One last 30th anniversary ‘TMNT’ post: Exploring the multiverse (12 different continuities!) (Commentary)

Playmates Toys publicity photo

In my previous blog post, I lamented the fact that “Star Wars” is officially switching from one continuity to two (“Legends” and the new Disney-overseen continuity), marking the end of the most famous “one big story” franchise in pop culture. That doesn’t mean I reject all multiple-continuity franchises and reboots, though. In fact, I’m a huge fan of the franchise that is perhaps the most extreme example: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” marked its 30th anniversary on Monday, and it’s a fascinating example of how one core idea can spring in so many different directions — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

When Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird put out Mirage Comics Volume 1, Issue 1, on May 5, 1984, little did they know how sprawling (and confusing) the “TMNT” franchise would become in three short decades. How did it happen that “TMNT” spiraled into more than 10 distinct timelines? Well, the initial reason was marketing and merchandising: In its original incarnation, “TMNT” was for mature readers. But licensees rightly saw kiddie appeal behind it, so they took the original incarnation and tweaked it for the cartoon, movies and so forth. Today, it seems a lot of the new “TMNT” stuff is reboots for the sake of reboots. For example, wouldn’t it be cool if August’s new movie was a continuation from the first four movies? But instead, it is a brand-new story, and an odd-looking one at that.

Interestingly, while Laird generally has been cool with these different avenues for drawing new fans to “TMNT,” I suspect that his perfectionist nature was a bit bothered by the unwieldiness of the various continuities, too. In later issues of “Tales of the TMNT” Volume 2 in the 2000s, characters discovered a “Sliders”-style “multiverse” (Archie’s Cudley the Cowlick, a time- and space-traveling bovine head, could traverse the multiverse) and the final episode of the 2003 cartoon series, 2009’s “Turtles Forever,” found Shredder scheming to wipe out the Turtles in all the various realities.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary, here’s a breakdown of all – with the exception of parody stories — the distinct “TMNT” timelines (at least I think I covered them all!):

1A. Mirage/Image Comics, minus the Michael Zulli saga and the parodies (1984-present): Dubbed “Turtles Prime” by “Turtles Forever,” this universe’s story is actually still ongoing, kinda-sorta in real time, albeit a little bit behind (the Turtles are in their 30s). Despite Laird’s 2009 sale of the franchise to Viacom, he retained the right to put out as many as 12 Mirage issues per year. But Volume 4 has trickled its way up to Issue 32 with no sign of a conclusion on the horizon. Turtles Prime includes well over 100 issues comprising Volumes 1, 2 and 4 from Mirage, Volume 3 from Image, two volumes of “Tales of the TMNT,” tons of special issues, and even two unlicensed issues (Volume 3, Issues 24 and 25) that provide connective tissue between Volumes 3 and 4.

1B. Mirage Comics, minus all the issues that Laird has dubbed non-canon (1984-present): Due to copyright as well as creative reasons, Laird considers all guest-authored issues from Volume 1 and all of Image’s Volume 3 to not be part of the official Mirage timeline. While I respect his view, I personally choose to not make the subtractions (other than Zulli’s saga and the parodies), because the story fits together without any deal-breaking continuity glitches.

1C. The roleplaying game (1985-90): Branching off from the Mirage comics, these games – the first licensed adaptation of the Turtles — went in a wildly different direction, most notably “Road Hogs,” which finds a post-apocalypse Raph training an army of mutant ninja turtles. But rather than consider it a distinct timeline, I’m going to say the roleplaying game stories are “possible futures” within the Mirage continuity, as are …

1D through 1Z. All the other possible futures of the Mirage storyline (1988-present): Starting with the 1988 short story “Choices,” Mirage gave fairly regular glimpses of bleak futures for the Turtles, but they didn’t all link precisely with each other. For example, Volume 2, Issue 1, finds Splinter bloodied and dead, but in the “real” storyline, he dies of a heart attack in Volume 4.

2. Michael Zulli’s “Soul’s Winter” saga (1990-91): Now we come to a story that distinctly exists outside of Turtles Prime. Some of the Mirage Volume 1 guest authors wrote parodies, and others wrote stories that fit with the main saga, but Zulli reimagined the “TMNT” origin in Volume 1, Issues 31, 35 and 36, plus a couple short stories. In this bleak world, Splinter created the Turtles via magic, Shredder wasn’t totally evil, and the four Turtles did not have names or individualized weapons.

3. The first cartoon (1987-96): The first licensed storyline aimed at a young audience produced 193 episodes over 10 seasons and was no doubt the entry point for the majority of today’s adult TV fans. The cartoon introduced the Turtles’ love of pizza, the word “cowabunga” and the Turtles’ different-colored masks, along with a comedic tone that contrasted sharply with the source material. It also streamlined the origin story so that Splinter IS Hamato Yoshi and Shredder/Oroku Saki is Splinter’s one and only archrival, rather than the brother of original archrival Oroku Nagi. In the comic, mutating means gaining humanoid form; in the cartoon, mutating means you morph into the other animal you were most recently in contact with. The Turtles were originally baby turtles, and Yoshi/Splinter was originally human. Also, this is the first incarnation where April is a reporter.

4. The video games based on the first cartoon (1989-95): I considered categorizing the video games as 3B, but ultimately I decided they have to stand as their own timeline. Although the end bosses are villains from the cartoon, and the standard baddie is a purple-clad robot Foot soldier, I just can’t reconcile the fact that the cartoon Turtles defeat the villains in cartoony fashion (often without ninja weapons) and the video games are all about violently mowing through the opposition with full-on ninjitsu moves. And due to Leatherhead being a bad guy in the games, I can’t categorize this as a branch of the Archie stories (where the Turtles got into more ninja-style fights, but where Leatherhead is a good guy).

