Heroes on a half-shell: How Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a pop-culture powerhouse

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It’s been a banner season for sci-fi movie lovers. We’ve cheered with delight as everything from a spider-powered superhero to a giant Japanese monster to an army of intelligent apes to, most recently, a feisty rifle-slinging raccoon have all made their marks in theaters around the world. As the last of summer’s big-budget popcorn-fests are wheeled out, Hollywood is turning to yet another longtime fan-favorite franchise in an attempt to draw audiences. And these heroes may not only be the strangest of them all, but the story of their rise to prominence in worldwide pop culture may be more fascinating than any adventure they’ve had in the comics or on the screen.

TMNT-2014-ipad-Retina-Wallpaper-HD1The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose latest film entry will hit theaters on August 8, first climbed out of the storm sewers of New York City 30 years ago. Since then, they’ve transformed themselves from a humble one-shot comic book onto a multi-billion dollar industry, with a devoted corps of fans numbering in the millions from all over the world.

The turtles’ real birthplace, however, was in Dover, New Hampshire, where TMNT creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird came up with the heroes during a brainstorming session in 1984. The two pooled together money from a tax refund and a loan from Eastman’s uncle to self-publish a single-issue, black-and-white comic that had a print run limited to just over 3,200 copies. Their creation debuted at a small comic-book convention held in a hotel in nearby Portsmouth.

While the first TMNT book was far grittier than some of the lighter-hearted adventures that fans would become familiar with, it featured the same basic elements that have made the franchise such a success. Its heroes were a quartet of anthropomorphized turtles who were trained as ninja warriors by a mutant rat in the New York City sewers. Together, they fight evil and protect mankind while trying to keep their existence a secret from the general public. That landmark first issue of TMNT parodied the film noir imagery of Frank Miller’s Daredevil, the martial arts style of Ronin (also created by Miller), the teen mutant outcast theme of Marvel’s New Mutants, and the humanoid animal motif of Cerebus the Aardvark (created by cartoonist Dave Sim).

Interest in the TMNT title spread. Limited-run issues featuring further turtle adventures were published, and soon, those comics, along with a bi-monthly companion, Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, become instant collectors’ items. It wasn’t long before Dark Horse Miniatures, and then Playmates Toys, began manufacturing toys based on the characters. From there, the TMNT adventures were featured on syndicated, and soon after, network animated series. By the late 1980s, the characters were a worldwide pop-culture phenomenon, featured not just in comics and cartoons, but in toys, video games, snacks, breakfast cereals, backpacks, pajamas, beach towels, PEZ dispensers, and just about anything a child (or parent) could purchase. The TMNT became one of the most successful toy franchises in history, yielding billions of dollars in sales.

Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles-Trailer-Michaelangelo-700x333After that kind of success, Hollywood beckoned, and the turtles found their way onto the big screen. The TMNT appeared in four feature films between 1990 and 2007, usually portrayed by actors in costumes. (The 2007 TMNT film, along with the newest release, features computer-generated turtles.) Their latest foray into the cinema is directed by South African Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans, Battle Los Angeles) and produced by, among others, Michael Bay (himself no stranger to films based on comics and toys, having produced and directed the Transformers series).

In their latest cinema incarnation, the turtles (Leonardo, the quartet’s leader; Michelangelo, the pizza-loving surfer dude; Raphael, the fierce “bad boy” of the group; and Donatello, the deep-thinking technological genius), will once again emerge from the shadows to do battle with evil, this time in the form of the diabolical Shredder and his Foot Clan. Working alongside crack reporter April O’Neil (played by Megan Fox, who rocketed to fame in Bay’s Transformer films) and her cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett, the voice of Batman in The Lego Movie), the turtles will fight to break Shredder’s iron grip on the city and its corrupt police officers and politicians.

20120813111151-c8f8a1a6The new film was created with an estimated budget of $125 million, and one can safely assume that none of those funds came from tax refunds or loans from relatives. The movie will be released to a fan base whose devotion rivals those of many top sci-fi franchises. Rumors of a name change for the film (originally it was to be called simply Ninja Turtles) and an alteration to the turtles’ roots (could the film’s heroes be alien in origin?) were met with heavy resistance from die-hard fans, and Bay himself was forced to issue a statement pleading for patience.

Will that kind of loyalty lead to modern-day success for a beloved franchise that made multi-millionaires out of two upstart comic-book creators from New Hampshire? Will the turtles race to the front of the pack and follow in the massive claw-prints of Godzilla, or perhaps even the box office record-breaking paw-prints of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket Raccoon? Whatever happens, one thing is for certain—with the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it’s now one shell of a summer at the movies!

Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.

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