Know Thy History: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Not too long ago, the internet erupted in a frothy rage when it was revealed that there was going to be a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, and that it would be produced by … Michael Bay. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Michael Bay? The man who directed Meat Loaf’s video for ‘I Would Do Anything For Love’? Does this mean we’ll have a sewer festooned in silk curtains and romantic candlelight? Because that would be awesome!”

Alas, it seems that was not to be. The news kept getting more dispiriting the more we heard of it. That whole thing about them being mutants? Ridiculous. Instead, they’re going to be aliens. In fact, the title was going to be shortened to just “Ninja Turtles,” which means that the “teenage” part might be up for grabs, too. And fans turned on it in droves. Despite having a script that was written, in part, by Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman, Michael Bay found his kryptonite. Paramount shut down production and delayed the release date by a year for retooling.

While he convinced the world that Optimus Prime had a mouth and that Bumblebee was some sort of mute, Bay could not convince the world that the turtles were anything but those four lovable weirdos who live in the sewer. That’s because, by and large, we love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The Turtles started off as a gag. In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird published the comic through Mirage Studios… which, for the most part, wasn’t real. According to Eastman, the imprint got its name because “there wasn’t an actual studio, only kitchen tables and couches with lap boards.” The Turtles were a product of a casual brainstorming session between the two. It hard to imagine now, since the characters have such a grip on pop culture, by the very concept — based on a drawing by Eastman — was ridiculous: turtles are heavy, slow moving reptiles, and ninjas require speed and stealth. (The lesson here: the internet was never responsible for inventing silly mash-ups.)

Here’s the story: two men, Oroku Nagi and Hamato Yoshi, quarrel over a woman named Tang Shen. Tang Shen, though, only loves Yoshi. Nagi, realizing that he loves a woman who can never love him back, beats Tang Shen in a jealous rage, intending to kill her. Yoshi protects Tang Shen by killing Nagi. However, the shame of killing a member of his own clan forces him to flee. He moves to New York, where he starts a martial arts school.

Unfortunately, Nagi’s family is not quick to forget. Especially not his younger brother Oroku Saki, a mysterious armored man known as “The Shredder.” He hooks up with the mysterious Foot Clan, and they allow him to pursue his vengeance by making him leader of the New York branch. There, he finds Hamato Yoshi and kills him in cold blood.

This is when a series of unfortunate events happen. Yoshi’s pet rat gets loose. A truck hits a bump, and a canister of mysterious substance — which some call “mutagen,” others call “ooze” — falls out the back and smashes a nearby aquarium containing four turtles. Yoshi’s pet rat, named Splinter, follows them down the sewer. He begins to mutate. So do our turtles, whom he treats as his sons and trains in the art of ninjitsu. He gives them the names of four different Renaissance artists: Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Together, they protect the city of New York as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Heroes in a half-shell! Turtle power!

The good folks on the Rewatchability podcast made a good point that one of the things that made the Turtles so appealing was that they were a group. If it were just one of them, it would be sad. Just one misshapen and misbegotten creature lurking the sewers? It’s tragic. But with the Turtles, there are four of them! They’re not alone! It’s triumphant!

What gets missed sometimes is that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is actually a parody. Eastman and Laird parodied Marvel’s New Mutants through the first half of the team name (“teenage mutant”). Frank Miller’s Ronin was parodied through the setting (New York), the Japanese influences, and noirish Frank-Miller-esque art style replicated in the cover. Cerebus was parodied mainly by having grim, anthropomorphic characters wielding weapons in a world filled with humans.

And then there was Daredevil, most apparently parodied in the first issue. The Foot Clan was a parody of The Hand, a ninja organization that would occasionally inconvenience The Man Without Fear. Splinter’s name was a parody of Matt Murdock’s mentor, Stick. Heck, the first issue even features a cameo appearance during the origin story.

Using some money from a tax refund and $1000 kicked in by Eastman’s uncle Quentin, the two put together a meager initial print run of 3,000 copies. (That meager donation, by the way, would later inspire Eastman Laird to found the Xeric Foundation.) Little did these two know that the Turtles would become an international phenomenon by forces they couldn’t control. From Peter Laird: “Suddenly, and just completely out of the blue, this Turtles phenomenon emerged. And really – from day one – just took over. It was a rapidly accelerating process which culminated in essentially taking over our lives. Completely.”

