So, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have returned to the box office 2 years after their universally panned reboot film. While Out of the Shadows seems to have fixed some of the previous film’s problems audience interest seems lapsed at best, mainly owing to the first films complete lack of quality and the much more popular Nickelodeon show only picking up steam in the interim.
However, I’m not here to discuss the failings of the new TMNT movie as I didn’t bother to go see it, fixed income and all that. Instead, let us actually celebrate the Ninja Turtles the only way a comic book nerd like me can: with an arbitrary assortment of covers arranged into a ranking format so as to give the illusion of meaning and import to my personal preferences. With that said, let’s dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on the top 15 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles covers.
This list is drawn from across 4 different series, one of them being Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures the comic that spun out of the TMNT animated series in the mid ‘80s. This was essentially meant as tie-in merchandise and a way to recreate the stories of the show while moderately expanding the universe. In the case of this cover, I’m fairly the aliens at hand were linked to the TCR ooze that helped create the Turtles. People tend to forget that but in the original comics and the mid-2000s animated series the aliens known as the Utroms were linked to the Turtle’s creation. In any event this is a pretty fun cover.
The really great thing about the Turtles as a media property is that they ended up so incredibly versatile. The team has gone up against ninjas, mutants, Cyborgs, aliens, extra-dimensional beings, and all manner of other creatures in between so throwing Donatello into a room full of classic gray aliens is a great way to utilize that. I actually really like how much the aliens aren’t outwardly hostile towards Donnie here. That was another neat notion in the TMNT series, the idea that the various bizarre beings they encountered didn’t have to be hostile and could just as easily end up long time allies as they did archenemies.
This cover, featuring the Turtles’ humanoid rat master Splinter, is drawn from the more recent IDW Turtles comic. I’m still not sure what connection this new book has to the original stories as it does seem to follow some of the storylines but the design work and art is all informed by slick modern conventions as well as the grittier realism of the original work so I’m not really sure.
What I am sure about is that I really like this particular take on Splinter and how well the art style does compliment the Turtles. Splinter is one of the stranger aspects of the Turtles continuity in how many different origins he actually has but, for a lot of fans, I think Splinter’s core identity is Hamato Yoshi.
That idea that Splinter used to be a person before he was horribly mutated into a hideous rat man is honestly a pretty terrifying notion and one that a lot of Turtles media tends to gloss over or simply excise whenever it can. However, I like how much this cover tacitly references that idea, with the eyes of a man reflected in Splinter’s sword but slow super imposed onto his face. It’s a neat little gimmick and adds a greater tinge of weight to the anger behind his eyes. There’s a sense that Splinter isn’t just angry at this guy because he’s evil, but maybe he’s just angry all the time because he can never return to a life where he doesn’t live in the sewers.
Going all the way back to the Mirage Comics original Turtles book for this cover. This image, more than any other, has become an iconic symbol of the turtles and it’s easy to see why. There’s something gritty and lived in about the tone of this image, something unique to the aesthetic sensibilities of the ‘80s and the way New York was envisioned in that era. The Ninja Turtles started life as a parody comic, making fun of things like Frank Miller’s Daredevil and that connection shines through incredibly clear here.
The solemnity of the figures, the grit and grime of the surrounding city, those sickly orange windows and that burnt sky framing the crooked skyline, it all screams of serious crime and drama in a broken city. And then, on top of all that gritting and darkening there are…four gigantic humanoid turtles carry ninja weapons in cheap masks. That kind of visual dissonance is the core joke of the Turtles and it’s hard to think of an image that better encapsulates that identity in such a pure and singular form.
Now back to the recent series, with this really nice re-imagining of Krang’s design. I like that Krang himself remains more or less the same as he was in the cartoon, this squishy tentacled brain creature with a really gross face sitting inside a giant robotic body. I really like the little controls they gave him inside his body suit and the way he maneuvers the thing with tiny leavers and buttons, that’s a damn funny visual. However, the rest of the redeisng is a really nice take on the classic animated version of the character, keeping the dopey human head but adopting a heftier, more industrial metal design to the rest of the suit.
It’s a nice way to balance comedy and genuine menace with this character, which was always the point of the original comics this series draws from. What’s more the actual image on hand is a really great scene that just exudes menace and villainy. Krang, metal hand outstretched, gripping the tattered and discarded masks of the four Turtles, it’s a chilling image of evil’s triumph punctuated by a big mushy brain in a vat.
Back to the original comic with this really cleverly designed cover. If you’re not that familiar with the Turtle mythos the thing you’re seeing is one of villain Baxter Stockman’s robots. They’re these freaky little bird bots that run around like sandpipers and have big powerful jaws to take a chunk out of anything they please. They’re a really fun, really dopey concept that’s a perfect example of the Turtles unique blend of humor and genuine action.
