10 August 2014

Ninja Turtles and Other Mutants: An Illustrated History

Egyptian Gods. Fairy tale creatures. Mickey Mouse. Animals have always been used to tell stories, but in these cases - and many, many others - they don't just talk, as in, say, The Jungle Book or Finding Nemo. They also stand upright, wear clothing, and generally behave like humans. They are anthropomorphic (anthro, "human being" + morphe, "form").

In these past two weeks, two blockbusters featuring humanoid animals were released: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy with Rocket Raccoon, and the rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Critics loved the first and hated the second. Neither quite lived up to my expectations. Admittedly, the hype itself was more entertaining in both cases, allowing me to revisit my longstanding love of "mutant" characters and how they have fueled my own imagination. So I give you my TMNT review by way of this lengthy illustrated history!

My first stories, dictated to my parents before I could write, definitely featured animals as protagonists, but were more keeping with the less-anthropomorphized examples mentioned earlier. Eventually I discovered the short-lived (and absolutely awesome) Battle Beasts toy line, which inspired a story of mine called "Shark Laser" (above): warring humanoid animals find a way to turn killer sharks into scale-tipping doomsday weapons. Shark Week has nothing on this!

Thanks to my mom's diligent scrap-booking efforts, I have several pages proving my love of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during their 1987-96 cartoon and toy run. The first newspaper clipping above reports on the rise in pet turtle sales. I've had a total of three in my life: Michelangelo (technically a desert tortoise lost in our backyard by his real owners), Dippy (a red-eared slider), and Bartolomeo (another red-eared slider, naturally named after a Renaissance painter). The second clipping shows that a Turtle action figure cost only $3.77 back then (they're three times that now). Also pictured is one of my first childhood sketches of Turtles characters: Leonardo and villain-turned-ally Attila the Frog.

The Turtles, themselves a parody of comic book heroes, prompted a lot of even weirder mutant superhero teams like Biker Mice from Mars and Street Sharks. I took a stab at it with my own rip-off, four lizard heroes like "Band-o Geck-o" pictured above. Clearly what I'd learned from franchises like this - or earlier, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe - is that the gimmick and weapon of choice are most important. (I would later find classical precedent for this in Homer's Iliad.)

By my early teens I had discovered anthropomorphic animal characters all over the place, whether in superhero cartoons (Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men), games (many Dungeons and Dragons monsters, like gnolls), or books. While mutants seem to be more commonly found in visual mediums like comic books, the drawings above - no doubt doodled during class - were inspired by Brian Jacques's Redwall series, in turn inspired by the classic Watership Down. The rabbit-man in the top right also bears close resemblance to Usagi Yojimbo, a comic book character created by Stan Sakai and featured in several incarnations of TMNT.

Many writers and artists have acknowledged that role-playing games like D&D were a big influence on their storytelling abilities. This was true for me, too, though I didn't play the regular rules or campaigns for long before usurping them with my own epic fantasy world, the basis for what became my first (complete) attempt at writing a novel. As you can see above, I made humanoid animals - what I called "manimals," believing I was clever - a common race in my world and a playable one in my version of D&D. (The ram-man at top left was created by my cousin/friend David.) You will notice I also picked up the unfortunate trend of creating more male mutants than female.

Goofing around, I even tried my hand at anthropomorphic food, like this French hot dog halberdier named Mustarde. Even here I wasn't being terribly original, having owned several of the obscure 1988 Mattel action figures called Food Fighters.

My first son was born at the end of my 2-3 year break from trying to become an author. Stupidly, the first thing I did after we brought him home from the hospital was run out and buy the Usagi Yojimbo action figure you see above (as featured in the 2003 TMNT cartoon). My wife kindly pointed out that he couldn't play with it for several years, so I mounted it on the wall in his nursery. This became a tradition, with the Raphael on the right belonging to my second son. All three kids' birthday action figures are still hanging on the wall of my office. Early next year I'll get to add a fourth!

Although I decided my earlier novel wasn't worth publishing, I wanted to try again. In college I wrote papers on "supernatural transformation," naming this the defining feature of all fantasy - not to mention my own religious beliefs. The connection between the two was a possible explanation for my lifelong interest. For my MFA I finished a new novel, another fantasy with mutant characters, as an homage to this literary and personal history. Unfortunately, I stopped drawing during this time, so the concept sketch above is one of the few. I demoted that novel to volume two in a series and wrote a new volume one. The series doesn't feature any humanoid turtles - yet.

Meanwhile, my kids produced their own TMNT drawings. These predate the current Nickelodeon cartoon, which we love watching together, along with other shows and movies featuring animal characters. This phenomenon of reliving 80s popular culture with my own children is something I started writing about for various online publications and made a major focus of this blog.

