Today In Comics History: The Birth Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the great inexplicable pop phenomenons of our time, a creation that began as a one-note joke between friends, and went on to conquer the world. It's a franchise that's proven to be endlessly adaptable, appearing in endless variations in numerous media, with an appeal that spans generations and a fanbase that continues to expand with each passing year.
It's particularly funny, given the conventional wisdom that the simplest ideas are the most durable. There's a grace and elegance to most of comics' enduring characters that can be boiled down into a simple one line pitch, whether It's "superpowered survivor of a doomed planet fights for truth and justice" or "man battles crime while dressed as a bat" or "the living embodiment of the American dream" or "guy gains proportionate powers of a spider, still can't catch a break".
There's nothing quite that easy and straightforward about the TMNTs --- they're a quartet of humanoid mutated reptilian brothers, who are named after Renaissance painters, have a fondness for pizza, were trained in martial arts by a giant rat, and, um… You get the point.
But somehow, the core concept works. The hybrid mishmash of ideas that Eastman and Laird threw together on a whim is just open-ended enough that the Turtles can fit into pretty much any situation, adapt to any setting, and remain identifiably themselves no matter what trappings are thrust upon them.
The story behind the Turtles' creation has been told many times over, but here it is in brief: Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman met in the early '80s, bonded over a shared love of Jack Kirby comics, began collaborating, decided to publish their works under the banner of "Mirage Studios", and while hanging out together one evening, began doodling the silliest things they could come up with.
Eastman sketched a turtle wearing a mask and wielding nunchucks. Laird, thus inspired, did his own variation on the theme. Eastman then drew four turtles, each wielding a different weapon, tagged it with the caption "Ninja Turtles", and Laird added the "Teenage Mutant" prefix as a nod to the popularity of Marvel Comics' X-Men franchise. The next day, they still thought it was funny, and decided to make a full comic out of it.
What ensued was a truly absurd story, presented in totally deadpan fashion. The two creators swiped liberally from Frank Miller's groundbreaking Daredevil run, establishing that the Turtles were created as a side effect of the accident that transformed Matt Murdock into "The Man Without Fear," and incorporating elements of organized crime and martial arts in a manner that both payed tribute to and poked gentle fun at Miller's seminal Elektra saga.
Then, pooling their funds and obtaining a $1000 loan from Eastman's uncle, they purchased an ad in an upcoming issue of Comics Buyer's Guide, and got three thousand black and white copies printed just in time to take them to a small, local comic convention.
The Portsmouth, N.H. Mini-Con took place on May 5th, in a Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge, and there, Eastman and Laird first unleashed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 onto an unsuspecting world. Within a few weeks, they had sold out of the initial print run, and ordered a second printing.
By the time Eastman and Laird released the second issue a few months later, they had a bonafide hit on their hands. And in #2, they wisely realized that they couldn't maintain the straight faced seriousness of the initial installment, and wholeheartedly embraced the absurdity. The difference in tone was apparent right from the opening panels…
And right there, the core of the characters' appeal was established. They could be whatever the story demanded, and almost by mistake, their foundation was strong enough to support whatever direction they got pulled in.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2 moved beyond the martial arts brooding of the debut, pitting our heroes against mad scientist Baxter Stockman and his fleet of mechanical mousers. By issue #5, the Turtles were getting transported to far-away galaxies and doing battle with evil dinosaur-esque aliens, and sales had gone through the roof --- Mirage was printing up tens of thousands of copies of each new issue, and still having to go back for additional printings to meet demand.
All at once, a silly comic about kick-chopping reptiles, with the most self-consciously unwieldy title since Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos, had become a massive sensation. The market was soon hit with a flood of other self-published black-and-white titles, many of which were shameless attempts to piggyback on the ridiculous formula that Eastman and Laird devised, and comic shops ordered all of them, hoping lightning would strike twice --- shelves buckled under the weight of the Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, the Geriatric Gangrene Jujitsu Gerbils, the Naive Inter-Dimensional Commando Koalas, the Cold-Blooded Chameleon Commandos, the Pre-Teen Dirty Gene Kung Fu Kangaroos, and other similar knock-offs.
But thankfully, the Turtles' creators weren't adhering to any kind of formula; they were just creating comics that they themselves would enjoy, and dabbling in whatever genres they liked.
Over the first few years of their existence, the TMNTs were thrown back in time, got transported to other dimensions, encountered domestic terrorists, decamped to small-town New England, battled fast-food warlords in a Chinese village, became ensnared in an all-out gang war in New York, and went in a number of other other odd directions. Eastman and Laird started bringing in other creators to contribute to the series, and the tone and approach varied wildly from issue to issue, jumping from lyrical fantasy to swashbuckling sci-fi to samurai action to gritty combat narratives. And sales continued to grow.
At the same time, the franchise was making the leap to other media. A cartoon series started airing at the tail end of 1987, an accompanying toy line was launched the following year, and before long the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were everywhere. By the turn of the '90s, you could find Turtles in pretty much every aisle of the supermarket, with TMNT-branded books, magazines, breakfast cereal, candy, cookies, pasta, frozen foods, apparel, school supplies, stationary, toiletries, and who-knows-what else available for sale. Archie Comics launched an all-ages comic geared toward fans of the cartoon. The first live-action Turtles film was a massive hit, and sequels ensued. Video games appeared in both home-system and arcade incarnations. Pizza Hut sponsored a live concert tour that would become the stuff of legend for a generation.
Decades down the line, the core appeal of the Ninja Turtles shows no signs of waning. Multiple comic reboots and resurrections, TV revivals and re-revivals, new toy lines, and a couple of big-screen revamps have kept the Turtles in the public eye, and continued to expand their audience. Each different venue the Turtles have appeared in has presented a slightly different take on the central concept, but no matter the continuity or character designs, the silly idea of four hard-shelled martial artist brothers remains eternal. Whatever magic Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman tapped into in a moment of giddy insanity continues to enchant fans around the world.
It still makes no sense, and somehow, it still works. And it all began with two guys launching their new comic on this date in 1984, at a tiny comic-con in a hotel ballroom in New Hampshire.
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