The Complete History of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
If you were a kid in the 1980s or 90s, you probably spent some time reading, watching, or playing with four adolescent reptilian martial arts experts with irregular DNA. To make sure I got the scoop on everyone’s favorite pizza-obsessed heroes in a half-shell, I went straight to the source—co-creator Peter Laird—who was kind enough to answer our burning questions about the franchise. If you're looking for a thorough history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this is a pretty good place to start.
From a Simple Sketch
Struggling artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were living in Northampton, Massachusetts, when they came up with the Turtles in November 1983. As a joke, Eastman drew a turtle standing on its hind legs, wearing a mask, with nunchucks strapped to its arms. Eastman wrote “Ninja Turtle” on the top of the page. Laird laughed and then drew a more refined version of the turtle.
Not to be outdone, Eastman drew four turtles, each armed with a ninja-style weapon. Laird outlined the group shot in ink and added “Teenage Mutant” to the “Ninja Turtles” title.
As Eastman and Laird began fleshing out the Turtles to create a comic book, they had to give the Turtles names. At first they tried Japanese names, but it just wasn't working. So they tried great Renaissance artists instead – Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. Laird told me, “It felt just quirky enough to fit the concept.”
In May 2012, that original drawing of the Turtles sold at auction for $71,700.
The Daredevil Connection
There are many aspects of the Turtles that are a nod to Marvel Comics’ superhero Daredevil. For example, Splinter, the Turtles’ father figure and sensei, is an homage to Daredevil’s sensei, Stick. The Foot Clan is a take-off of the ninja clan in Daredevil known as The Hand. However, the coolest connection is that the Turtles and Daredevil seem to share the same origin story.
In Daredevil #1, Matt Murdock sees a truck barreling down on an old man, so Murdock knocks the man out of the way. As the truck swerves, a canister flies out the back and strikes Murdock in the face. The canister is filled with a radioactive substance, which blinds Murdock, but enhances his other senses to super-human levels. Later, he uses his heightened senses to fight crime as Daredevil.
For the Turtles' origin, the same scenario plays out, except the canister bounces off the boy’s head and smashes into a bowl of baby turtles, who fall, along with the canister, into an open manhole. Splinter finds the turtles crawling around in a viscous fluid seeping out of the broken canister, which is the mutagen that turns the Turtles and Splinter into human-sized heroes.
First Time's a Charm
In March 1984, Eastman and Laird created a new company, Mirage Studios, so named because there was no actual studio other than Laird’s living room. Then, Eastman used his $500 tax return, Laird emptied his bank account of $200, and they borrowed $1300 from Eastman’s uncle to print 3,000 copies of their first comic book, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. After printing costs, they had just enough money left to run an ad in Comics Buyer’s Guide Magazine, an industry publication.
Thanks to that one ad, comic distributors across the country started calling, and Mirage sold all 3,000 copies within a few weeks. With more orders coming in, they printed another 6,000 copies and easily sold through those, too. By May, they’d made enough money to pay back Eastman’s uncle and split a roughly $200 profit.
Although the comic was meant to be a “one-shot,” a single issue, self-contained story, they realized they might be on to something. So, in January 1985, they completed issue #2 and quickly received orders for 15,000 copies, which was so successful that distributors demanded 30,000 reprints of #1, and even more of a second print of #2. #3 fetched orders totaling 50,000 copies, and sales continued to climb, peaking at issue #8, which sold 135,000 copies thanks to a guest appearance by Dave Sim’s character Cerebus, a barbarian aardvark.
The first issue of the comic originally sold for $1.50. But if you’re looking for a first-print copy of TMNT #1 today, it'll cost you in the neighborhood of $2,500 - $4,000.
The Comic Books TMNT ran under the Mirage Studios banner from 1984 – 1995 for 75 regular issues, as well as dozens of mini-series, one-shots, and limited series spin-off titles. * Archie Comics used the cartoon Turtles for 72 issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures, which ran from 1988 – 1995. * The Mirage Turtles moved to Image Comics in 1996 for 13 issues and a mini-series, before being canceled in 1999. While at Image, the series took some odd turns: Splinter became a bat, Donatello changed into a cyborg, Leonardo lost a hand, and Raph became the new Shredder. * When Peter Laird brought the Turtles back to Mirage in 2001, he completely ignored the Image years and they are no longer considered part of the TMNT canon. His new series ran until 2010 with 30 issues in print, and #31 available only online. Although the series was not officially concluded, Laird has no immediate plans to publish more. * Since August 2011, publisher IDW has been running a new TMNT comic, featuring artwork from co-creator Kevin Eastman.
