Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 25 Greatest Moments in TMNT History

Foreword: It seems that with 2009 nearing its end, everyone with access to a keyboard and a modem are churning out “countdown” articles. The awesome guys at Vengeance Unbound have listed the Top Ten best Ghost Rider comics ever made and the awesome guys at the Transformers Archive have listed the top twenty-five greatest moments in Transformers history.

Not to be left out of the party, I’ve decided what the Hell, I’ll get in on some of this countdown nonsense while the getting’s good. And what better way to give the Ninja Turtles’ 25th Anniversary a proper send-off than to wax nostalgic on the twenty-five greatest moments in the franchise’s storytelling history.

Bear in mind, folks, that these are just my personal favorite moments. Your mileage may vary.

#25: These season finales really suck (”Shredder & Splintered”)

The Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon was a lot of things. Incoherent? Yep. Repetitive? Yep. Badly animated? Most of the time, yep. Repetitive? Yep.

But say what you will about the quality-challenged seasons, um, two through seven of this series, when the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon began, it didn’t pull its punches. The opening miniseries/season one was everything the later seasons weren’t: Competent, fresh and surprisingly well-animated by the slave labor at Toei Studios in Japan.

All the good qualities of the first season seemed to culminate in the finale, “Shredder & Splintered” (no, that isn’t a type-o. At least, not on my end). The season one finale sported a bevy of memorable moments, such as Krang growing to Godzilla-sized proportions, Shredder and Splinter throwing down for the first time, Shredder uttering his classic soon-to-be-immortalized-by-a-Konami-video-game line, “Tonight I dine on turtle soup”, and a whole mess of other moments.

But perhaps most memorable of them all is the scene in which the Technodrome gets sucked into Dimension X at the episode’s climax. Don decides that the best way to stop the Shredder, Krang, the Foot Soldiers, the invading Stone Warriors, the Technodrome-itself and the looming horror of another obnoxious guest appearance by the Neutrinos is to set the Technodrome’s dimensional portal to “crazy go nuts” and get the Hell out of Dodge. The Technodrome proceeds to go crazy go nuts, indeed, sucking itself and everyone inside of it into Dimension X. The visuals of the scene are ridiculous, as the Technodrome literally turns inside out as it devours itself. And yet, somehow it is completely intact on the other side and Krang and Shredder, who by all rights should have been “shredder and splintered” by the blender-like swirling sheets of jagged inside-out metal, are none the worse for wear.

But who cares about physics and logic? The sight of the Technodrome getting sucked into Dimension X is a memorable one. Nearly every season after this would more or less recycle the same conflict resolution by having the Technodrome getting waylaid in some unremarkable fashion, be it sunk to the center of the Earth, sucked into Dimension X again, frozen in the Arctic, sunk to the bottom of the ocean or, god dammit, sucked into Dimension X again (but this time eaten by a giant plant monster). Regardless, the first time is still the best.

#24: Splinter has a really bad day (TMNT Vol. 1 #59)

“City at War”, the concluding story arc of the first volume of Mirage’s TMNT series, boasted a veritable slew of plot threads, some intermingling and others not so much. Among my favorite of them, though, was Splinter having a really, really bad day. Or couple of weeks, actually.

Essentially, Splinter finds himself badly injured, buried alive inside an old building and on the verge of starvation. Come issue #55, things only get worse for him as he’s now being pestered by the Rat King, urging him to be a sport and eat the rats that are scurrying around the joint. I mean, come on, everyone’s doing it. Splinter eventually concedes and chokes down some sweet, sweet rat meat, learning valuable lessons about survival, the food chain and maybe a few good recipes, too.

Come issue #59, however, Splinter finally heals up and meets the Rat King face to face. Or face to rotting skull, rather. Turns out, the Rat King didn’t survive that tumble he took at the end of Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #4 and died. It’s a shocking moment and one that helps transcend the Rat King from “one-off weirdo villain” to "crazy neutral spirit guide guy". Rat King would go on to appear in visions to Splinter in a couple of later issues (both of which make this list!), cementing himself as one of the more intriguing and enigmatic recurring characters within Mirage’s TMNT universe. Let’s just pretend that Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 2) #35 and his moronic origin never happened, okay?

#23: The future will make you want to kill yourself (Plastron Café #1)

The future of the Mirage TMNT is a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in about three or four back-up strips scattered across various anthology books and some reprints of older material. The second volume of Tales of the TMNT would elaborate on the hazy era of the future Turtles with such thrilling stories as “Karai kidnaps babies from Raph when she’s bored” and “Leo bones Radical”.

But before Tales decided to burden the franchise with those epic pieces of graphic literature, the era of the future Turtles was a tragic mystery. Stories like “A Christmas Carol” and “Choices” revealed that Raph eventually loses an eye and goes to live alone in a swamp with a bunch of flying manta rays, but really, who didn’t see that coming?

No, the real heart-tugger came in a story by Peter Laird called “Old Times”, published in the short-lived Mirage anthology series Plastron Café. In this story, a geriatric Donatello undergoes a virtual training program with his computer, Chet, battling holographic images of the Shredder and the Foot Clan. Chet mistakenly includes holographic versions of his brothers, causing Don to terminate the program and break down crying, indicating that something is terribly, terribly wrong in the future of the Mirage Turtles.

Just what that is, well, we may never know. The frontispieces and conclusion created especially for the 2007 Tales of the TMNT Vol. 1 trade paperback collection runs with the idea begun in “Old Times”, with a geriatric Don once again encountering holographic versions of his brothers and bringing himself to tears over them. The implications are vague but grim. Are the other Turtles all dead or simply separated? Is Don the last remaining Turtle?

We may never know, but the mystery will incapacitate us with debilitating bouts of depression forever.

#22: At last, a crossover that doesn’t kill brain cells! (Usagi Yojimbo #10)

The TMNT are crossover maniacs. In fact, I’m going to take a deep breath and rattle off as many other properties the Turtles have crossed over with off the top of my head: wildwestcowboysofmoomesapandakhancerebusthearchiegang
And that’s just for starters.

