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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Heroes in a Half-shell

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Heroes in a half-shell, they're on a mission
When there's a battle got the enemy wishing
That they stayed at home, instead of fighting
These ninja masters with moves like lightning

– 'T-U-R-T-L-E Power', Partnerz In Kryme

In 1984, two American artists were sitting around, doodling, when one of them hit on an incongruous idea: an animal known for being particularly slow and cumbersome, dressed and armed as a martial arts expert. From these humble beginnings, the concept took on a life of its own; the characters have since appeared in films, television programmes, video games, toy shops and even breakfast cereal packets.

Heroes in Comic Books

The first form in which the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made an appearance was a one-off parody comic book written and illustrated by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The black-and-white comic was financed by Eastman, using a $500 income tax refund and $700 borrowed from his uncle. Naming their newly-formed production house 'Mirage'1, the pair had 3,000 copies printed, putting the left-over cash towards an advertisement in a comic book trade magazine.

Using their experience of working in the media, they put together a press pack, which they sent to as many television and radio stations as they could think of. On spec, they also sent copies to the huge global news organisations Associated Press and United Press International, the latter picking up the story and providing coverage across the USA. The publicity led to the original 3,000 copies selling out rapidly, with the same thing happening to increasingly larger batches of reprints.

With the money rolling in, Eastman and Laird began publishing regular issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with the early numbers quickly becoming expensive collectors' items. Eastman and Laird found that their time was largely taken up with negotiations of merchandising deals and the like, and so numerous outside writers and artists were brought in to produce the comics.

To date, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been published in four volumes, the fourth of which began serialisation in 2001 and is still going. There have also been spin-off comics including Japanese manga versions and, somewhat confusingly, those published in the 1980s and 1990s by Archie Comics2, which were based on the television series that was based on the original Mirage comics. Mirage themselves have also published spin-off series, including Tales of the TMNT and issues devoted to individual characters.

The main characters in the comics are, of course, the Turtles themselves. Originally normal turtles living in a sewer, they were exposed to radioactive goo that turned them into talking, human-sized creatures, although still recognisably turtles. Also in the sewer at the time and exposed to the radioactivity was a rat, the former pet of a martial arts expert who had been killed by an evil ninja master. Having the knowledge and training of his former master, the rat - known as Splinter - took it upon himself to train the Turtles, naming them after Renaissance artists:

  • Leonardo  — the leader of the Turtles, he wears a blue mask and fights with two katanas (slightly curved longswords).

  • Michelangelo3  — the most laid-back of the Turtles, he wears an orange mask and fights with nunchucks (two short wooden sticks connected by a length of chain).

  • Donatello  — the brains of the group, he invents gadgets and gizmos to help the team in their missions. He wears a purple mask and fights with a bo staff (similar to the western quarterstaff).

  • Raphael  — every group needs a rebel, and Raphael fills that role for the Turtles. He wears a red mask and fights with a pair of sai (a weapon shaped like a blunted, three-pronged dagger, but used like a truncheon for blocking and jabbing).

No superhero team is complete without an archenemy, and the Turtles' recurring bad-guy is Shredder. This master of the art of ninjutsu4 is the leader of the 'Foot Clan'5, and was the man who killed Splinter's former owner. Other notable characters from the series include April O'Neil, the Turtles' loyal companion and occasional damsel-in-distress, and Casey Jones, a vigilante who fights on the same side as the Turtles.

Heroes in the TV Guide

They're the world's most fearsome fighting team
They're heroes in a half-shell and they're green
When the evil Shredder attacks
These Turtle boys don't cut him no slack

– 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' (1987) TV theme song

In 1987, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their first appearance on television, in an animated series of the same name. Unlike the early comic books, the series was drawn in bright colours. Similarly, the tone of the cartoons was considerably less dark than the comic books, to make it suitable for the traditional Saturday morning audience of younger children.

The characters in the series were broadly similar to those of the comic books, although some minor changes were made. For example, rather than Splinter's owner having been murdered by Shredder, Splinter himself was the former martial arts master, transformed by the radioactivity into a rat, while April O'Neil became a television reporter.

The series ran for ten seasons, from 1987 to 1996, before being replaced with a Japanese/American live-action series called Ninja Turtles: the Next Mutation. While this shared many core elements with the comics and earlier television series, it dispensed with April O'Neil and Casey Jones, and introduced a female Turtle called Venus de Milo. The show ran for 26 episodes before being cancelled.

