Well, we’re gonna have to get through some chaff before we get to the wheat in this batch of episodes from the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. But that’s okay, because while the first three episodes in this article are some of the most boring, the last three episodes are some of the best Mirage comics adaptations this cartoon ever accomplished.
Let’s work our way to them…
“Notes from the Underground, Part 1” (written by Eric Luke)
While investigating the strange crystals found in their new lair, the Turtles happen upon an abandoned subterranean Foot Clan genetics lab. The only thing left in the lab are three powerful mutant monsters: Quarry, Razorfist and Stonebiter. And they aren’t happy.
Oh boy, it’s “Notes from the Underground”. Like most of the story arcs in these early seasons, I don’t hate this multi-parter or anything. But jeez, did it really need to be three episodes? There’s so little story actually contained in these installments. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch “Notes from the Underground”, after it’s over I’m always left wondering “How was THAT three episodes?”
I will say that “Notes from the Underground” IS important. There’s this impressive mythology that’s going to be built up throughout the first four seasons of the show, all about a prehistoric race that once ruled over the Earth and the various creatures that served them. In fact, many episodes in the future will be part of this mythology, but you won’t know it until, like, season 4 when they tie it all together. “Notes from the Underground” gets the ball rolling on all of that.
But it’s just so decompressed. They have to stretch a lot of ideas and gags to get this segment of the plot to fill 22 minutes, so we get two solid acts of the Turtles walking down mineshafts and tunnels while Michelangelo complains about how scary everything is. The various traps that inconvenience them along the way aren’t very imaginative, either, amounting to cave-ins and a Raiders of the Lost Ark style boulder chase. Did you guess they’d have to span a chasm to get away from something? They span a chasm to get away from something.
The episode doesn’t pick up until the last act when they find the abandoned Foot research lab. There’s a brief booby trap sequence where they have to dismantle a forcefield that’s trying to crush them, but most of the scene is just the Turtles watching a videolog from the Foot Tech scientists. It’s all exposition, but it ties in nicely to the hints we’d been getting about the Shredder and his mysterious adversaries.
Summary: Shredder ordered the Foot Techs to kidnap people and turn them into mutants that could journey underground, apparently because he thought his “enemies” were hiding in the caves beneath New York. There’s a tense progress to the video entries, as the scientist (played by Mike Pollock doing his Dr. Robotnik voice, so if you close your eyes it sounds like Dr. Robotnik works for the Foot Clan) creates then learns to control the mutants, then discovers an underground settlement he thinks is the base of the Shredder’s enemies, then the Foot celebrates (complete with champagne and partying), then they find out it’s just an abandoned city from some ancient civilization and Shredder dissolves the project, then the monsters rebel and everything goes dead.
So you can see how hard the writers were working to tie all these storylines together. We learn about the weird lair the Turtles discovered at the start of the series, we get hints about the Shredder’s adversaries, we get setup to an expansive cryptozoological and ancient civilization mythology, and also more mutants that can be made into action figures by Playmates. And they DID make them into action figures, you can be sure of that.
Yet the part that actually advances all those elements encompassed one act of one episode. The rest is just tunnels and running and Mikey acting like a spaz.
“Notes from the Underground, Part 2” (written by Greg Johnson)
After a fight, the Turtles befriend the three subterranean mutants, but soon learn that there are more vicious Foot experiments lurking in the tunnels. To keep the monsters at bay, the Turtles will have to journey to the underground city to find a powerful crystal.
So this was the “What the heck even HAPPENED in this episode” episode. The Turtles fight the three mutants for a long, dragging battle and then they just talk… and walk… for the rest of the episode. It’s plodding and boring and I can’t help but feel that this episode and the previous one could have been combined for something much more substantial.