The original Mirage comic book really wasn’t made for youngsters. The Turtles diced up enemies while spouting the occasional curse word, and one of the Turtles’ allies was hockey mask-wearing vigilante Casey Jones, who beat down even low-level crooks with baseball bats and hockey sticks. But when Playmates Toys expressed interest in producing TMNT action figures in 1986 (we'll get to those), the comic’s PG-13 attitude wouldn’t fit Playmates' 4-8 year old target audience. In addition, part of Playmates’ marketing was an animated cartoon, which had to pass television censors. So to make the Turtles viable for the younger set, the Turtles had to soften up.
Among other changes, the Turtles became wise-cracking jokers obsessed with pizza, the Shredder became a typical bumbling cartoon villain, members of the Foot Clan were now robots so parents wouldn’t complain that the Turtles were too violent, and instead of “Damn,” the Turtles shouted easily-marketable catchphrases like, “Turtle Power!” and “Cowabunga!”
Perhaps the most defining change was the Turtles’ costumes. In the comic, the interior artwork was in black-and-white, but the color covers showed the Turtles all wearing red masks; the only way to tell them apart was by their specialty weapon. In an effort to de-emphasize the weapon-as-identifier, each character was given his own signature color, displayed on the mask and elbow/knee pads – blue for Leonardo, orange for Michelangelo, red for Raphael, and purple for Donatello. In addition, they wore belt buckles with their first initial.
As owners of the franchise, Eastman and Laird had the final say on changes to their creations. However, neither of them was thrilled about the concessions made.
As Eastman said in a 1998 interview for The Comics Journal, “The resolution at the end of the day, even when Pete and I both agreed that, well, there’s some stuff we really don’t like, and some stuff that we wish we hadn’t said yes to, stuff that they wanted to do…But we said…we’ll always have our black-and-white comics to tell the kind of stories we want to tell.”
To this day Laird makes no bones about how unhappy he is with many aspects of the “softened” Turtles. In March 2012, Laird said this on his blog:
“…had I (again, speaking solely for myself and not for Kevin) been making the key creative decisions for that first animated series, it would have been VERY different. Among other things, there would likely have been no moronic henchmen like Bebop and Rocksteady. The Shredder would have been seriously malevolent. April would not have been a reporter and constantly need to be rescued by the Turtles. The Turtles would not have been so ridiculously obsessed with pizza, and the Shredder would not have had as one of his businesses a restaurant called ‘Ninja Pizza’…And the show would not have had a joke or gag every five seconds.”
Before Playmates would commit to a full toyline for the Turtles, they tested the waters with a five-part cartoon mini-series. It debuted in December 1987 and had to be aired three times before it finally found an audience. Once it gained traction, Playmates ordered more episodes, and the show stayed on the air from 1988 – 1996 for a total of 188 episodes in the regular series.
The show featured the voice work of many top performers.
Raphael was played by Rob Paulsen, who would later voice Pinky and Yakko Warner on Animaniacs, as well as hundreds of other animated characters.
Townsend Coleman played Michelangelo and later voiced the animated version of The Tick, another indie comic that went mainstream.
Cam Clarke was a veteran anime dubber before he voiced Leonardo. Clarke later starred as Kaneda in the English dub of the anime classic, Akira.
Donatello was voiced by actor Barry Gordon, whose resume includes parts on Leave It to Beaver, Archie Bunker’s Place, and many animated TV series, like Swat Kats and Pole Position.
Oh, and The Fresh Prince’s uncle, James Avery, starred as the voice of the Shredder.
Eastman and Laird were sued for $5 million by Buffalo Bob Smith, host of the Howdy Doody Show, because he claimed they stole “Cowabunga!” from his program. The word was first used as the catchphrase greeting of a Native American character named Chief Thunderthud, however it had been adopted by surfers in the 1960s. After a few months of legal wrangling, Smith settled for $50,000.
The Turtles returned in an animated series produced by 4Kids Entertainment, which ran from 2003-2009. This time, co-creator Peter Laird had an active hand in the production, which resulted in a series that was much closer to the original comic book.
