This year celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT). It may seem hard to believe when the characters are so ubiquitous in pop culture, appearing in comics, toys, movies and tv shows this year, but they had very humble origins. A collaboration between artist/writers Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, TMNT began as a self-published black and white comic book, partly as parody and partly as an artistic experiment. But there was something about the idea that caught on with the public’s imagination and their story has been told and retold across many different mediums with many talented creators. Below is an overview of the key moments in their history.
1984: The Beginning
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were both freelance illustrators from the Northeast who had fondness for comic books, especially the art of Jack Kirby. They met in Northampton, MA in 1983 when a newspaper editor introduced the two because he thought they had a similar artistic style. They each moved around to Maine and New Hampshire but stayed in touch and eventually agreed to collaborate on a comic book together about a rogue android which they called Fugitoid. The book was self-printed at a copy shop and sold to stores and comic conventions. While working on the second issue, Eastman created a weird turtle ninja sketch to amuse Laird. Laird revised it and passed it back and the artists amused each other by turning it slowly into a set of teenage mutant ninja turtles. They name itself amused them the most but also caught their imagination and they decided that this would be their next project.
The partners had a unique method of working, with both of them penciling and inking every page, back and forth, truly creating a hybrid of their artwork. They created a 40-page black and white comic book origin story for the Turtles, which they named after Renaissance artists that they pulled from one of Laird’s reference books. The book was both homage and a satire of the work that Frank Miller was creating at the time – the sci-fi samurai comic Ronin and the Daredevil comics.
In Daredevil, the hero gets his powers when he saves a pedestrian from a truck but is splashed in the face with a radioactive isotope. Laird and Eastman began their story with those events occuring and the canister of radioactive material smashing a bowl with 4 baby turtles who fell with the ooze into a sewer drain. There they were found by a rat, which the creators decided would be a likely creature to be found in the environment they wanted to tell the story in: sewers and dirty back alleys of New York City. The rat had been the pet of Hamato Yoshi, a ninja in Japan who fled to Japan to protect his girlfriend from his jealous rival, Oroku Nagi whom he had been forced to kill. Nagi’s brother, Oroku Saki, came to New York and killed the couple and his pet rat was loosed into the wild. In Daredevil, the hero’s martial arts mentor was named Stick, so the Turtle’s rat mentor was named Splinter. And while Daredevil battled the ninja clan the Hand, the Turtles faced The Foot, led by the Shredder, who was revealed to be Oroku Saki. The Turtles and Splinter mutate into humanoid creatures with human-level intelligence and Splinter trains them to be ninjas. They eventually confront and defeat the Shredder in issue #1.
The comic printed a modest 3,000 copies with a single color added to the cover – some red. Eastman & Laird debuted the book at a Portsmouth, NH minicon in May of 1984 and sold several hundred copies. It wasn’t until a month or so later that Laird was able to find a distributor who offered the book to comic book stores across the country that they picked up steam. The book sold out almost immediately, and a second printing of 6,000 copies immediately sold out as well. When a third printing similarly sold out within a couple of weeks, Laird ran the numbers and realized that they could make about $2,000 each after all their expenses. If they could do a bimonthly comic, they could each stop hustling for freelance art jobs and fulfill their dream of making comic books for a living. So after several months, they got to work on the second issue and continued to introduce many of the characters and concepts that would become iconic for the series: their human friend April O’Neil (originally a scientist’s assistant in the comics), Casey Jones, and the alien Utroms (they looked like little pink brains and hid themselves in human-looking robots and were responsible for creating the ooze that mutated the turtles).
The comic was popular quickly and Eastman and Laird became busier with licensing offers (early offerings included buttons and a role playing game (RPG) manual). The pair hired additional artists including Jim Lawson and Ryan Brown to work on a second title, Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to fill in continuity gaps and do stories in the main title as well. Eastman and Laird only worked as a team for the first 11 issues as well as 4 one-shots for each turtle. Both contributed in some capacity here and there in future issues but the title began to take on an anthology feel because every few issues were done by different creative teams. The duo had become too busy with managing the new directions for their creations, including toys and a cartoon.
