Whenever a new iteration of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuts, it is immediately held to the standard of what came before. Each new video game has failed to live up to the standard set by Turtles in Time on Super Nintendo. New cartoons are compared to the 1987 series (even though the 2003 version is arguably superior). The 1990 feature film is the benchmark each cinematic release since has failed to match. And for comics, everyone is quick to point to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 published by Mirage Studios back in 1984. This would be perfectly fine if not for one small problem: that first issue by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird is the story of least importance in the entire TMNT canon.
Before you pull out the pitchforks, let me preface this by saying that I am not downplaying the significance of this issue. Without it, everything that is Turtles fandom today would not be here. However, in breaking down the specifics of that very first issue and comparing it to everything that has come since (including issue #2), the titular characters are pretty unrecognizable to even the most hardcore of fans.
Upon reading TMNT #1, the difference in the Turtles’ temperament from other mediums in instantly noticeable. Specifically, they lack any distinct character traits which differentiate one from another. Raphael’s abrasive personality is nonexistent. Michelangelo lacks his immature but humorous charm. Donatello is not the brainy intellectual he is commonly depicted as. Leonardo is identifiable as the leader, if only because it looks cool to have a turtle with twin swords as the frontman. As it turns out, Leonardo is the only one whose character traits translate beyond the first issue, as he offers his sword to Shredder so that he can die with honor.
Speaking of Shredder, Oroku Saki is not the fully evil warlord that he is shown to be in later installments. Though he may be corrupted by power, his feud with the Turtles is by no means as malevolent as in later incarnations. Here, the Turtles are on the hunt for Saki at the behest of Splinter, who wishes to avenge his Master Yoshi. Interestingly enough, Saki’s actions in killing Yoshi are somewhat justifiable, as Saki’s brother died at Yoshi’s hand. There is not a simple black vs. white here, but different shades of gray which makes the Turtles actions less noble in retrospect.
And what of the supporting cast? Even though everyone has been asked “Which Turtle are you?” the supporting players are a big part of the TMNT’s mass appeal. Even if you don’t find a Turtle to identify with, there’s likely someone that can fill that role. However, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 is a rather sparse adventure. There’s no Casey or April. The Utroms and Triceritrons aren’t around. Ditto for Fugitoid, Leatherhead, or Slash. The Purple Dragons do show up, but their leader, Hun, is MIA. There’s no Bebop or Rocksteady. No Karai. All of these characters have been a part of the Ninja Turtles’ most memorable adventures, But in their first appearance, they are nowhere to be found.
First appearances have a history for being rather unimportant in the grand scheme of things. No one is clamoring for more of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” from Detective Comics #27. “The Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt” from Showcase #4 doesn’t resonate because of it’s mind-blowing narrative. These comics are significant because they feature the first appearances of Batman and The Flash, respectively. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 may not be a terribly important issue when it comes to developing the Turtles into the heroes we know and love today. However, without that first issue, these characters wouldn’t exist at all, and that is nothing to sneeze at.