having heard of Flash Gordon, even though the former is heavily indebted to the latter. If a work is influential enough that it inspires a large number of different artists to pastiche it, it can lead to the creation of a whole new form; imitators of Edgar Allan Poe evolved the mystery genre, and J.R.R. Tolkien's thralls propagated high fantasy.

At the far abstract end of pastiche, a creator appropriates the structure of one or more works but empties out the content and fills it with their own. The effect of this is twofold. First, if it works at all, it tends to work really well: because the content is original, it doesn't rely exclusively on the works it's referencing for its success. It's enjoyable on its own merits because the parts that are borrowed are below the surface and not necessarily immediately apparent. The skeleton may be stolen, but the flesh is fresh.

Second, this application of pastiche is particularly suitable for purposes of deconstruction, which is why it's been so popular in postmodern art. Postmodernism is interested to the point of obsession in constructedness and in reexamining past works to expose the architecture of their influences, assumptions, and internal contradictions; their successes and, especially, their failures. A lot (though certainly not all) of postmodern art is content to vivisect the canon with its audience sitting in the operating theater and then go home, leaving it out to die on the surgeon's table. Beckett, Pynchon, and a lot of Brett Easton Ellis's stuff tend to fall into this category, exposing the emptiness without any suggestion for how to fix the situations, implying an inevitable hopelessness.

Art — in my opinion, better art — can do more than deconstruct; it can reconstruct. It can take a work apart, even strip it down to its bones, and then proceed to sew to it a new skin made of insight and love for its source materials.

And this is the genius of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The transformations occurring in comics in the mid '80s that grabbed the imagination of readers, among them Eastman and Laird, were very much on the surface of the medium, in its stories and its visuals, but still only half-formed, at an experimental stage of finding itself. It would be a couple more years before two DC superhero miniseries solidified the tropes by powerfully deconstructing them: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller's, again, with a brutally dark take on the future of Batman, and, simultaneously, Watchmen by the English writer Alan Moore. Growing dominant at this time were a number of tropes bleaker than had been typical in superhero comics. The seeds of evil being sown by the hero's attempts to do good, resulting in an unwinnable cycle of destruction. Good guys and bad guys not being significantly far apart in either their motivations or, often, their tactics. The implicit condescension-bordering-on-fascism of self-proclaimed heroes' vigilantism. Contradictions inherent in the moral systems of superheroes who always considered themselves above the law when it came to fighting their personal enemies.

There was a new seriousness in superhero comics, but at the same time a lot of what was going on was pretty ridiculous and hacky. Daredevil was created to be a darker and more adult version of Spider-Man; Matt Murdock lived just a few subway stops away from Peter Parker, and the distance between suspension of disbelief and straight-up cognitive dissonance was equally small when you read those early Miller DD stories. We're still talking about a dude with radar who dresses up like a demon to fight ninjas in midtown Manhattan, after all. TMNT would crank up the ridiculosity to ten but play the whole thing totally straight; so it was hilariously absurd and yet totally super badass at the same time. And by wearing its influences openly and proudly, it declared exactly what it was trying to do — comment on contemporary genre trends — while never ever condescending to its audience or disrespecting its heroes.

That first issue of TMNT (May 1984) wanted so much to connect itself to what it was pastiching that Eastman and Laird made the Turtles' origin a direct result of Daredevil's. In Daredevil #1, we meet the young Matthew Murdock, son of the professional boxer "Battlin' Jack" Murdock. One day Matt sees a blind man crossing the street about to be struck by an out-of- control transport truck. Matt leaps into the street to push the blind man out of the truck's path. As the truck driver swerves, a canister of nuclear material flies from the truck and hits Matt in the face. The nuclear radiation blinds him but causes his other senses to become superhumanly heightened and gives him a radar-like sense that allows him to become the superhero Daredevil.

In TMNT #1, we witness the same event, but instead of following Matthew Murdock, we follow the path of the canister. After striking the young hero near his eyes, the canister bounces, smashing a glass bowl containing four baby turtles that had just been purchased by a bystander to the incident. The turtles and the canister fall into an open manhole. Landing in the sewer, the canister breaks, and the turtles — as well as a rat with an already elaborate backstory of his own — are doused in mysterious glowing ooze. It causes them to mutate into the Turtles we all know and love.

