Finally completed TMNT vol. 1 today. As promised, here's my overview for the series:
Overview of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Vol. 1)
Overview: It's a common myth that, while the TMNT cartoon series of the 1980s was goofy and fun, the original comic book series was far more serious and grounded -- a myth perpetuated by creators Eastman and Laird. In fact, I still can't decide, after multiple re-readings, whether the first issue was intended to be taken seriously or as an incredibly dry attempt at absurdist humor. Either way, the series takes a turn for the ridiculous as early as the second issue and gets consistently sillier up to issue #8 to the point where it would truly be difficult to defend the notion that it was in any way more serious than what would eventually make its way into the cartoon series.
Issues #10 and #11 mark the first clear attempt to take the title in a serious direction, and they are amongst the finest installments in the series. After that, though, Eastman and Laird walk away from the book in order to manage their new money-making empire, leaving the title in the hands of an endless line of fill-in creators. After a long stretch of pretty forgettable fill-in stories, Eastman and Laird returned for the "Return to New York" storyline (issues #19-21) only to walk away from the book again after, and this time leaving it in more questionable hands.
With only the notable exception of Rick Veitch, this second bout of guest creators tended to be fringe indy creators looking to drum up more attention for their own work and, with absolutely no editorial restrictions placed upon them for this stretch, they went wild. A few stories from this era attempted to tell regular turtles stories (though "regular" for this series was still pretty undefined -- writers from this stretch couldn't even agree whether the turtles had permanently returned to New York or not), while most of the issues were, at best, innovative non-continuity portrayals of the turtles (#s 31, 33, 35, 36, 41) and, at worst, a totally different style of comic using one or more obligatory characters from the series in entirely out-of-character ways to somehow justify putting the story in a TMNT comic (#s 22, 23, 38, 39, and 40 being the worst offenders). There were a few truly great storylines from this stretch, but even creators desperately trying to weave together a workable continuity were accidentally contradicted by one another since no one was watching at the helm (#42 and #46, being the most glaring example, attempt to resurrect the same old storyline and characters in completely contradictory ways).
Finally, after years of fan outcry, the gradual dwindling of Turtlemania in America, and steadily declining sales on the book, Eastman and Laird returned one final time to get the book back on track (though one could argue that there had never been a track until this moment). They plotted issues #48-62, with Laird sticking around to co-write each of those issues, and it finally provided a steady and purposeful continuity for the series, also achieving a more comfortable balance of dark/serious with just a subtle bit of goofy/fantastic thrown into the mix. It wasn't perfect, but it was certainly the finest Turtles story ever written at the time. Unfortunately, it also threw everything from issues #22-47 out of continuity, claiming to be set shortly after the events of issue #21. This meant resetting the Turtles to square one in terms of characterization, totally ignoring some important character evolution both Raphael and Donatello had undergone in several issues throughout that crazy stretch.
In the end, it's truly hard to lend a single identity to this 62 issue run. Perhaps it's safer to say that issues #1-11, #19-21, #48-62, Tales of the TMNT #1-7, and the four one-shots were the core Turtles series, and #12-18 and #22-47 were more of an anthology series that never should have been part of the main TMNT title. Still, some of those "inbetween" issues were quite memorable and worth a read.
Worthwhile To Read?: Yes, though that may not seem obvious until more than halfway into the run. It's very hit and miss for a while, but the journey ultimately felt very worthwhile.
I'd break this down into several different reading recommendations, depending upon what you're looking for:
#1-4 (1st appearances, origin, they meet April O'Neil)
Raphael #1 (1st Casey Jones, and boy does he become important by the end)
#5-7 (truly just so that you understand who one character is in #19-21)
Leonardo #1 and #10-11 (great story, critical continuity developments)
Tales of the TMNT #2 (required reading for #48-49)
Tales of the TMNT #4 (required reading for #50-62)
#19-21 (ends very very poorly, but this storyline is essential continuity for #50-62)
#48-62 (TMNT at its very best).
All the other great stuff:
#8 (fun story, required reading for some later issues I'll recommend here)
Tales of the TMNT #7 (required reading for some later issues)
#16 (an absolute favorite of mine, though it's a massive departure from the regular series. There's a good chance that favorable response to this issue is responsible for the chaos the series becomes in issues #22-47).
#24-26 (one of the best non-Eastman/Laird Turtles stories ever written)
#31, 35, 36 (a radically different take on the Turtles that is darker and steeped in Feudal Japanese history)
#37 and #42 (another of the finest non Eastman/Laird Turtles contributions ever made)
#45 (solid stand-alone that really tries to move continuity forward for the series)
Everything else that isn't awful and/or totally forgettable:
#14, 15, 28, 30, 33, 34, 43, 46, 47, and you should probably read #9 just to understand #46 and #47.
Not at all worth reading unless you absolutely need to read it all:
Michaelangelo #1, Donatello #1, #12, 13, 17, 18, 22, 23, 27, 29, 38, 39, 40, 41, 44
(note: I have not read the Tales of the TMNT issues and cannot comment on them other than in regard to continuity)
Worth Re-Reading?: Possibly the whole series; definitely "The Essentials" and "All the other great stuff" I identified above.