The fight at the beginning is pretty annoying, too. Mikey stands on the sidelines the whole time, still stressing that whole “coward” thing he’s been overplaying through this arc, making obnoxious commentary the whole time. While the monsters should provide some new action visuals, taking a break from the ninja vs. ninja stuff, the storyboarders and director can’t seem to think of anything cool for them to do in battle. So the monsters just spit acid and throw things.
Well, there are some good things about the episode. The mindless Foot experiments that attack the Turtles all have unique designs and they’re really cool, even if we only see some of them for a second. I especially like the horned, cyclopean one that looks like a boss battle from Doom. The character designers and animators could have half-assed it and used a bunch of bland, identical monster designs for the mindless experiments, but they went the extra mile. So credit where it’s due and all that.
All this horror movie stuff featuring rock monsters and infernal creatures from the bowels of the Earth really, REALLY reminds me of Inhumanoids. You’d think the fusion of Ninja Turtles and Inhumanoids would be a bit more exciting than this, but all the decompression just sucks the life out of the thing.
And though I applaud them for trying to create a horror movie vibe with these episodes, the direction and music just aren’t up to the task of fully delivering the atmospheric effect. People (not me, but people) have complained about the Nickelodeon cartoon doing TOO MANY horror movie parodies, but I can’t deny that they do those extremely well. The 4Kids TMNT cartoon, as much as I love it, never really gets the hang of going for scares.
“Notes from the Underground, Part 3” (written by Greg Johnson)
The Turtles make it to the Forbidden Zone, the ancient underground city, but they aren’t alone. One by one, they’re hunted by the mysterious Entity until only Michelangelo is left.
“Notes from the Underground” isn’t the longest stretch of story arc we’ll get in this show, and it isn’t even the most decompressed, but it is one that I really have to slog through to finish. Nothing HAPPENS in these episodes, especially THIS episode, that is nothing but another overlong chase scene that lasts until we get some exposition from the Entity at the end.
So yeah, the Entity reveals that he’s the lone survivor of an ancient civilization that predates humanity. They used outposts (the TMNT’s new lair) to observe mankind, but could never journey to the surface. Then they all died but him. He cures all the Foot mutants of their condition, but only if they remain in the Forbidden Zone to rebuild his lost civilization (and if they try to leave the surrounding crystals, they’ll revert back to mindless mutants). He’s kind of a villain, but in a grey area since he thinks he’s doing the right thing. One of those guys.
Like I said earlier, this is going to wind up being tied into a bigger picture later on; this whole interwoven narrative about Earth’s “hidden history”. As it stands this far into the show, though, this three-episode arc served to provide an origin for the TMNT’s lair. Riveting.
Also, F--K the Entity.
Because of HIM, whenever you google “TMNT Entity”, rather than get my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles website, half the time you get a page about THAT a-----e. Or maybe I should’ve named my site something else. But “TMNT Anemone” was taken.
Quarry becomes uncharacteristically cowardly in this episode, perhaps to sell how terrifying the Forbidden Zone is, but the shtick runs out of steam quickly. There’s a character arc going on throughout these episodes about Mikey having to find his courage, so he takes charge when Quarry starts freaking out and ultimately has to save the day. I wish they hadn’t bothered.
Ultimately, “Notes from the Underground” introduces a lot of interesting ideas and a few recurring faces (the subterranean mutants will return), but the writers didn’t have enough material to justify three episodes. A leaner two-parter would have probably been good, but as it is, “Notes from the Underground” drags and drags. The real highlight of this arc comes at the very end, when Quarry gets de-mutated. The only solid laugh they got out of me.
The episode ends abruptly, with the Turtles returning to the sewers only to find them swarming with Foot Soldiers. Splinter and the Turtles retreat to go hideout in April’s place until everything blows over.
The Turtles leaving the sewers to go live with April is something you’ll probably remember from the first two live-action films, but it has its origins in the comics. Albeit, their reason for living with April was a bit more relaxed. After the Mousers destroyed their lair, rather than find a new one, they just decided to move in with April. That started around TMNT (Vol. 1) #3 and within the context of the comic’s inner timeline, they lived with her for two years. The 4Kids show will stick them together for two episodes.