The Turtles vanished from the small screen for five years, before a third television series began airing in 2003. While still aimed at an audience of children, the series has more in common with the original comics than previous versions, removing some of the more overtly comedic elements of the 1987 series. At the time of writing, series seven ('Back to the Sewer') is being broadcast.

Heroes in the Cinema

Michelangelo: Hey Donny — looks like this one is suffering from 'shell' shock.
Donatello: Too derivative.
Michelangelo: Well, I guess we can really 'shell' it out.
Donatello: Too clichéd.
Michelangelo: Well, it was a 'shell' of a good hit.
Donatello: I like it.
– Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Given the success of the first television series, it was probably inevitable that the Turtles would make the transition to the big screen. When they did, however, it was as live action, not as a cartoon. The first film — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — was released in 1990 and became the highest-grossing independent film released at the time. The story and characters mirrored those of the early Mirage comics, eschewing the lighter tone of the animated series.

Rap music featured heavily in the film's soundtrack, with a theme song by hip hop duo and one-hit wonder, Partnerz in Kryme. The first film was followed by two more live action films — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993) — neither of which was as well received as the first.

In 2007, an animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film was released, called simply TMNT. The film used computer-generated animation and featured the voices of Sarah Michelle Gellar as April O'Neil, Lawrence Fishburn as the Narrator and Patrick Stewart as the villain, Max Winters.

Heroes in the Game

Before the Turtles made the move from the printed page to television, they appeared in yet another format, as the subject of a pencil-and-paper role-playing game. The game — 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness' — was published by Palladium Games in 1985. Since then, the Turtles have appeared in numerous video games, from 1989's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which ran on such archaic computers as the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, to the inevitable games console spin-off from the 2007 film, TMNT.

Heroes in Toy Stores

The adult and adolescent readers of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics were probably unlikely to be interested in a set of 'action figures' of the characters. The first television series, targeted squarely at a toy-craving pre- and early-teen audience, quickly changed all that. Since then, every incarnation of the Turtles has been accompanied by its own range of plastic figures, featuring the heroes themselves, along with their allies and enemies. This continues today, with a range of figures from the 2007 film TMNT still in the shops. For the more discerning collector, a range of figures based on the Turtles as they appeared in Eastman and Laird's original comics has recently been released.

Heroes in the Pantry

Some of the more bizarre merchandising tie-ins negotiated by Eastman and Laird for the Turtle franchise are the myriad ranges of food products carrying Turtle logos that appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The most obvious of these was perhaps the range of frozen pizzas — the Turtles' favourite food in the 1987 television series — but other examples included a Turtles breakfast cereal, pasta shapes, cookies and fruit drinks.

Heroes in Trouble

During their many adventures, the Turtles have occasionally fallen foul of the authorities in the real world. The first television series, for example, was renamed Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in several European countries, with suitably amended opening titles. This was apparently because of concerns with all things ninja at the time and, presumably, the fear that hearing the word 'ninja' would lead to children attacking each other with nunchucks. By 2003, sensibilities had clearly changed, and the new series has been shown under its original title.

In the early 2000s, there was a spate of turtle-related stories in the UK, when animal welfare agencies began receiving calls regarding pet turtles and terrapins that had been abandoned by their owners. It was believed that the baby animals had been bought in the early 1990s, at the height of the Turtles' popularity, and had simply done what all baby animals do in time: grown up. Unable — or unwilling — to care for the adult creatures, owners took to dumping them in parks, streams and rivers to fend for themselves. In some cases, the turtles did this admirably, to the detriment of local wildlife.

Heroes in the 21st Century

2009 is the 25th anniversary of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book. While the Turtle-mania of the late 1980s and early 1990s may have subsided, Mirage Publishing still produce regular TMNT comics, the Turtles are on television weekly, and a new film is scheduled for release in 2011. Clearly it will be some time before the TMNT franchise turns turtle...

1Because it didn't really exist.2Called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures.3Both Eastman and Laird had studied art history, but this didn't stop them misspelling Michelangelo as 'Michaelangelo', a mistake that wasn't corrected until the first issue of Volume 4 in 2001.4The Japanese martial art of guerrilla warfare, as practised by the ninja.5Like many aspects of the early comics this is a direct parody of Marvel Comics' Daredevil series, which features a ninja group known as the 'Hand Clan'.

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