Monday, August 10, 2009

25 Years of Kicking Shell! A look back at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it's Future

Well it's a little bit of nostalgia time. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It also marked the end of an era.

25 I'm old.

I know what some of you are saying. "Geez Brent, stop your talk about the 80's and how much better it is...why don't you just roll your wheel chair out to the porch and start yelling at the kids to get off your lawn."

I don't need to use a wheel chair, thank you very much, my walker is just fine and those kids are jerks and need to get off my lawn.

The fact of the matter is, what started off as a one issue parody comic book grew into not only something really interesting but a comic that helped spark a revolution in comics.

But first a little bit of history.

May 1984 saw the printing of 3000 copies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird had come up with an interesting idea that parodied a lot of things going on in comics at the time that were popular, the New Mutants and Daredevil being prime examples. Using a family loan from Eastman's uncle and tax refunds, Eastman and Laird did a small print run.

And it sold out. And caught on.

Soon we saw Turtles comics, spin-offs, cartoons, movies, action figures but the other thing that occurred was that it proved to many comic book creators that once and for all there was money to be had in self publishing. Laird and Eastman owned the Turtles. The destiny of the Turtles was in their hands, not some editors or some large company's, theirs.

They made the decisions, they reaped the rewards.

TMNT was far from being the first indy comic but it will probably go down is one of the most successful. Had TMNT not been the huge hit that it was, would we have gotten an Image Comics? or Bone?

Very hard to say in hindsight.

The Turtles have gone through over the years, while the core characters stay relatively the same the maturity level has changed through out. The original comic book Turtles are fairly violent and surprisingly decently written. I say surprisingly not as an insult to the creators involved just when you look at the story on the's a pretty hard stretch but even with a lack of experience, Laird and Eastman made the book work really well.

A lot of people of my generation who aren't comic book fans remember the Turtles from two main sources. A cartoon series and a film (or films..urgh..get to that in a minute).

The cartoon is very kid friendly and very much a family oriented version of the comic. It was here that the Turtles got different coloured head bands (in the comic when we did see them in colour, all the bands were red). It introduced more mutants and changed various aspects of some characters to fit the needs of the show. It also introduced the world to another indy comic character in Usagi Yojimbo.

The first film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles however is probably the closest to capturing the feel of the original comics. While not incredibly violent, the characters remain true to their comic roots and for a kid/teen flick, well written. Not to mention the suits!

If you ever wonder what we would do for monsters and such in film if CG suddenly vanished, here you go. Created by Jim Henson's company, these suits were and still are a fantastic representation of what you can do with practical effects.

Now after the first film, two others arrived unfortunately watered down by parents groups and other outside forces. Urgh. The Turtles no longer used weapons, they got a pizza boy side kick, Casey Jones disappears in Part 2 (apparently a hockey stick wielding vigilante was too violent) and cameos as a pretty much useless character in the 3rd. Skip them, stick to the first one...and maybe the CG one...get to that in a minute.

Now since then we have seen a live action show (terrible), a few more cartoons and a CG movies. The CG film out of the modern incarnations is probably the best but it still seems to be missing something.

As for the creators, Kevin Eastman got out of the Turtle biz quite a while ago. Using the money he had made, he first started Tundra, a comic company hoping to help other creators realise their dreams of creating comics that they wanted to create.

The company didn't do too well but a couple rather big things did come out of it, most notably Dave McKean's Cages and Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell's collaboration on From Hell.

After Tundra, Eastman went on to buy Heavy Metal Magazine and remains it's owner and publisher. They currently are working on multiple graphic novels, the magazine and apparently a new animated film that may or may not have contributions from James Cameron, David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro amongst others.

Eastman sold his last remaining ties to the Turtles empire in 2008 to Peter laird.

Peter Laird has been the constant in the Turtles universe gaining large control in 2000 with a purchase of Eastman's share with the exception of a small continuing income participation which was then bought out in 2008.

And then this we week it was announced that Viacom/Nickelodeon has bought the Turtles. According to Jim Lawson's (long time Turtle artist) blog, Laird has retained the right to publish 18 issues of Turtles comics a year but other then that, he's done.

Laird has mentioned in his blog that the main reason he has sold the Turtles was he wants to work on other things and the all consuming entity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hasn't really allowed time for that. Pretty much the same reasons Kevin Eastman got out several years ago. He also mentions the fact he still loves the characters but he isn't enthusiastic about working on them anymore.

In other words, if you love them, set them free.

How will the Turtles fare under their new owners? No idea. This could be a good move of this could be horrible but no matter what, it won't destroy the past. My copy of the original Turtles flick is still safely on my shelf, my trades of the Turtles early adventures are still on my bookshelf, Viacom can't come in and take them.

On a purely personal note, I over my years of fandom and being a would be professional in comics have met a great many people who work in comics. Some of them are still around in the industry, some of them are long gone. Some are dicks and others have been a pleasure to meet.

I first met Peter Laird around five, six years ago at Fan Expo (or whatever it was called then). He was pleasant and very willing to talk Turtles and other comic stuff. He was just about to start a head sketch for me when the power went out (we later found out a raccoon fell inside a transformer). But with the dim light coming in from the windows of building, Peter finished the sketch, apologised if it was a little rough and thanked me for my support. Overall, a really nice guy.

Lights came back on, the sketch was perfect. I was amazed.

It was at this point I over-heard someone mention to Laird that the Turtles were twenty years old. At which point I realised (and this is not to take away from Peter's skill as an artist at all) that he had drawn this head so much that he could draw a Turtle with his eyes closed.

Now after that ask me if I blame him for wanting to do something new.

A few years later, I got the chance to meet Kevin Eastman. I was over joyed and frightened. I have one of the original Mirage printings of the first Turtles trade paperback. It was my first purchase from Ebay and I love that book. Laird had been kind enough to sign it for me four years earlier and Eastman's signature would kind of complete the book.

Only problem, the grapevine had it that Eastman hated the Turtles.

But I had to try.

I went to the Heavy Metal booth a bought one of their books and drooled over an original Simon Bisely painting (that there was no way I could afford). I slipped the Turtle's book in with the Heavy Metal book. When he got to it, he noticed Laird had signed first and he looked at me and said "Well I guess that's what happens when I don't come to Toronto for years." sketched a Turtle head and signed the book. I then handed over my sketch book over and he asked "Who's your favorite Turtle?"

As what's customary in my sketch books, I allow the artist to draw whatever they want. He proceeded to do a full blown Leonardo sketch that is one of the prizes of my collection. We shot the shit about the announced Heavy Metal animated film and I mentioned the rumours going around about his possible Turtles hatred.

Kevin explained there is no way he could ever hate the Turtles. While he no longer wanted to be part of them creatively, the Turtles had built the foundation for what turned out to be a rewarding career in comics and publishing.

He, much like his former partner, was a top notch dude.

So which now brings us to the end of this article, the end of a chapter in the Turtles Saga and the beginning of a new one.

What else is there left to say?


(hit play on the video below)

1 comment:

KevinJ said...

Great article.
Brings back a lot of good memories. I just hope that Nickolodeon keeps in mind that TMNT has a lot of (pseudo)-grownup fans now and doesn't just cater to kid audiences... Nice to see more of the vintage figures and statues being produced.
As for 'Turtle Power', am I maybe not the only one with that on my iTunes? If nothing else, it beats the hell out of Vanilla Ice's 'Ninja Rap'.