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REVIEW: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES RAPHAEL
By Thomas Wheeler

Every so often, I wonder why certain concepts become as popular as they do. And while I certainly have no objection to them, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are one of them. And there's certainly no denying their popularity. But really -- a foursome of humanoid ninja turtles? How did this get to be a hit?

It's not hard to see where most of the concept comes from. In the early to mid 1980's, when Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first came up with the concept, three-fourths of their group name were extremely popular concepts in the pop-culture world.

Teenage heroes were popular because of an enormously popular revitalized "Teen Titans" title being produced by Marv Wolfman and George Perez for DC Comics. Mutants were popular courtesy of the ongoing adventures of the X-Men. Ninjas were popular thanks to everything from G.I. Joe characters like Storm Shadow, to the fact that Wolverine, one of the best known X-Men, was starting to have some ninja conflicts of his own.

But -- Turtles!? One has to assume here that Eastman and Laird took the three most popular pop culture concepts of the time, and assigned them to the least likely of animal-based, anthropomorphic characters. And somehow or other -- it worked.

Although the fortunes of the Turtles have risen and fallen over the years, it looks as though they're back once again, with an all-new action figure line from Playmates, based on a new animated series that will air on Nickeolodeon. The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line is, arguably, the first of the really new action figure lines to reach the stores in the post-summer-movie season. While lines such as Avengers and Spider-Man see their allocated space reduced, while Transformers and Power Rangers bring in new additions to their established places, the Turtles are turning up for the first time in several years, with a brand new line and a distinctly new look. And I decided to round up RAPHAEL, one of the most prominent Turtles on the team.

Let's consider some of the history of the Turtles, and then have a look at this representative of their newest incarnation.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a team of four teenage anthropomorphic turtles, who were trained by their anthropomorphic rat sensei, Splinter, in the art of ninjutsu and named after four Renaissance artists. From their home in the storm sewers of New York City, they battle petty criminals, evil overlords and alien invaders, all while remaining isolated from society-at-large. The characters initially appeared in comic books before being licensed for toys, cartoons, video games, films, and other merchandise. During the peak of its popularity in the late 1980s through early 1990s, the franchise gained considerable worldwide success and fame.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was created in an American comic book published by Mirage Studios in 1984 in Dover, New Hampshire. The concept arose from a humorous drawing sketched out by Kevin Eastman during a casual evening of brainstorming with his friend Peter Laird. The young artists self-published a single-issue comic.

Much of the Turtles' mainstream success began when a licensing agent, Mark Freedman, sought out Eastman and Laird to propose wider merchandising opportunities for the offbeat property. In 1986, Dark Horse Miniatures produced a set of 15 mm lead figurines. In January 1987, they visited the offices of Playmates Toys Inc, a small California toy company who wished to expand into the action figure market.

Development initiated with a creative team of companies and individuals: Jerry Sachs, ad man of Sachs-Finley Agency, brought together the animators at Murakami-Wolf-Swenson, headed by award-winning animator Fred Wolf. Wolf and his team combined concepts and ideas with Playmates marketing crew, headed by Karl Aaronian and then VP of Sales, Richard Sallis and VP of Playmates, Bill Carlson. Aaronian brought on several designers and "concepteer" and writer John Schulte and worked out the simple backstory that would live on toy packaging for the entire run of the product and show.

Phrases like "Heroes in a Half Shell" and many of the comical catch phrases and battle slogans came from the writing and conceptualization of this creative team. Accompanied by the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1987 TV series, and the subsequent action figure line, the TMNT were soon catapulted into pop culture history.

Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles premiered in May, 1984, at a comic book convention held at a local Sheraton Hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was published by Mirage Studios in an oversized magazine-style format using black & white artwork on newsprint, limited to a print run of only 3,000 copies. Through a clever media kit that included an ad placed in Comic Buyer's Guide #545, the public's interest was piqued and thus began the Turtle phenomenon.

When little known Playmates Toys Inc. was approached about producing a TMNT action figure line, they were cautious of the risk and requested that a television deal be acquired first. On December 28, 1987, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' first cartoon series began, starting as a 5-part miniseries and becoming a regular Saturday morning syndicated series on October 1, 1988 with 13 more episodes. The series was produced by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Film Productions Inc. The show places a much stronger emphasis on humor than the comics do. Here, the Ninja Turtles are portrayed as four wise-cracking, pizza-obsessed superheroes who fight the forces of evil from their sewer hideout, and make their first appearance in masks color-coded to each turtle, where previously they had all worn red. Starting on September 25, 1989, the series was expanded to weekdays and had 47 more episodes for the new season.

