COWABUNGA! The heroes in the half shell turn 35

We take a look at the highs and lows of Turtle-Mania

5th May 2019

Today marks 35 years since adolescent, action-assassin, amphibians Mikey, Raph, Donnie and Leo stealthily infiltrated the public consciousness. For those of you thinking that’s gobbledygook, we’re talking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or TMNT. Seriously, you should have known that.

A lot has happened to the Turtles in that time, some of it bodacious, some of it not bodacious at all. If you’re the kind of person who still gets confused about which turtle is which (red =Raphael, blue = Leonardo, purple = Donatello and orange = Michelangelo) this might not be for you. But if you too have felt the healing touch of “Turtle Power” — one of the fundamental forces of the universe like gravity, electromagnetism or the power of Grayskull– you are in the right place for some birthday celebrations.

LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED

Your probably all familiar with the fact the fab four are named after Renaissance painters. That’s entry-level stuff. If you don’t know that, you probably don’t come from Earth. But maybe you’re smarter than the average bear and know that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created the Turtles as part of an homage or parody of Frank Millar’s run on Daredevil.

They used to be so tiny and violent. Soon they’ll grow up to be big and stupid, like all teenagers. Art by Eastman and Laird.

Fans of the hyper-brutal, ninja-inspired run of Marvel’s Man Without Fear, Eastman and Laird coded their first issue with winks to Daredevil with mystical ninja clan The Hand becoming The Foot, and Matt Murdock’s blind sensei Stick becoming Splinter. One theory runs that it was a young Murdock himself that had bought the turtles, dropping them into the sewer while the same radioactive waste that blinded and gave Murdock his powers mutated the young turtles and their rat master.

It might seem odd now, given the global phenomenon the Turtles become, but issue #1 was essentially a small press comic. Eastman and Laird printed 3,250 cheap black and white copies of the first issue, paid for with a tax rebate and a loan from an uncle, and started selling them at comic conventions. That’s the secret, comic creators. Why aren’t you already a millionaire, huh? HUH?!

It’s been said countless times before but that first issue was a lot darker than what would follow. The turtles are essentially assassins seeking revenge on their master’s behalf. They kill people. They kill Shredder. With a grenade. That’s right. In issue one, the Turtles most famous enemy is dusted.

I just like it when they eat pizza, I wasn’t ready for this. Art by Jim Lawson

Speaking of history’s biggest turtle soup fan, The Shredder, voiced¬†in the animated series by James Avery (Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince), was inspired by a cheese grater. Apparently, the Doctor Who’s Daleks were inspired by a pepper shaker. Turns out nerds spend a lot of time in the kitchen imagining what in there might be evil.

The comics have been published by one company or another since then with a few hiatuses, a plethora of artists and writers working on the main series and dozens of spin-offs. The overall tone got lighter as the comics went on but that initial run had a few dark moments. For instance, Mikey had a cat named Klunk that was hit by a car and Splinter died of a heart attack alone while his sons where out dicking around. Cowabunga?

TAKING TO THE SCREEN

TMNT exploded. An animated series followed in 1987 making the Turtles a household name. Famously, the show was renamed Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in the UK since the total killjoys that were in power deemed “Ninja” to be too violent. Sausages too — which I’ll explain.

You have to admit, the poster is pretty dope ūüď∑ New Line Cinema/Golden Harvest

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) got annoyed at a scene in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secrets of the Ooze, whereby Michelango, being the party dude he is, uses a link of cured sausages to take out some Foot henchmen. The BBFC was worried that this would encourage street-smart kids to use¬†chains of sausages for violence rather than for their intended use, distracting a hungry dog that is chasing you through the street. The scene had to be changed so that Mikey just played with his food, something that would get me a thick ear as a child. If only I’d had some weaponisable food to protect myself.

The first TMNT live-action feature from 1990 also came under scrutiny but, this time, from within. Muppet mastermind Jim Henson worked on the costumes and puppetry for the Turtles — which still stands up, in my humble opinion — and described the costumes as the most advanced he’s ever worked on. But he was upset with the violence of the first film.

Which was fair enough given that it was co-produced by Hong Kong Kung Fu studio Golden Harvest, home to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Also, there was a scene we’re big bald bad-lad Tatsu kicks a teenager to death for getting on his nerves. Eventually, this was dubbed over to reveal that the kid was still breathing. Phew. That almost got out of hand.

At the time the film was the highest grossing independent movie of all time and kicked off the huge legacy of films to follow, each one getting worse and worse (aside from the 2007 animated movie, which was not bad, Chris Evans is in it).¬† That film also kicked off Sam Rockwell’s career. It was his first movie and he plays the legendary¬†TMNT character “Head Thug”.¬† Everyone loves that guy and no, I have not googled if or how Rockwell is problematic, just let me have this, please.

