Like other kids of my generation, I was swept up in Turtle Mania and fell in love with the green skinned shellbacked brothers with the debut of the first cartoon in 1987.
I remember the cartoon as my first ever experience of the Turtles, and the lead up to it like other hot properties of the era such as Burton’s Batman (1989) and The Simpsons (1989) were heavily advertised particularly in newspapers and magazines that eager youngsters would clip and save to a scrapbook or if you’re like me just stick them straight on the bedroom wall.
While the Turtles debuted in comic book from in 1984, it was the Murakami-Wolf animated show in 1987 that saw the Turtles explode from little known indy comic to mainstream merchandising extravaganza. The animated series ran from 1987-1995 and was created at the request of Playmates Toys who wanted something more than a black and white ultra-violent indy comic to gamble their new toyline on.
The animated show along with it’s tie in comic book from Archie Comics were vehicles for introducing new bizarre wacky mutants characters and vehicles that could be showcased and made into further toys or bars of soap and sleeping bags.
The Archie comic branched off into it’s own continuity separate from both the Animated show that birthed it and the mainline ongoing original Mirage TMNT books, expanding the TMNT lore to a full three different distinct continuities, and a fourth with the addition of the live action movies.
The shows production quality was high, but some stories were inevitably hit and miss – victims of the Murakami-Wolf Ninja Turtles own success that led to an epic production schedule and high demands on the creative team as it ran several years longer than anybody could have reasonably predicted in parallel with the tie in toyline.
The voice cast made characters like lovable mutant moron’s Bebop and Rocksteady along with their masters Shredder and Krang highly memorable fan favorites. James Avery voiced Shredder and was also more commonly known as Uncle Phil on the hit TV show Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990)
With the show a hit, the first few waves of the main toyline and other merchandise sold like gangbusters, with the infamous logo crammed onto every bit of high and low quality merchandise possible in the tradition of other eighties toy tie in show juggernauts like He-Man, Thundercats and The Transformers.
Along with all the other dodgy merchandise such as pillow cases and bars of soap, were more interesting licensed tie ins such as the hit four player arcade game from Konami, and it’s popular sequel Turtles in Time.
I recall many Saturdays where I would progress as far as I could on only a single credit, and other days where I would take in five to ten dollars and attempt to finish the challenging addictive Turtles game. Other TMNT games proved popular on home consoles of the 8-bit and 16-bit era with varying quality, but none with the same impact as the Turtles Konami arcade game that had people lining up just to play it when first released.
CUT ME OFF A SLICE OF THAT PEPPERONI DUDE
Turtle-Mania died down for a bit, but then rose again to a fever pitch. Kids were again afflicted with Turtle Fever with the release of the Golden Harvest / Henson Workshop live action film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). The film was distributed by New Line Cinema notable for distributing such films as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) after the majority of other studios in town did not want to touch TMNT with a ten foot pointed pole for fear it would tank.
The mix of live action stunt performers inside realistic Turtle costumes, with puppetry and robotics taken care of by the Henson Workshop created a film of surprising quality that neatly mixed the humor of the animated Turtles, with the more serious tone and themes of the original black and white comic book Turtles. The film spawned two sequels, tie in merchandise and is fondly remembered by fans around the world.
TMNT IN THE REAL WORLD
Not content just to conquer animation, toys, film and bubble bath the Turtles journeyed into the real world, via a live action stage show that would lead to a variety of similar shows around the world, and inspired similar live action TMNT global shows and appearances years later.
Details are often sketchy about these live shows, which relied heavily on local promoters and entertainers to help fill out the overall structure. Some rare home videos and VHS uploads however are online if you search for “Turtles Live show 1990”.
I remember some kid or other having a birthday back in this era (he didn’t go to my school) and lucky me I got invited as his Dad was friends with my Dad – so I got to tag along for laser tag, video games, pizza and later the live Turtles stage show in Christchurch, New Zealand – which I remember thoroughly enjoying at the time.
ETERNALLY GREEN AND MEAN
The first color reprints of the Mirage comic books (the first ever Turtle comic book series that preceded the cartoon) appeared in bookstores in handsome deluxe editions (YEAR), exposing kids who had only ever encountered the animated show to deeper darker stories. Meanwhile the Archie Comics adventure series continued until 1995 building yet another fan base with stories aimed at a younger audience. The original toy line wound up in [year]. Next from 1997-1998 was a live action show notable for introducing female ninja turtle, Venus de Milo, but overall the show was poorly received.
THE END OF AN ERA, AND THE BEGINNING OF A NEW ONE
Things went quiet for a while and then the Turtles were back in an all new animated show that leaned heavily on its comic book roots and shows like Batman Animated for its basic structure, superhero comic book tropes and darker mature tone in 2003. The popular series ran for over five years and created a whole new generation of turtle fans with new tie in toys again from Playmates and was followed up by an impressive stand alone computer animated film in 2007 with April voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame.
GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
The original Mirage Studios comic book returned in 2002 after years of absence with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Volume#4 written by Peter Laird and focusing on more solo stories of the four brothers who were now older adults, living openly in a world that also had various alien life forms and ambassadors from different worlds. It featured adult Star Trek like stories that were more philosophical, but still had plenty of action, fantasy and science fiction layered in.
The mature age stories of TMNT Volume#4 touched on similar ecological themes of the Archie Comics Adventure stories, and brought TMNT back to some of it’s science fiction roots – but without the heavy handed tone of the very first series which was written as a parody of Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil. Volume #4 of Mirage, along with the Archie Adventures series become my two favorite books out of all turtles media.
