The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles haven’t always been green.

The TMNT comic’s origin story is as modest as that of the Heroes in a Half Shell themselves. Creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird may not have had to scramble out of a sewer, like Leonardo and his reptillian brothers did, but they did have to scrape together the funds to self-publish just a few thousand copies of TMNT #1 in 1984. Eastman and Laird called their fledgling enterprise Mirage Studios. The name was an in-joke: Like a mirage, the studio had nothing behind it. It was built on a wing, a prayer, and the crazy idea that turtles might make not only good soup, but also good superheroes.

Their black-and-white format was an economic choice rather than an aesthetic one. Full-color comics were prohibitively expensive to produce. In those early days, the Turtles’ telltale green shade existed solely in the mind of the reader—another mirage, if you will.

There’s a Spartan simplicity to the first three issues of TMNT, now collected in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Black & White Classics Vol. 1. Eastman and Laird, who shared writing and drawing duties, render the anthropomorphic foursome with a hard angularity that disappeared when TMNT became an animated show in 1987. The Turtles don’t have wide, friendly eyes or soft, rounded features. Since the comic is in black and white, they also don’t have colored masks to help kids differentiate between Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael, who look basically identical.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

That’s because the Turtles weren’t originally meant for children. In 1984—long before comic culture went mainstream—TMNT could only be found at comic shops and conventions. The series also didn’t have to conform to the Comics Code Authority, the self-regulatory censor that policed the vast majority of comics at the time. (Formed in 1954 when comics were being persecuted for causing juvenile delinquency, the CCA finally fell by the wayside in 2011.) The original TMNT comics aren’t exactly gory. But during their sword-heavy battle scenes, skin is visibly broken—something that would never be shown in the subsequent animated series. If you prick these early Turtles, the do indeed bleed.

Violence, however, isn’t what makes the first TMNT comics so edgy. It’s the grit. Every panel is awash in grayscale; every surface is stippled and pitted. The Turtles may be teenagers, but those shells look lived in. It all makes for a grim atmosphere, at least compared to the characters’ later iterations.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

That contradiction lies at the heart of the black-and-white TMNT comics, and it’s also the secret to their appeal. Eastman and Laird originally intended TMNT to be part parody, part homage. Their biggest influence was Frank Miller of The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City fame, who was best known in 1984 for his groundbreaking run on Marvel’s Daredevil, as well as his sci-fi samurai epic Ronin for DC.

But TMNT wound up being radically original and innovative rather than derivative. A lot of that had to do with how Eastman and Laird flouted expectations. Was TMNT satirical or earnest? Gritty or silly? The name alone was absurd enough to disarm most skeptics. When TMNT #1 blew up soon after its release in 1984—a viral phenomenon based on grassroots word-of-mouth—it became clear that thousands of readers actually liked this weird little comic. In fact, they loved it.

Even now, it’s not hard to see why. Eastman and Laird’s art is crisp, stylized, and vivid. The black-and-white format only enhances it. (Some reprints of the early TMNT comics have been colored, with varying degrees of success, but they never approach the graphic boldness of the originals.) The duo’s storytelling is brisk, and they pack a ton of plot and characterization into the first issue alone. Granted, the individual identities of the four Turtles have yet to be fully established, although glimpses are immediately evident. The enmity between the Turtles’ martial-arts mentor, the rat Splinter, and his archenemy the Shredder is clearly and quickly introduced. Wisecracks are made, and the battle scenes are panoramic.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

It’s a dynamic that makes for great comics, then and now. Which isn’t to say the original TMNT doesn’t have its rough spots. The comics are certainly rudimentary—but they practically pop off the page with promise, and that potential is what helped TMNT spread like wildfire. The punch line behind the comics’ premise is often overlooked, especially now that TMNT has become a permanent fixture in the cultural landscape. But it’s worth remembering: Turtles are legendarily pokey, yet these guys are as swift as the wind. The joke is not a profound one—nothing about TMNT, then or now, is profound, nor should it be—but that sly self-awareness has always been a huge part of the franchise’s fun.

The new, Michael Bay-produced TMNT movie hits theaters August 8. It’s not meant to be any kind of return to form, or at least not a return to the franchise’s unassuming start as a self-published, stripped-to-the-bone comic book. If anything, Bay’s TMNT ignores the original comics altogether in favor of nostalgia for the 1987 animated series and the 1990s films. But who knows? Maybe someday, a brave director will make a black-and-white Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. If so, there’s an evergreen storyboard—so to speak—ready and waiting.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Movie
  • Steve Barron