In 2000, Eastman sold his stake in the Turtles to Laird, who in turn sold the rights to Viacom in 2009. A few years later, in 2012, Viacom, through its subsidiary Nickelodeon, released a new CGI cartoon. The cast for the new show featured some big stars, including Jason Biggs as Leonardo and Sean Astin as Raphael. Rob Paulsen (who played Raphael in 1988) was Donatello. Greg Cripes, best known as Beast Boy on the popular cartoon Teen Titans, played Michelangelo, and Mae Whitman of Parenthood and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was April O’Neil. The series ran through 2017.
The Action Figures
Before TMNT, Playmates Toys made almost exclusively dolls and plastic playsets for toddlers. But they were looking to get into the lucrative action figure market, so when TMNT's license manager Mark Freedman approached them, it was a perfect match.
From 1988 – 1997, Playmates produced around 400 TMNT figures, as well as dozens of vehicles and playsets. For the first four years of Turtlemania, about $1.1 billion worth of toys were sold, making the Turtles the #3 top-selling toy figures ever at the time, behind only G.I. Joe and Star Wars.
Thanks to the Nickelodeon cartoon, the Turtles are back on toy shelves again. In addition to toys, you can find our heroes in a half-shell on nearly every conceivable piece of merchandise possible, from birthday party supplies to beach towels to lunch boxes and toothbrushes. Looks like Turtlemania is here to stay.
Although nearly all of the Turtles toys have been produced by Playmates, one exception has been LEGO, which started licensing the franchise in 2013. LEGO released two exclusive mini-figures during 2012’s New York Comic-Con - a battle-damaged Kraang figure, as well as an all-black Turtle known as “Dark Leonardo.”
In 1990, the Turtles hit the big screen with the live-action film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With a budget of $13.5 million, the film raked in over $200 million at the worldwide box office.
Director Steve Barron made some of the biggest music videos of the MTV-era. His resume includes Michael Jackson’s sidewalk-lighting “Billie Jean,” the sketchy world of A-ha’s “Take On Me,” and the computer animated workmen in Dire Straits’ "Money for Nothing."
The Jim Henson Creature Shop used a state-of-the-art control system called “puppetechtronics” to bring the Turtle costumes to life. To create facial expressions, a single puppeteer would use a joystick for the eyes, an electronic glove to work the jaws, and a headset with infrared sensors tracking the puppeteer’s face to work the lips.
The cast included Elias Koteas as Casey Jones, Corey Feldman as the voice of Donatello, Kevin Clash (better known as the former voice of Elmo) as Splinter, and a small, early role for Sam Rockwell, star of 2009’s critically-acclaimed Moon.
Tatsu, the Shredder’s second in command, was played by Toshishiro Obata, a real-life martial arts expert. He has actually created his own style of Japanese swordsmanship called Shinkendo, which is currently being taught in 90 dojos across the world.
The film spawned two sequels — 1991’s Secret of the Ooze and 1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III — both of which performed to diminishing returns at the box office, earning $78 million and $42 million, respectively.
The appearance by Vanilla Ice and his “Ninja Rap” in Ooze is not to be missed.
In 2007 came the computer-animated film TMNT. The cast included Chris Evans (Captain America), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon beauty Zhang Ziyi, Kevin Smith, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart, and Laurence Fishburne. On a budget of $34 million, the film made $95 million at the box office.
The Turtles returned in 2014 as a live-action film directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans) from producer Michael Bay. The production has been troubled, starting with Bay’s remarks in 2012 that the film would be called simply Ninja Turtles, and that the Turtles would be aliens from another planet. Fans were not happy, but Bay’s dismissive response was simply, “Take a chill pill.”
However, the negative feedback was enough for Bay to eventually put the project on hold for a rewrite. With a new script, and the addition of Teenage Mutant to the title, the film began shooting in April 2013 with stars Megan Fox as April O’Neil, William Fichtner as The Shredder, and Will Arnett as cameraman Vernon Fenwick. The Turtles and Splinter are CGI creations, but their voices and movements are being portrayed by relatively unknown actors Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, and Danny Woodburn, best known as Kramer's friend Mickey on Seinfeld.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Official Trailer #2
The Turtles appeared much larger than in previous iterations, and they have a more human-turtle hybrid appearance, which was met with mixed reactions from fans.
Movies That Never Were
A live-action film called TMNT: The Next Mutation began pre-production in 1994, but was never made. In the movie, the mutagen in their bodies would have affected the Turtles’s physiology. According to Laird, Leonardo could change his skin into a “nearly impenetrable chrome-like surface.” Michelangelo could project human features onto his body, allowing him to blend into the surface world. Donatello gained psychic powers, but at the cost of his eyesight. Raphael morphed into “Raptor Raph,” a monster with long, sharp teeth and foot-long claws. And Splinter would have the ability to change into a giant, muscled “super rat mutant” creature.
