Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Best of Leatherhead reprints three classic stories featuring everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic alligator. First up is Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #6, originally published by Mirage Studios in 1988. This is Leatherhead’s first appearance in the TMNT universe. The next issue is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #45 originally published in 1992 again by Mirage Studios, and finally we have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #56 published by IDW in 2016. This issue is part of the ongoing TMNT continuity and was Leatherhead’s first appearance in that series.
In Tales of the TMNT #6 we learn the origins of Leatherhead. He was most likely someone’s pet that escaped into the sewers and was discovered by Utrom scientists who took him back to their lab to study. In the lab, Leatherhead was accidentally exposed to mutagen and turned into the mutant we’re all familiar with. Leatherhead lived with the Utroms, learning from them and coming and going as he pleased, mostly exploring the sewers. One day, when Leatherhead returned to TCRI the building was destroyed and all of the Utroms were gone. Salvaging what equipment he could, Leatherhead returned to the sewers where he started work on a communication device to try and reach the Utroms. By the end of the issue, the Turtles have become allies with Leatherhead, and even allowed him to live in their old lair.
In TMNT #45, Leatherhead is more or less where we left him in the previous issue. When the Foot Clan stumbles upon his lair, they learn that he is building a transporter that will reunite him with his Utrom friends. They agree to help him build his machine, but one of the Foot is secretly planning on sabotaging the work in order to keep Leatherhead on Earth and perhaps convince him to lead the Foot Clan. When the Turtles pay a visit to their old friend, they discover the Foot Clan. Before things get out of hand, Leatherhead convinces them all to work together to complete the transporter. When the machine is finally ready, it explodes – and in a fit of rage, Leatherhead attacks the Turtles and Foot Clan before storming out of the lair.
In the final issue of the collection, we get a new origin story for Leatherhead. He was minding his own business in the early 1700s when some pirates unloaded a strange green cargo that transformed Leatherhead into a mutant. He lived a life of seclusion on Burnow Island for hundreds of years, getting the nickname Leatherhead from some local inhabitants. Once the island was terraformed by Krang and became inhospitable to Leatherhead, he sought out the Fugitoid and made a deal to leave the island and travel to New York City with the Turtles.
First things first: at 100 pages and only $5.99, this book is a great value. As someone who is more familiar with the cartoon and live action movies, it was definitely an eye-opening experience reading these early TMNT stories. The artwork is clean and crisp, but if I’m being completely honest, it’s sometimes hard to tell which Turtle is actually speaking unless their weapons are visible in the panel. Some of the plot points in the first issue are a bit waacky: big game hunters, giant waterfalls in the sewers of New York, a soldier that arrives out of nowhere to arrest a hunter are just a few examples, but in a world with walking, talking turtles, I guess we can suspend our disbelief for the sake of the story.
The tonal shift between the first issue and second issue is pretty startling. The first issue is pretty lighthearted; Mikey is cracking the usual jokes and there are some visual jokes too, like stars circling heads after a collision. The second issue starts with Raphael narrating the story and describing how he feigns insanity in order to brutalize the Foot Clan. There’s not nearly as much joking. One heartwarming part is Leatherhead’s desire to fit in and to be with people that understand him. It’s something most of us can relate to, even if we aren’t six foot alligators. It’s actually quite a touching moment that I wasn’t expecting. He even sheds a tear. The issue ends with Leatherhead and the Turtles separately musing on their loneliness and what it means to be different.
Compared to the first two issues, which are more or less self-contained stories, the final issue is pretty difficult to follow for more casual fans of TMNT. There are a ton of characters thrown at the reader right off the bat, like Harold Lilja, Jennika, Fugitoid, Kitsune, and Rat King, and that’s just in the first five pages! The plot doesn’t get any less complicated from there, and the issue ends with a cliffhanger. Other than recounting his origin story, Leatherhead doesn’t do much. I think the collection would have been better without the final story, but I suppose it does give new readers a glimpse into the extensive world that is the current TMNT continuity and hopes to rope them in.
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