First came the black-and-white speculator boom. Stories had come and gone how mint condition issues of Action Comics #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15 were netting collectors some serious amount of cash. The Turtles came at the tail end of an 80’s explosion of indie comics, the new “hot” market for valuable #1 issues. And the Turtles were passing the sniff test: a first issue, new character debuts, and a very small print run. In months, a copy of the Turtles was trading at 50 times the original cover price. (Nowadays? It looks like that same issue will get you around $4,000.)

The success inspired the first wave of copycats: Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, the Cold-Blooded Chameleon Commandos, Karate Kreatures, and the Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung Fu Kangaroos… the last of which I actually owned once upon a time. (I rescued it from a $0.25 bin. Also, it was terrible.) The irony that the parody was itself wasn’t lost on creators at the time. Mark Martin spoofed the seemingly endless cycle of parodies in his own parody of The Dark Knight Returns, Gnatrat. (Martin would eventually work on Mirage Comics’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.) The debut of the cartoon would only increase the copycats tenfold. Rival projects about anthropomorphic bad-asses would include Biker Mice From Mars, Street Sharks, Wild West C.O.W.Boys From Moo Mesa, and the Mighty Ducks cartoon. I know, I know, I’m jumping around a bit.

But here’s my point: everyone and their mother wanted to be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The next stage of Turtles greatness happened when Eastman and Laird visited the offices of a very small California-based toy manufacturer named Playmates Toys Inc. They wanted to expand their action figure line, and the Turtles seemed pretty compatible. So they brought in the creative team of companies and individuals, some of whom were animators. (Remember, this was the 80’s. Saturday morning cartoons only existed to sell toys.)

Two of those animators, incidentally, were Fred Wolf (who won an Academy Award in 1967 for The Box) and Jimmy Murakami (animator for The Snowman, an Academy Award nominee that I consider to be one of the most hauntingly beautiful cartoons ever made). Seriously, that is a hell of a pedigree. Their studio, Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Film Productions Inc (later shortened to just Fred Wolf Films), put together the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Here’s where the phenomenon, um, mutated into something stratospheric.

Believe it or not, that cartoon lasted ten whole seasons, finally coming to a close in 1996. But the Turtles weren’t allowed to rest, because the very next year was a live action series, which featured a fifth turtle named “Mona Lisa” “Venus De Milo”, whom most fans are trying their hardest to forget. (Apologies for the error. Apparently I even forgot about her. “Mona Lisa”, though, was a character from the 80’s cartoon series, and she was a sexy lizard and not a sexy turtle. Neither character was liked by either Eastman or Laird, though.) Even though the live action series sorta flopped, it wasn’t long before the animated series returned to the air from 2003 to 2009. At the end of the series, Cartoon Network ran Turtles Forever, a crazy nostalgia trip that united the 80’s Turtles, the 2000’s Turtles, and the original Mirage Comics Turtles in a multiverse spanning epic. And, this year, on September 29, a third animated series is set to debut on Nickelodeon. It’s actually kinda tough to imagine a world where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were never on television.

But that first cartoon was something. Young El Santo loved the hell out of it. The humor just felt smarter than its contemporaries. The Turtles were constantly breaking the fourth wall, Raphael taught me the meaning of sarcasm, and the villains were almost as lovable as the heroes. Transformers will always be my first love, and yet there was something fun and gleefully anarchic about those Turtles. Sure it was a shameless ploy to sell toys, but Wolf an Murakami knew how to put on a show. And yes… Shredder was voiced by Uncle Phil from TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a little piece of trivia that blows my mind to this very day.

There were three live action movies and a CGI movie. (The first movie, incidentally, was fairly faithful to the first issue.) The Turtles also spawned numerous video games, a second comic adaptation published by Archie Comics based on the popular cartoon series, a live action show bafflingly called “Coming Out Of Their Shells” where the Turtles defeat Shredder through the power of rock, a bizarre Japanese anime, a horrendous Christmas special, a breakfast cereal, and, of course, sexy Halloween costumes.

And, as Chris Sims astutely observed a short time ago, the Turtles more or less informed the entire comic book climate of the 1990’s. Think about it: two guys running a bare-bones independent comic “studio” doodle something on their kitchen table, and within a few short years the two become billionaires based on a creation that they entirely own. How was that not one of the most inspirational stories in comics ever? I imagine that there were a bunch of guys at Marvel and DC who charted the meteoric rise of the Turtles intently and thought to themselves, “That could be me.” That, more than anything, led to the foundation of Image Comics. Sure, Youngblood, WILDCats, and Shadowhawk were all kinda derived from The Avengers, The X-Men, and Batman…. but c’mon, it wasn’t exactly a secret that the Turtles were a parody of Daredevil. And look at where that got those guys!

