By Michael A. Wiseman
Let’s take a trip in the wayback machine to 1980. The comic book industry is in a boom period, and speculators keep driving prices (and variant exclusives) higher. Daredevil isn’t doing so hot – Marvel is in talks to cancel the series. Likewise, Batman is only a few years away from hitting an all-time circulation low. Independent publishers are taking over, with plans to transform comics into self-publishing artist nirvana while eating away at exaggerated profit-margins created by big studios with flashy colors and pent-up demand. Dark Horse doesn’t exist yet. Judge Dredd is only three years old.
Enter a yuppie Frank Miller. He’s made a name for himself by drawing everything from John Carter spin-off stories, to Marvel’s flagship ‘Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man.’ But Spider-Man doesn’t catch his eye; rather, Miller finds Matt Murdoch, whose alter-ego happens to be guest-starring on a 1979 ‘Spectactular’ run, insatiable. It’s not the blind vigilante aspect that has him intrigued. Miller simply wants to do crimes comics with a spandex slant.
And so Miller defines Daredevil. He introduces Kingpin. He includes ninjas. He creates Elektra. He painstakingly sketches the New York skyline simply so Hell’s Kitchen can live. He’s still years away from redefining Batman as the tortured Bruce Wayne.’ Battles with studios over ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Robocop’ won’t happen for decades, nor will critical flops ‘The Spirit’ and ‘The Dark Knight Strikes Again.’ But Frank Miller’s Daredevil vision is born. And with it comes inspiration.
Inspiration in the form of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird (comic buddies brought together by affordable housing needs), who, while relaxing late one evening, sketch the world’s first bandana-wearing, nunchuck-holding, hero-in-a-half-shell. It’s a parody – of Daredevil, of Ronin, of the X-Men. Eastman calls it a ‘ninja turtle.’ Laird responds with ‘teenage mutant.’
“Funny,” they both think.
And a worldwide mega-franchise is born.
But the turtles didn’t go from sketchbook fodder to international sensation overnight. Here in the 2010’s, the turtles are a very different animal (reptile?) than what was conceived in 1984.
Eastman and Laird both knew they had something unique on their hands. So rather than abandon their late-night idea, they conceptualized four turtles with individual traits and weapons. Cashing in a tax refund and borrowing the rest, they self-published an original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ issue that was both violent, dark, and entertaining. It became obvious from the get-go that Daredevil shared his origin with the Ninja Turtles (how many blind men are hit with radioactive ooze caused by a traffic accident?). Eastman and Laird also built in allusions to other popular 1980’s comics. They sketched it in black-and-white on oversized magazine paper, and sold it at comic conventions.
And it did surprisingly well. Stories of the Foot Clan, a secretive ninja clan (just like Daredevil nemesis group The Hand – get it?), Splinter, April O’Neil, and Ultrom caught on like wildfire. Early plotlines sent the turtles to other galaxies, or fighting Shredder in New York. They dealt with complex thematic issues, such as, what is a hero’s place without villains? A later volume tackled all mankind’s greatest foe – aging (Mid-30s Mutant Ninja Turtles? Cowabanga!).
Then came the merchandise… Playmates Toys approached Eastman and Laird, looking for any foothold into the growing action figure industry. Eventually, once TMNT was licensed for Saturday morning cartoons – pitched as “Green Against Brick” – the darker comic suddenly became kid cereal approved. Phrases like “Turtle Power!” were handcrafted for pajama pants and playground t-shirts, even if they didn’t sit so well on Mirage Comic’s black-and-white flagship.
By 1990, the Turtles were everywhere. After briefly outsourcing the Ninja Turtle comics to up-and-coming indie artists while they instead dealt with Turtlemania licensing, Eastman and Lair returned, together for the first time since issue #11, on the 13 part story-arc “City at War”. Here, we saw New York City ravaged by street violence, backgrounded by a world-at-war. Leonardo’s inner demons grew as he struggled with having previously killed Oroku Saki (The Shredder). Karai made her first appearance as the leader of the Foot Clan, before forming a truce with the turtles. Eventually, after bloodshed, loss, and despair, the heroes save New York – dealing with vengeance, death, and ninja turtle ethos along the way. You won’t see that on Kids WB.
Eastman and Laird eventually staged their own creative protest. While the pop-culture side of TMNT became bubble-gum bright, the comics showed grit. Surprisingly, both sides coexisted. The first live-action movie (Shot in Wilmington, NC) attempted to reinvigorate some of that deep-sewer darkness, (even though Vanilla Ice took the turtles back a few age brackets with “Go Ninja Go Ninja, GO!”… followed by ‘Turtles III,’ which took them back a few-hundred years and few-dozen one-star reviews). Video games were next. The humble parody had conquered every medium.
Even through 1995, Eastman and Laird produced noteworthy Ninja Turtle work in the original’s indie spirit. But, following the same comic industry that made it a success, TMNT went belly-up, and was canceled by October, with the decade-long kids series run ending a year later.
But the Turtles didn’t stay dead long. Both the comic series and live-action TV show (featuring the first female-turtle: an oddly-named Venus de Milio) were back in motion by late 1997. Still, neither carried that same grunge-rock magic as the original. For a series that took cues from mature, theme-oriented comics, it was now spawning 99-cent Pez dispensers and BattleToads video games.
The longevity of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael is owed as much to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s tilted world-view as it is to a wildly aggressive Playmates Toys marketing team. There’s an element of truth in both versions of Turtle Power. Nothing can replace those early monochrome pages, but the new show on Nickelodeon ain’t half-bad either. You might not have appreciated the Ninja Turtle/Power Ranger crossover event (it was awesome). But you’d be lying if seeing all three iterations team up – the 1987 animated turtles, the 2003 cartoon revamp, and Eastman’s and Laird’s original “prime” turtles – in “Turtles Forever” didn’t melt your cheese a little.
As for Venus? Well… I think we can all agree she’s one half-hearted shell too many.
Correction: This article originally identified Frank Miller as the creator of “Watchman”. That graphic novel was, however, written by Alan Moore and inked by Dave Gibbons. changes were made above accordingly.
Michael is a writer, educator, serialized television junkie, and all-around geek. He drinks his coffee black, devours anything science fiction, and still fervently denies that professional wrestling is fake. You can connect with him on Twitter @therealwiseman.
- Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)
- Click to print (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Reddit (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Tumblr (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Pinterest (Opens in new window)