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25 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Why the Radical Reptiles Are Still Awesome

July 5th, 2009

teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-review.jpgTwenty five years ago, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird had a really fun evening. While discussing comic books like X-Men and Frank Miller’s Ronin, Eastman sketched a drawing of some humanoid turtles dressed in ninja costumes. What began as just a humorous parody of some great comics became a self-published, single issue comic that debuted at a convention in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. From then on the world was struck by Turtle-mania. The initial idea spawned all kinds of artists and writers to collaborate on volume upon volume of TMNT short stories featuring the exploits of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael (named, of course, after the four great Renaissance artists). Eventually there would be countless lines of Ninja Turtle merchandise, from lunchboxes to linens, skateboards to shaving kits. There would be movies, video games, and television series to follow. Now nearing their 25th anniversary, the Turtles are pop culture icons. It’s incredible to see how far they’ve come from Eastman and Laird’s original sketch. But do we still love these pizza-eating terrapins? Has the franchise lost its initial intent? Where are the Turtles headed for the future? Twenty five years later, it would seem that the Turtles are due for a re-examination.

The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a bit more serious than the characters most of us know or can remember. Their goal was to kill their nemesis, Oroku Saki (a.k.a. Shredder), in a true Ninjitsu vendetta. The violence inherent in such a vendetta was an homage to that of Frank Miller’s Ronin, a very adult, not-for-the-lunchbox comic book; the cover of the original TMNT issue was, as well, a direct inspiration from Ronin. The initial issue was printed on very shoddy newsprint and in black and white. Despite this, Eastman and Laird would soon become millionaires. They sold their first copies in May of 1984 at a convention in Portsmouth. When demand increased for more stories, the two expanded their operation, eventually crossing over to other media including cartoons and live-action movies and television series. The once “indie” comic company became distinctly corporate when Eastman and Laird hired many different writers to pen issues. Ultimately, the Turtles in popular media were much tamer Ninja Turtles, marketable to a larger audience; the comics, however, retained their original, gritty feel. Now, the TMNT’s faces are one of the most recognizable in cartoon history (even more than bigshot characters like Bugs Bunny and Mighty Mouse). Truly, they have evolved into an unstoppable franchise.

Comic book fans are therefore divided on the Ninja Turtles. Have they indeed “sold out” or are they merely cashing in on their own brilliance? It is important to remember that they began as a parody. Now they themselves are parodied in other comics, cartoons, and movies (just Google “Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters” for a couple of laughs). This, in the mind of many comic book purists, is the epitome of selling out. Others, however, see the Turtles as long-lasting characters that will be passed on through generations albeit in perhaps a tamer fashion. It is also worth noting that the more violent comics continued to be released throughout the movies, cartoons, and video games. The first issue was also re-released nationwide as part of Free Comic Day in 2009. Either way, the Turtles’ success remains a point of contention among comic collectors who remember the original first issue.

Now as they turn 25, it is safe to say that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are still quite alive and kicking butt. What their future holds is impossible to see. Could it be a return to their roots or more success as cartoons for a younger audience? In any case, nothing can take away from the greatness that the Turtles represent nor can anything erase the wonderful idea of Eastman and Laird. It’s inspiring to remember that one night of jokes and sketches became a multi-million dollar comic franchise that is a worldwide powerhouse. Here’s to another 25 years of the radical reptiles. Kowabunga!

Andrew Shaner is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania with a wide range of expertise. His interests are in film, literature (especially comic books), music, and gaming. His published works include poetry, narrative fiction, and several articles on film, television, and current events. He loves the city of Philadelphia and enjoys travel. Places he has visited include Paris, Barcelona, Athens, Rome, Florence, and Zurich. He also enjoys writing “About the Author” sections in the third person.

One Response to “25 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Why the Radical Reptiles Are Still Awesome”

  1. comment number 1 by: Daniel

    Great article!

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