The four extremely muscular, ninjutsu loving, pizza eating, turtles known as Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo, or the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’, may be a staple of pop culture now, and one of the most recognisable hallmarks of the eighties and early nineties, but they definitely didn’t start out with such big aspirations. In this ‘A Brief(ish) History Of…’ we’ll take a look at both the real world and in-universe history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, as well as how and why it’s changed over time.
The story of TMNT starts in 1983, a year before their comic book debut, where writers and artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird set up ‘Mirage Studios’ in Dover, New Hampshire, an independent comic book publisher with no physical studio (hence the ‘Mirage’).
By 1984, Eastman and Laird had envisioned the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, starting out as a joke sketch of a turtle with nunchucks, the story was developed parodying some of the most popular comics books at the time, namely Marvel’s Daredevil, the younger X-Men Spinoff New Mutants, Cerberus and Ronin. The influences are clear, and remain key parts of the franchise to this day, from the ‘mutant’ part (taken from the X-Men), to the ‘The Foot Clan’ (the Turtles key enemy, named after the group of Daredevil foes named ‘The Hand’), even the turtles origins from radioactive ‘ooze’ is again very similar to Daredevil (who went blind and got his powers from a mysterious radioactive substance).
The original comic book sought to deliver a more dark and gritty story than those it parodied, and for the whole first volume was only published in black and white. The story focussed on the four turtles, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo (each named after a Renaissance artist), along with their master/father Splinter (a giant mutated rat), waging war against the Foot Clan, a crime gang terrorising New York City. Along the way, the Turtles meet fellow vigilante Casey Jones, who’s weapons are usually some sort of sporting equipment, and April O’Neal a computer programmer who eventually opens an antique shop after finding out her boss was a bad guy (…because comics).
With the story established Mirage Studios published the first issue of TMNT with a very small run of just over three thousand copies. The limited amount, combined with the book actually being a really good comic meant the it was a hit, and over four volumes continued for an incredible thirty year run.
By 1986 the Turtles franchise had started to grow, with lucrative merchandising deals really pushing it into the realms of a genuine phenomenon. The first extension of the brand came with some miniature Dark Horse led figures in 1986, and then in 1987 Playmates started to release their line of fully sized action figures.
But the real push for the Turtles came when Playmates (as was common at the time) commissioned an animated mini series to further advertise the figures. In a similar way to the comic book, the animated show proved a huge hit, and lasted for ten seasons, running until 1996, long outlasting other toy advertising tv shows such as Transformers, GI:Joe, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The animated show is really what pushed the Turtles into the mainstream, and created a new fan base that in many cases may not of even been aware of the original comic book.
Where the comic book took a dark, gritty, and sometimes emotional look at the Turtles lives, the animated show was much lighter and more comedic, and popularised elements such as each Turtle having a different coloured bandana, their love for pizza, a new version of April O’Neil, and introduced characters such as, Rocksteady, Bebop, and Krang. In a somewhat cyclical turn of events the show also got it’s own popular comic book, which was set in the same universe of the series rather than the original books.
Next up for the franchise was two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video games hit the market in 1989, one for arcade machines, and another on the NES. The two were very different and the arcade version was generally viewed as the better game. A year later the arcade game was ported to NES and retitled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II (with both games being released over a number of consoles over the next few years).
From there the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles haven’t ever really left video games, with their own titles across almost every imaginable console and platform, and the turtles themselves cameoing in a number of other franchises.
In 1990, capitalising on the height of Turtles-mania, the franchise took an even bigger leap and released a live action movie. The movie had gone through a number of production stalls, with companies hesitant to invest with the recent failure of another action figure, to animation, to live action movie franchise: He-Man. Eventually however the Turtles movie found a home and began production.
Overall it was more faithful to the original comics than the animated show, but incorporated elements from the animated series (which where now hallmarks of the franchise) such as April being a reporter, their obsession with pizza, and their different coloured bandannas.
One of the most distinctive features of the movie was the Jim Henson Creature Shop Turtle suits, which were some of the last Henson worked on before his death (just two months after the release of the film). The movie yet again proved a huge hit, and although it didn’t perform overly well critically, it managed a decent take at the box office (over two hundred million dollars), and thus spawned two live action, and one animated sequel. None of the sequels were as well received as the original (critically or financially), but served as another stable extension of this ever increasing franchise.
As the live action movies and comics books continued, the animated show neared it’s end and a year after it finished, the next big move in the ever evolving Turtles franchise debuted, a brand new new live action show. Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation which was partly based on an un-produced fourth live action Turtles movie.
Unfortunately the show was one of the first big blunders for the franchise and proved a huge miss, lasting for only one season it was a critical and commercial failure. With co-creator Laird despising the new female Turtle Venus de Milo (who has since been all but scrubbed from Turtles lore). Even a crossover with Power Rangers couldn’t salvage the show.