I guess this series is only decompressed when it wants to be.
“The King” (written by Michael Ryan)
While working in April’s basement, Donatello meets her tenant, an artist named Kirby. Kirby’s been using a strange crystal to bring his art to life and together they explore a fantasy dimension of his creation. Unfortunately for them both, Kirby liked to draw lots and lots of monsters.
This episode is a near-exact recreation of Donatello (microseries) #1, an issue that was primarily the work of Peter Laird (with Eastman mostly contributing inks). Of all the Mirage adaptations in this cartoon, and many of them are very authentic, “The King” is perhaps the most slavish. Story beats, aesthetic, even some dialogue are replicated from the comic; they really went all-out to make this as authentic to the source material as possible.
As you probably guessed, Kirby is based on Jack Kirby, one of the greats of the American comic book industry. Well, perhaps “based on” is a little misleading. The character looks like Jack Kirby, sounds like Jack Kirby (Mike Pollock hitting the New York accent Kirby had), is a comic book artist like Jack Kirby, and is named f----n “Kirby”. For God’s sake, this character isn’t “based on” Jack Kirby, it’s meant to freakin’ BE Jack Kirby. (Alright, so technically his full name is “Kirby King” according to the old Palladium TMNT & Other Strangeness RPG sourcebooks, but they never say it in the comic or cartoon.)
While Eastman’s influences have always been cited as folks such as Frank Miller, Vaughn Bode’ and Richard Corben, Laird has generally referred to Jack Kirby as his primary inspiration. The Donatello microseries issue was created as a “love letter” to Kirby and at times it goes beyond being a tribute and feels like sycophantic fawning.
Whatever the case may be, Peter Laird DID contact Jack Kirby and secured permission to use his identity as the guest character in the comic, so it’s not like Kirby was out of the loop when this was all going on. Heck, the King was a supporter of Mirage and even penciled two pin-ups of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as gifts. Check ‘em out:
But while the comic was released during Jack Kirby’s lifetime, “The King” was broadcast 9 years after his death. As such, the tone of the tribute feels completely different despite being a 1:1 recreation of the comic. The Donatello micro might have come off as bootlicking, but the cartoon feels like a heartfelt memorial to a departed artist, complete with a memorial dedication just before the cold open. With that change in context, “The King” works a bit better than its comic book counterpart; whereas one was a gushing fan letter, this was a loving eulogy. It also makes Kirby’s sacrifice at the end, and his final message to Donatello, have all the more resonance BECAUSE of the change in the character’s real word analog.
To talk about the story, it works perfectly well without any of the tribute context. And I’m sure most of the little kids tuning in on Saturday morning had no clue who Jack Kirby was or why the episode was dedicated to him. Most of the TMNT’s Mirage catalog is made up of standalone one-shot stories, with the bigger Foot Clan related arcs standing out as the anomaly. New readers trying to get into the Mirage books are sometimes put off by this, but whether the stories are isolated or not, most of them are pretty good. And being episodic, they generally translated to this cartoon rather intuitively.
And yet writer Michael Ryan still managed to work this standalone story into the ongoing tapestry of the series in ways unique to this interpretation. The Warp Crystal (as it was called in the comics) is implied to be one of the crystals used by the ancient subterranean society, as seen in the previous episodes. In the comics, no origin was ever provided for it. We learned how it got to the Second Time Around shop years later in TMNT (Vol. 4) #22, but not where it CAME from. (Also, it was used to draw April into life as a baby meaning she’s really just a magic doodle in the Mirage comics, but thankfully that angle won’t be adapted by 4Kids.)
The “Kirby World” they travel to is full of, naturally, a ton of Jack Kirby-isms. The monsters and warriors all look like legal approximations of Fourth World and Mighty Thor characters and the sky is full of the unmistakable Kirby Crackle. The aesthetic tries its best to intimate Kirby’s work without inviting lawsuits from Marvel and DC. They do a good job.