1987: Entering the Mainstream
In 1987, licensing agent Mark Freedman took notice of TMNT. Freedman had worked for many big licensing companies and worked on properties like G.I. Joe and Alvin and the Chipmunks. He decided to go into business for himself and frequently visited gaming stores looking for the next big thing. He discovered TMNT through their RPG book. He tracked Eastman and Laird down and they agreed to meet him. He convinced them with his passion to give him a small window (30 or 60 days, depending on who remembers correctly) to bring them a good opportunity and if he did, they would continue working together. Freedman knew that the first step would be to get a toy company interested and then use their resources to create a cartoon. Freedman hired one of the artists at Eastman and Laird’s company, Mirage Studios, who had been a muppeteer, to design a large TMNT puppet doll. He’d take this prop to his pitch meetings to interest people. He was turned down at Hasbro, Mattel and other top toy companies and turned to an old friend who worked at a relatively new company, Playmates. Playmates loved the idea and also agreed to help finance five 30-minute episodes of a cartoon to better explain the story to children. Freedman impressed Eastman and Laird and things moved quickly.
To make the cartoon, Freedman turned to Fred Wolf, who he had met when they worked on Duck Tales together. Wolf had to be convinced by Freedman that each of the Turtles would need to be individual characters, because he was used to treating Huey, Dewey, and Louie as similar characters. Wolf’s company, Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Films, worked with some Mirage artists to re-envision the Turtles for a younger audience. The characters all looked the same in the comics and were differentiated by their weapons. For the show, they added an initialed belt buckle and different colored bandanas – red for Raphael, blue for Leonardo, orange for Michelangelo and purple for Donatello. They also pushed their personalities further. Leo had always been the field leader in the comics, so they pushed that to the front and made him the straight arrow. The show would involve more sci-fi concepts to give them more story ideas so Donatello became the inventor and science expert. Raphael was pushed as more comic relief and to highlight the teenage aspect, Michelangelo became more laid back. One of the early writers who worked on the show was Chuck Lorre, but he moved on to take another job before any scripts were written and veteran cartoon writer David Wise was brought in. Lorre went on to create shows such as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory but his one lasting contribution to the cartoon was the catchy theme song which he helped write. Those high pitched voices saying things like, “He’s a radical rat!” and “Hey! Get a grip!” is actually Lorre himself.
In December of 1987, the cartoon aired. It actually took three full airings before catching on, but when it did, it caught on in a big way. The show was picked up to series and ultimately ran for nine seasons. Meanwhile, Playmates created over 400 toys based on the comics and show in the same time period. The show also made recurring villains out of Shredder and Krang. Krang was based on the design of the Utroms from the comics but was envisioned as an evil warlord from another dimension. He teamed up with the Shredder whose personality and story was greatly expanded from his relatively brief appearances in the original comics. Overall, the cartoon was a fairly radical departure from the gritty and violent comics, but it also reached a much larger audience and kept their origin intact.
Eastman and Laird decided that they should also put out a comic book for the mainstream audience. Their black and white comic was still only being sold to the direct market but they wanted to put out a comic that kids could find at newsstands and in grocery stores and convenience stores. They pitched a full-color all-ages book to the major publishers of the time – Marvel, DC and Archie. Only Archie believed in the idea and agreed they would publish the book with the art and story provided by Mirage Studios. Many of the characters invented for this book became the weirder toys that Playmates released. The first few issues adapted the cartoon but it soon went in its own direction and had a successful run all the way until 1995 when the brand began losing steam. More on that later.
1990: The Rise and Fall
With the comics, toys and cartoon in full swing, Freedman argued that the next piece of the puzzle was to make a live action film. Leading up to the 1989 release of Batman, you could find Batman merchandise everywhere so Freedman convinced Eastman and Laird this was the next step. Their goal was to create a version closer to the original comics because they wanted to provide the public with something new. If it was too similar to the cartoon, why would someone leave the house? Hong Kong production company Golden Harvest was brought on to produce the film and director Steve Barron was hired. But the first key step was figuring out how to bring the turtles to the screen. To that end, Jim Henson’s creature shop was hired. Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson, oversaw the animatronics that would give life to the turtles. A little known fact: Kevin Clash, the voice and puppeteer of Elmo, handled Splinter. And under the Donatello costume? Ernie Reyes, Jr., who would go on to play a human character, Keno, in the sequel. The only name actor for the film was Corey Feldman as the voice of Donatello and the film had a modest budget of $13 million.