Yeah, when it came to “Hey, can my characters meet your characters?”, Eastman and Laird hardly ever said “no”. This indifference resulted in disaster more often than success, but I’d happily read a hundred issues of the TMNT meeting the Blazing Tales Varmints if it meant getting an Usagi Yojimbo crossover. Thankfully, I only had to suffer through one of those to get an Usagi Yojimbo crossover. Whew.

Usagi would first meet Leonardo in the story titled “Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew” published in the Turtle Soup one-shot special. They’d go on to meet many times more between their books, cartoons and toylines. Usagi has become so intertwined with the TMNT universe, I’ve begun to think of him as part of their family and not so much a guest cameo character that shows up looking for a quick paycheck.

Of their early encounters, the second one strikes me as being the first “real” meeting of the two anthropomorphs. “Turtle Soup” merely had them make eye contact. “The Crossing”, published in Usagi Yojimbo (Vol. 1) #10, had them throw down and, eventually, become BFFs or whatever floats your slash fiction.

Drawn by Peter Laird rather than Stan Sakai, the story isn’t exactly a visual marvel, but it’s a most satisfying tale with a serviceable moral and the true beginning of a great series of crossovers.

#21: “Oops.” (TMNT the Movie)

I suppose it says something about me when my favorite character in a book about giant mutant karate turtles is the drunken asshole who runs around in a hockey mask, beating purse-snatchers with cricket bats. I guess it’s like saying your favorite character in the Avengers is Jarvis, but I can’t remember an issue of that comic where Jarvis crushes Kang’s head inside a trash compactor, on purpose, and with all the giddiness of a Chinese schoolgirl.

The first TMNT movie elicits a mixed reaction from fans. Some love it for its nostalgic fun and Muppety goodness, some hate it because it dared to mix and match aspects of the Mirage and Fred Wolf Turtles, while others are just happy that Vanilla Ice is nowhere to be found. Yeah, they tried to fuse the two disparaging versions of the Turtles into something of a mess of characterization, but whether or not you agree the outcome was a thing of quality, there’s one thing you cannot argue: they did Casey right.

Elias Koteas was Mirage Casey right down to the raging homophobia and chemically imbalanced bursts of psychotic fury. Nowhere is that better showcased than the cap-off to the climactic rooftop Shredder battle at the film’s end. After Splinter essentially tells the Shredder “see you in Hell” in his usual profound way, the itty bitty Asian guy in the humongous costume goes flailing off the roof and into the open bay of a dump truck waiting below. Casey, being Casey, isn’t satisfied to simply presume the Shredder might be dead, but would rather see the deed done to its rightful conclusion. So, with the most viciously insincere “oops” ever uttered on film, Casey flips the compactor switch on the back of the truck and watches with fiery joy as the Shredder’s head (or at least his helmet) gets squashed in the press. Yeah, sure, Shredder survived to appear in the sequel (where he gets defeated by the righteous power of a keytaur before drinking a potion that mutates him into Kevin Nash), but for all Casey knew, he just popped Shredder’s noggin like a ripe melon. And he couldn’t have been more satisfied with his day’s work (though, if Shredder’s mangled remains getting hauled off to the dump is any indication, he didn’t tell any of the authorities about his “accident”).

#20: Hey guy’s, sup, what’s goin’ on on this planet? (TMNT Vol. 4 #5)

For three volumes and about a hundred issues, not to mention all the specials, the Mirage Turtles were forced to live in hiding because they were all kinds of freaky-looking and could never walk the streets in broad daylight like their happy go lucky cousins from the Fred Wolf series.

All that suddenly changed, however, when in the fifth issue of TMNT Vol. 4, Peter Laird decided to shake things up by having the Utroms reveal their presence to all of Earth and begin a diplomatic immigration program between earthlings and alien races. Vol. 4 was rife with plot twists that some found despicable (April being a magic doodle, Mikey screwing an alien dinosaur princess, Gameraph, etc.), but among them all I think I found the Utrom alliance to be the most inspired.

The living in hiding thing had really run its course after twenty years, with stories revolving around the subject having been told in every way possible. Putting the Turtles in a world where they could walk the streets opened up a whole new avenue of story possibilities and offered something truly original to the universe. Sure, not all the follow-ups told within the pages of Tales Vol. 2 were particularly good, but the amount of quality stories we got out of the deal saw the status quo shake-up through to its full potential.

If anything, it was a plot twist I didn’t see coming; the Utrom ambassador appearing on national television and revealing the existence of aliens to a stunned humanity, followed by a six month gap in storytelling that fast-forwarded the narrative past all the dull acclimation stages and straight to the “yeah, the Turtles can go to Denny’s now” goodness.

It shocked me, but in a good way (unlike the April doodle, which shocked me in a “should I or should I not mail this dead squirrel to the Mirage offices?” sort of way).

#19: Welcome to the Third Dimension, Baxter. We’ve been waiting (“Insane in the Membrane”)

Baxter Stockman was never a very compelling villain in any facet of the fiction. In the Mirage comics, he was a generic mad scientist that tried to hold New York for ransom with tiny robots. He later put his brain in a robot body for the purposes of “Blargh! Revenge! Blargh!” then sat on Donatello’s shelf like an office knick-knack for ten years. The Fred Wolf cartoon’s Baxter was a poofy-haired white dude with an irritating voice that got turned into a fly because David Wise got a bad case of “why the Hell not?” syndrome. He was a pretty dreadful recurring villain whose episodes always resolved the same way: suck him into another dimension. Yeah, the Fred Wolf series was fond of recycling plot resolutions to their absolute breaking point.

But then came this version of Baxter Stockman from the 4Kids cartoon. He was an egomaniac with a bad habit of upsetting his superiors and having body parts removed as punishment (to the point of being reduced to nothing more than a brain and an eyeball in a jar). Like the Baxters that came before him, this one was just as shallow, but with the tendency to keep popping up over and over and over again when we were all so damn sure we’d seen the last of him. By season four, it was getting pretty tiresome and the hollow mad scientist archetype had worn out his welcome.

