Raphael (#1, Mirage, 1987) – Peter Laird, Kevin Eastman

5 out of 5

While plenty of us came to know our Turtles through the Fred Wolf cartoon – which homogenized most of their individual characteristics such that they were all wise-crackin’ goofballs – the simplification of Raphael, from his Mirage roots, down to “cool but rude” stuck, and shaped the hot-headed character throughout his many iterations to follow.

And there are pluses and minuses to those many iterations, as well as a longer study as to why Eastman and Laird’s concept / creation stood out and has managed to last for decades since, but setting those conversations aside: the original cannot be beat, and the Raphael one-shot from the first Mirage series encapsulates the “cool but rude”ness, while also setting the template for every “Raph loses his temper” tale thereafter.

A sparring session goes awry; Raph heads out to cool his heels. (Here is where “Mirage is so hardcore!!” purists will likely point out the blood and threats of legit violence in this sequence, but there’s still a cheeky tone, always in the DNA: there’s a reason this adapted to a kid’s show so well.) Across town, a dude named Casey watches (maybe?) TJ Hooker episodes while doing dumbbell curls – as one does – and gets all riled up about beating up lowlife scum. He decides to don a hockey mask on go a’prowlin’. He and Raph cross paths when dealing with some muggers, and Raph finds himself – surprisingly – having to deal out life lessons about being more chill to the psychotic Casey. They, in turn, squabble, beating eachother into friendship.

This is backed up by the Eastman-helmed “Fun with Guns,” in which Casey’s and Raph’s buddyhood is all firmly established, and they overhear some gun-totin’ gangsters discussing forthcoming bank robberies, thanks to a special “suit.” Our duo find the suit, and calamity ensues.

So here’s the thing: Laird and Eastman were never / have never been the best writers, though they each have their strengths, and they balance one another. The Raphael story reads like it has both their touches, and it’s 100% fun throughout. The “emotions” are easy, but they’re not overwrought, and this was always a key as to why the series just kinda worked: they kept the boys relatable and didn’t try to break new ground, instead just kinda baking up situations and characters to play off of – situations and characters that were entertaining, or enjoyable to draw – and then let the dialogue and interactions somewhat naturally bubble off of that. Raph and Casey aren’t deep, and aren’t meant to be, but they’re just human enough (irony abounds…) to juxtapose the ridiculousness of talking-mutant-turtle and crazy-hockey-mask-wearing-vigilante, providing just enough story to make the dialogue worth reading and not a distraction. Add to that Laird’s amazing page design and detailing, and the story reads as awesomely now as it would have in 1987.

Eastman’s Fun with Guns is more typical of Eastman’s writing. That means: misspellings, and forced, pointless dialogue. He loves action, and so everything is dictated toward putting his characters in a position to serve that. On the plus side, as an isolated backup, that’s all Fun with Guns has space for / needs to do, and so the hackneyed, forced nature of it actually works – it’s purposefully indulgent and goofy – and leads to a wonderfully slapstick punchline that combines some visual gags with tons of bullets. Fun with Guns indeed. Eastman’s sketchier linework and “heavier” characters make more sense here than Laird’s work would’ve, and he maintains a great sense of movement throughout.

And goddamn if this ain’t one of my favorite covers.