TURTLE TUNES

The movies also spawned music. The turtles and hip-hop awkwardly go hand in hand. Maybe it’s the gritty realism of late-Eighties/early-Nineties New York combined with martial arts and teenage male braggadocio that resulted in Partners in Kryme’s Turtle Power, Vanilla Ice’s Ninja Rap, The Barrio Boyzz cover on Gloria Estefan’s Conga, and Juicy J and Wiz Khalifa’s Shell Shocked. Once again the quality of these tends to deteriorate as they go on but none of them are as unforgivable as the Turtle’s own endeavours.

The half-shell heroes embarked on not one but two tours. The “Out of Their Shells” and “Gettin’ Down in Your Town” musical extravaganzas had the turtles give up the weapons they used to murder enemies and pick up the instruments they used to murder music. All of it is available to watch on Youtube. If you have some spare time still don’t give it a listen. They are truly awful.

It’s may be very, very, very bad (seriously, it should be illegal) but it did result in the Turtles being interviewed on Oprah and Raph, or at least the actor playing Raph, putting his foot in his mouth. Fair warning, this is maybe more uncomfortable than the music — especially when you see the children’s faces.

This is about as far removed from what made the Ninja Turtles so popular in the first place. To quote Harvey Dent, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a weird, musical act for children that’s into mixed-species banging.”

Also, and we have mentioned this before,¬†the Turtles produced a Christmas Album. It’s the perfect gift for someone you hate.

THE FIFTH TURTLE

Look, kids are going to learn about the birds and the bees somehow, it may as well be from mutant teenagers who might be related

Yes. There was a fifth turtle. The shell-heads amongst you know what I’m talking about. You know the shame and regret that comes with the name. Venus.

For those of you who have had better things to do with your life, there was briefly a female turtle with magic powers, raised separately from the brothers in China, named Venus, in the live-action series Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. The show was largely garbage and Venus did not go down well with fans at all. Her TV-exec enforced introduction also brought the idea that the five siblings, weren’t siblings at all, and hence could get it on. Sex sells after all.

Turtle co-creator, Laird, in particular, hated Venus and in subsequent projects requested that there be no turtle/human sex, no female turtles and that the turtles were to remain completely asexual beings. Turns out people have been kicking off about gender-swapping Eighties icons well before Ghostbusters. But, only TV and film producers had to pay attention to these rules. The pervs over at Deviant Art have produced reams of interspecies, gender-swapped, incestuous erotica for you to get off to. I’m not linking to it. No one should have to see what I’ve seen.

FANATICS

The Turtles enduring appeal has as much to do with its dedicated fanbase as it has to do with their origins and attitude. Turtle fans are crazy.¬† They actually managed to sit through and complete the SNES title Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — widely considered to be one of the most difficult games of all time. On top of which they completed the literally impossible PC port of the game. It was literally unwinnable, but somehow, using turtle power, pizza, and glitches¬†gamers found a way.

Mikey, Raph, Leo and Donnie have been inspiring fans to be creative since day one and there are a plethora of fan films out there. The best has to be Casey Jones: The Movie. Jones was introduced by Eastman and Laird to be an extreme foil to Raph — already known to be cool but rude — making the angriest turtle seem monk-like in comparison and allowing the duo to play bad cop, worse cop.

This fan flick lovingly takes familiar elements from the Nineties movie for the die-hard fans and rearranges them into a new origin story for Casey. The acting is okay, but the fight scenes, costumes and overall feeling of the moving is great. It’s worth a watch.

Jonathan Zelenak, or JZ, is a hardcore turtles fan who owns and maintains an epic collection of Turtles memorabilia know as The Sewer Den. He regularly posts updates on all the bizarre turtles tidbits he has accrued over the years. He tells The Overtake his favourite oddities from his collection “include a Jell-O mould, mouthguard, shower curtain, cake pan, windsock, underwear, ooze candy, a nightlight, buttons that snap onto your shoelaces — yikes, there are just so many! There were also dozens of wacky action figures that are wonderful because they‚Äôre so extremely absurd.”

JZ’s Turtle-passion began when he watched the cartoon and he was immediately hooked: “By the time the first movie hit in 1990, I was a die-hard fan. There was no turning back.”¬† JZ is a filmmaker but it was his love of the Turtles that got him a job at Nickelodeon working on its social media accounts, including his beloved TMNT. “I‚Äôm their resident Turtle guy. It‚Äôs just a nice part of the whole Sewer Den story.” Just goes to show where passion, even a passion for violent amphibians, can take you.

 FUTURE TENSE

The Turtles continue to be reimagined for new audiences with the latest animated show taking some crazy and inspired departures from the original conception (Raph is the leader? WTF?). Because they’ve been around such a long time and never really gone away, it doesn’t feel like anyone is claiming the changes the Turtles have undergone has robbed anyone childhood or ruined everything that was great about them.

Much better than that, the Turtles are like whiskey, you can’t hate all their incarnations, you just haven’t found the right one for you. Each version is the definitive version for the next generation. Only time will tell what they’ll end up looking like, or if they’ll even be around, in another 35 years — but the odds are good. Turtles can live a very long time.

Turtles forever.

5th May 2019