Then came the episode “Insane in the Membrane” and suddenly Baxter was transformed into one of the most multi-dimensional, tragically sympathetic and enjoyable villains on the show. All thanks to one really, really good episode.

“Insane in the Membrane” is known as the “banned episode” of the series because, dude, it was totally banned. From US broadcast, anyway (damn Australians got it just fine). Apparently, the BS&P guys weren’t too happy with a darkly depressing episode involving a guy in a cloned body rotting alive to the point of insanity, trying to murder his old lab assistant while having flashbacks to his dead mother. C’mon, give the kids a little credit. This is the sort of stuff Saturday mornings are all about!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The basic plot of the episode is that Baxter uses cloning technology given to him by Agent Bishop to create a nice new body for himself. But living up to his status as “the villain that can never catch a break”, the body malfunctions and begins to rot while he’s still conscious within it. When I say “rot”, I mean that. His fingers and jaw decay and fall off and he has to sew and hammer and nail his pieces back on and it’s all very gruesome for a Y7 rating. The rotting eventually takes a toll on Baxter’s brain and he loses his shit, deciding that his entire predicament is the fault of his old lab assistant, April O’Neil. So he attempts to murder her. Unfortunately, he’s so far off his freakin’ nut that he can’t keep things straight. He begins hallucinating events from his own past, most notably conversations he had as a child with his mother on her deathbed, and starts switching gears between “present day murderous asshole” Baxter and “beginning of the series not so crazy or murderous asshole” Baxter. In the final scene of the episode, in a rather touching moment, he actually proceeds to save April’s life as he plummets to his own death.

It is a very, very good episode and one of the darkest things you’ll ever see in a Saturday morning cartoon (albeit, an episode of a Saturday morning cartoon that was never aired on Saturday mornings in the US because it was so dark). The real meat of the story isn’t the gory rotting of Baxter’s clone body or even his whacked out murder attempt. It’s the flashbacks to his childhood. We’d seen flashbacks to Baxter’s youth in the sort-of-tie-in TMNT comic published by Dreamwave, but those were always silly stories about him building machines to get even with football jocks in high school. Nothing special.

But the flashbacks in “Insane in the Membrane” successfully take a generic mad scientist whom we were all getting pretty sick of and turn him into a sympathetic, three-dimensional character. We learn that, naturally, Baxter wasn’t always a psycho. He lived a lonely childhood, but with the loving presence of his mother always pushing him forward, assuring him that with his keen intellect “the sky’s the limit”. We eventually see Baxter bid his mother farewell as she passes away on her deathbed, again reminding him of his potential. We then flash forward to the present and both the audience and Baxter get to see just what he’s made of that potential. He’s a failed joke of a mad scientist, used by every thug in New York, now with nothing to his name; not even a body. He completely failed to live up to his own potential and, in a way, the parting words of his sweet and loving mother.

It’s depressing, it’s touching and it may even jerk a tear out of even the Chuck Norriest of eye sockets. Yes, Baxter would survive his apparent demise in this episode yet again, but after this episode, I suddenly found that I didn’t mind Baxter being around one bit. The “happy ending” he got in the Fast Forward season was one I felt he actually deserved, despite all the evil he’d done, all because this episode managed to tug on my heart strings like I was an eight year-old girl. Dammit.

#18: We’re getting into a depressing rut, here (Tales of the TMNT Vol. 2 #9)

Klunk. Chances are, you may not recognize the character by name, but rest assured you’ve probably seen him a dozen times. He’s that little pet kitty of Michelangelo’s who first appeared back in Michelangelo (microseries) #1. He never did much. I mean, he’s just a cat, right? What’s he supposed to do beside claw the furniture and get excited whenever a new cardboard box shows up?

But “The Path” by Jim Lawson showed us just how much we cared about Klunk and didn’t even know it.

In this story, Klunk gets hit by a car and is dying fast. Mikey takes Klunk to a magic man at a dump because he thinks that he can save the kitty’s life. The magic man tells Mikey that the only way to save Klunk’s life is to exchange it for that of another cat. So Mikey finds the nearest stray, drags it to the magic man and tells him to go through with the ritual.

It’s the scene that follows which struck me as being one of the most memorable moments of the second volume of Tales of the TMNT. As Mike tries to rationalize why Klunk deserves to live and the stray deserves to die, he stumbles and says “nobody loves it”, suddenly realizing that what he’s doing is wrong. Now accepting that he’s powerless to save Klunk’s life, he bids farewell to his little kitty as he dies. Mikey later learns that the stray was actually pregnant with Klunk’s babies and adopts one of them as his new pet.

As someone who’s always had a pet or three in the house, the story once again struck those eight year-old girl heart-strings I really need to do a better job of fortifying. Proving “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”, the reader suddenly finds himself lamenting the death of the little cat that was always there but never really did anything.

#17: The grittiest story in Tales goes out on a comedy beat and that’s just fine (Tales of the TMNT Vol. 2 #64)

Tristan Jones’s “Gang Wars” arc was the grittiest thing to touch the second volume of Tales since, well, ever. In a book dominated primarily by Donatello space adventures and generic monster battles, an on-going story arc that pitted the TMNT against mob forces in an urban setting was a breath of fresh air.

Then Laird sold the franchise to Viacom and the story arc got unceremoniously cancelled with nothing approaching a resolution.


The last chapter we got, though, was unlike any of the installments before it. A comedy relief tale penciled by Jim Lawson, “The Burning Man” gives us a look at a TMNT adventure through the eyes of Michelangelo. Mikey is something of the team’s “mascot”, always being the one to skateboard and shout “cowabunga!” and scarf down mondo slices of pizza, dude, and all that other stuff the general populace recognizes the Turtles for. The guy tarries into “so annoying I want him dead” territory more frequently than should be advised, treading that thin red line between “actual character” and “as useless as Orko and everyone hates you”.

“The Burning Man” took the team’s overbearing “comedy relief” character and not only gave us a look inside his head, but did it in the funniest way possible.

