How the Ninja Turtles have Remained Relevant: A History of Comic Books’ Kid Gang Archetypes

tmnt kid gang

There is a long-standing trope in comic books that is rarely discussed – that of the four-person (sometimes five) Kid Gang. The Kid Gang is comprised of four archetypes: The Leader, The Brains, The Muscle, and the Joker/Heart of the group (if the character was fat, they were the comic relief, if they were female, that meant they were the heart). They are frequently overseen by the “cool adult”. Let’s take a look at the history of comics for some of the more prominent examples, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as a way of explaining how this trope continues to be reinvented and appeal to readers generation after generation.

By the 1930s, there was a new wave of media available: movies, pulp magazines and comic books. It was much more visual than previously digestible entertainment like books and in appealed to young people. That lead to increased representation of kids in entertainment and the formation of the kid gang. Jack Kirby, a pioneer in comic book art, was particularly influential in shaping this idea early on, inspired by movies like the Dead End Kids (sort of like the Little Rascals) and the gangs in the Bowery section of New York that he grew up in. And the kid gangs always seemed to include the same archetypes. Following are several prominent examples through the ages of those archetypes.

Young Allies

young allies

In 1941, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created a group of kids that lived in the Bowery during World War II. They were friends of the slightly older Bucky, Captain America’s teenage sidekick, and went after criminals in their neighborhood. The group included Knuckles (the muscle), Jeff (the brains – he wore glasses!), and Tubby and Whitewash Jones (who basically split the joker/heart roles of the group). The kids were a hit and were rolled into the Captain America comic as a band of sidekicks. Bucky played the role of leader (and Toro, the Human Torch’s sidekick, would also frequently co-lead) while Cap was the “cool adult”.

Boy Commandos

boy commandos

Later that same year, Kirby and Simon were hired away to DC Comics where they again created a kid gang. Sidekicks like Robin and Bucky were very popular at the time. The new gang was the Boy Commandos. The cool adult was Captain Rip Carter who lead four orphaned boys from various allied nations across all theaters of World War II. Brooklyn was the tough-talking leader and Alfie “English” Twidgett was the pudgy kid so he was the comic relief. Jan “Dutch” Haasan wore wooden shoes so as to best kick ass as the muscle of the group. Finally, Andre Chavard was the intelligence guy so he was the brains of the operation.

Newsboy Legion

newsboy legion

Kirby perfected his kid gang formula with the Newsboy Legion which ran from 1942 to 1947 in Star Spangled Comics. Cool adult The Guardian decides he’s gonna clean up the slums and crime in the city. And he takes on four sidekicks which he later becomes the legal guardian of. Tommy Tompkins was the leader, Scrapper was the muscle, Big Words was the brain and Gabby was the chubby comic relief.

In 1970, the team was brought back and added new member Flippa Dippa, a black kid who always wore scuba gear (but I think only used it once). You could definitely call him the heart of the group.

X-Men

original x-men jack kirby

In 1963 Marvel Comics decided to create a new team of superheroes and also made the choice to make them teens. It should be no surprise that Jack Kirby was once again involved, teaming up with Stan Lee this time. Cool adult Professor X gathered five mutants who he taught at his school and also secretly trained to be a team to help other mutants, people born with extraordinary powers who were feared by the masses. The team was comprised of Cyclops as leader, Beast as both muscle and brains, Marvel Girl as the heart, Iceman as the comic relief and Angel who operated as a blend of comic relief and number two/muscle. The archetype isn’t as obvious for Angel but the roles are all filled.

Teen Titans

showcase 59 teen titans

Around the same time, DC put together a kid gang superhero team. The Teen Titans were first formed in 1964 and were comprised of popular heroes’ sidekicks. Robin led the team and served as the brains, Kid Flash was the comic relief, Aqualad was the muscle and Wonder Girl filled the role of the heart of the group.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Friday-Round-Up_Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles_Black-and-White

And so we arrive at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s important to note that the comic was intended very much as parody of the stuff that was popular in comics in 1984 – teen teams like X-Men and Teen Titans, the ninja stuff in New York from Frank Miller’s popular run on Daredevil (and their very origin was a satire of the radioactive material that injured young Matt Murdock only to fall into the sewers and affect the turtles), the overall grittier tone being laid over the fairly absurd idea of superheroes. And so we end up with cool adult Master Splinter, leader Leonardo, Raphael as the muscle, Donatello as the brains and Michelangelo as the comic relief and heart of the team.

You can find countless examples of the kid gang throughout media but it’s a trope that resonates even as society evolves and changes. It’s a set of archetypes that perfectly bounce off one another and complement each other. The initial issue of Ninja Turtles was a pretty straight-forward satire and action story. But the personalities quickly filled in and the concept has been reinterpreted over half a dozen times: three separate cartoon series over the years, three separate movie concepts – live action, CGI and now live action with CGI, and comics from the original publishers, Archie, Image and now IDW. But the core personality archetypes remain and are easily identifiable no matter what tone or background is applied to the story. It’s a formula that is proven to work and the Ninja Turtles, now just over 30 years old, prove that it’s one that won’t go away anytime soon.

UPDATE 6/6/16:

I originally drafted this article in the last week of May. Since publishing it, I’ve seen the newest Ninja Turtles movie, Out of the Shadows. And when the Turtles are introduced in the movie, they get screen text to describe their roles! Leonardo is called “The Leader”, Donatello is “The Brains”, Raphael is listed as “The Muscle” and Michelangelo gets a joke title. I’m not sure if the writers were fully aware of this trope or if it’s a coincidence. It was a shock to literally see what I wrote about be explicitly defined as such on screen!