Turtle Power! The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

I wanted to watch this just ahead of reviewing a film I went to the cinema to see almost thirty years ago. No surprises as to what that film is.

  • A timeline takes us back to 1980, just a few years removed from punk and towards the end of the Cold War. Peter Laird started a free comic book called Scat (charming!) and befriended Kevin Eastman through it. They were both Jack Kirby fans and connected through that.
  • They started a studio called “Mirage” because it didn’t really exist.
  • In 1983, the two challenged each other to come up with takes on turtles, notoriously slow creatures, as ninjas, which are fast and agile. Eastman came up with the four with their trademark weapons and Laird added Teenage Mutant to Ninja Turtles.
  • Both were fans of underground comics and wanted to create some of that vibe.
  • The original Turtles all had red masks, but different weapons.
  • It took two months and a loan from Kevin’s uncle to create and print 3,000 copies.
  • In 1984, the comic came out. A commentator contrasts the two creators, with Eastman into action and Laird into thoughtful stories. A comic book store manager comments on how even the different size of the comic made it stand out.
  • Eastman talks about how they were inspired by Dave Sim and Cerebus as well as Frank Miller’s Daredevil.
  • The comic was a parody and lovingly making fun of ninja comics.
  • Laird is often asked why they killed off the Shredder in the first comic, and it was because they didn’t expect to do more than one.
  • Selling all 3,000, plus more, led them to create the second issue. It attracted a lot of different kinds of fans.
  • As they published more comics, they were beating other name comics and were at the forefront of a black and white boom.
  • Raphael was loosely based on Eastman and Donatello was loosely based on Laird. April was based on Eastman’s wife at the time. With Raph being the crazy one, they wanted to find someone crazier, so Casey Jones was that character. He had no tragic backstory, just a vigilante who watched too much TV.
  • Mirage Studios grew with the likes of Jim Lawson and Steve Lavigne. Ryan Brown introduced himself at a comic book show and was a big part of creating licensing art. Michael Dooney also joined too. They bonded over geeky stuff like air rifles and models.
  • The book was seen as malleable, with the chance to do different takes on the Turtles. Dooney;s was cartoony, Lawson’s was dynamic, Erik Larsen’s was gritty.
  • As good as it was, it was until they opened up the chance for licensing and for kids to embrace it that it went mainstream.
  • Mark Freedman of Surge Licensing turned up as a fan and pushed Eastman and Laird to give him a chance of selling the merchandising rights. Freedman loved the title. He was the epitome of a salesman and the Mirage guys were reticent, but they gave him a month and a half to see what he could do. He used an original copy of the comic and a four foot foam turtle to go into meetings with.
  • Freedman got laughed out of the door by a lot of companies. Even Disney passed at one point. Nobody got it. Richard Sallis of Playmates gave them a chance and John Handy and Karl Aaronian massaged the initial idea into something closer to what the inevitable toys were like.
  • They needed a new back story to promote the toys and took it to Fred Wolf, the animation producer. Chuck Lorre was the initial writer for the show, way before all the sitcoms he created and produced. He recommended David Wise to be the main writer. Wise had heard of the comic already, which pretty much secured him the job.
  • The first licence was finalised in 1986.
  • Many of the original new toy concepts were based on people and occupations you’d find in New York, which Eastman and Laird shit on. That was stuff like evil bakers and football players. They had big expectations, which were pulled back and sized down. They wanted to have a character-based playset, with the lair even having a god-like face in, but that was vetoed too. All the vehicles had turtles characteristics, like shells and faces. The figures were 3.5″ tall, the same as G.I. Joe, but far more bulky.
  • David Wise came up with the idea for the Technodrome as the Death Star on wheels. Playmates added the eye on top.
  • Steve Varner was the toy sculptor, and he was given somewhat free reign. They chopped the tail off the original turtle mold. Sewer features, like garbage, were made a play feature too, so the toys looked like they’d scavenged things to make things.
  • The colours of the masks and skins, plus letters on the belt buckles, were used to further differentiate the turtles visually. David Wise developed the characterisation so that Leo was the leader, Don was the science guy, Raph was the humour and Mikey was the one closest in age to the audience. He was originally intended to be more “street”, but they got away from that soon.
  • Chinese toy factories struggled to keep up with the product demands after the original TV mini-series debuted. There wasn’t originally a plan to do more episodes of the show, but Fred Wolf pushed for more because as well as they’d done he didn’t think they’d pushed it anywhere near how far they could go. CBS were happy to give them a shot too. It would take thirteen weeks to produce an episode.
  • Wise had a scene with the turtles surfing on a filing cabinet and recalled a Peanuts surfing scene from the sixties where someone said “Cowabunga!”, so he wrote that in and it quickly became a catchphrase.
  • Characters like Bebop and Rocksteady are shown in the production phase, with Bebop originally having weapons like a snot gun.
  • The voice actors make an appearance to talk about their characters. None of the guys had heard of TMNT but were impressed. The four turtle actors had great chemistry immediately, as did James Avery and Pat Fraley and all the rest. The decision as to whether Cam Clarke or Townsend Coleman were going to be Leonardo and Michelangelo wasn’t determined until later on.