All of that is a great point in this cover’s favor but I put in on here mainly because of just what a brilliant design it is. Reflective surfaces in covers are a tricky concept but this is a great way to handle it, really letting us get up close and personal with the robot and reflecting the entire team in its gaping jaws. There’s a lot of detail to the reflection and it creates a very unique and memorable image. What’s more, the framing of the cover and how close the robot is to the audience does a good job in tricking the viewer into think this is some kind of looming giant metal beast rather than a tiny chicken-bot.
All through out this list so far I’ve been talking about how the original Mirage Turtles comics are a parody, which is because they were. The whole point of the initial books was skewering the overly serious tone of modern comics and the cavalcade of momentary trends like ninjas, mutants, and teens that informed that moment in time. As such, a cover like this from the original series shouldn’t be that surprising but it really is.
The complete shift in artistic style from gritty and real to overtly cartoony and fantastical, the situation drawn directly from classical cartoon set-ups, the “pie in the face” type approach to comedy, all of it is a complete inversion of the Turtle’s usual style and I really kinda dig it.
The Turtles would eventually find their feet in the realm of animation, becoming a dominant pop cultural force well beyond the comic thanks to how much the animated series embraced the crazy cartoon elements of the parody while discarding the snarky dismissiveness of it. So, a cover from the original comic that goes whole hog into the whackier nature of the characters and their world is very refreshing and it’s not like you’re going to forget this image anytime soon.
Overall this cover is a lot more standard in terms of what the characters are up to but I absolutely love the gimmicky construction at hand. The turtle posing is pretty solid and nicely reflective of how they might be set-up for a battle based on their personas. Leo is prepping to shout out orders and lead the team, Raph is ready to pounce and do his own thing, Mikey and Don are held up in the rear waiting to see what comes next, good standard stuff.
What earns it a place on this list is that really cool crime scene tape effect that’s going on. I’m a sucker for this level of gimmick conception in comic covers and this is a really great gimmick, especially given the very urban nature of the Turtles. Additionally, the block red background color creates a great visual pop for the tape effect, highlighting the yellow and helping to keep it from just seeming like a mass of yellow taking up 2/3rds of the page for no reason.
Man I love this cover, it’s just so incredibly fun. The idea of the Turtles joining up with the neighborhood watch is a pretty ridiculous concept in and of itself but I really like the subtle extra layer of commentary it includes. One of the interesting things about the Turtles is that they were meant to skewer the bleak, gritty, gang riddled version of New York that informed ‘80s comics like Frank Miller’s Daredevil. As a result, one such way of skewering that New York was to point out how much it was slipping out of existence. That’s part of why the Turtles ended up fighting folks alien threats and evil robots.
So the idea of the Turtles having so little actual crime to fight in NYC that they just join the neighborhood watch is absolutely hilarious. What’s more, the detail on this image is just phenomenal, especially in terms of the exposed faces on Raph and Mikey. This is one of the few times we see the Mirage Turtles with their masks off in the classic books and they do a great job of keeping them as monsters while also giving them genuine emotion and humanity in their features. Overall, it’s just a great image that utilizes the Turtles’ nature perfectly and features superb artwork.
Okay, full disclosure here, I have no idea why Donatello is carrying a giant rock cut out of ‘1492’ in this picture. One might assume it’s meant as a metaphor for him symbolically carrying the weight of that year on his back though I have no idea why Donnie would be carrying the weight of 1492.
It could imply some time travel shenanigans, which would make sense and could maybe explain why he’s carrying the fate of that year on his back. But, for all I know this is literally what happens in the actual issue itself and this is just a random story about Donnie transporting some giant stone numbers because Splinter thought it’d be a hilarious prank.
That’s something I absolutely love about these covers, there’s so much awareness of the conventions of comic covers and a playfulness about their own nature and existence that you can create a joke out of something that might’ve been intended to be serious.
What’s more, the level of detail and style on this art is phenomenal. Everything from the shading on Donnie’s outfit to the textured cracking of the numbers is beautifully rendered in immaculate levels of depth. Throw in some of the crispest coloring I’ve ever seen and this is honestly an all time great of cover creation.
Like I said, there’s a playfulness to the Turtles covers that’s just delightful. Humor comics are, overall, a very bizarre bread of book and one that’s rarer than one might think. The bigger names in the genre tend to be more modern entries like Deadpool or Preacher but the Ninja Turtles are a major force in the genre and draw on even older influences like Howard the Duck This particular pop culture reference is a pretty unique thing to pop up in their collection of covers but I’m glad it did because it’s pretty hilarious.
I don’t know why there are only three of the Turtles on hand for this particular mission, forcing frequently collaborator Casey Jones to fill in the 4th spot, but it’s a fun image regardless. I like that even dressed as gangsters the Turtles are still sporting individualized weapons, also Raph’s bowler hat is adorable. This is another example of how well the gritty and detailed style of artwork can compliment a more ludicrous and ridiculous image. Even the name of this cover speaks to a cartoon origin, using the same play on The Untouchables as Bugs Bunny did in an episode of Looney Tunes.