The film had a brief pre-production phase and filmed in North Carolina due to tax incentives, between July and September of 1989. Unfortunately, once it came time to edit the film, the producers got nervous and pulled the editing away from the director. Eastman and Laird have stated Barron “got” the turtles and when the film looks good, it’s thanks to him. The film ended up being a big hit, pulling in $100 million worldwide, making it the most successful independent film for many years to come.
A sequel was immediately put into the works but Eastman and Laird quickly realized they did not have the level of approval power they wished they had. The sequel’s director and writers wanted to “fix” the problems the first movie had despite its success. This included reducing using the weapons and adding more humor. The first film had had a surprisingly successful soundtrack thanks to an MC Hammer song right at the zeitgeist. So the budget was reallocated to the soundtrack in a big way, including hiring Vanilla Ice to perform a new song in the film. Henson Creature Shop again provided the animatronic turtles but there was nothing new added and Brian Henson himself stepped down. The overall budget went up to $25 million but the grosses it pulled were down to just $75 million.
Interest in the turtles began to wane in the 90s and Eastman and Laird were so busy running the business, they had little time to invest in the creative side. Also, they were no longer getting along quite as well. However, in 1992 they reunited on the comic book to write and draw issue #50. They continued to write the book together for an arc that ran from issue #50 through #62 upon which the title was briefly retired. Their new story, “City at War” was a hit with fans and also introduced the character Karai. Karai was originally a senior leader within the Foot but in future interpretations would go on to be Shredder’s adopted daughter or granddaughter.
In 1993, a third film was released but it was a critical and box office failure. Cheap suits and a bad story added up to a chapter that doesn’t warrant further discussion. The poor reception of the film along with the poor reception to the second volume of the comic (Mirage produced a full color version that continued the original continuity, from 1993 to 1995) combined to bring interest in TMNT to an all-time low. The cartoon was creatively stagnant and finally ended in ’96. The turtles were nearing their low point.
From 1996 to 1999, there was a third volume of TMNT comics, this time published by Image Comics. The comic got, if anything, much darker. Leonardo lost a hand. Raphael had his face scarred. Donatello was turned into a Cyborg. Splinter mutated into a bat creature. The book had no significant input from Eastman or Laird and eventually they pulled the plug on the books, feeling they didn’t quite “get” the turtles.
Worse, a new tv show came on the year after the cartoon ended. Subtitled “The Next Mutation,” TMNT became a live action tv show produced by Saban, who at the time were riding high on the popularity of Power Rangers. In an effort to offer something new, the show revealed there was a fifth, female turtle, Venus de Milo. Laird is very open about outright hating the idea but has explained what happened. There had been talks of a fourth movie that never came to be, but one idea was a fifth turtle, then named Kirby after the comics creator that Laird and Eastman loved. Saban saw the idea and jumped on it but insisted it had to be a girl. While Laird detested the idea, the studio said it was either add the character or no show. With a studio of artists working for them, they reluctantly agreed to the show and kept their employees working on art for licensing projects. The show was goofy and low-budget and was not picked up for a second season. The turtles had hit their low point.
In 2000, Laird and Eastman realized they weren’t collaborating anymore and came to an arrangement where Laird bought Eastman’s ownership and became the sole owner of TMNT. He began a fourth volume of the comic book, which he wrote, and which ignored volume 3 by Image, continuing from volume 2. He also began looking for a new home for a cartoon. Ultimately, Fox and 4Kids Entertainment came up with a pitch that Laird liked.