The sad ending might come as an unexpected punch to viewers unacquainted with the comic, especially the kids watching. It happens very abruptly (they probably could’ve paced it better), but like I said before, I think the parting message and the sudden goodbye works better as a memorial. In the context of the story, Donatello meets a new friend and loses him within minutes and I think there’s a metatextual aspect to it we can all identify with.
Have you ever discovered a new artist or writer or director that you really, REALLY like? So in your enthusiasm, you try to read or watch everything they’ve ever done? Then you find out that they’re dead and that’s it. Once you’ve seen all they’ve created, you’ve seen IT ALL. And there’ll never be any more. We’re all finite and even the most prolific creators can only leave behind a limited body of work. It’s sad, especially when you get to the end, but you’ll always have what they gave you to enjoy. In that respect, Kirby’s parting words to Donatello feel even more profound: “Life, at best, is bittersweet.”
“The Shredder Strikes Back, Part 1” (written by Eric Luke)
While on a training exercise, Leonardo is caught alone in the city by the Foot Clan. He’s forced to run a gauntlet of Foot Soldiers, Foot Tech Ninja, Foot Elite Guard and Hun, but eventually they wear him down. And waiting for him at the end of it all is… The Shredder!
This episode adapts Leonardo (microseries) #1, another of the original stories by Eastman and Laird, and it adapts it superbly. And I can’t compliment harder than that, considering I named the Leonardo micro as the #1 Greatest Moment in TMNT History back in 2009. It was my favorite issue of the Mirage series, so seeing it brought to life not just well, but REALLY well, was a colossal treat.
The way Eastman and Laird laid out the original comic was part of its charm, but one of those things that couldn’t so easily translate to the animated medium. The comic had a picture-in-picture aspect to it: The top three-fourths of each page featured Leonardo’s running battle with the Foot Clan, all done without words, while the bottom quarter of the page was like a comic strip featuring the obliviously carefree antics of the other Turtles as they hung out in April’s apartment. The effect worked great in the comic, leading to the moment where the two narratives converge with Leo’s broken body being hurled through the window.
The cartoon tries to maintain that aspect in its adaptation. As Leo runs his gauntlet, we periodically look back at the other Turtles in the apartment, fooling around and occasionally wondering where Leo is at. It works, and I’m glad they kept the element in from the source material. The idea that the Turtles had no clue what Leo was going through, and therefore would not be dispatched to bail him out, really added to the tension in the comic, and it does the same trick in this episode.
And much to my surprise, the adaptation maintains the silence aspect from the comic. Leonardo doesn’t say a thing during his whole ordeal. They even fought the urge for a dialogue exchange when Hun shows up. And I’m glad they did. It layers on the suspense by showing just how serious this battle is. There’s no time for pithy commentary or wisecracking shtick or even an inner monologue. The Foot are out to KILL. HIM. And there’s no fun and games about any of this.
One thing that is admittedly lost in translation, understandably, is the violence. This is a kid’s show and of course that means Leo can’t stab or slice anybody with his swords. We do get a lot of excellent action, especially when Leo charges into a crowd of Foot Soldiers and takes on several at once, but ultimately it all comes down to locking blades and then kicking them away. At times he’ll swing his swords and then we’ll see the Foot Soldiers fall to the ground, gripping their skulls like he just bonked them on the head with a mallet. There’s definitely some disconnect, but director Chuck Patton makes it work as best he can and Leonardo takes a lot of lumps (he’s bruised to Hell and back by the end of the episode).
If the episode does add anything that the source lacked, I think it’s the steady difficulty curve as Leo faces each rank of Foot Ninja one after the other. In the comic, there were only Foot Soldiers and they inevitably got the better of him by the power of numbers. In the cartoon, we’ve already been introduced to different divisions of the Clan and Leo has to work his way through them. First it’s the Foot Soldiers, then the Foot Tech Ninjas, then Hun, and finally when he’s all but worn out, we’re introduced to the Foot Elite Guard. And they wreck his s--t.