This is one of the few covers from the fourth series I mentioned Tales of the TMNT. I don’t really know why I ended up with so few covers from that particular entry that’s just the way it happened to shake out but this cover is absolute dynamite. April has been pretty well absent from most of these covers so far so it’s good she got to be in one before the end and this is a pretty interesting take on how to incorporate her into the cover.
There are a lot of great elements here but by far my favorite is the lighting and color blending on display here. The neon blue and hot pink blending across the cover is phenomenal and exudes a kind of ‘80s color palette that’s a perfect fit for the Turtles. All of it’s framed against this great black background that makes the neon pop even more. The concept makes for a great inversion inside the photos as well, with the turtles shrouded in darkness that pops against the neon background of their surroundings. Just a really well crafted image all around.
Back to the animated series tie-in comic, this may be one of the greatest images the Turtles have ever been a part of. In case it’s not obvious, this cover depicts a humanoid shark covered in belts and pouches inside of a giant insectoid mech complete with 2 opposable hands. This is just so beautifully ludicrous I’m not sure I have the words for it. It was actually pretty rare that the Turtles would go full pants on head crazy like this so when they did it was all the greater for the saved up lunacy they had from all the times they chose quiet reservation over noisy insanity.
Actually, this image bares even greater significance for me as I was never really a fan of the Turtles growing up, instead favoring their ‘90s rip-off counter part: the Street Sharks. I’m not sure if the Future Shark trilogy (yes, that’s really what this is called) was meant as a Street Sharks slam, probably not given how late into the Turtles’ lifespan the Sharks popped up, but it’s a pretty damn serendipitous occurrence all the same. Other little bit of trivia about this Shark’s amazing mech design is that aside from the gigantic tank it sits in, it has a fin on top of the robots heady for apparently no reason other than making it clear it’s a shark. That’s how you build a robot right there.
Damn…I mean, just…wow, this all got sad really quickly. Remember, this is still the animated tie-in comic TMNT Adventures; this was made for children. I guess someone just decided that Mickey, the funny goofball Turtle, getting blinded and enslaved by the US government for nefarious purposes was the perfect storyline for the children. Incidentally, if you’re wondering how I know which Turtle this is it’s thanks to the inter-title logo at the top of the cover.
I’m not really sure what “Blind Sight” means but presumably it’s why Mickey can see in issues that came out after this downer fest but the nun-chucks in that logo clearly indicate that Michelangelo is the one whose gone blind/was blinded. Even though the main Turtles comic was a parody and the adjunct universe was intended for children I like that they were still occasionally willing to get serious with stories like this one. The fun and games are all great but without the occasional darker tone none of it can really mean anything and ends up as empty and one-not as the dark and gritty comics the Turtles were created to mock.
Speaking of dark and scary, this is an amazing cover and probably my favorite out of the entire Adventures comic run. I’m fairly certain the giant looming Turtle using Earth as a matchbook is Slash, a turtle powered enemy of the main heroes. This whole saga, Terracide, was a great example of how dark the Turtle comics were willing to get when they wanted to go about it on their own terms. Much like the various Silver and Bronze age comics that inspired the Turtles, the idea of dark storytelling in TMNT is based around the scope of destruction within a universe where nearly anything is possible.
The story at hand involves time travel and future versions of the Turtles trying to avert a major crisis that threatens to end the world, as indicated by the term Terracide, literally meaning, “to kill the earth.” This cover is a great embodiment of that kind of blending between the dark and fantastical. Slash is monstrous in his realization but still with a cartoonish bent like his pointy triangle teeth. The metaphor of the cover is a great blend of elements as well, with Earth being crushed in Slash’s hand while also burning, further obfuscating the level of literalization at hand. For a tie-in product to an animated children’s show this is really one of the best covers I’ve ever seen.
It’s weird that for the best TMNT cover I’d go with something that wasn’t dark and serious or really all that funny or jokey, but something more somber and pretty contemplative honestly. I’m actually kind of hard pressed to say exactly what it is about this absolutely beautiful cover from the modern series I find just so compelling but it’s there whatever it is.
Maybe it’s the juxtaposition inherent to this image, having Mickey, the funny jokester Turtle, sitting along, quietly with his thoughts is a real shell shock to the system in terms of expectation. Though, at the same time, this kind of switch would fit with some elements of Mickey’s character. Part of the reason he likes to joke around is that it’s easier to feel safe that way, that acting silly can make it easier to stare death in the face in the midst of a vast conflict that he had no part in starting.
The visual reminds me a lot of the 1st Ninja Turtles movie, specifically the 2nd act digression with the characters all chill out on a farm a together. It’s quiet and soft but it’s also moving and hinged very heavily to the kind of loneliness these characters would be experiencing as they try and carve out an identity against the backdrop of a world that fears them and a conflict they inherited. Maybe that, that search for personal identity, is why this cover is so powerful and impactful to me, because it’s the only one that tries to emphasize the teenage part of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.