Ask Chris #199: Heroes In A Half Shell, Turtle Power
Q: Why do you think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has survived and thrived for 30 years? — @ballsmonkey
A: I have a whole lot of affection for the TMNT, and I don’t think that’s just because I was the perfect age to drag my parents to Pizza Hut so that I could get (and subsequently wear out) a VHS tape of the one where they fought the giant robot rats. Don’t get me wrong, the nostalgia’s a huge part of it, but it’s not something that’s unique to my age group. The fact is, if you’ve been a kid at any time in the past three decades, you’ve more than likely grown up loving those characters just as much as I did. And that in itself, the staying power that this strange franchise created by two dudes in a kitchen, is interesting.
The thing is, even though I tend to think of TMNT as the archetypical unlikely success, the more I think about it the less I think that it actually was all that unlikely.
Whenever the Turtles come up, it’s always worth saying that the original series was quite literally one of the single most important comic books of all time. It’s influence was incredible — not just in the larger world of pop culture, where it became this huge, unstoppable, unavoidable force, but specifically in the world of comics. It’s the bridge between these two separate boom periods, and it linked two distinct eras and aesthetics, reacting to one and simultaneously playing a huge part in creating what came next.
This is one of my big Connections Theories about the history of comics, and it’s one that I’ve touched on before in the larger context of the ’90s, but the short version is that I think you can trace the rise of creator-owned comics as the force they are today pretty directly right back to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird making fun of Marvel Comics over a pizza. See, while it’s often overshadowed by the excesses, speculation and monstrous sales of the early ’90s boom, the Black & White Boom of the ’80s represents a massive cultural shift in North American comics. After decades of being dominated by a small number of publishers that were pushing a single genre, a change in the market (and growing concerns over creator rights) caused the ’80s to suddenly explode with a massive number of new independent comics, cheaply printed in black and white.
There was a lot of amazing stuff that came out of that era (and some of it in color), from Matt Wagner’s Mage to Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo – probably the single greatest comic that nobody ever talks about because it’s hard to find new things to say about a comic that’s pretty much been perfect every issue for thirty years — but the one that stuck out, the one that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, was TMNT.
TMNT wasn’t just a successful comic, although getting massive sales and long-running series from what started as a one-shot debuting at a con in New Hampshire with a print run of less than four-thousand copies certainly made it that. It was a massive pop cultural phenomenon, one that’s only slowed down a couple of times in the years since. But one of the interesting things to note is that it wasn’t exactly alone in its field.
There was, of course, an entire litany of imitations and knockoffs that followed in the wake of TMNT’s success, but even in the early days of Eastman and Laird’s success, the Black & White Boom embraced having anthropomorphic animals as lead characters in a way that mainstream superhero comics had pretty much abandoned by then, and I often find myself wondering why it was TMNT, and not, say, Usagi Yojimbo that took off, or even something like Boris the Bear? I mean, no disrespect to TMNT at all, but Usagi is clearly the better comic from a craftsmanship standpoint, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it wasn’t better in… well, in almost every other way, too. It’s worth noting that those comics both debuted after TMNT — Usagi a few months later in ’84, then into his own series in ’87, and Boris even has a reference to TMNT’s popularity on the cover — but I don’t think it comes down to just TMNT being first.
It’s tempting to lay it at the feet of the marketing and credit shrewd businessmen (and Eastman and Laird’s own shrewdness in pursuing the marketing of the property early and pushing for it as often as they could), and that was certainly a factor in making it as massive a merchandising phenomenon as it was…
…but I don’t think that was entirely what it was either.
See, I’m a big fan of a lot of things that have been hugely popular in the era shortly before and after TMNT (like, say, G.I. Joe) that had similar marketing and presentation to pop culture, but it didn’t really get to the heights of TMNT. I’ve said it before when I’ve talked about the franchise, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, for a few solid years there in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the most popular thing in the world. It was massive as a cross-media franchise, with what seemed like universal appeal.
They were big in America, obviously, but they was also popular in Europe, where they were Heroes instead of Ninjas and couldn’t have nunchuks, and they were even big in Japan, where they “super-mutated” into tokusatsu heroes who fought giant monsters with an angel-themed space mech.
It was massive, and while it’s slowed down since, it’s never really gone away. There’s a TMNT show on TV right now, a movie coming out soon, and multiple comics on the stands as I write this. It’s still around, and it’s still a pretty big deal.
All of which, several hours later, brings us back to that initial question of why. What was it that clicked? Was it all there at the beginning, or was it added in by the marketing folks to package it as a saccharine, kid-friendly cartoon about breakdancing and saying no to drugs?
To be honest, I think part of it was just the title. I cannot imagine hearing the words “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and immediately wanting to know more about what’s going on. It’s just so mind-bogglingly over-the-top and silly that you can’t ignore it, and that interest is the first big advantage that they have. But it also hints at something that’s far more important.
I said earlier that when you actually look at TMNT, its success isn’t surprising, and what I meant by that was this: It never occurred to me when I was first experiencing the series as a wide-eyed youngster in the ’80s because I hadn’t read the comics Eastman and Laird were riffing on, so it blew my mind when I found out as a teen that they were consciously creating a parody of the two most popular things in comics in 1984. The entire concept that kicked off thirty years and billions of dollars is just a simple gag about the Teenage Mutants of the X-Men, and the Ninjas of Frank Miller’s Daredevil. That’s it. That’s the hook. The “Turtle” bit was, to my knowledge, just added because it was the single most ridiculous thing they could throw in.
Even Shredder was originally called “Grate-Man” in the early designs, hinting that the original concept was way more comedic than it ended up being. And that, I think, is really the secret.
Like all great jokes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was played completely straight.
I had a reprint of that original story when I was a kid — because really, who didn’t? — and coming at it as a fan of the cartoon and the Archie comics, I remember being kind of shocked and completely thrilled by how dark and violent that original story was. In the comics, aside from those Archie ones where they traveled through time in a giant cow head, that’s been the aesthetic that’s stuck, too, and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s all part of a big joke on the part of the creators now, I have to assume that it was created as part of the gag.
You just have to look at that first comic to see how strong the Frank Miller influence is, but with the tortured, morally challenged hero replaced by a six-foot talking turtle.
That’s hilarious. But within the story, it’s never treated as a gag, and as a result, it ends up working both as a joke and as the core of a story that’s actually interesting on its own terms. There are multiple levels at work.
And both levels are based on the things that people reading comics and consuming pop culture already loved.
That’s the key to it. TMNT blended things that were already popular, but did them in a new and inherently interesting way that was impossible to avoid and ignore. It succeeded on its own merits while also riffing on things that had paved the way for it, and as a result, those gritty comics work as well as the kid-friendly cartoons. It’s an inherently adaptable franchise, and that gives it a phenomenal, almost universal appeal. Looking at it in the context of everything else that surrounded it in pop culture, both creating the environment where it could happen and then reacting to a world where it took Bulbasaur and 150 of his friends to finally dethrone it as The Most Popular Thing In The World, it’s hard to imagine how it wouldn’t have succeeded.
Well, until you add Michael Bay into the equation. That might be enough to kill it stone dead.