While some properties get watered down by appearing in multiple forms of media, the Turtles thrived simultaneously in animation, comics, video games, toys and are one of the few long lasting properties to have consistently good adaptations across all types of media.
THE BIG TURTLE BUCKS BUYOUT OF 2009
Coinciding with the end of Mirage TMNT Volume#4 run, and after much public discussion via letter columns and online editorials, the majority of media and toy rights from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” the Intellectual Property was sold to the Nickelodeon / NICK entertainment company for sixty million dollars.
Playmates was allowed to keep making the toys, and Mirage had the rights to continue more comics if they wanted to. But the Mirage run came to end and NICK powered ahead into a new era with the rights to films, tv shows and all merchandise.
TO BOLDLY GO WHERE NO TURTLE HAS GONE BEFORE
The new NICK launched show and products focused on perhaps the youngest version yet of the Turtles yet in 2012. The NICK era brought new toys and recycled many ideas from both the older toy line and previous animated shows, as well as adding all new mutants, weirdos and freaks into the ever deepening melting pot of bizarre and deliciously demented TMNT side characters.
The toyline was stronger than ever, and ran successfully for several years with the likeness of the new shows Turtles repeating the success of the very first toy line with vehicles, playsets, small and large scale turtles amongst other merchandise.
SHELL BROTHERS FOR LIFE, ON AND OFF THE SCREEN
After a few stops and starts in the comic book world, the Turtles were back in print with an all new series from licensed media moguls IDW Publishing. In addition to all new stories, IDW was able to negotiable deals to reprints of the original Mirage Studios Ninja Turtle comic books and the Archie Comics series in handsome trade paperback editions to satisfy both old and new fans.
IDW brought Bebop, Rocksteady and Krang for the first time into an all new comic book continuity, as well as adding a deeper mythology to Shredder, the Turtles and their master Splinter that proved popular if controversial compared to previous Turtle Lore.
The IDW Turtles series would ape the formula and format of the Mirage books by having “micro-series” that focused on specific characters, building up the backstories that ran in parallel with the main series, which were all later collected into IDW bookshelf format hardback oversize trades, as well as the more standard trade paperbacks.
Some fans have called the IDW run the greatest Ninja Turtles fiction yet, with it’s complex story, hard hitting characters and embracing the best of everything that has come before in comics and animation into a seamless whole.
LIVING LARGE ON THE BIG SCREEN ONCE AGAIN
With the turtles on another streak of successful media and tie in toys, the time was ripe for them once again to return to the big screen in a much talked about, frequently criticized live action film in 2014 from Paramount Pictures and Michael Bay production house Platinum Dunes. Platinum Dunes also brought us modern horror remakes of Elm St, Texas and Friday the 13th. The new live action film would again have tie in toys and collectibles and went on to spawn a sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016).
Out of the Shadows was notable for giving fans the first live action version of old favorites warlord Krang and lovable doofus mutants Bebop and Rocksteady. Rocksteady was played by WWE wrestler Sheamus and Bebop by notable voice and character actor Gary Anthony Williams.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
In 2018 Nickelodeon debuted an all new Turtles cartoon. This show ran in a shorter format aimed at a younger audience of phone and tablet users. The shows style proved divisive for long term fans. The rapid-fire jokes with loads of one liners, slapstick and some radically different character interpretations were also turn off for some long term fans, but the humor hit the right tone and style for younger children.
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a strong traditional animation style along with stunningly beautiful backgrounds and great use of shadows and lighting effects, giving it the appearance of a higher budget show than it’s contemporaries.
Still more bizarre freaks and mutants were introduced, perhaps the biggest change was that all four of the Turtles are rather wacky and silly, even more so than the humor laden Murakami-Wolf era Turtles. The usually serious Leo jokes around as much as the rest of the Turtles, and stories move at a rapid pace. It’s a little jarring for fans like me, but this show is for a new generation. However I still enjoy it.
Rise is the second Nickelodeon led show, and it’s makes sense to aim for the younger audience, as that’s where most Turtle fans start out – as kids who discover a show and later go on to find other media or enjoy the toy lines. Every generation has its cultural touchstones, and some kid today is going to enjoy this show and maybe look back on it in ten to thirty years the way people of my generation look back at the first live action film and original eighties cartoon.
The voice cast for Rise includes WWE’s John Cena as one of the main villains, punk rock icon Johhny Rotten as Meat Sweats alongside Futurama alums John DiMaggio and Maurice LaMarche. As well as acting veteran Rob Paulsen on voice directing duties – Rob voiced Raph in the 1987 show and Donnie in the 2012 show, along with dozens of other character voices in iconic shows of the last forty years.
The Rise TMNT toyline made a slow start in America with just a handful of well articulated cartoon accurate figures and vehicles, with more variants and villain figures to follow in the usual global drip feed of toy waves. The first wave finally reached Australia around December/ January 2019 and are impressive colorful fun toys that match their on screen counterparts perhaps better than any Playmates/ chain store sold Turtle toy ever seen before.
Over 35 years, the Ninja Turtles have provided great entertainment, superhero-fantasy adventure stories that touched the hearts and minds of millions of children and adult fans around the globe. For a little indy comic book that could – printed on their own families dime, Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a long lasting phenomenon that nobody could have predicted, or expected.
Ideas for kids superhero fiction live and die every day, it’s a one in a million shot that the comic took off, let alone was made into a toyline and an animated series. Eastman and Laird hit the jackpot financially and creatively with the Ninja Turtles, and through the years have remained mostly humble about their creations, content to let others take over whey they left off. Whatever challenges the Turtles may face in the future, they remain a firm if unconventional family, and face their challenges with teamwork, brotherly love and determination.