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‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’: A Short History of Being Radical

A newly relaunched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic recently hit comic shops from IDW Publishing and Nickelodeon in a book that aimed to recapture the feeling of the original comic book series.. Despite the three decades that separate the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the heights of their exposure, the TMNT maintain a healthy popularity with the 13-and-under crowd. Though nowhere near the levels of pop-culture dominance in the late eighties and early nineties, the franchise has been kept alive with a series of revamps, updates, re-imaginings, in comics, cartoons, and feature film. But no matter what form the four heroes on a half shell have taken, comics fans should never forget the TMNT franchise’s origins in comics…In his most-infamous extended essay, Cerebus creator Dave Sim once relayed a parable about comic book stardom: During an in-flight conversation with another passenger that I’m paraphrasing from memory because I don’t feel like reading through a crapload of Sim diatribe, he mentioned he made comics for a living. The other passenger, a mother, talked about how much her son loved TMNT comics, and how she had even taken him to a show to get an autograph. “Who signed it?” Sim asked. “Kevin or Peter?”

“Donatello,” she answered. “Who are Kevin and Peter?”

Kevin and Peter are Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, co-creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who started out as two poor New England artists trying to make something happen in comics. One night while brainstorming, Eastman doodled an anthropomorphic turtle wielding nunchacku. They went back and forth on the idea, got a loan from Eastman’s uncle, and were soon publishing what would become the most successful independent comic of all time.

The original TMNT comics are hard to describe; they always seem to be described as a parody, but that’s not entirely accurate. There are elements of parody, yeah — the wraparound covers were copies of Frank Miller’s Ronin, and the Turtles’ origins were cleverly entwined with Daredevil’s, but that’s about it. It was an urban action book birthed in the heyday of punk and wet and sticky with that energy. Not the L.A. punk scene that guided Los Bros. Hernandez, but the New York punk of CBGB’s, the Ramones, and Richard Hell.

There was a real dirt and grit to the stories; Frank Miller might have been spinning tales of the grimier side of New York in the pages of Daredevil, but only rarely did he actually get down in the muck. Eastman and Laird lived there, and dedicated themselves to portraying their versions of waste and decay in all the falling-down crosshatched glory they could. Amid the sci-fi ninja action laid interesting looks at growing up in a land of decay. The Turtles came from nuclear waste, lived in the waste of the sewers of New York (the Superbowl of American sewers), and cobbled together lives from the junk and refuse that surrounded them. An actual teenage wasteland.

Between 1984 and 1986, the sales of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rose steadily. Low print runs became one of the biggest contributors to their popularity, as they began selling out every issue, making each copy a true collector’s item. As their popularity continued to increase, the licensing opportunities must have been apparent to Eastman and Laird. TMNT was a concept ready-made to appeal to an audience wider than the one within comics: fresh and new, yet to be encumbered by years of continuity, and with a little tweaking, a perfect sell to the 12-and-under crowd.

The man who made the Turtles famous, and Eastman and Laird multimillionaires, was a licensing agent named Mark Freedman. After a successful line of Dark Horse Miniatures and First Comics collections, the trio approached Playmates Toys with the concept. Soon after, a line of action figures appeared, with a slightly different, all-ages approach to the characters meant to build an audience for a potential animated series. The hardcore violence of the comics was out, but the weapons and ninjitsu remained. All-red bandanas were out, replaced with individual colors for each Turtle, but maintaining the slit-eyed intensity of the comics.

Characters’ personalities from the comics were refined in the cardbacked bios, and within a short time the raw materials combined to become something iconic. Everyone could easily recall that Leonardo wore blue, used katanas, and was the leader; Donatello wore purple, used a bo staff, and was the nerd; Michaelangelo, orange, nunchackus, the joker; Raphael, red, sai, the loner. Sales were strong, and even though much of the country had never heard of the comics, soon toy aisles in major retailers became choked with TMNT figures. The nation’s children were primed, and an animated movie was ready to push the fad into phenomenon.