Basically, Leo is giving Mike one of his standard lectures about responsibility because he blames Mike for botching a recent adventure involving the Foot separatists and a dead Chinese guy in an urn. Mikey, however, has a different opinion of things and tells us the story as it “really” happened. Instead of being a straight-up “alternate point of view” yarn, “The Burning Man” does it Mikey-style with some cute commentary and, best of all, some hilarious and cartoonish takes on his brothers and what Mikey thinks of them.

Don is reduced to a Coke bottle-wearing poindexter in one of the funnier panels, whereas the crowning page of the issue renders an entire epic battle between the Turtles and the Foot as a stick figure “brawl” full of ridiculous dialogue and non sequiturs.

TMNT is a property that often tries its hand at comedy, but very seldom does it succeed. “The Burning Man” remains one of the funniest Turtles stories I’ve ever read and an issue that could make a Mikey-lover out of just about anyone. Odd that it’s the final installment of the grittiest story in the Tales series, too.

#16: The future still sucks. (TMNT Adventures #42)

Archie’s TMNT Adventures series had come a long way by the #40s. The series began as a redundant string of adaptations of episodes from the Fred Wolf cartoon before transitioning into original stories. What we got out of that was one advertisement for the latest Playmates toy per issue, followed then by a disastrous arc about how awesome recycling is. At times, Stephen Murphy’s (excuse me, “Dean Clarrain’s”) eco-preaching could get so absurd and in your face it that it would make Captain Planet and Al Gore simultaneously wretch themselves into oblivion.

But then “The Future Shark Trilogy” happened and all of a sudden TMNT Adventures was cool again (or perhaps for the first time).

In this story arc, a one-eyed Raph travels back in time to tell his brothers, Splinter and Ninjara: Queen of the Furries that there’s trouble a-brewin’ in the future. Apparently, the shark-guy Armaggon has teamed up with Shredder, Rat King and Verminator X and dude, everything’s gone to shit. Naturally, the first thing on Raph’s mind is “Um, could you tell me how I’m going to get my eye gouged out of my skull? That’s information I could probably use”. So Future Raph obliges.

What follows is the set-up for a surprisingly dark tale that catapults TMNT Adventures out of its “Litter is for lame-os! Cowabunga!” funk and into a world of daring, and dare I say, good storytelling. Apparently, the Turtles thought it would be just jawsome to fight a Street Sharks reject underwater and, as you might be capable of predicting, things don’t go so splendidly. Mike and Leo get captured, Don gets beat and Raph takes a missile to the face. A rather grim panel proceeds to show OMG is that blood!1!?! as the defeated form of Raphael floats unconscious beneath the waves.

TMNT Adventures had dabbled in the realm of more challenging storytelling a bit before “The Future Shark Trilogy”, but this issue and Raph’s gruesome flashback basically told the audience “Shit just got real” and the book was never the same again.

#15: It was bound to happen sooner or later (“Get Shredder!”)

The Shredder from the Fred Wolf cartoon was a doofus. No amount of rose tinting is going to change that. He was an ineffectual buffoon who whined like a three year-old when he didn’t get his way, could barely shred pizza dough with his forearm gauntlets and never, ever did anything right.

Except that one time.

Season eight of the Fred Wolf cartoon brought about some changes to the “this shit got stale four seasons ago” series. Known affectionately as the “Red Sky” seasons due to the ominous and perpetual crimson sky, the series took on a somewhat more “mature” demeanor in an attempt to cash-in on the popularity of Batman: The Animated Series and squeeze a few more dollars out of the dried up brand.

To drive the point home, writer David Wise had Shredder do something in the season opener that he’d never done in any of the scores of episodes prior: not suck.

In “Get Shredder!”, the title villain plants a bunch of explosives within the Channel 6 building, threatening to detonate the facility if the Turtles don’t meet a deadline of his (a plot involving a crazy Dimension X badguy named Berserko, but that’s not important). The Turtles miss the deadline by a minute, but the Channel 6 building is still standing. Raph, unfortunately, decides to let fly with the snark and tells Shredder he was just bluffing. Shredder counters by saying “I never bluff” and proceeds to blow the Channel 6 building to smithereens. You know, back when you could still show buildings in Manhattan being blown up by terrorists on children’s television without being shipped off to Guantanamo.

Of course, the building had been evacuated just narrowly before the deadline, but still. Shredder’s intent was all the viewers needed. The incompetent dunce who’d spent seven seasons trying to conquer Earth with mutated delivery boys, love potions and a magnet that could attract antiques just blew up a skyscraper in a major metropolitan area with nary a concern for the lives within. It was not unlike reading “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” by Denny O’Neil, honestly. A couple decades of watching the Joker steal report cards from elementary schoolers, fly around in a helicopter with his face on it and drone on with endless monologues about his “boner”, and now all of a sudden the guy’s killing people! Holy crap!

The remainder of season eight would fail to live up to the expectations set by this shocker, as the Shredder and Krang plot would take a breather in the middle as the Turtles fight some lame mutant organization called H.A.V.O.C. Despite that, the end to “Get Shredder!” remains one of the absolute most surprising moments in the entire series, as a joke of a villain finally manages to pull off some competent villainy.

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

#14: Maybe “Goongala!” isn’t so stupid a battle cry, after all (TMNT Vol. 1 #10)

The two-part story arc between Leonardo (microseries) #1 and TMNT #10 is one of the most epic pieces of Turtles fiction to scuttle out of the original Mirage series. The second half of the story is jam-packed with great moments, not the least of which being the triumphant return of the freakin’ Shredder in all his “I’m not a do-nothing in this continuity! Really!” glory.

But you may wish to know that my absolute favorite moment in TMNT #10 is the surprise gonna-fuck-you-up appearance by Casey Jones.

Prior to this issue, Casey hadn’t really been a major player in the ongoing Turtles series (ignoring the various back-up strips and Tales issues that retroactively take place before this issue). He appeared in Raphael (microseries) #1, did his thing and promptly kind of vanished into the ether. So when, after five or six Casey-less issues, the hockey masked vigilante storms the brawl at the antique store with his patented battle cry of “Goongala!”, consider your adrenaline officially pumped. Because you just know that once Casey shows up, things are about go into high gear.

