Note: This article was originally published at the TMNT Fansite.
Comic book characters, particularly those that are mainstream successes, have a tendency to go through number of changes and reinterpretations. Take a look at Batman. Or Captain America. Or even Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Adapting to change is critical for characters to remain relevant. However, it is just as important that they maintain their core elements. When it comes to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one part of their story that has been crucial in nearly all of their adaptations is their time spent in Northampton, MA.
Northampton has not been a part of all TMNT incarnations – specifically the current film series and the 1987 cartoon. Ditto the video games. However, in nearly all other iterations of the Turtles, Northampton has served as a critical element in their character development. The original comics from Mirage Studios spend nearly half of the series in the Massachusetts town. It is also featured in the 1990 movie, the 2003 animated series, the 2012 animated series, and the current ongoing from IDW Publishing. In each version, the Turtles’ reason for retreated from their home in New York City is essentially the same: they have suffered a major defeat.
In the Mirage comics, the 1990 film, and the 2003 series, the journey to Northampton unfolds in a very similar fashion – one of the Turtles (Leo or Raph, depending on which iteration) is worn down and badly beaten by the Foot, with the ensuing battle in April’s apartment and antique shop. Realizing they are both outnumbered and overpowered, the Turtles, Casey, and April retreat and make their way to Northampton. In the IDW series, after the events of “City Fall” the retreat to Northampton is used as a means to heal the Turtles – especially Leonardo – both in mind and body.
One question that one might ask is “Why Northampton?” It’s a fair inquiry. The city is located almost 170 miles from New York, and the two places, on the surface, share little in common. Those that have been to the Massachusetts city know it is a academic, artistic, and counterculture hub, but from an outsider’s perspective, it looks like a blank-slate small town surrounded by wilderness – a setting ripe for storytelling opportunities. Then there’s also the old adage of “write what you know.” As Mirage Studios made Northampton its home, those that worked on the TMNT title were more familiar with their surroundings than a city over 4 hours away. Because of the rich culture underneath the city’s unassuming facade, Northampton is allowed to become whatever is necessary to suit a particular story, while giving the comics (and later, television shows and movies) a much different look than typical superhero fare.
Northampton may be a blank slate to the causal observer, and the Turtles’ stories were published in the city, but is it really the most crucial part of their lore? After all, there’s their origin story, their eternal struggle against the Foot, Triceratons, Utroms, the “City At War” story, and other beloved moments from across various forms of media. The answer remains “yes.” Up until their first venture to Northampton, the TMNT comic fluctuated between loving homage to other successful comics and a pulpy, sci-fi adventure series. The stories were fun and memorable, but they lacked any sort of depth. Northampton changed that.
It is widely acknowledged that most of the issues between TMNT #11-45 are not considered a part of the official canon, but just because these stories are not canon does not make them unimportant. Referred to as the “Guest Era,” many different creators took a stab a writing the TMNT, which in turn allowed for Mirage Studios to internally develop its pool of talent. Michael Dooney, Eric Talbot, Jim Lawson, A.C. Farley, Michael Zulli, and many others cut their teeth on Ninja Turtles stories set in Northampton. Lawson in particular would become the creator with the most TMNT credits to his name, having served as writer and artist on comics produced by Mirage Studios in Volume 1, and all of Volumes 2 & 3.
The Guest Era saw many notable achievements and additions to the TMNT lore. Jan Strnad and Richard Corben’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #33 saw the Turtles published in color for the first time under the Mirage banner. The issue’s story, “Turtles Take Time,” became an driving inspiration for the famed video game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, as well the episode from the 2012 animated series “Turtles in Time” and the animated short “Turtles Take Time (and Space).” Michael Zulli’s distinct, 3-part arc from issues #31, 35, and 36 brought the Turtles face-to-face with a psychological and supernatural foe. Rick Veitch’s “Down the River” story is a cautionary tale about pollution. The beloved characters Leatherhead and Rat King first appeared in the Massachusetts city too.
As it has been alluded to earlier, Northampton’s biggest role is in the Turtles’ recovery from defeat at the hands of Shredder. Whether the house was owned by Casey’s family or April’s, the journey to and time spent in the Massachusetts town has served as a turning point in their struggle against their opponents. The two most notable instances occur in 1987’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #10-11 (later adapted in the 2003 animated series episodes “The Shredder Strikes Back” and “Tales of Leo”), the IDW story arc “Northampton,” and the 1990 film. In each of these incarnations, we are presented with not with the jovial group of characters that fans have fallen in love with, but physically drained, emotionally broken versions of themselves.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #11 is told through the lens of April’s journal. The lettering by longtime Turtles contributor Steve Lavigne foregoes the traditional print for a cursive script which instantly gives the story a more personal, emotional connection to readers. That allows readers to dive deeper into the Turtles’ emotional states, whether it is Leonardo’s solitude or Mikey’s glumness. Initially, they clearly are not themselves, but they eventually regain their swagger and a newfound preparedness for when they eventually return to New York (which is also presented in the 2003 and 2012 animated series).
The 1990 film takes this a step further, with the Turtles experiencing a spiritual awakening. With Raphael incapacitated, Leonardo spends his time keeping vigil over his injured brother and in deep meditation – hoping to make a connection with the captured Splinter. Once Raphael has recovered, Leonardo is able to connect with their master. The film then hits its emotional apex, with the four brothers communing around a campfire and receiving a message from Splinter. From this moment on, the infighting stops, as does their sense of helplessness. Though they still goof around, the Turtles are shown to be more emotionally steady and resilient than before. Rather than run from a fight, they are willing to run into one to take down the Shredder and save their father.
These plot points act as a consistent thread-line across TMNT media and into the IDW series. There is the recovery from battle and emotional healing, but this time new relationships are forged. The seeds of a new friendship are planted in Alopex, the mutant snow fox that had been previously working for the Shredder. Casey and April’s relationship sees a new wrinkle added when the latter’s parents are introduced. Leonardo once again makes a spiritual connection through meditation, this time with his long deceased mother.
Throughout Ninja Turtles’ 30-plus years, Northampton has been a critical element. The success of the franchise has hinged upon the heroes in a half-shell’s journey from New York City to Western Massachusetts. There’s a reason that the Mirage comics, 2003 series, IDW comics, the 1990 movie, and 2012 series are held in such high regard – the quality of the story telling possesses a level of maturity and sophistication that the other incarnations simply lack. And while the 1987 series is seen favorably in the eyes of many, it suffers the same problems of the other Turtles’ stories: it simply is not good when nostalgia is stripped away. The TMNT stories that really stand the test of time – and the ones that will continue to drive the property’s success into the future – are the ones that feature quality storytelling. From what I can tell, those stories all have one thing in common: Northampton.