“The Shredder Strikes Back, Part 2” (written by Eric Luke)
The Shredder is back and he isn’t screwing around. Trapping the Turtles, Splinter, April and Casey in the Second Time Around shop, the Shredder sends waves of Foot Soldiers in to slaughter them. And if the Turtles want out, they’ll have to get through Shredder.
This episode adapts the second half of the “return of the Shredder” arc from the Mirage comic, as originally published in TMNT (Vol. 1) #10. This was always one of my favorite Mirage storylines, certainly my favorite of the Volume 1 Foot-centric arcs, and 4Kids really brought their A-game to the adaptation. TMNT #10 was a more straightforward comic in terms of layouts and execution, so this episode doesn’t have to stress quite as hard to maintain parallels with what the comic tried. It adapts the events authentically, but in some places adds touches that are legitimate improvements (the way Casey crashes the party).
While some of the smaller moments from the comic didn’t make the cut for the adaptation, I like what they exchanged them with. There’s a bit in the comic where the Turtles need to escape down the hall staircase, but to make sure there aren’t any Foot hiding under the stairs, Michelangelo patters his hands on the top step to draw them out (I always thought that was clever).
The episode loses that scene, but swaps in a more atmospheric buildup as the hall staircase is abnormally quiet and empty. This leads Michelangelo to scope out the adjoining antique shop where he finds the Elite Guard. And they aren’t hiding or anything; they’re just standing there out in the open, patiently waiting. While we lose a good gag, we get a solid “oh s--t” moment as a consolation.
Casey’s entrance is a whole lot cooler here, too, as he smashes through the window on his motorcycle and dives right into kicking ass. In the comic, Casey showing up had some extra oomph to it because it was only his second appearance in the series, so it was more like a comeback. The cartoon didn’t have that gravitas to work with, so they just made his showing up a bigger moment visually. Also in the comic, Casey actually managed to tag the Shredder (!). But since this incarnation of the Shredder is so powerful not even the Turtles can land a blow on him, they exchange it for Casey taking down all four Elite Guard without breaking a sweat. A fair trade, I think.
The animation quality is ramped up in this episode, too. Not that Dong Woo’s animation in the first half of the two-parter was bad, but there’s a much higher framerate to the fight sequences and so many little visual details that make the battle more exciting. There are fast moments, like Raphael fending off multiple Foot Soldier attacks in the apartment, but then there are these slower bits that look so good. Like whenever the Foot Elite are toppled, they disappear in a cloud of smoke and reappear standing and in a fighting stance; you never see them recover and it makes them all the more intimidating. But there’s a scene where they do that and they reappear right behind Mikey. The Elite, rather than immediately attack, just leisurely swipes his blade through the air to drive Mikey away. These are characters that don’t talk and certainly aren’t invincible (again, Casey knocks down all four of them), but there are so many little nuances to their actions that give them a fierce presence.
There are three encounters with the Shredder in this opening season and each one escalates the stakes. In the first encounter, all the Turtles managed to win was a chance to escape with their lives. In this second match, they lose bigtime. The Foot beat Leonardo within an inch of his life, Shredder locks them in a storage room, sets the building on fire and leaves them for dead. Outside of actually dying, you don’t lose much worse than this.
The comic showed the Turtles escaping the Second Time Around shop, but to add a cliffhanger, we see some Guardians lament that the Turtles are dead and then there’s a “To Be Continued?” message. I’m sure they’ll be okay. And anyway, the third encounter, which we’ll review next time, will see the Turtles waging an attack of their own on the Shredder and going for the kill.
But that’s next time. And in addition to the “Return to New York” saga, we’ll get to see the “Exile to Northampton” era. All two episodes of it.