You can trace the Ninjafication of Western pop culture back to the 70s martial arts boom and then specifically to Shogun, a mass market “Horrid Histories” for Japan. All its Ronins and Samurai and whatnot caught on to some degree but pubescent boys took the Ninja particularly to heart. Here was a figure whose silence portended mystery and power, whose cold-blooded mastery of the night could strike fear into the powerful, who honed in secret deadly skills which the mundane world mocked at its peril. The Ninja was as potent an archetype to small boys in the 80s as the superhero had been in the 30s and 40s – no surprise the two concepts quickly met.
Frank Miller, a hot writer-artist at Marvel, was given perennial third-stringer Daredevil to retool around the time Shogun hit. His root-and-branch reinvention relied heavily on ninja chic – Daredevil continually grappled with his ninja adversaries The Hand and acquired a sexy ninja kinda-enemy-kinda-girlfriend. The series made Miller a superstar. Along the way the Ninja obsession proved infectious: Chris Claremont, Marvel’s hottest writer and the man who had reinvented their mutant superhero X-Men franchise, got the bug and suddenly Canuck brawler Wolverine was off learning the ways of Bushido and matching claw with throwing star. Mutants and ninjas, in comic form, were now entwined. Cue Turtles.
My friend Sam was into Miller, X-Men and Daredevil, and was savvy enough to pick up early issues of a black and white comic about mutant turtles which came off like a parody until you got into it and realised it was more a geeked-out homage, the work of kids too excited about the stuff they were taking the piss out of to do it effectively. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – four shelled nerds given ninja training by a rat, living in the sewers – the comic might as well have been called Teenage Teenage Teenage Teenagers. And it sold, and sold – even the fifth and sixth printings doubled in money. So other writers and artists started doing the same thing.
Some were enthusiastic, some just dollar-eyed. TMNT is that rarest of ideas, something strong enough to go viral twice. Initially it sparked a black and white comics boom (Sample Title: Pre-Teen Dirty Gene Kung-Fu Kangaroos) – by the time the film took off the characters had already made their creators potloads of cash, and then the whole thing exploded again, culture-wide this time. And so here we are at Partners In Kryme, the record I’ve been avoiding discussing.
My fondness for the Turtles phenomenon – the first time I could ever say, even slightly, “I was there” when something went from cult to household name – doesn’t extend to any actual Turtles product. The comic got bogged down in self-important story arcs; the cartoon and film seemed dumber; the characters – look, the honest truth is I can’t tell them apart. And this single? There are interesting things about it, for sure. It’s the first Number One specifically aimed at kids and only kids for a very long time, which suggests something about the shrinking of the singles market at this point. And it’s a hip-hop record, which feels significant – an acknowledgement that rap was already the native pop tongue of 9 and 10 year olds.
But, bless it, for anyone else it’s not very good. The main problem is that the MC raps like an action figure: dynamic out of the box but ultimately lacking in articulation. His enthusiastic, lumbering, one-paced flow can’t carry a whole song: if “Turtle Power” had been a posse cut it might have worked a lot better. The bits I remember – “this lethally evil force”, “I was a witness get me a reporter”, “Tonto came pronto when there was danger” – are all in the first verse, before the song gets into a lengthy recap of the film. It’s energetic even if it’s not competent, but even its bouncy, plasticky synth jabs get exhausting well before the end.