As for Mirage Studios, it soldier on for several years before finally closing in 2010. During that time, the Turtles went on several space adventures, which seems to be a favorite theme of Peter Laird. (It also starts to make sense why the Turtles might be aliens in the Michael Bay reboot, where which, again, Peter Laird was a screenwriter.) (Ed. note: wrong, genius!) The Mirage Comic Turtles were never really quite as popular as the characters in other media. There were attempts to fold the Turtles into the Image Comics universe. These eventually failed (and now are not considered part of official canon) due to Peter Laird’s unwillingness to commit… which sorta made sense. Eastman and Laird were now managing the global media empire that was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the comics were but a minor part of it.

In 2009, Laird sold the Turtles to Viacom. (Eastman had sold his share of the Turtles in 2000. According to Laird’s account, Eastman “was just tired of it. He wanted to move on and has other things to spend more time on.” Eastman then went on to publish more adult-oriented comics under the Tundra imprint.) The rights to publish new issues and reprint old ones were given to IDW Publishing (an organization that, I assume, isn’t just two dudes doodling things at a kitchen table). Quite possibly the last issue of the Mirage Comics continuity was released on October 2010. It is available for free on Peter Laird’s blog. I haven’t read it yet, but I think there are space dinosaurs in it.

In the end, this is probably the least essential “Know Thy History” I have ever had to write. After all, who doesn’t know the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? It’s not a property that has exactly been forgotten to time. And yet, it’s an astounding comic event all the same. Who in the world would’ve foreseen that a silly little gag about turtles with ninja gear would, in a very short time, become the biggest thing ever?


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on August 8, 2012, in comics, Know Thy History, superheroes. Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Thanks for writing this, El Santo. You’re right, most of us Turtles fans probably knew portions of that. But I for one learned a lot of new things. The article also put the whole phenomenon into perspective for me, too. As a kid I always had this suspicion that I was only getting a few slices of the entire pizza pie, thanks to my general lack of comics. It’s good to find out what I missed.

  2. ditto thanks for the article,

  3. “Despite having a script that was written, in part, by Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman”

    “in the Michael Bay reboot, where which, again, Peter Laird was a screenwriter”

    Which is it?

    • Arrggghhh! You got me. I think I was confused because Peter Laird spoke out in defense of Michael Bay (here), but I think it’s Eastman who’s the screenwriter. Bah. I turn in my badge, chief.

  4. Great article. I learned a lot about the origins of the origins of the Turtles.

  5. This was a fun read. I’d love to see a companion piece to this about Usagi Yojimbo. Particularly after the Turtles experienced their meteoric rise, I always saw Stan Sakai’s saga as something of their alternative comics mirror (a theory which might be somewhat borne out by the crossovers which existed between the two in print, television, and even the toy line).

  6. I’m pretty sure Laird started Xeric not Eastman. Apparently Eastman regretted not doing something similar as he ended up losing $14million on his studio line, Tundra.

    Great interview here:

    Good point about the huge success of the Turtles and the influence of it’s success story. One of those properties everyone loves.

    • Man, I am just batting a hundred on this piece. You are right, of course. I was ready to blame my error on Wikipedia, but darn if I can find the thing that said Eastman was the one behind Xeric. Thanks for the correction!

  7. Of course, TMNT also received the greatest honor a work of art can ever achieve; becoming the subject of a bizarrely fascinating Russian bootleg children’s book.

  8. The thing nobody ever mentions about the original Ninja Turtles comic is that, even though it’s a parody, it’s not funny and it’s played really straight. Basically, if you don’t already know the things it references, you can’t tell it’s meant to be parodic.

    My immediate point of comparison was always The Tick, which also parodied a lot of the same stuff, but is terrifically funny even if you’ve never read an issue of Daredevil in your life. It took me literally ten years to figure out why Oedipus was named Oedipus, but I still found all the ninja antics hilarious. Meanwhile, the only thing silly about the Foot is their name.

    This isn’t a criticism; it’s just a little weird if you start reading the old comics without knowing it ahead of time.

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  15. This iteration of pop culture’s most idiotic quartet has the IQ of a cheese pizza but it’s not a total cowabungle.

  16. It’d be easier to give TMNT a pass if it was aiming purely for goofy fun, but it keeps taking itself so damn seriously.

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