5. The Archie comics (1989-95): The origin story is the same as the cartoon for this series that lasted 72 regularly numbered issues plus tons of specials and spinoffs (most notably, “Mighty Mutanimals”). After Issue 4 of the regular series finished adapting the TV episode “The Incredible Shrinking Turtles,” Archie branched off on its own continuity with changes such as Leatherhead being good rather than evil. In terms of the maturity level of the stories, Archie split the difference between the cartoon and the Mirage Comics; it was aimed at kids, but the stories had a bit more substance. April acquires ninja skills much more quickly in the Archie saga than she does in the Mirage saga.

6A. The first movie saga (1990-2007): The movie saga — my entry point into “TMNT” fandom — also split the tonal difference between the cartoon and Mirage comics, leaning more toward a Mirage feel in the first live-action movie (1990) and the lone animated movie (2007) and more toward a cartoon feel in the second (1991) and third (1993) films. The first movie’s origin story and plot is drawn entirely from the Mirage comics, but it peppers in several cartoon elements, including April-as-reporter (and ninja, a nod to Archie’s work with the character, in fourth movie), different masks, pizza and “cowabunga.”

6B. The fourth movie (“TMNT”) viewed as a separate entity from the first three films (2007): While it fits more or less OK as a sequel to the first three movies, there are some things that give a viewer pause: For one, April suddenly possesses remarkable ninja skills (I think her training phase was covered in a movie tie-in comic that I haven’t read), which is hard to reconcile with Paige Turco’s awkwardly nunchucking April from movies II and III. And two, these animated Turtles have a much greater range of movement than the live-action Turtles. Also, director Kevin Munroe makes a curious statement in the DVD commentary: He notes that the canister of ooze on Splinter’s shelf could say “TGRI” (consistent with the films), but it could also say “TCRI” (consistent with the Mirage comics). Things could’ve gotten even messier in a “TMNT” sequel, which probably would’ve featured the return of Shredder (last seen crushed to death at the end of the 1991 film), but as it turned out, no fifth film was made in this timeline. I personally see the fourth movie as a follow-up to the first three, but I’m including this subcategory out of respect for those who see it as a separate thing.

7. “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation” (1997-98): This is the Turtles saga that fans simply don’t want to talk about. Most will say it’s because of the female Turtle, Venus de Milo, but really it’s because this live-action TV series is irredeemably awful (Look up any clip on YouTube if you dare). The radio-controlled animation of the Turtles’ faces makes the work on the third movie look Oscar-worthy. Although at first glance this series seems to continue from “TMNT III” because the Turtles are in the subway lair, this has to be categorized as a separate timeline because Shredder is alive, the Turtles use different weapons, and no mention is made of Venus or anything else from this series in the fourth movie (and thank goodness for that).

8. The second cartoon (2003-09): Lasting 158 episodes over seven seasons and culminating with the multiverse episode “Turtles Forever” that was Laird’s last hurrah before selling the franchise to Viacom, this animated series adapted some stories from Mirage Volume 1 and dropped the jokiness of the first cartoon. But while it cribbed from Mirage, it was by no means a faithful adaptation: Here, Shredder is an Utrom and Karai is Shredder’s daughter.

9. The IDW comics (2011-present): The first adult comics reboot of “TMNT” changes the origin so that Splinter and the Turtles are a human father and four human sons re-incarnated as a mutant rat and turtles in Baxter Stockman’s lab. The saga goes on to borrow from all previous lore, notably giving us the first non-kiddie versions of classic cartoon characters such as Krang, Bebop and Rocksteady, and the Neutrinos.

10. The third cartoon (2012-present): The Nickelodeon cartoon, slightly more kid-oriented than the second one but a little more serious than the first one, takes more liberties with the lore, including having Splinter be bigger than the Turtles and having April be a teenager.

11. The second movie saga (August 2014): The already controversial-among-fans Michael Bay-produced movie changes the Turtles’ heights from about 5 feet to about 7 feet, and changes their faces to look like Shrek mixed with Ice Cube. Apparently, they are of alien origin here.

12 (?). The multiverse (1984-present, but introduced as a concept in 2008): As we saw in those “Tales of the TMNT” Volume 2 comics that found Archie’s Cudley the Cowlick popping up in the Mirage universe, and even more clearly in “Turtles Forever,” every Turtles saga (at least from the pre-Viacom days) is part of a wider multiverse. Each is an alternate reality where the general story is the same but details are different. And, given the right technology, the various realities can theoretically interact. Although I thought about categorizing the 1988-97 Playmates toy line as its own continuity, I think it’s best to say that the toys represent the multiverse: Most of the action figures were from the cartoons, some were unique to Archie (Ray Fillet), some were unique to Mirage (Fugitoid), some were from other comics but became special guests in the “TMNT” toy line (Panda Khan), some were from the second and third movies, and some were unique to the toy line itself (Sandstorm). The descriptions on the card backs didn’t always mesh precisely with the source material, but I guess we can say they are all accurate in some part of the multiverse.

So there you have it: Eleven distinct “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sagas in just 30 years, plus a 12th that kinda-sorta ties them all together. While I’d love to read new Mirage Volume 4 comics from Laird, and I admit to being intrigued by what IDW is doing (I haven’t picked up an issue yet, except one where the Turtles happened to cross over with “The X-Files”), I’m generally overwhelmed and under-interested in the bevy of reboots and re-imaginings.

Sigh. Maybe I should keep “TMNT” in mind the next time I feel like ranting about the “Star Wars” continuity split.