In 1997–1998, the Turtles starred in a live-action television series called Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation that follows the events of the movies. A fifth turtle was introduced, a female named "Venus de Milo" who was skilled in the mystical arts of the shinobi. The series seemed to be a loose continuation of the movie franchise, as Shredder had been defeated and the Ninja Turtles encountered new villains. These Turtles even made a guest appearance on Power Rangers in Space.

In 2003, a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series produced by 4Kids Entertainment began airing. The series was co-produced by Mirage Studios, and resulted in a cartoon that came across more closely to the original comics, creating a darker and edgier feel than the 1987 cartoon, but still remaining lighthearted enough to be considered appropriate for children. This series lasted until 2009, ending with a feature-length television movie titled Turtles Forever, which was produced in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the franchise and featured the Turtles of the 2003 series teaming up with their counterparts from the 1987 series.

The Turtles have featured in four feature films. The first three, produced in the early 90s and released by New Line Cinema, feature live-action, with the Turtles played by various actors in costumes featuring animatronic heads. The fourth, released in 2007 by Warner Bros., was an all-CGI animated film.

On October 21, 2009 it was announced that cable channel Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom, had purchased all of Mirage's rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property, and have announced that they are moving forward on development on a new CGI-animated TMNT television series consisting of at least 26 half-hour episodes. A teaser hints at some changes, namely the two Turtles who traditionally carry blunt weapons have had their weapons changed to similar bladed versions. Donatello uses a naginata instead of a bo, and Michelangelo uses a kusarigama instead of nunchaku.

It is this new series that is the basis for the new action figure line from Playmates. Let us now consider the character of Raphael.

In the Mirage/Image comics all four turtles wear red bandanas over their eyes, but unlike his brothers in other versions, he is the only one who keeps the red bandana. Raphael wields twin sai as his primary weapon, although historically, sai were never used by ninja as the sai is a Kobudo weapon originating in Okinawa. He is generally the most likely to experience extremes of emotion, and is usually depicted as being aggressive, sullen and rebellious.

According to his creators he is the second oldest of the four. The origin of Raphael's anger is not always fully explored, but in some incarnations appears to stem partly from the realization that they are the only creatures of their kind and ultimately alone. He also has a somewhat turbulent relationship with his older brother Leonardo because he is the group leader. He is named after the 16th century Italian painter Raphael.

In the earliest black-and-white Mirage Comics, Raphael was the most violent turtle and had a tendency for going berserk either in battle or when his temper flared up. He has a somewhat cynical and sarcastic sense of humor. In later issues, it's shown that he is not particularly fond of the supernatural, stating it up front in Tales of Raphael: Bad Moon Rising.

Raphael mellowed somewhat as the series went on, possibly a key moment for his character development was when he allowed Leonardo to go in alone to defeat The Shredder after nearly killing the villain himself in issue #21 of Volume 1. Since then, he has been less likely to challenge Leonardo's leadership, and on the whole is more friendly towards his family and allies.

Of his three brothers, Raphael is actually closest to Michelangelo, even having stated it in the fourth issue of the original TMNT comics. Raphael often shows a caring, more laid-back, side of himself when around his youngest brother, frequently indulging the younger turtle emotionally when at home and ferociously protecting him from harm when in battle. Raphael openly admits that the mere thought of his youngest brother being grievously injured causes him to experience violent rage.

In his self-titled one-shot micro series, Raphael met human vigilante Casey Jones, who was even more violent and unstable than he was. Despite their brutal first meeting, the two have since formed a close bond.

Raphael's personality in the 1987 animated series deviates the most from all other incarnations. The show's theme song states that Raphael is "cool, but crude", as opposed to being angry and sullen as in other versions, since the series is based on humor. Raphael is a sarcastic wise-guy, and supplies comic relief alongside Michelangelo, whose humor is usually attributed to his ignorance and spaciness. As a result, Michelangelo is the subject of Raphael's jokes more than any other Turtle. He frequently makes jokes that break the fourth wall.