The pastiche goes even further than that. In Miller's Daredevil, the deadly ninja clan that becomes the character's primary opposition is known as the Hand. In TMNT, the Turtles are sent to eliminate the Shredder, leader of a deadly ninja clan called the Foot. The enigmatic ninja master who first trained Matt Murdock in the acrobatics and fighting techniques he uses as a superhero is named Stick. So, of course, the wizened mutant rat who serves as father figure and sensei to the Turtles is named Splinter.

A great portion of the visual and structural elements of that first issue of Ninja Turtles is torn, blatantly and unapologetically, from the pages of Miller's Ronin. Action panels are lifted nearly wholesale, with mutant turtles drawn in place of the reincarnated masterless samurai. Right down to the jagged panel borders and even the title font, reading early issues of TMNT is like watching a toddler imitate the mannerisms of its beloved parent, and the effect is a similar mix of captivating and adorable.

There's an oblique allusion to this imitation in Splinter's tale of his own origin: he was once an ordinary rat, the pet of the world-class ninja master Hamato Yoshi. From inside his cage, Splinter learned the most advanced techniques by watching and imitating Yoshi's moves as he practiced every day for years. Splinter says that, at the time, Yoshi was amused to see his pet rat playing at being a ninja, and nobody ever mentions that this is insanely humanlike behavior for an animal that wouldn't be exposed to the DNA-transforming mutagen until many years later. Similarly, Splinter explains that he chose names for the Turtles from a battered book about Renaissance art that he found in a storm drain — but how the hell did he learn to read? Later incarnations of TMNT would solve the mystery by making Splinter the mutated form of Hamato Yoshi himself, but in the original comic, these weren't problems at all. They were winks at the very canny audience: Frank Miller was the Master, and Eastman and Laird just a matted fuzzball absorbing his techniques and emulating his movements as best they could.

As you can see, the pastiche is strong in this one.

The first few TMNT books provide a wealth of insight on the inborn intertextuality of the Turtles' world and the characters themselves. Early in the second issue, we actually see issues of Ronin and Cerebus splayed out on the floor of the Turtles' sewer lair.

The point being that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was not a dumb parody of the popular comics of the time; it was an extremely smart pastiche by a pair of very talented artists, written for people just like themselves. Those who loved what Frank Miller and Dave Sim were proving was possible in a medium commonly regarded as trash, but who could also recognize and revel in the absurdity and contradictions inherent in taking Jack Kirby — style B-movie action tropes and treating them as literature, rather than empty entertainment made to kill time. It was a perfect confluence of beautiful art, sharp storytelling, engaging characterization, and a pair of minds thick with inspiration from which to draw, and that's why it succeeded. To the readers who were in on the joke, the fellow Frank Miller fans who knew exactly what the Turtles' creators were doing, there were laughs of recognition to be had on pretty much every page. For others, the book was strong enough on its own to be compelling — the story of four brothers shunned by society, determined to exact vengeance on the man who shattered their father's family. The book's appeal was multidimensional and so were its fans — the art and its audience drew strength from one another, rather than pulling the Turtles' paradoxes apart, because they got it.


Excerpted from Raise Some Shell. by Richard Rosenbaum. Copyright © 2014 Richard Rosenbaum. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: TMNT & Me
Origins and Evolutions
Coming Out of Their Shells
The Rise and Fall of Turtle Power
Remixed and Reincarnated
Turtles All the Way Down

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Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So, which Shredder is the best? The ORIGINAL Tengu Shredder, Shredder from the old 2003 series, or Cyber Shredder? Yeah! Tengu Shredder's the best to me! What's your's?!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love these shell kicking dudes
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My mask color: red My wepon: 2 si My name: Loreta My age: 11 I gusse i am more of the tough person pon the team so like Rahp
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My favorite is Raph! Hes kind of like me when my sisters bother me. P.S boys girls can like the TMNTs to!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My name is Kosi and I am your leader for this group and you have joined a great group. First read these rules fellow ninjat Rules 1 Never be part of the foot 2 You will listen to Splinter's Shoutouts or you shall get punishment 3 You have to pledge that forever you will become a ninja turtle until the end( you can make up your own pledge ;) ) 4 Bios must include: name age mask color weapon(s) appearencewhat is your job in our team (Jobs:brawler,brains, party dude, trainer i am the leader) and appearence. Bios will be at result 4. We will fight together no matter what happends. Both male and females can join our group.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is &<_>psi.)) Keep going!! It's ok if you spelled it wrong.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are the best. My two favoirte are Michelangelo and Leonardo. To be completely honest I love all four of them. Even though Donnie has that adorable smile and Raph has that awesome hot smile I really love Mikey and Leo for there cute and big smile. Which ones are your favoirte?