I sketched these with a stylus on my Kindle Fire as part of a silly "pre-game" ritual before seeing the new Turtles movie. That ritual also included re-watching the 1987 cartoon, re-reading the first three issues of the original Mirage comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, drinking only out of TMNT cups, and attending the theater with my son in matching TMNT attire! I was aiming for a more realistic red-eared slider mutant with the top left and bottom, and felt rewarded when the baby Turtles were depicted as red-eared sliders in the movie (even though one character refers to them as box turtles).

So! At long last, what did we think of the movie? Skip down to "The Verdict" for the non-spoiler summary. If you're not worried about spoilers, here's how I revisit my earlier fears and predictions:
  • Michael Bay-ness: Neutral. The dramatic slow-mo does create a mixed tone, but overall the destructive action is toned down.
  • Megan Fox: Neutral. She's actually fine as April, who is an even more important character than the Turtles themselves. However, she's also exploited a bit for her sex appeal. While disappointing, this is toned down to only two or three jokes that went right over my son's head.
  • Shredder: Neutral. Not whitewashed after all, though I do wonder if the division between Eric Sachs and Shredder was a late decision based on fan reaction. I actually enjoyed the robotic, magnetic, blade-crazy suit because it felt like one of the few examples of 80s and 90s TMNT sci-fi weirdness, like something right out of the hit SNES games. What I didn't like was his lack of motivation, or the fact that Karai was present (yay!) but apparently not a ninja or relative of his (boo!). Same goes for the Foot Clan.
  • Faithfulness: Neutral. Again, I wonder if fan reaction caused them to about-face on decisions that might have wound up being a lot more original and interesting than the generic story we got. The plot is absolutely the biggest problem in this movie because it's too similar to what we've seen before while making even less sense. (Here, mutagen = power source and panacea that can be extracted...?) But I say "neutral" because everything here is very faithful to all the different incarnations. I kind of like April's role in the Turtles's origins here, which is pulled from the current IDW comic book run. But it also causes problems...
  • Splinter: Neutral. He's uglier than he has ever been, but also kind of awesome. Tony Shalhoub's voice works surprisingly well on him, and he gets some of the best fight scenes. My problem: his back-story. Here, in the original movies, and in the original comics, Splinter started as a rat. In the latter two he picked up ninjitsu from his owner, Hamato Yoshi, which was never a particularly satisfying explanation because he was a regular rat at the time. The 1980s cartoon and current Nick cartoon offer a more feasible background, which is that Splinter is Hamato Yoshi transformed. This is my favorite, as it supplies Splinter with his own character arc and motivation. The IDW version sort of marries the two ideas in an even more supernatural way: He is actually Yoshi reincarnated, and recalls his past life. This movie leaves out the reincarnation and the character of Hamato Yoshi entirely, replacing them with...a ninjitsu manual found in the sewer. In other words, Splinter's ninja-ness - his martial arts, his clothes, his hair style, his decorating sensibility - are all put-upon for no other reason than to supply his adopted turtle sons with purpose. Part of me really hated this and couldn't stop thinking about it throughout those fight scenes ("He learned that from a book. That too. Oh, and that.") but part of me realizes it's really not all that more ridiculous than some of the other versions. As a literature major, writing instructor, and general believer in the ability of writing to alter behavior, this seems like an idea I should be able to get behind. Also, it's arguably less stereotypical to suggest Splinter looks/acts like an ancient Japanese warrior because he's an avid fan than because he's Japanese. (I.E., a modern-day Hamato Yoshi who is also a master of ninjitsu, eats sushi and wears robes, etc. seems rather racist.)
  • The Turtles: Neutral. I was still fine with the redesigns, although they do draw attention to one of the sillier mysteries in the TMNT universe: How can mutant turtles make effective ninjas? I suspect this was originally tongue-in-cheek (turning the whole "turtles are slow" stereotype on its head), but in this movie, by dint of their extreme size (especially in the case of Raphael), they really do seem kind of heavy and lumbering. So, yes, they're more realistic here, which is cool to see, but no, they're not really ninjas anymore. Personality wise, fans like me probably didn't need as much development as others, but I would have appreciated more conversations and fewer shouting matches.
The Verdict: Neutral. Like I said, it was okay. I enjoyed it more than critics did, but my son enjoyed it even more. Still, while he wondered about the sequel, he seems far more interested in what will happen next in the Nick series. I don't blame him at all. If this illustrated history has proven anything, it's that we can never get enough mutants!

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