The 4Kids cartoon’s adaptation of this story was fantastic and I did enjoy their rendition of Casey’s big entrance (he crashes through on his motorcycle, pulls his hood aside to reveal his hockey masked face and then smacks some Shredder Elites aside with his hockey stick like they were little twerps), but this version is just perfect in its simplicity.

#13: He’s the Rat King and you’re the Rat Peasant (“I, Monster”)

This was a tough choice for me. “I, Monster” is one of my all-time favorite TMNT stories and I just couldn’t decide which version I preferred: the original comic as published in Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #4, or the version as adapted for the 4Kids series. Eventually, I settled on the 4Kids version, despite what claims of heresy some of you Mirage enthusiasts might be uttering, as it contained everything from the original comic book version plus some additional stuff that was really, really cool.

Everything from the comic is here: Casey takes the Turtles to an abandoned factory for a game of tag, the Rat King kidnaps Michelangelo and attempts to feed him to the rats, they all wind up trapped in an old building, fending off the hungry vermin and the Rat King gets sent plummeting to an apparent demise at the story’s climax.

It’s all there, but the stuff the 4Kids version adds just takes the game up a notch. Firstly, Dong Woo’s animation on this episode is some of their absolute finest, with some really moody direction, great uses of flashbacks (particularly during the opening monologue by the Rat King) to cement the “monster movie” feel and one of the more exciting battles you’ll ever see in the 4Kids series.

The real treat, though, is the episode’s portrayal of the Rat King. Kind of a weird but pathetic figure in the comic, he mostly just hid in the shadows and attacked from vantage points because he had no real combat skills. Carrying on a plot line from an earlier episode, the 4Kids version reimagines him as an unstoppable fighting machine who can go toe to toe with any of the Turtles and, barring some interference from collapsing masonry, come out on top. His opening and ending monologues, as well as his maniacal laughter throughout the course of the episode, is provided by David Zen Mansley with such pants-shitting force that you can’t imagine the Rat King sounding any other way. His monologues, taken word for word from the comic, are genuinely frightening in their delivery and the Rat King has all the menace and skill to back up his eerie words.

#12: We’re not wearing costumes but we can still pose dynamically (TMNT Vol. 1 #1)

I’d be remiss not to include at least one moment from the first issue of the original Mirage comic since, well, it’s the comic that started it all. That should qualify as a “great moment” in and of itself. Initially conceived as a one-shot Daredevil parody, TMNT #1 isn’t exactly the bestest comic book ever, but the first three pages basically tell you everything you really need to know about the characters: They’re ninja. They’re turtles. And they like to kick people in the face.

The opening scene is as iconic as it gets, with the Turtles backed against a wall in a trash-strewn alley, weapons raised and inner monologues working overtime. It’s a great way to start a book and so gritty and dirty in appearance that you may get cold sores around your mouth after reading it.

But it’s the two-page spread that comes next which I love so much. Leonardo gleefully announcing that they aren’t wearing costumes as he and his brothers leap into the air, Mike apparently doomed to trip over the word “Eastman” and land flat on his nunchukus. The Ninja Turtleiest of Ninja Turtles art by Eastman and Laird and made even more stunning by the conclusion to the 2009 TV movie, “Turtles Forever”.

And while we’re on the subject…

#11 “Turtles Forever” is your wet dream and you know it (“Turtles Forever”)

As the big Twenty-Fifth Anniversary project, “Turtles Forever” seemed to make it a point to try and please everyone. And, barring the nitpickiest of little bitches, it pretty much succeeded in its seemingly impossible endeavor.

“Turtles Forever” gave us a team-up between the Fred Wolf Turtles, the 4Kids Turtles and the Mirage Turtles, effectively sending our bliss glands into overlord and swelling our feet with the disfiguring side effects of Turtle Diabetes. A beautifully-animated, cleverly-written epic piece of Turtles lore destined to become the stuff of Saturday Morning Cartoons legend, it’s hard to say just what moment was the greatest when every fiber of my being wants to just label the whole shebang as a “great moment” and go breathe into a paper bag.

But no, I think the greatest moment of the whole film, the point where I erupted from my couch in a fury of childish enthusiasm not seen beneath my roof since I was five years old, came just past the halfway mark. The 4Kids Shredder has taken both the 4Kids and Fred Wolf Turtles hostage within the upgraded Technodrome and, in true super villain fashion, proceeds to describe his evil scheme to them in detail. What follows is the biggest piece of fanwank in Turtles history and perhaps the most meta moment seen in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Opening up the Technodrome's dimensional portal, Shredder introduces the Turtles to the “multiverse” and every different version of the characters that time and copyright issues could allow (Disney owns Next Mutation, after all…not that it's any sort of loss). The screen shows us comic covers and interior art from the various Mirage comics, the Archie comics, the Dreamwave comics and so on. We see stills from the live action films and the CG flick from Imagi. They even dredge the depths of Turtles obscurity to their utmost limits and show images from the forgotten Turtles anime and manga (namely, the Super Mutant and Metal Mutant Turtles series).

It’s a moment that blows the minds of the characters within the show and the minds of the audience, too. When it ends, you’re sort of left babbling “did that really just happen?” And then, when the Turtles wind-up in the black and white, uber gritty Mirage universe, teaming up with their psychotic prototypes, you realize that you’ve either died and gone to Heaven or you’ve just gotten your hands on the best hallucinogen money can buy.

“Turtles Forever” oozed great moments, but from where I sat on my living room couch, that was the greatest of them all.

#10: Welcome back, gritty. We missed you (Tales of the TMNT Vol. 2 #36)

The second volume of Tales of the TMNT was a book intended to tell a variety of Turtles stories by multiple creative teams, both known for their work on the franchise or new to it entirely. Unfortunately, having been published after Peter “sci-fi all the time” Laird took full creative control of the franchise from Kevin “I like em gritty” Eastman, what we wound up getting was primarily Donatello in space adventures, dimension-hopping and giant monster battles.

