The creation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the most amazing good luck stories of all time. Through a series of unlikely decisions and incredible strokes of good fortune two broke, inexperienced indie comic artists named Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird accidentally created one of the most enduring media franchises of the past 50-years.
Think there’s no way that doodle/short story/random ridiculous idea you’ve been kicking around could ever amount to anything? Think again. Before Michael Bay’s nostril-having monstrosities ruin everything you love, here are a few things you may not know about the creation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…
1) The Ninja Turtles started as a dumb joke.
“This is the dumbest thing ever.”
That’s what Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman thought when the Turtles unexpectedly materialized during a late-night 1983 sketching session with friend and creative collaborator Peter Laird. For some unknown reason (perhaps the God of licensed plastic crap was speaking through his hands) Kevin Eastman drew a quick sketch of a turtle in a mask, holding a sword, which he labelled a “Ninja Turtle”. He passed the drawing to Laird as a joke, who drew a better version. Not one to be topped, Eastman then drew four turtles. Then Laird drew four and added “Teenage Mutant” to the title. Eastman and Laird had a chuckle, then put the bongs away (okay, I’m just assuming on that part, but come on) and went to sleep.
Really more of a Ninja Tortoise. Just sayin’.
It was only the next morning when they looked over last night’s idiocy that it dawned on them that maybe, just maybe, they might have something here…
2) That first Ninja Turtle picture sold for 71 thousand dollars. Not a bad deal really, considering that the picture spawned a franchise worth billions of dollars.
3) The Turtles are a parody of popular early-’80s comics, particularly Daredevil. Not only did the Turtles start out as a random, possibly stoned goof, but the early comics were intended as a wacky parody of ’80s comic book trends. Basically, during the early ’80s, ninety percent of the books on the shelves were either about teens (Teen Titans, New Mutants), mutants (X-Men) or ninjas (Ronin, Daredevil). I suppose not that much has changed.
The Turtles were especially blatant in their parodying of Daredevil. 80s Daredevil was very into fighting ninjas, particularly a clan of ninjas called The Hand, so the Turtles fought The Foot. Get it? Daredevil was trained by a guy named The Stick, so a guy named Splinter trained the Turtles. Get it?
Their origins were more or less the same too — a barrel full of radioactive ooze falls off a truck onto Matt Murdock blinding him and giving him his powers, and a barrel of radioactive ooze falls off a truck and knocks a bowl of turtles into the sewers in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1. It was all a big wink wink, nudge nudge to comic book nerds, but when mainstream, non-comics fans saw the Turtles, they just thought TMNT had come up with all these good ideas first.
Oh, the ol’ radioactive materials truck. Where would comics be without it?
4) The Ninja Turtles owe their success to the IRS. Eventually Eastman and Laird decided to turn their random brain fart into a 40-page comic, but since no publisher in their right mind would touch something called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they had to self-publish.
Anyone who’s spent some time trying to make a go of it in an artistic field with little money knows tax day isn’t something to dread — hell, it’s Christmas. Eastman and Lair pooled their tax refund money and got a small loan from an uncle. All told, it added up to $2000, which allowed them to print 3000 copies of TMNT and buy a small ad in Comic Buyer’s Guide. Shockingly those 3000 copies sold out within weeks, so they printed 6000 more and quickly sold those as well. The ball was rolling, and it was all thanks to Uncle Sam’s generous tax collectors.
5) Donatello was almost named Bernini. One of the most inspired things about the Turtles is that they were all named after famous Renaissance artists. Not only did the names sound cool, but you could claim to your parents that the Turtles were cultured or at least mildly educational.
Originally the Turtles were going to have Japanese names, but thankfully Eastman and Laird didn’t know Japanese and couldn’t come up with anything that sounded convincing, so Laird grabbed his copy of Janson’s History of Art for inspiration. Eastman wanted to name one of the Turtles after Italian artist and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, but they eventually went with Donatello because another name that ended with an “o” fit in better.
I’d be totally okay with Donatello being called Bernini if he also had the swank mustache.
6) Michelangelo also misspelled his name for 20-years. God, finally, vindication! For years whenever I wrote “Michaelangelo” spell checkers would get all up in my face, but wasn’t that how the Ninja Turtle’s name was spelled? It was, but the Ninja Turtle’s name was spelled wrong. Eastman and Laird accidentally spelled it that way in the first issue of TMNT, so for 20 Mikey had to cart around an extra “a” for copyright purposes (they finally changed to the proper spelling in 2003).
For the record, they still pronounce the name wrong. It should be Mee-kill-angelo, not My-chull-angelo.
Michelangelo can spell P-A-R-T-Y and that’s all he wants to know how to spell, dammit.
7) The Shredder was inspired by a cheese grater. Yes, the character frequently referred to as “ol’ cheese grater head” on the Turtles cartoon was actually inspired by a cheese grater. At one point Eastman, who seemed to do a lot of dumb, but ultimately very lucrative things, grabbed a cheese grater and started screwing around with it on his arm. From there the idea for a guy essentially covered in cheese graters developed quickly.
Michael Bay has a pretty elaborate cheese grater, apparently.
8) The contract for the first TMNT licensing deal was written on a napkin. By the mid-80s the Turtles were an indie comic book sensation, selling hundreds of thousands of copies per issue and making Eastman and Laird a decent living, but it was a third man, Mark Freedman, who turned TMNT into a legit mainstream sensation.
Mark was a licensing agent who showed up unsolicited at Eastman and Laird’s door in 1986. When he arrived, dressed in a suit and ready to make a deal, he found Eastman and Laird in their rattiest clothes halfway through painting their apartment. Not really in the mood for a business meeting, Eastman and Laird hurriedly wrote up a 30-day non-exclusive contract with Freedman on a napkin. Before that month was over Freedman would get Eastman and Laird a deal with Playmates toys, which led to the TMNT cartoon, which led to both Eastman and Laird making around 50 million dollars a year throughout most of the early 90s. So yeah, like I noted at the top of this article — Eastman and Laird, luckiest bastards ever.
9) There was almost a Billy Crystal-starring, Roger Corman produced Turtles movie. Before Mark Freedman, Playmates and Hollywood came knocking, some sketchier names came crawling out of the woodwork hoping to make a buck off the Turtles. One these names was Roger Corman, the infamous b-movie shlockmeister, who pitched a low-budget Turtles comedy that would have starred some the top, upcoming stand-up comedians of the 80s. The idea was to just take Billy Crystal, Gallagher, Sam Kinison and Bobcat Goldthwait, paint them green and have them make wisecracks for 90-minutes, which sounds f*cking amazing, but probably wouldn’t have done much for the Turtles brand, so Eastman and Laird wisely turned Corman down.
There was almost a Ninja Turtle with a skullet. The 80s were a stupid time.
10) The TMNT cartoon would have been no fun if Peter Laird had, had his way. Listen, the original TMNT comics are cool and all, you should read them if you haven’t already, but let’s be real, we’re all fans because of the cartoon. Eastman and Laird didn’t have a lot of input on the cartoon, which is probably a good thing based on this Peter Laird quote…
“Had I 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 show would not have had a joke or gag every five seconds.”
No Bebop and Rocksteady? Thanks but no thanks.
So, there you have it — a few facts about the creation of the Turtles before you witness the destruction this weekend. Know any cool facts I missed? Have any memories of the very early days of the Turtles? Hit the comments and share!
Thanks as always to Joel Stice for the Fascinating Facts format!