This incarnation of Raphael is entirely different from other variations and has a far less confrontational relationship with his friends and fellow Turtles. The most striking example with this is his lack of a sibling rivalry with Leonardo. Raphael has no desire to steal anyone's thunder or become a leader; he's perfectly content providing the wittiest of the cartoon's jokes, being the most humorous turtle of the group. Despite this, Raphael usually served as a contrast to Leonardo's gung-ho do-gooder persona with his pessimistic sarcastic remarks.

In the 2003 series, Raphael's personality is more akin to his original incarnation-he is angrier and more sardonic, but not quite as violent. There is one incident where he almost smashed Michelangelo's head in with a pipe.

He often argues with Leonardo and Michelangelo, although he is depicted as being very close with both at times. His relationship with Donatello consists of poking fun at his intellect or annoyance at his long-winded explanations, more or less thinking of him as something of a dork, yet still his brother. His best friend is generally regarded as Casey Jones. In all incarnations of the turtles except for the 1987 cartoon, Raphael appears to live in the shadow of Leonardo and resents his brother's social position in the group. However, his rivalry with his brother is heavily toned down in comparison to the comic books and rarely shows a deep hatred towards him as the series progresses. He is shown to be a skilled motorcyclist.

It has often been hinted that Raphael has entomophobia, the fear of insects. He has shown on many occasions an unrivaled hatred of bugs.

Raphael's relationship with Michelangelo is unique in this series. Michelangelo has a tendency to severely annoy his brother, from playing pranks, to taunting, gloating, and overall rubbing his accomplishments in Raphael's face.

He also expressed his pain and fear of losing his leader and brother when Leonardo was nearly killed by the Foot to the point where he even started crying. As Leonardo recovered, Raphael was also the one who supported Leonardo the most, even helping him to create new swords and paying the greatest attention to the care of his brother. In the episode "Ultimate Ninja" Raph attempted to protect Leo from the Ultimate Ninja when he challenged him and lashed out in anger and fear when Leo was nearly hurt. Raphael continues to challenge Leonardo's decisions in this incarnation as well, as Raphael and Leonardo often argue over what to do in certain situations, Raph usually favoring a direct and confrontational approach.

Despite differences, Leo and Raph arguably have the closest relationship of the Turtles emphasized in the series, as their conflicting views and care for one another is a key point in many episodes throughout the entire series. Raphael will often put the security of his family and sometimes friends in danger as far as disobeying Splinter and Leonardo, but will react immediately if they are in danger.

He has an extremely loyal side and is the first to react when another of his brothers is in trouble. This happens on numerous occasions, like when he stops a blow from hitting Donatello using only his sais or kicks the Shredder away from Leonardo when the latter is about to attack.

In the 1990's film trilogy, Raphael is the Turtle whose character is explored most completely. He has a quick temper, uses mild language, and verbally challenges Leonardo. This film focuses more so on his feeling of isolation from his brothers and sense of regret and anger when Splinter is eventually captured by Shredder. Here, it is established that he shares a closer relationship with news reporter April O'Neil having saved her from the Foot Clan on several occasions.

In the films, he is still angry and occasionally goes off by himself in the second movie, but has a soft spot for the young people the team meets. It is also shown that he has an appreciation for nature as it appears to calm him.

In the forthcoming Nickelodeon series, Raphael will be voiced by Sean Astin.

So, how's the figure? Really very impressive -- which I'll admit may be an odd thing to say about a turtle.

Now there's certainly been no shortage of Raphael figures over the years, just as there have been of all the Turtles. Playmates Toys built themselves into a major player in the toy world on the shelled backs of the Turtles.

The initial Turtles figures were based largely on the animated series, and showed it. They were rather cartoonish in appearance, and also rather limited in articulation. Over the years, the Turtles evolved (or perhaps "mutated"?) as their various media incarnations did the same. The Turtles based on the live-action movie were impressive, and probably the best detailed ever, but still lacked in articulation.

The most recent Turtles prior to this newest incarnation were those based on the CGI movie. Those Turtles stood nearly 6 inches in height, and finally made up for the limited articulation of their predecessors. Although perhaps not as detailed as some, they were good likenesses of the characters as they appeared in that particular movie.

So now, we have the 2012 Turtles, including Raphael. He, like his brothers, is shorter, and just a bit stockier, than his most recent predecessor, but design, and for that matter, scale, have always been somewhat more open to interpretation with the Turtles than with some other concepts.

Raphael stands about 4-5/8" in height. His overall design is somewhat cartoonish, relative to, let's say, his live-action counterparts, but it's less humorous in appearance than some of his early animated incarnartions.

