Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – heroes on the half-shell! Turtle power!
If you’re a fan of a certain age, you read those words with a very specific cadence and rhythm in your mind, from the iconic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon theme song of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Younger fans will have their own touchstones for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who have never been out of the public eye in some form of media or other for very long.
But the entire TMNT media empire all started with comic books. And over all those decades, comic books have remained the heart and soul of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Case in point – the just-concluded TMNT: The Last Ronin comic book limited series in which the lone surviving Turtle Michelangelo embarks on a mission of revenge for his dead brothers.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to great TMNT comic book stories (or the tip of the sai, for a more TMNT-appropriate idiom). Read on for our look at the ten best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stories of all time!
10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #101
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #101 (opens in new tab) proves noteworthy as it introduces readers to the newest addition to the TMNT – Jennika, the fifth Turtle.
Masked in yellow and bearing claws, she joins the brothers after her mutation via a blood transfusion she receives from Leonardo.
Although Jennika’s debut took place six issues prior, it wasn’t until this issue that her place on the team becomes official. While Sophie Campbell is forging a remarkable tenure as an artist and writer for TMNT, the establishment of Jennika in the core team may prove to be one of her longest-lasting efforts.
And with Jennika taking a prominent place in the current series, now’s the time to go back and read up on her origins.
9. Urban Legends
Admittedly, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ ‘Urban Legends’ (opens in new tab) era is a controversial topic among shellheads for the ways it deviated from what came before – but in the years since its publication in the mid-’90s, it has grown to be a cult favorite even among those who initially dismissed it (like TMNT co-creator Peter Laird).
Writer Gary Carlson and artist Frank Fosco’s run, published by Image Comics, pushed the Turtles into a fast-paced and ultra-violent world that saw them lose limbs, eyes, and even showed us Donnie as a cyborg (for the first time).
Heck, it even had Raphael take on the mantle of Shredder… who wouldn’t want to see that?
8. Attack on the Technodrome
This 2014 arc – collected as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The IDW Collection Vol. 5 (opens in new tab) – re-introduced the sometimes-comedic Bebop and Rocksteady in a brutal way that fans still might hold a grudge over.
Why? Using a sledgehammer, they mercilessly attacked and crushed Donatello’s shell – leading to his eventual death, from wounds suffered there.
For fans coming into TMNT from the cartoons and more kid-friendly versions of the team, we’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.
7. Usagi Yojimbo / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Once you come to terms with weapon-wielding humanoid turtles, a rabbit samurai seems like an ideal companion.
Usagi Yojimbo and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first crossed paths in the 1987 anthology Turtle Soup, with Usagi creator Stan Sakai telling a rabbit-out-of-time story to get him side-by-side with the crew. For the next few decades, Yojbimbo became a frequent face – not only in comic books but also the cartoons.
While this cross-time friendship delivered fans one of the best TMNT action figures from the ’90s, it also provided an opportunity to showcase Leo’s admirable core traits – often subject to ridicule by his brothers and fans at times – through the respect shown to him by the samurai rabbit.
You can read all of the adventures to date in Dark Horse’s Usagi Yojimbo / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete Collection (opens in new tab).
6. Gang Wars
Although Tales of the TMNT was canceled before Tristan Huw Jones and Jim Lawson could complete their full intended story, what was published of their ‘Gang Wars’ arc stands out in the way it both humanizes Michelangelo while imparting the youngest brother’s humorous side.
Published intermittently in the Tales of the TMNT run (issues #36, #56, #59, #61, and #64), ‘Gang War’ gives a fresh perspective on the turtles from Mikey’s vantage point – and despite being unfinished, is still worth tracking down. This run hasn’t been collected yet, but the Tales of the TMNT (opens in new tab) collections are fast approaching the issues that house this story.
5. Old Times
While not as rare as some of the earlier TMNT publications, good luck finding an original copy of 1992’s Plastron Café #1, which contains the Peter Laird story ‘Old Times.’
Set sometime in the future, an older Donatello is running a fighting simulation against the Foot and Shredder. It ends with him seeing his brothers, which causes him to break down and shut down the game. Why? In this future, they’re all dead.
Almost 30 years old, this standalone story works now as a precursor to the current TMNT: Last Ronin series.
4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1-5 (2011)
IDW’s current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ongoing series is arguably the best synthesis of the tones and stories from the previous volumes, with writers Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz, and now Sophie Campbell synthesizing those together into an organic world that’s been going for over 100 issues over the past decade.
The original first arc – collected as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The IDW Collection Volume 1 (opens in new tab) – is particularly notable for artist Dan Duncan’s seminal take on the Turtles which has gone on to define their aesthetic for the past decade in comic books.
3. City at War
Arguably the most important storyline of all TMNT stories, the ’90s arc ‘City at War’ from issues #50 through #62 – collected as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Volume 5 (opens in new tab) – was at the time the grand finale of Eastman and Laird’s TMNT franchise, culminating with the final defeat of Shredder and the Turtles disbanding.
One of the most poignant moments in the arc takes place not between the Turtles, but rather between Splinter and April O’Neil as he recognizes her as part of their group.
Not only was 1992’s ‘City at War’ influential in its own right, but the 13-part arc would also go on to be adapted in subsequent cartoons, and even in the current IDW comic book series.
So what else could possibly be ranked higher than this seminal storyline? Read on…
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1
This is where it all began.
With only 4,000 copies originally published by hand, this 1986 black and white oversized issue introduces the main characters and the conflicts we’ve all come to know and love.
The issue was dedicated to Jack Kirby and Frank Miller, and this first issue includes subtle (and not-so-subtle) homage to the latter’s Daredevil run: Splinter and Stick as mentors to the budding martial artist(s); the evil ninja clans dubbed after human appendages; and of course, the mutagen and radioactive liquid as the catalyst for their respective origins.
Nonetheless, the uniqueness of the story Eastman and Laird concocted helped launch a green empire of comic books, cartoons, games, and films thanks to this must-read first issue that still stands up today as a bit of punk rock-ish comic book storytelling.
This, along with the entire first year of stories, is collected in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection, Vol. 1 (opens in new tab). Read our review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 – #7.
1. Return to New York
While ‘City at War’ rightly earns praise for the epic fashion in which it brought about the conclusion of the first volume of the TMNT, no other story brought as much attention to the TMNT as 1989’s ‘Return to New York’ from #19 – to 21 – collected in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Volume 3 (opens in new tab).
Although the tension between ready-to-rumble Raphael and Leonardo the leader seems almost cliché at this point in time, it was in ‘Return to New York’ where the relationship between these two brothers is first and best seen at play.
Not only does this story really begin to flesh out the family dynamics, but it also features an epic battle between Leo and the Shredder resulting in what was thought to be the death of Oroku Saki (for a second time).
Between foundational character development and the impact of its storyline through the films, ‘Return to New York’ stands out as the best TMNT story to date.