2019 marks the 35th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! The fearsome foursome has been kicking shell for three decades. Today, we’re going to be taking a look back at their long and unorthodox history.
The TMNT made their comic debut in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 in May of 1984. Created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the Ninja Turtles served as a parody of the comics that came before. You can see the influence the New Mutants and Daredevil had on the TMNT. Daredevil fights the Hand, the Ninja Turtles fight the Foot, Daredevil’s master is Stick, the Ninja Turtles master is Splinter. They also had the extra dark tone you saw in most 80’s comics, such as The Dark Knight Returns and anything starring Wolverine. The comic was a success! It even spawned a television series.
The Animated Series
After the success of the comic books, Laird and Eastman were sought out in hopes of getting production rights for a children’s show. Licensing agent Mark Freedman convinced the duo to sell the rights after a meeting with Playmates Toys. This is where the legends were born. As the team gets the show ready, the Turtles receive drastic changes. They couldn’t stay as dark as they were in the comics, so they were made more family-friendly. The first change was colored bandanas.
Each turtle needed to be recognizable, so they received the colors everyone is familiar with: Leonardo (blue), Raphael (red), Donatello (purple), and Michelangelo (orange). They also gave them distinct personalities, they were present in the comics, but here they were dialed up to 11. Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool but
crude rude, and Michaelangelo is a party dude. This show also introduced us to Krang, robotic foot soldiers, and made Shredder the main antagonist of the Turtles.
The Ninja Turtles were at the height of their popularity in the late ’80s. They had many toys, pizza commercials, and even a concert tour (yes this is a real thing). In 1990, they reached a new level, and they received their first live-action movie.
The original film in 1990 was merely titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Its tone was closer to the original comics than the animated series. It starred Judith Hoag (April O’Neil) and Ellas Koteas (Casey Jones), and the voices of Josh Pais (Raphael), Robbie Rist (Michelangelo), Corey Feldman (Donatello), Brian Tochi (Leonardo), and Kevin Clash (Splinter). It boasted a grittier take on the Turtles than audiences were used to seeing. To this day it’s still considered the best version of the TMNT amongst fans. The darker tone didn’t sit well with most parents, unfortunately.
This lead to other films being more for children. They stopped using their weapons, they no longer cursed, and they had twice as many jokes. The Turtles could never ditch the “kiddy” brand as other characters did. After the 90s their popularity dissipated.
The 2000’s Resurgence
After a short break from the Turtles, they returned to television for a rebooted of their animated series! The show was simply titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (they didn’t even try). This show was produced by original creator Kevin Eastman and was closely tied to the source material. The turtles used their weapons, they were more serious, they fight aliens, ninjas, and even time traveled. It was just crazy enough to hook a new generation of fans.
They then went on to receive an animated film titled TMNT (slightly better), and a third reboot of the cartoon in 2012. In 2014 the Turtles returned to the big screen in Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (I wish this gag would end). That franchise had a mixed reception, but it still made money. To this day the Turtles continue to thrive. They received a fourth animated series, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they’re going to get a third go on the big screen, and they continue to have a successful relaunch of their comics series.
Somehow this little parody series exploded into one of the biggest franchises in the world. That’s the history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! We obviously couldn’t cover everything, but think of this as the highlights. They crossed over with Batman, the Power Rangers, and even the Ghostbusters. They are just as recognizable as any character from Marvel or DC. It is truly something special. Here’s to another 35 years!
For more on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stay tuned.