There was this article on Kotaku the other day with the headline “I Wonder If They’ll Ever Get Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Right”. Basically, the article lamented that of the many ninja turtle incarnations over the years, none of them have returned to the Frank Miller-parody B & W roots.
Thing is, I don’t think there is a right way. For one thing, if Playmates hadn’t come along and snapped up the licensing for toys and cartoons, we’d probably have never heard of them. They’d still be some underground comic with a premise too ridiculous to be taken seriously. From there, they evolved to live-action animatronics, poorly constructed puppets, hard-boiled Saturday morning cartoons, and CGI reboots. All with different takes and styles on the premise.
Remember when they first got popular? All the parodies, mostly knocking at the inordinately long title, like “Immature Radioactive Kung Fu Slugs” or “Geriatric Genetic Kenpo Pandas”. They couldn’t touch the premise though, because the premise worked.
At this point, there have been so many incarnations and retcons that there is no one medium that provides the right path. At this point, all you can do is stay true to the spirit of the material (more thoughts on this here). But the spirit that made TMNT popular in the first place is not the spirit that came from the Eastman/Laird comic book. It was best executed by the 1980’s cartoon, which was an example of right thing at the right time. That doesn’t mean it can’t be repeated. But it doesn’t mean a simple “update”.
At some point, comic books achieve a certain stature that the stories turn into a mythos — a universe of fables rather than a single timeline of events. Any comic book nerd will tell you this. And a mythos is not owned by anyone. It remains up in the air. It happens when there are so many stories from different writers surrounding that character (including crossovers) that there is no way to keep track of continuity, and there is no consistency from arc to arc. It’s happened to Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and others.
This doesn’t mean the characters are public domain. It just means that in order to make a story with that character, you must consider the constants. Usually, those are the origins and a few choice story arcs (usually setting, supporting character roles, and villains). Spider-Man’s had many personality changes from wise-cracker to emo boy to angsty to Black-Hispanic youth. If you want to reach a wide audience, you have consider a different aesthetic, much in the same way that “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” has little to do with the 1980’s My Little Pony. That’s why TMNT continues, because it’s so easy to go so many differen ways with them.
Oh sure, the fans may not like it, but it’s the only option, because there is no way to reconcile a one true way. The only thing that remains is mythos. That means that any writer’s take on it is no less legitimate than another’s. Some will be bad (actually, plenty will be bad, that you can almost guarantee), but none will be wrong. The trick is to give your money to the ones that are good.