Previous attempts at initiating dark, ninja-centric story arcs (such as Ross May’s criminally overlooked “Change of Power” in issue #22) were promptly ignored or cast aside in favor of more supernatural or sci-fi stories.

Suddenly, issue #36, “To Serve and Protect”, exploded onto the scene with its down to earth story featuring organized crime intrigue, classic ninja action and dark, gloomy god damned gritty atmosphere. It successfully broke the series out of its funk of lame sci-fi adventures and brought the Turtles back to their roots as alley-crawling ninja asskickers.

Naturally, it only took twenty issues to be deemed worthy of a follow-up by the editorial team, but that’s neither here nor there.

The point is that Tristan Jones, in his grand Ninja Turtles debut, proved that the Turtles are at their best when they’re prowling around the shadows of an urban setting, kicking the shit out of mobsters and Foot Ninja while playing vigilante with the local police force. Kicking off the “Gang Wars” story arc which acted as something of a sequel to the critically beloved “City at War” arc, “To Serve and Protect” built upon established continuity, weaving a fascinating story about an organized sect of the Foot separating themselves from Karai and the Japanese-controlled division with the Turtles along for the ride. Told as much from the point of view of a pair of New York detectives as much as from the point of view of the Turtles, it’s a bit like CSI or “Se7en” meets TMNT and is all the more refreshing for it, giving the series a more darkly realistic veneer than it had ever had before.

Perhaps even more impressive than Jones’s story is Paul Harmon’s artwork. Dark, detailed, brutal and all-around frightening, it looks like something out of a classic issue of “Creepy” or “Savage Sword of Conan” than the usual Lego-inspired block people we’d been getting from Jim Lawson for so much of the series.

A tragedy that the editorial department at Mirage failed to see the potential in the story and its creative team until the end of the series’ run, we may now never get to see the “Gang Wars” arc seen through to its conclusion. But even with that nugget of disappointment about it, “To Serve and Protect” gave Tales Vol. 2 the kick in the ass it needed, showing what the book was capable of if it would just live up to its own potential.

#9: Raph wins the Two-Face lookalike contest (TMNT Vol. 3 #1)

Gary Carlson’s Volume 3 of TMNT for Image Comics was all about shaking up the status quo of the franchise in as many ways as possible. When the very first page of the very first issue opens with Donatello getting shot pointblank by a laser cannon and reduced to a bloody heap on the floor of the sewer lair, then right there you know that you’re in for a very different sort of Turtles story.

But even with Donatello getting shot, kidnapped and thrown out of a helicopter, the real shocker came toward the end of the issue. Raphael, never having been the type to take good advice to heart, ignores the warnings of a headless cyborg body that went something along the lines of “If you try to stab me with your sai, I will shoot you in the face”. Raph attempts to stab the cyborg with his sai and it shoots him in the face.

The reaction shot afterward, however, is a thing of horror. Showcasing Frank Fosco’s gruesome and gorgeous art, Raph turns to the audience, half his freakin’ face melted off, and basically says “I don’t feel so good. Maybe I oughta take a nap and sleep it off”.

The panel basically makes the entire Image run for me and is just a shocking moment in the franchise history, as you’d never expect one of the Turtles to be disfigured in such a grotesque way, least of all the one all the fangirls keep writing their self-insertion fics about.

#8: Never look up “TMNT Slash” on Deviant Art. Trust me. (TMNT Adventures #23)

The early issues of Archie’s TMNT Adventures weren’t all bad, despite my earlier description of them as being pretty dire. No, amidst the endless pages of shameless toy-shilling and intellectually-offensive monologues about the evil of big oil and styra-foam packing peanuts, a few genuinely good issues managed to escape unscathed.

Among them was issue #23, the first installment in the fairly amusing “Slash Trilogy”. You all remember Slash, right? The Evil Turtle from Dimension X? Chances are, you remember him from the Fred Wolf cartoon where he had big buck teeth, a metal headband with a weird one-eye scope thing and was basically a quasi-functional mongoloid. You probably sat there staring at your kickass Slash action figure from Playmates, with its torn-up black headband, razor-sharp gauntlets and psychotic facial expression, wondering why the Slash on screen can’t be as cool as the Slash in your hand.

Well, that’s because the cool version of Slash was living it up in the pages of TMNT Adventures. Having been dumped on the toxic waste world of Morbus because he was a serial murderer, Slash teams up with an oddly adorable-looking Krang and a weirdo named Bellybomb (and later, Bebop and Rocksteady) so he can go to Earth and steal all its palm trees. Yeah, this book was kind of weird. Along the way, Slash hacks to pieces the various alien guards that get in his way and eventually throws down with the TMNT during a battle so epic it took three artists to draw it in one issue (and only one of them was any good).

But of the three parts comprising the “Slash Trilogy”, it’s the first one that deserves all the fuss. Because this issue introduced us to the most iconic artist behind TMNT Adventures: Mr. Chris Allan. The previous main penciler for the series, Ken Mitchroney, introduced a fun and whimsical style to the book. Allan, however, took that cartoonish sense of absurdity and tempered it with a more mainstream action comic style, producing a unique and dynamic look for the series that probably went a long way in keeping it in publication for over seventy issues (making it the longest running TMNT comic ever).

When Slash first storms the scene on Morbus, he’s everything the Fred Wolf version wasn’t: awesome and frightening but with his own goofy quirks. And Slash would never have been this cool if it weren’t for Chris Allan.

#7: Casey teaches us a valuable lesson about job interviews (“Corporate Raiders from Dimension X”)

The version of Casey Jones that appeared in the Fred Wolf cartoon, like everything else that appeared in that show, was all sorts of wacky. This Casey was a violent maniac that talked like Clint Eastwood and administered the same beatdown to a jaywalker as he would a serial rapist. The guy was lovably berserk and appeared in far too few episodes.

