One day in Northampton, a small town in Massachusetts, two friends named Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were screwing around doodling and one of them drew a picture of a humanoid turtle. It struck them as funny and they kept taking turns adding on to it until they came up with the sketch for the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. They began brainstorming about it's back story partly in jest and they took elements from some of the most popular comic book titles and graphic novels of the mid 80's in their ideas.
The Turtles were teenaged heroes and students much like the New Mutants and their sensei was a mutated rat named Splinter as a parody of Daredevil's mentor, Stick. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles main enemy was The Foot Clan as a parody of The Hand Clan of ninjas that appeared in Daredevil comics. Eastman and Laird also infused influences from Frank Miller's Ronin and drew from the popular title Cerberus as well.
The Foot Clan was led by Oroku Saki, otherwise known as The Shredder because his gauntlets over his forearms and his battle armor resembled a cheese grater/shredder kitchen object. While Eastman and Laird were busy laughing their asses off and coming up with ideas it hit them. Why not just self publish an issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ourselves? What's stopping us from selling our own comic books out the trunks of our cars?
In 1984, Eastman and Laird used their tax refunds and borrowed some startup from Kevin Eastman's uncle via a loan (good lookin' out) and they created Mirage Studios in Florence, Massachusetts. Primarily starting with themselves and gradually picking up other young pencilers and inkers along the way they began to work the comic book conventions and comic book retailers and sell out of their limited run pressings until they gained a partnership with New England Comics (also partly responsible for the popularity of "The Tick") and began moving an impressive amount of units nationwide.
Shortly thereafter, a wise businessman and licensing agent/facilitator named Mark Freedman approached Eastman and Laird. He convinced them that their property could make them millions and as Mirage Studios got bigger and more successful. The more companies wanted to do business with them. They had some figurines manufactured by Dark Horse and a role playing game developed by Palladium Books but the big payoff came when they were approached by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson, Inc. who asked them if they would be interested in having TMNT become a syndicated cartoon series. They said "Hell yes!"
The cartoon was incredibly campy and made to appeal to young children while the comic book was geared to mature teenagers and adult readers. Among the differences that made die hard fans grimace was that the turtles became stereotypes and they wore different color masks with the first letter of their names on their belts so you could tell them apart as opposed to the red masks they all wore in the comic books. The Foot Clan were also turned into robots so the turtles could beat them up and get away with some kind of violence. The introduction of Bebop and Rocksteady was also an eyeroller.
Michelangelo became a California surfer dude, Leonardo became the golden boy, Donatello the nerd/tech guy with a nerdy voice and demeanor and Rafael became the quintessential loose cannon/hothead. The cartoon premiered on December 14th, 1987 as a part of a 5 episode series and later became a 2 hour movie. The ratings were through the roof on syndicated TV networks and the show premiered October 1998 and went into syndication in September 1989 after a year run on Saturday morning.
In January 1988, Playmates Toys Inc. ran off the initial line of toys for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They included April O' Neil, Casey Jones, The Shredder, Bebop, Rocksteady and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles along with a couple of vehicles, The Turtlemobile and the Turtle Blimp (which both made appearances in the five episode cartoon series/movie). Baxter Stockman, the creator/inventor of the Mousers also later made an appearance...as an unassuming little blond White man *groan* instead of an insane Black man.
Turtle Fever went into overdrive as there was TMNT everything all over the place. Halloween costumes, coloring books, pajamas, lunchboxes, PEZ dispensers, trading cards, comic books based on the cartoon (?) as well as an NES cartridge that hit store shelves in June 1989. The game was pretty crappy but kids played it anyways and loved it because it was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. Forget that the graphics sucked and the game itself was lackluster, it still sold like hotcakes made of crack batter.
I was near the end of my rope with the TMNT franchise/property being gaped in every possible orifice when I heard that they were going to make a live action movie based on them. It came out in March 1990 and I had low expectations that they could do a good adaptation of the comic book and mix it with the popular cartoon series. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise as it pleased both new fans and diehards alike. It also raked in 10x it's initial budget of $13.5 million ($135 million) in the US box office alone. The sequels were rushed by a greedy studio and they sucked exponentially worse with each film.
By 1993, the TMNT franchise was run into the ground and the Murakami-Wolf-Swenson cartoon's run came to a close. Diehard fans still bought Mirage Studios main titles "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Tales Of The Teenage Mutant Turtles" but it would be just short of a decade before new cartoon series' would be developed and a nostaglia fueled resurgence for anything 80's related brought the TMNT property back to the forefront and made it hot again. Last year, a CGI film called "TMNT" told the further adventures of the four brothers after a severe falling out.
The Eastman and Laird creation has just got the greenlight and yet another live action film is on the way in 2011. I guess we'll have to wonder who'll be playing April O' Neil, Casey Jones and The Shredder in this one. Is Kevin Clash busy doing anything or will they CGI Splinter this time around? I guess we'll see, huh?