  • Coleman channeled Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to be Mikey. Cam felt Leo was an incredibly straight-laced character. Barry Gordon was pretty much himself as Donatello. James Avery would do a Shakespearean performance for Shredder. Pat Fraley played Krang as a Jewish mother. Peter Renaday played Splinter as a learned character and Vernon as far away as possible from that.
  • Barry Gordon dropped his voice a couple of octaves to be Bebop and Cam Clarke played Rocksteady as “a big, dumb kid”.
  • The show and the product itself was such a media sensation that they took it to the big screen. Gary Propper, a professional surfer and manager of Gallagher, took the idea to Thomas Gray of the studio Golden Harvest, who wasn’t interested initially. Bobby Herbeck, a writer, kept on pushing it as well, with Gray thinking he was on dope. Eventually, Gray had an epiphany and realised they could do a martial arts movie like the ones they imported already.
  • Music video director Steve Barron was employed. He thought that the studio was taking the idea too far away from the original idea, as the comics were full of great action scenes, so he sat down with a writer and plundered the comics for ideas. Roy Forge Smith was brought in to be a production designer so that everything was ready to film in a few months.
  • Peter Laird considers how lucky they were with the first movie because of the involvement of Steve Barron and Jim Henson, who wasn’t into the violence of the product, but was friends with Barron so went along with helping them. Brian Henson, Jim’s son (who’s a spitting image of him), talks about how there was a concern they couldn’t pay for what they were ordering too.
  • Gray was concerned about how they’d pay for production costs, but Playmates assured them they’d make the money back on toys sold. They couldn’t get cinemas to pick up the film, and costs were going up, but a lot of people took a lot of chances.
  • Michelan Sisti auditioned to be the guy inside the Michelangelo suit and put his foot through the wall accidentally in a martial arts display, so got the role on having that much energy. Judith Hoag didn’t take herself seriously, so was happy to be April. Michael Turney got the Danny Pennington role through connecting with Steve Barron on musical tastes.
  • Kevin Clash was the puppet master for Splinter and also head puppet controller for things like the turtle heads, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. The suits weighed a lot and the guys inside them would be boiling. Leif Tilden (Donatello) threw up in the head one time because he couldn’t get it one time.
  • The heads were radio-controlled and would start doing their own thing. The reason for this was they were picking up interference from radar from a nearby airport, so they went on a military frequency. Splinter was easier to control because you didn’t have to put a person inside the character.
  • Barron used a lot of darkness to cover things up and also to set a tone. He liked to focus on the eyes too to show their character.
  • After some hairy days early on, the film made a massive $200 million. Eastman and Laird were really impressed with the film as it was what they saw it being like.
  • Thomas Gray got a lot of calls from people after the films was a success looking to get the sequel, but he was loyal to the people who were loyal to him when others weren’t. Kevin Clash recalls seeing kids crying because they couldn’t get into packed cinemas to see the film. Jim Henson was happy with the finished result and didn’t live much longer beyond it.
  • Fans talk about the impact the film and cartoon show had on them as kids and how big they were.
  • Eastman and Laird had been given expectations that the success would last three years before the toys were in bargain bins, but it went on a lot longer.
  • There’s a quick run-through of the other characters that were created, from Rat King to Doctor El to Sgt. Bananas. You couldn’t have two legs or two arms the same, much to Peter Laird’s bemusement.
  • There were a lot of turtles variants. Ryan Brown goes through some of his lame ideas like a guy with a set of traffic lights for a head.
  • Some fans talk about the video games, including the arcade game and the infamously hard game.
  • Ryan Brown headed the Archies book. Michael Dooney mainly adapted cartoon episodes, while Brown went for different ideas. He was into things like recycling and making the world a better place.
  • There was also the Turtles live show too, Coming Out of Their Shells. That was an early job for Robert Ben Garant from Reno 911! He and another actor recall how popular they were doing a public appearance in Mexico among other places.
  • Thomas Gray talks about how they rushed to make the second film because they didn’t know how long the brand would stay popular. Then the third they gave a bit longer. Laird describes the second film as a large step back and the third one as putting them back at step one.
  • Kevin and Peter were growing apart, with Kevin moving to California and running Heavy Metal magazine, so they dissolved their partnership and he signed over control to Peter.
  • Peter started up the comics again in 2001, doing most of the work and enjoying it. He got a lot of comments from the fans that they preferred the old comics. He puts it down to being a moment in time. He regrets their separation and there are things left unsaid
  • Kevin talks about how so much time has passed on and that a whole new generation of fans are joined by their parents, who were fans when they were kids.
  • Peter signed over the rights to the turtles in 2009.
  • In a bit of an artificially overwrought moment, Eastman and Laird reunited for an autograph signing twenty years after not having seen each other to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary.

The Bottom Line: Interesting, but definitely not definitive! They don’t even get into Next Mutation and stuff like that! Fun, and granted nobody’s going to watch a twelve hour documentary on TMNT, but very lacking. Take what you can get from it, though.