According to Eastman and Laird, in the early days of the comic book, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures approached them about a comedy adaptation using contemporary stand-up comics Gallagher, Sam Kinison, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Billy Crystal, dressed in turtle shells and green face make-up.
Another, unrelated project was an R-rated film that would have featured roller-skating, semi-nude nuns with Uzis, battling the Turtles.
The Video Games
The Turtles have been featured in 23 arcade and home video games since 1989, on just about every console and computer system imaginable. Their self-titled debut is one of the best-selling NES games not made by Nintendo, with roughly 4 million copies sold, despite also being considered one of the toughest games for the NES.
Turtles on Tour
In 1990, Pizza Hut sponsored the Coming Out of Their Shell Tour, a stage musical that featured the Turtles as a rock band. The show debuted at Radio City Music Hall, then set out on a 40-city tour across the country. However, if you missed the show, a live recording, as well as a making-of special, were available on VHS.
The soundtrack was in record stores, but you could also get a copy at Pizza Hut, free with the purchase of any large one-topping pizza and a commemorative collector’s cup.
The Fifth Turtle
Eastman and Laird heard more than once that, “If four Ninja Turtles are good, then five Ninja Turtles must be better!” Although they resisted the idea, the duo did come up with a fifth Turtle concept that almost came to be.
For the never-produced fourth Turtles film, they created Kirby, named after their idol, Jack Kirby, a legendary comic book artist who helped develop The Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and other iconic superheroes. The character would have been introduced via a magic crystal that could bring drawings to life. Concept art of Kirby, which recently sold for $500 at auction, shows he was a somewhat savage-looking Turtle with striped skin and four fingers instead of three.
The “more the better” attitude won out on Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation (no relation to the unproduced film), a live-action TV series that ran from 1997 – 1998. The show was produced by Saban Entertainment, the people behind Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and featured the same cheesy, rubber-suited production values. The series introduced Venus de Milo, a female ninja turtle, complete with shell breasts. She was retconned onto the show as being a previously unseen fifth turtle in the bowl.
The show was not a hit with fans and even less so with Laird. When I asked what Turtles merchandise he now regrets, his response was, “The only licensed product that I truly regret is…Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation.”
As harmless as the 1988 cartoon series was, it was still heavily edited for broadcast in the UK and much of Europe. Due to more stringent censors, many of the action sequences had to be trimmed so that the Turtles weren’t seen using weapons too often. Poor Michelangelo suffered the worst; in the UK, nunchucks are restricted, which meant his fight scenes were cut and replaced with him using a grappling hook instead. The name of the show was even changed to Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, because the word “ninja” had a violent connotation.
In 1990, some 250,000 turtles were imported into Britain to feed the demand of young Turtles fans who wanted them as pets. For only a few pounds, kids could easily buy a small turtle, not knowing that it would grow to be the size of a dinner plate. When the kids no longer wanted to take care of the animals, they were often dumped in rivers and ponds, where they devastated native ecosystems. The problem became so severe that the European Union banned the sale of the most popular breed, red-eared terrapins, in 1997.
The Turtles came under fire from the American Farm Bureau (AFB) in 1991, when they starred in the Random House book Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ABCs for a Better Planet. The book covered environmental issues, including a statement saying some animals are injected with cancer-causing artificial growth hormones, and that much of the world’s grain goes to feeding cattle, rather than to starving people. In addition, there was mention of pesticides that can remain in fruits and vegetables even after they get to the supermarket. The Farm Bureau responded by saying they were concerned that the publisher “would stoop to using a children’s publication to advance such a biased and incorrect view of American agriculture.” It’s unclear if pressure from the AFB was the cause, but the book was never reprinted.
One episode of the 4Kids cartoon series, “Insane in the Membrane,” was so dark it was pulled just before it aired in America. The Shredder has tortured scientist Baxter Stockman by slowly dismembering him. So Stockman creates a clone and transplants his consciousness into it. However, his new body decomposes, exposing muscle and bone, and he is forced to sew fallen body parts back on.
Thanks again to Peter Laird for his cooperation. For more TMNT history than you can shake a nunchuck at, check out his blog. A slightly shorter version of this post appeared in 2012. This article was updated in 2021.