Perhaps the best of his appearances, though, was in the season 3 episode “Corporate Raiders from Dimension X”. In this episode, a bunch of Corporate Raiders from Dimension X come to New York to set up a corporation for the purposes of raiding. Or so I believe. The Turtles have to find some way to infiltrate “Octopus Inc.” and find out their deal, and that means getting one of their human friends to get a job there. Since making coffee and getting slapped in the butt all day isn’t going to get them anywhere, they decide that April’s a wash-out and go for their only male human friend: Casey Jones.

Of course, to attract Casey Jones, they have to break the law. So for about ten seconds, Raph shakes a vending machine back and forth. Casey immediately appears and begins wailing on him until they subdue the psycho and convince him it’s time to get a real job.

The best scene comes next, as Casey enters the lobby of the building in a suit and tie…and a hockey mask…and wearing his golf bag full of weapons. He actually succeeds in making it past the secretary and to the employment officer for an interview. When the interview starts to head south, Casey removes his bat and begins smashing up the employer’s desk.

He gets a job in the mail room.

That scene pretty much encapsulates just how awesome the Fred Wolf cartoon could be when it was trying to be absurd in the most amusing way, not simply phoning it in with “fill in the blank” scripts about doomsday devices and stupid mutants of the week. The entire episode is one of the funniest in the series, but the whole interview sequence is just a riot.

#6: Kwissmiss iz wuined fowevuh! (Tales Vol. 2 #65)

As you can see, my qualifications for “greatest moment ever” extend further than just bitchin’ fight scenes, gory deaths or hilarious gags. TMNT is a series more about action than anything else, but when all the right qualities converge, it can result in a genuinely moving story. Dan Berger’s “Cold, Cold Ice” is one of those.

“Cold, Cold Ice” gives us a rare look at the Turtle/Foot rivalry from the other side of the coin. Here, a Foot Mystic named Mamoru has been stealing money from the organization so that he can send his daughter away, hoping to provide her with a life unspoiled by organized crime. He gets caught, of course, and is given the death sentence along with his wife and daughter by the Elder Oroku. In a last ditch effort to please the Orokus and lift the death sentence on his family, Mamoru attempts to kill the Turtles with a kamikaze spell involving Ice Oni (giant snow monsters).

The Turtles, being the good guys that they are, triumph against the Ice Oni. Mamoru dies, his mission a failure and the fates of his innocent wife and infant daughter sealed. Thanks to a vision from the Rat King, Splinter realizes this and, in the touching final scenes of the issue, laments what will become of those Mamoru has left behind. Meanwhile, the spirit of the Rat King holds in his hand a rose (significant in that it represents Mamoru’s daughter), and looks down in sadness as its petals wither and die.

It’s a very bitter ending, putting into perspective the entire Foot/Turtle rivalry. We often forget that beneath the faceless bugeye masks, the Foot Soldiers are actual people, presumably with families, loved ones and circumstances that drove them to the life they’re leading. The Turtles, in a way, become the villains in this issue, as their victory would ensure the death of an entire family. The final scene shows you the horrible repercussions on the innocent that their various victories against the Foot entail.

You may feel a bit emptier inside, the next time Mike bludgeons a Foot Soldier to death and hollers a triumphant “Cowabunga!”

#5: All they’re missing is a redhead to fight over (“TMNT”)

The Leonardo/Raphael rivalry isn’t exactly the most original of conflicts within the TMNT series. Pretty much a blow for blow carbon copy of the Cyclops/Wolverine rivalry in X-Men (albeit sans a telekinetic redhead to come between them), their arguments usually go the same way:

“I’m the leader of this team, so you better shape up and do what I say!”
“No way! I’m a loose cannon rogue who plays by his own rules!”
“Get in line, mister! Don’t force me to have personality! I mean it!”

And so on.

To their credit, the rivalry between the Turtles has a little more substance to it due to their status as brothers, I suppose. At the very least, its lead to some entertaining moments in the comic, such as during “Return to New York” and “City at War”, and the only thing worth a damn about Imagi’s mediocre feature film, “TMNT”.

“TMNT” was a humdrum flick that pretty much went ignored in the box office. Purdy animation aside, the whole “thirteen monsters” storyline, ancient rock soldiers, burp and “your mom!” jokes and, worst of all, a painful Kevin Smith cameo basically made this the second best Turtles film ever made. And if you think that’s a complement, keep in mind that its competition includes a Vanilla Ice musical number and the worst costumes this side of the “Coming out of their Shells” tour.

But it did give us one thing worthy of adoration: a drop dead gorgeous battle between Raphael and Leonardo. The rooftop confrontation is the result of building animosity between the brothers; Raph wanting to be an individual and Leo being the bossy, overbearing “leader” he always is. Leo only proceeds to escalate things, first by cracking jokes at Raph’s technique (when he’s still “disguised” as the Knight Watcher) and then laying down a line with the most dickish delivery I’ve ever heard: “And. I’m. Better. Than. You.”

Raph kicks the ever-living shit out of Leo for that and I think everyone who was sick of Leo’s Mr. Perfect routine applauded that outcome. The fight is a beautiful piece of animation; the pair trading blows atop a rain-soaked roof with neon signs flickering in the background. We’ve seen Raph and Leo fight before, but this was a medium that really did their duel justice.

#4: Casey’s a bad drunk (TMNT Vol. 1 #49)

At times, the TMNT comics are as much about Casey as they are the title characters. He isn’t just a supporting character, he’s a main character and just as entitled to whole spotlight arcs as any of the green guys.

Casey has problems beyond his anger management issues and meager intellect, and the “Shades of Grey” two-parter (and his subsequent arc in “City at War”) brought all his inadequacies to light and forced the guy to man up to them in perhaps the worst possible way.

In issue #48, Casey goes on just another routine vigilante’s night out with the Turtles and encounters some teenage thugs with guns. They fight, Casey defends himself and, by accident, kills one of his teenage attackers. Suddenly, Casey’s bouts of rage and self-destructive “badass” vigilante antics didn’t seem so cool anymore.