The animated version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rocketed the franchise into the stratosphere. The original miniseries led to a Saturday morning syndicated cartoon on CBS, which by 1989 became a daily series. New lines of action figures seemed to appear every six months, with variations on character and costume becoming more surreal with each turn. Marketing opportunities went nuclear, with the Turtles appearing on clothing, shoes, Halloween costumes, birthday party packages, skateboards, swim trunks, even officially-licensed bath soap. Anyone else get the Turtles toy shaving kit? Just me?

The outlandish success Laird and Eastman enjoyed was definitely a double-edged katana (those don’t exist, so don’t look for one); while they raked in millions, their administrative duties prevented them from making comics, and they brought in others like Mark Bode, Rick Veitch, and Eric Talbot to help. As their success brought new readers into the world of independent comics, other creators aimed their jealousy and derision at them even as their own readerships increased.

Cerebus appeared in TMNT, bringing Dave Sim more money than any other comic he’d produced (until his appearance in Spawn), Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo was added to Mirage’s stable, even appearing in the cartoon and receiving his own action figure. While instrumental in the drafting of The Creator’s Bill of Rights and generously helping to fund others’ projects, Eastman and Laird were considered sellouts, even though they had reached their gargantuan success through literally not selling out. By retaining ownership despite their many opportunities to sell, they were assured a piece of every action figure, every of issue of the cartoon-friendly Archie Comics series, and each and every frame of film that went into the live-action movies.

Released in 1990, one year after Tim Burton’s Batman had piqued audiences’ interest in comic book movies, the first TMNT film is still one of the best adaptations ever made from comics. At the zenith of the cartoon’s success, the movie went back to the comics for inspiration, adapting several storylines and bringing back the edge of violence and danger to surround Jim Henson’s fantastic live-action realizations of the turtles. The grime and decay of the city established a perfect mood for a movie that had action, humor, and heart. The film grossed over $100 million in U.S. box office and and kicked off the next big stage in Turtlemania.

The comics begat the toys, the toys begat the cartoons, the cartoons begat the movies, and the movies begat the Pizza Hut concert tour and mall appearances, and Eastman and Laird continued to get their piece of everything.

Turtlemania died out somewhere around the mid-nineties. The original fans had gotten too old for it, the phenomenon had watered down the edginess of the concept, and the Power Rangers were ready and waiting to steal aspiring martial artists with some weak-ass Johnny Shinto action. From 1990 to 1993, though, it was mania. It got too big, too crazy, and burned itself out. Whenever and wherever exactly it occurred, by then writing was on the wall, and it was in slimy, nuclear-green letters: Turtlemania was reaching its conclusion.

Somewhere during Turtlemania’s biggest days, however, Eastman and Laird quit working together. It doesn’t appear to be an acrimonious split’ they just wanted to do different things. Laird wanted to stay in New England and handle the franchise, do some comics, and foster and new talent. Eastman wanted to move to California, buy Heavy Metal, and marry “Queen of the B-Movies” Julie Strain. Each has continued to make an impact on comics beyond their most famous creations, though.

In 1993, Peter Laird established the Xeric Foundation, a yearly series of grants that awarded over 250,000 dollars to self-publishing comic creators like Farel Dalrymple, Megan Kelso, and Jason Lutes. Eastman founded Tundra Publishing, a short-lived company that published a handful of the most impressive comics of the last twenty years. Eastman had an abundance of money and used it to acquire an abundance of talent. Books originally under the Tundra banner include Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, Dave McKean’s Cages, and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Founded on the principles of the Creator’s Bill of Rights, though, Eastman had no stake in the ownership of any properties, favored high production values, and paid royalties half in advance. It’s estimated that he lost around ten million on the brave venture.

In 2000, Eastman sold most of his rights to Laird and Mirage, then in 2008 sold all that remained. Then, in 2009, Laird sold the rights to Viacom/Nickelodeon. So in these days when a new, calmer, healthier franchise flourishes, it’s no longer the two New Englanders reaping the majority of the rewards. Laird retains the rights to produce black-and-white TMNT comics, but squashed the idea of continuing his well-received Volume IV. Eastman, though, unexpectedly returned to the franchise, co-writing the new series from IDW, a strong reboot of the original creations that has potential to claim a corner of the new interest, which should be peaking again around 2012 with the planned release of a new TMNT film. Unfortunately, it’s apparently being produced by Michael Bay.

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