The new cartoon debuted in 2003 and while it was still an all-ages show, was more action oriented and was closer to the original comics. There was no Krang. Shredder was a much more menacing opponent. April worked as Baxter Stockman’s lab assistant and then ran an antique shop, no longer working as a news reporter. Splinter was a mutated rat, not a human like in the 1987 show. The show used a new art style, influenced by anime. It was a hit creatively and in the ratings and ran for 7 seasons. Laird retained a far more active role in this show, with the show’s head writer running stories by him for approval.
2007: End of an Era
By 2007, Golden Harvest’s rights to make TMNT films had expired and Laird began overseeing a new movie. It was ultimately decided to do a full CGI film to keep the budget at a reasonable level and still be able to do big action sequences. The director, Kevin Munroe, also didn’t think they could make an affordable version mixing live action with CG. The film had a budget of $34 million and pulled in $96 million worldwide. The story was new but intentionally vague enough that it fits with the established live action film continuity. The decision was made to have the turtles broken up after a falling out but being brought back together to stress the importance of family.
While the movie made a profit, Peter Laird had become a bit burnt out on managing the turtle franchise. The comic slowed to a trickle and ultimately ended in 2009. The cartoon show wrapped up at about the same time. After 25 years, Laird was ready to move on to something else. But first, the tv cartoon decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary in style. The show wrapped its run with a original movie-length story that united the turtles from the 2003 version with the turtles from the 1987 version. Ultimately, the eight turtles meet the original black and white turtles from the first comics and all team up to save the multiverse from being destroyed. It was a suitably epic goodbye that almost didn’t happen when the production studio shut down and literally turned off the lights to the studio with one week of production left to go. The animation team decided they would finish what they started and donated the rest of their time to finishing the project.
Laird decided he was ready to pass ownership of TMNT to someone else and ultimately chose Viacom and their child company Nickelodeon to shepherd the future stories. He sold them his rights, though he did maintain the ability to publish up to 18 black and white comics every year through Mirage Studios, if he wanted to.
2012: A New Owner
Viacom took their time deciding how to launch the turtles and decided to do a tv cartoon, a comic book, and a movie. All would have their own, new continuity. For the comic, they turned to IDW who had great success publishing licensed comics. IDW hired Tom Waltz to script and Dan Duncan as the artist but surprised fans by bringing on Kevin Eastman to oversee the plots and help with layouts. Yes, after many years Kevin Eastman made his return to his most famous creation. The title launched in 2011 and is still going.
For the tv show, Nickelodeon turned to Ciro Nieli. Nieli had worked on hit shows including Teen Titans Go! and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. His story ideas and redesigns convinced everyone that he had a version that was faithful to many previous iterations but offered something new. The decision was made that the show would be done in CG because it would better appeal to a young audience and the teenage part of TMNT was emphasized. The show went for an all-star voice cast for its leads and hired Sean Astin as Raphael, Jason Biggs (later Seth Green) as Leonardo, and Greg Cripes as Michelangelo. But for Donatello, they went to Rob Paulsen who had voiced Raphael in the 1987 version. When the audition came through his agent, Paulsen confirmed they knew who he was and it wasn’t a mistake, but it wasn’t. A talented voice actor with many well-known roles under his belt, Paulsen was who they wanted and who they cast. Some of the changes to this version include the Kraang being the name of an entire alien race (that look like Krang/Utroms) and Shredder raising Karai as his daughter despite her actually being the daughter of Hamato Yoshi/Splinter. Also, April and Casey are teenagers, like the turtles.
For the film, Viacom’s film studio, Paramount, turned to Michael Bay. Bay is not always popular with comics fans but the fact is he made four successful live action films based on Transformers, another 80s cartoon, for Paramount. Bay agreed to produce the film and hired director Jonathan Liebsman. This time around everyone felt the right way to go was to blend live action actors with CG turtles thanks to the advances in performance capture technology. With a budget of $125 million, this is by far the biggest spectacle to involve the TMNT. Once again, it will be a reboot with a new continuity, based on ideas from across the history of TMNT. But it all started with two artists passing sketches back and forth to make each other laugh. So we probably shouldn’t take any of it TOO seriously.