It can be frustrating to be a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, at least when it comes to the availability of information about the history of the franchise. Sure, the creation of the Heroes in a Half-Shell by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman has been thoroughly documented, as has the rise of the property to commercial and cultural prominence, but beyond these areas, the history of the brand has been left fairly unexplored. When it comes to the Golden Harvest produced trilogy of live action Turtles films, little is documented beyond the involvement of the Jim Henson Creature Shop, nor is much known about director John Woo’s failed effort to reboot the Turtles on the big screen. Information on the short lived Image Comics era of the comic books is minimal at best, and if you want to know more about the live action television series Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation beyond how hated it is, good luck finding any.
Given this void of information, I had high hopes for Andrew Fargo’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History, published earlier this year by Insight Editions. Promising “the complete story” of the franchise on its back cover, The Ultimate Visual History had the opportunity to explore many areas of the franchise in depth for the first time. Unfortunately, The Ultimate Visual History is little more than an uncritical and celebratory look at the Turtles brand, providing little in the way of new information and presenting readers with a historical narrative which is mostly and inaccurately free of controversy, likely to the pleasure of the property’s current owners at Nickelodeon.
Divided into nineteen chapters, The Ultimate Visual History does deliver on its promise to cover all of the most significant incarnations of the Turtles property – including the original comics, live action feature films, and all three animated series – in extensive visual detail. Crammed with rare art, photographs, and animation storyboards, it is tempting to overlook the book’s flaws and recommend it for the sheer volume of gorgeous art it contains. As a first generation fan of the TMNT, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to having fun taking a stroll down memory lane as I came across old promotional artwork from when I was a child while reading the book. These moments of nostalgic bliss however do not compensate for the wasted opportunity that The Ultimate Visual History is. Fargo brings no unique perspective to his subject, and rather than make use of his access to a wide range of interview subjects to shed light onto some of the more peculiar and controversial developments in the Turtles’ history, he chooses to ignore such subjects. A perfect example of Fargo’s failure to explore the history of the Turtles is when he turns his attention to Turtles Forever, the DTV animated film which brought together the 1987 animated series version of the Turtles with the 2003 animated incarnation. Fargo never once acknowledges the backlash to the project from fans of the 1987 cartoon, many of whom saw Turtles Forever as a slap in the face to the 1987 series due to its portrayal of the Turtles and for failing to feature the cast of the original series. The closest Fargo comes to acknowledging how a Turtles’ project was poorly received is during the chapter looking at the Image Comics incarnation of the property, which takes up a scant eight pages in a one-hundred and ninety page book which is image rather than text heavy.
What makes The Ultimate Visual History all the more frustrating is how Fargo occasionally does drop a nugget of interesting information about the franchise, then fails to explore the subject in full. For example, Brian Henson notes that during the post-production on the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, director Steve Barron and editor Sally Menke (Pulp Fiction) were mainly absent during the post-production process of the film due to conflicts with the executives at Golden Harvest Productions. Fargo never bothers to explore what these conflicts were, instead offering readers a vapid postulation that the film might have looked different had Menke and Barron stayed on board. Given how much access Fargo had to those involved in the production of the film, it is hard not to feel that he wasted an opportunity to provide some real insight into one of the cornerstones of the TMNT franchise. Likewise, Fargo never really cuts to the heart of Laird’s issues with the inclusion of the fifth Turtle Venus in Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, leaving readers with the impression that Laird may have some sexist attitudes.
So is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History worth its suggested retail price of fifty dollars U.S.? That depends. For casual fans or new fans, the book is a solid primer in the history of the franchise, and the focus on images over text does make the book a solid choice for developing readers. However, the devoted Turtle fan looking to fill in the gaps in their knowledge will find nothing here to justify the cost. With any luck, a more substantive work looking at the franchise will be written one day which isn’t beholden to the owners or creators of the TMNT, hopefully before many of the major figures in brand’s history pass on.