With the Next Mutation cancelled after only one season the franchise was put on hold for six years, until 2003, which delivered a brand new animated show.
With total character redesigns and storylines that took more of a lead form the original comic book, the show had a darker and more serious feel. The show was a return to form for the franchise and went on for an impressive seven season run, ending with an animated movie called Turtles Forever (in 2009), which saw this iteration of the Turtles meet the 1987 animated version, and the original comic book incarnations as well. Continuing in the same vein of the original animated series, the 2003 show also got an accompanying comic book (from Dreamwave) which filled in some gaps between episodes, as well as telling some of it’s own adventures.
In 2009, the same year the 2003 series ended, Viacom announced that they had acquired the full licensing rights for the Turtles franchise, and that Nickelodeon (a division of Viacom) would be making a new CGI animated show. They also announced that Paramount (another part of Viacom family) would be making a live action feature film, with the two being unconnected extensions of the franchise.
As a part of the deal Viacom (who now owned absolutely everything Turtles related) still allowed Mirage Comics to produce eighteen issues of the TMNT comic book a year and by 2011, this deal led to IDW Comics republishing all of the old Turtles comics, and in conjunction with Mirage (and a returning Eastman) start a brand new ongoing book.
The new comic book series became a big hit and went on to show crossovers between the Turtles and a number of other franchises such as the X Files, Ghostbusters, and Batman (the latter of which proved a massive success and even got a sequel).
The next year saw the release of Nickelodeon’s new 3D CGI show (three years after it was announced), and boasted an all star cast of Jason Biggs (of American Pie fame) as Leonardo, Sean Astin (from Rudy, the Goonies, and The Lord of the Rings) as Raphael, Rob Paulsen (who played Raphael in the 1987 show) as Donatello, and Greg Cipes (Beast Boy in the Teen Titans animated show) as Michelangelo.
The show reimagines the turtles origin and puts their mutation down to exposure to an alien substance whilst being the regular turtle pets of a very human Hamato Yoshi (Splinter), it was met with widespread critical acclaim, got it’s own spinoff comic book, a new set of Playmates action figures and was nominated for a number of awards for it’s technical achievement, performances, and storytelling.
Although maybe the most critically successful Turtles show, it’s technically the shortest running (animated) one, running from 2012 to 2017, that said it still had a solid five season run, and like the 2003 show ended with a crossover episode with the original 1987 animated turtles (redesigned for the 3D CGI show).
Soon after the new live action movies’ announcement movie in 2012, Michael Bay, who had (depending on how you look at it) successfully rebooted the Transformers (another hit eighties franchise) into the modern era with a big blockbuster movie series, was brought in to help produce the new take on the Turtles.
The movie had a number of rewrites and creative shifts over the next two years, with the original plan for Bay to only produce the movie, but he ended up directing. Early on the announcement came that the film was simply called ‘Ninja Turtles’ and rumours began circulating the turtles would actually aliens beings living on earth rather than regular mutated turtles.
A leaked script showed this to be true, and that the ‘turtles’ came from an entire planet of warrior turtles, Splinter was an alien from another dimension, Michelangelo wasn’t the funny one, and just about everything else you would think could be wrong with a modern take on the turtles was in there.
The backlash to this script (which was apparently already about six months out of date) created even more problems for the movie and despite many production staff, Paramount and co-creator Laird himself stating that this wasn’t the movie they were making, the evidence combined with Michale Bay’s track record with Transformers, meant that this new iteration of the Turtles didn’t get off to the best start.
It was finally released in 2014, and was pretty much exactly what everyone expected (well maybe not quite as bad), the design of the Turtles was clearly a left over from them being aliens, the Shredder misdirect was a little obvious (and arguably disrespectful) and the action scenes often blurred into a CGI mess. That said it performed well enough to get a sequel two years later titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: out of the Shadows.
Out of the Shadows introduced this universes Casey Jones with Arrow’s Stephen Amell, along with Krang, Beebop and Rocksteady, despite this film being viewed as an improvement over it’s predecessor, Paramount announced in 2018 that they intended to relaunch the live action Turtles yet again (presumably in an attempt to capitalise on everything people didn’t like about their last two movies).
The latest addition to the franchise came in 2018 and shows a return to traditional 2D animation, with a few new takes on the traditional mythos. Each turtle is now a different type of turtle (Leonardo a red-eared slider, Raphael a snapping turtle, Donatello a soft-shell turtle, and Michelangelo a box turtle), and their main enemy looks to be Baron Draxum (voiced by John Cena), with the Foot clan working for him, and no Shredder present at all (yet).
All in all, there is no denying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles significance to pop culture as a whole, taking only a few years off here and there ever since their inception over thirty years ago. And as a franchise that is constantly being refreshed, reimagined, and rebooted it looks as though they will remain as relevant as ever for a long time to come.