The follow-up issue, #49, though, may be one of the most awkward and uncomfortable Turtles stories ever written. Attempting to drown his sorrows in booze, Casey gets insanely drunk while hanging at his farm in North Hampton. He stumbles out into the woods and comes across Donatello, just minding his own business by a stream. Casey, completely wasted, picks a fight with Don for no reason other than he’s completely drunk. For page after page after uncomfortable page, Casey keeps pushing and pushing Don, while the Turtle tries his best to be the bigger man and refuse to sink to Casey’s level. Casey just keeps at it, though, eventually crossing the line and promptly getting beat with ease by the sober intellectual.

It’s a weird moment that no one reading the book thought they’d ever see. Despite what the first live action TMNT movie might have told you, Casey and Don have next to nothing in common. They hardly interact on any sort of chummy level and are, at times, more of acquaintances than solid friends. This meeting between the two just shows how they hardly really get along, as Casey accuses Don of trying to talk down to everyone and refuses to let him get by without a fight. Casey’s embarrassing defeat puts both of the characters into perspective for the audience; maybe the soft spoken nerd is, in fact, cooler than the hard-drinking, bar-brawling “badass”.

At any rate, the scene wakes Casey up and forces him to face his own demons in a long and fascinating arc within “City at War” which allows the character to redeem himself before the audience. The entire argument and fight with Don, though, is a scene you won’t find in most TMNT comics and is all the more amazing for it. A great character spotlight and proof of what the TMNT comics are capable of in the storytelling department.

#3: This is a kid’s show? Really? (“Return to New York part 3”)

You Mirage-lovers are going to kill me, I know it.

I didn’t choose the 4Kids version of the climactic Leonardo/Shredder battle from “Return to New York” because I thought it was somehow better than the version from the Mirage comic (TMNT Vol. 1 #21). In fact, that fight would have easily made this list if I hadn’t felt that including it and the 4Kids version would have been redundant.

No, I chose the 4Kids version because it shocked me more than the Mirage version.

The 4Kids TMNT cartoon was, yessiree, for kids. It had some compelling and intelligent stories, a lot of daring moments and a more epic scope than “Coconut Fred’s Fruit Salad Island”, but at its core it was still a children’s show meant to be suitable for the Y7 crowd.

So when Leonardo chopped the Shredder’s head off in full view of the audience and with the full intent of dispatching his foe’s life, I nearly dropped my remote. I knew how the fight ended in the comics, of course, but I had never expected it to end the same way in the cartoon. This was Y7, after all. You can’t cut off a guy’s head, on camera, in a Y7 cartoon. But they did.

Now, I know what you’re going to say next. “But c’mon, the Shredder just turned out to be an Utrom in a robot body so he didn’t actually cut a person’s head off”. You’re missing the point. The point is that Leonardo went into that fight with the full intention of murdering the Shredder, chopped off his head in an attempt to kill him and left the battlefield content that his enemy was dead and decapitated. Leo didn’t know the Shredder was an Utrom in a robot body at the time and neither did the audience. For all we knew, Leo had just chopped off a human being’s head in a children’s television show and that, sir, is the point.

The moment is shocking, even after the truth is revealed, as it displayed a killer instinct not seen in a Saturday morning cartoon since the days of Batman the Animated Series. Maybe even more-so than that, as this scene featured a hero resorting to killing to end the threat of a villain. Batman would never do that and neither would practically any other good guy in a kid’s show.

The 4Kids cartoon may have been meant for children, but it had balls. And Leo’s on-screen decapitation of the Shredder, robot body or not, is proof of that.

#2: Sayonara Splinter (TMNT Vol. 4 #10)

Not everyone goes out in a blaze of glory. Not everyone dies in an epic duel with their arch nemesis. Not everyone dies while rescuing a toddler from a collapsing building. Some people just grow old and die of natural causes.

Such was the case with Master Splinter, when in the tenth issue of TMNT (Vol. 4), he simply had a heart attack while brewing tea and collapsed, dead.

It’s a heart-crushing scene, as the old sensei goes about his day normally for several pages, only to suddenly clutch his heart and call out for his sons, the spectre of the Rat King watching ominously in the background. For several agonizing pages, Splinter hobbles about the house, as any helpless old man would while having a fatal heart attack, and finally passes away.

The entire sequence is almost painful to endure, as you don’t watch Splinter die in some contrived, adrenaline-pumping action adventure, but dying in a way any one of us could when we’re eighty. It was depressing, it was permanent and, in its own way, it was tragically perfect. Splinter may have been a warrior, but he deserved to live out his final days on a quiet farm and die a peaceful death. If Splinter had to kick the bucket, I can’t imagine a way more satisfying or appropriate.

#1: Leonardo goes all out (Leonardo microseries #1)

It’s hard to believe that the Foot were ever anything more than a joke, I know. We see them in cartoons, movies, comic books and video games all the time as these disposable thugs that can be defeated with one good punch to the stomach. Ineffectual and nearly skill-less buffoons, constantly being shown up by the superior ninjutsu of the Turtles.

But way back when, before the first volume of Mirage’s TMNT series had even reached ten issues, the Foot Soldiers were a force to be reckoned with. They weren’t gutless thugs, but real ninja: highly trained, expertly skilled and no easy opponent to knock down. Nowhere is this more evident than in Leonardo (microseries) #1.

The newly reanimated Shredder coordinates an all-out assault on the ninja who killed him, first by separating Leonardo from his brothers and pitting him against the entire Foot army. Leonardo may not be the most interesting Turtle, but he is quite possibly the most skilled, and his badassery is put to the test as he holds his own against dozens of swarming Foot Soldiers.

The running battle is epic, as it moves across rooftops, through alleyways and eventually deadending into a snow-filled construction site. And throughout the entire, bone-crunching brawl, Leo holds his own against insurmountable odds. He is defeated, of course. That’s pretty much a forgone conclusion. But like a one-man army of Spartans, he refuses to give in no matter how many legions of ninja the Shredder throws at him.

The image of his broken, battered and thoroughly beaten body getting hurled through the window of April’s apartment is terribly grim conclusion to his amazing battle and the perfect lead-in to the next part of the story in TMNT (Vol. 1) #10.