The face is largely unchanged from how Raphael and his brothers have always been designed -- a rather oval-shaped head, with something of a nose-less muzzle jutting out slightly from underneath the eyes, with a fairly wide mouth. The distinctive red-colored mask/bandana is in place, with Raphael's eyes appearing blank white through the mask.

Raphael's mouth is open, revealing two rows of teeth, and definitely has the look of an angry snarl. This was one method that Playmates has always used to differentiate one Turtle from another -- facial expression.

Another method is skin color. The Turtles are all green, of course, but Playmates has been in the habit of using somewhat different colors of green for each Turtle. Raphael is a somewhat dark, but rather straightforward green. The shell on his back is a very dark olive green, and his torso is yellow-orange. Interestingly, the fronts of the torsos of the Turtle figures are all unique, and Raphael's is notable for having a chip taken out near the top. He's been in a few fights, no question.

Along with the red mask, Raphael is wearing protective elbow and knee pads, which are brown in color, and cloth wrappings around his wrists, fingers, and ankles. These are an off-white in color around his hands, and brown around his feet. He also has a brown belt, with space in the back to hold his sais.

One thing that has surprised me with these Turtles is the number of unique parts per Turtle. I imagined that they would have distinctive heads, color schemes, and perhaps weapons belts, but that they would otherwise share most of their -- body parts. This is not the case. A comparison with the other Turtles shows unique hands, feet, lower arms, lower legs, even shells --- Playmates has really put a lot of effort and expense into this line!

Distinctly missing on Raphael, compared to his original animated counterpart, is an initialed belt buckle. You're just going to have to remember who's who from mask color this time around.

Detail on Raph is extremely impressive. His skin has a somewhat leathery texture sculpted into it, and there are some dents in his armored torso apart from the piece missing at the top. He's been in a few fights. There are also distinct textures sculpted into his shell, and the cloth wrappings.

The Turtles have somewhat limited digits, and Raphael is no exception. His hands each have two fingers and a thumb, and his feet have one large toe and two smaller ones. In an interesting bit of design for this incarnation of the Turtles, the lower arms and lower legs are actually wider than the upper arms and legs. It's not really manga -- I'm not sure what you'd call it. I believe it is somewhat reminiscent of the original look of the Turtles as created by Eastman and Laird. In any case, for Raphael and his siblings, it works. It wouldn't work as well if attempted on a human, I'm rather sure of that.

Let's talk articulation. This is one poseable Turtle! This is one area very specifically where the newest Turtles have their early predecessors beat. Raphael has a ball-and-socket articulation to his head, and is fully poseable at the arms, elbows (including a swivel), wrists, legs (including a swivel), and knees (including a swivel). There's no torso or waist articulation, and no ankle articulation, but I think that would be virtually impossible given the figure's appearance.

This makes Raphael as well articulated as the last group of Turtles, although their articulation was sorted out somewhat differently.

Now, you can't really be a ninja without proper weaponry, and certainly Raph comes well-armed. Most distinctly, he has his sais, very nicely painted and detailed, which fit into two loops on his belt in the back. Beyond that, he comes with this little plastic "tree" (and when's the last time we saw one of those!?) that includes a couple of throwing stars, and some other mean-looking bladed hardware that I'm sure has distinctive names.

The character description on the back of the package lists Raphael as a "Hot-Head and Sharp Sai Expert", and describes him as, "Tough, quick-to-act and hot tempered, Raphael's a powder keg ready to explode on unsuspecting enemies everywhere. The biggest of his mutant brothers, Raph has a 'Why sneak around when you can bash some heads?' attitude".

Interestingly, the illustration, presumably from the new series, gives Raphael distinct irises and pupils in his eyes, something the figure lacks. Not sure as to the reasons there.

So, what's my final word? I'm impressed. I'm pleased to see the Turtles return, and I hope their new series and new action figures fare well. Playmates has done an excellent job with Raphael. The detail and design are excellent, the paintwork is very well done, and I certainly can't argue with the articulation. More fully detailed eyes would have been nice, but I'm not going to quibble that point.

Can the Turtles make a comeback? I certainly hope so. And if you're any sort of fan of them, then you'll definitely want to look for their new action figure line, and bring them in, certainly including Raphael!

The new TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES figure of RAPHAEL definitely has my highest recommendation! (Do they still say "Cowabunga"...?)