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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Return to New York)

by yo go re

NECA began their TMNT line with figures based on the art of creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. But Eastman and Laird's art style evolved pretty quickly, so while those toys may be how the Turtles looked in their first issue, it's not how they looked for long: by issue #5 you can already see the shapes that would influence the cartoon designs, something that only became stronger when they had Michael Dooney do fill-in art on issue #9. By the time they got to the storyarc that inspired the first movie, the characters were unrecognizable next to what they'd been just 10 issues (and three years) before. That new style lasted much longer, and now that NECA is back to doing Mirage figures, we get a set based on the more famous art.

This set is based on the "Return to New York" story arc, which means it's based on the art of Jim Lawson. Originally an inker

at Mirage Studios, he eventually moved up to pencilling Tales of the TMNT (the bi-monthly book meant to pass the time between issues of the main title), but, once reality set in for E&L that running a merchandising empire left no real time for producing their actual comics, Lawson became the main artist for the TMNT series, a role he would maintain through future volumes, as well. The 2008 figures may have been what the boys looked like in issue #1, but Lawson's art is what people think of when they think "Mirage Turtles."

As is the style, all four Turts use the same body sculpt, with paint differentiating them. The work is done by Paul Harding, because of course it was. As I write this, Paul's on vacation in Japan, which we can only assume means there will be a huge lull in the output of every company six-months-to-a-year from now, because he is personally responsible for the creation of so many different lines we follow. The bodies are super chunky, in the distinctive style of Lawson's art. The shapes are squared off and blocky, so there's no question what this is supposed to represent - it's not some generic body that could be reused for just any old thing that comes along.

This was, of course, when the Turtles were all wearing red masks, so the only way to differentiate one from another is by their expression. Or by the letter molded into the inside of the toy's head, which is very handy for me since I had Mikey and Raph mixed up. (Which, honestly, I blame on the packaging layout; who puts the nunchucks next to Raphael and the sais next to Michelangelo?) If you don't want to pop the heads off the necks to find the identifying letters, Donatello is serious, Michelangelo is smiling, and Leonardo and Raphael both look angry. Probably at each other.

You will be able to tell Leo and Raph apart, though, because, as Poe taught us years ago, Leonardo was the first Turtle to have a way to store his weapons when not using them - he's got scabbards for his swords! This is also far enough along in the artistic evolution that he has the shoulder straps coming up from his otherwise-identical belt, but not far enough along that Donnie gets the same.

Although the body sculpts are all the same, Geoff Trapp and Mike Puzzo designed paint that's not. Like when Playmates made Mirage Turtles, each of the boys gets different lines and scratches painted on. It's mostly the same on their skin, but their shells are unique. At least, the front is; the backs are all the same, no matter whatever other items may be back there. Fittingly, Raphael's is the most scuffed up. While the plastrons are a light yellow, there's a hust-slightly-darker airbrushing along all the edges, to make them look more rounded than they are. These are surprisingly flat toys, all things considered!

NECA's first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were among their earliest articulated figures, but that was 15 years ago, so things are bound to have improved. These have swivel/hinge ankles, double-hinged knees, swivel thighs, balljointed hips, a swivel tail, balljointed waist, swivel/hinge wrists, double-hinged elbows, swivel biceps, swivel/​hinge shoulders, and a barbell neck. The ties on their masks are also technically swivels, in that they're a round peg going into a round hole, but the PVC is too soft to allow them to "turn," per se: you can take them out and put them back in in a different postion (you get your choice of ties sticking straight out or hanging over the right shoulder - the same for all four of them). If you don't like the tails, the swivel is loose enough that you can pop them right out, no trouble! Of all the joints in this set, there was just one stuck: Leonardo's left bicep, which got moving with some time in the freezer.

You'll never believe what weapons these figures come with! Swords, nunchaku, sai, and a bo staff! Wow! What a selection! Kidding aside, there are also three (why only three?) throwing stars, but come on, who cares about those? Who is ever going to car about those? It's nice that NECA tried to put something extra into the box of this $150 set, but three throwing stars are pretty clearly just there to use space and make a list of the included pieces look bigger, not to actually make the toys more fun. Rather than being flat gray, the metal weapons (throwing stars, swords, and sais) are blue, with the cutting edges of the swords painted white. Yes, it's less "realistic," but it looks a lot better on a toy like this. Mikey's nunchucks get the string connectors, like the movie toys, instead of chain. The wrap around Donnie's bo staff is a different shade of brown, despite the Kevin Eastman illustration on the front box flap showing it as dirty white.

The set includes four pairs of alternate hands: two fists, two relaxed, two chopping, and two with the fingers spread so Raphael can "Wolverine claw" his sais. You probably already realized this, but it just occurred to me that, since a sai is not a dagger and thus the point of its shape is to block and trap incoming sword blows, the only thing wielding the weapon like that would achieve is getting your fingers cut off. Raphael, you dummy!

The first thing we see in the story that nominally inspired this set is Raphael laying in a sewer pipe, seemingly defeated. Actually, we see it twice: once on the cover of issue #19, and then immediately again as a big, two-page spread. In the image(s), Raph is wearing a rough brown hood, like that's going to disguise or protect him. Anyway, this set includes that hood, made from a soft PVC. Pop the ties of his bandana out, and the hood slips right into place.

You know what everybody enjoys? Stories about me! I mean, stories about me being stupid! The set includes an alternate arm with a bandage wrapped around the bicep. It's not really anything from the comic (one of the Turtles is taping up his wounds at the end of issue #21, but that's a single panel and is never seen again), but it's a fun enough thing to include. Getting more beat up than everybody else seems like a Raphael trait, so of course the arm would belong to him, right? Well, because it's packaged in between Michelangelo and Raphael (and because I had confused Michelangelo and Raphael), I thought it was a replacement left arm, based on where it was in the tray. But the figure's left arm doesn't want to come out easily! So with some effort and determination, I manage to finally pull it out of the socket... at which point I can now see how different the shape of the pegs on the normal and injured arm are, and realize no, this isn't a left arm, it's a right arm, that shoulder wasn't supposed to come out. Whoops! [Whoopsie! --ed.] I tug on the right arm, and it pulls out of the torso with no trouble in the slightest. [Super easy, barely an inconvenience? --ed.] I, friend, am an idiot. Since all the Turtles are the same body mold, they can all use this alternate arm, and it works perfectly every time. Just like the bo staff, what should be white wrapping is instead painted brown.

The first time NECA made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys, Playmates' refusal to let them be sold in the same stores as the Playmates stuff (not even the same aisle, just the same store) hobbled the line before it ever got started. Now here we are, 15 years later, and this set is stocked on the same Target endcap as the new movie's toys. NECA probably could have gotten away with just re-releasing the old toys if the molds hadn't been stolen, but getting something new is better anyway. There's no world in which four shared bodies and minimal accessories (at the very least, one alternate head per Turtle would have done wonders for the value) are actually worth $150, but it beats trying to track down a non-bootleg copy of the originals. I was hesitent to get this set, worried that NECA would announce a stylish b/w version at San Diego or something; but I tell ya, finding a toy sitting right there in front of you can be a big motivator (especially when the alternative is driving half an hour away). These Jim Lawson Turtles are, weirdly, more classic than the Eastman/Laird Turtles were, and a decade and a half of toymaking advances means they're better toys, too.

-- 08/10/23

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