Growing up in the 1980’s I had my share of cartoon heroes. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The Go-Bots. The Thundercats. Transformers. You name them I was watching them. But there was one group of heroes that towered above the rest, all those other cartoons were nothing compared to it. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The Origin of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Little did I know when I was 5 years old that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were based on a much darker and grittier black and white comic created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Little did I care, either. I loved the cartoon, with Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michaelangelo brightly and poorly animated, serving Master Splinter against Krang, the Shredder, Be-Bop, Rocksteady and an army of Foot ninja robots (not to mention a host of other characters introduced over the years).
The comic book was inspired by and parodied the work of comics giant Frank Miller, the writer behind such popular titles as Daredevil and Ronin. Other popular comics inspirations included the X-Men (Marvel Comics popular teenage mutant heroes created by comics icons Stan Lee and Jack Kirby). From the get-go the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were an independent comic sensation, and ushered in a new era of independent comics.
The 1987 Cartoon
Cartoon producers soon decided to bring the popular comics title to the small screen. Realizing that the dark Milleresque comic wouldn’t translate well into a children’s show, the concept was greatly altered. The Shredder became little more than a bumbling buffoon, aided by two oafish sidekicks, Bebop (a mutant boar) and Rocksteady (a mutant rhinoceros). All three served the villainous Krang, an alien brain living in the belly of a giant robot from Dimension X.
The Foot Clan, an evil Ninja band inspired by Frank Miller’s the Hand, became a group of robots to minimize bloody violence. (Smashing robots is far more palatable than actual human violence). Mousers, small robots whose sole goal was to kill rats (and thus making the humanoid rat Splinter a prime target) were another popular early villain of the Turtles.
A series of various other anthropomorphic creatures and robotic characters also joined the cast at various times, including Leatherhead, a villainous mutant alligator, the Punk Frogs (frog equivalents of the Turtles), Usagi Yojimbo (himself based off a popular independent comic book), Panda Khan (a mutant panda from the future), Metalhead (a robotic Ninja Turtle created by Krang) and many, many more. And of course I can’t forget the mainstays from the original comic: reporter April O’Neil or fellow vigilante Casey Jones (who were also featured in the movie series).
I can’t rightly say why I found the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so captivating. Even today I don’t rightly understand it. All I know is that I watched the show every weekday afternoon (and soon on Saturday mornings as well), I watched the movies (although they were very different from the cartoon both in characters and tone) and played the video games. I had all of the action figures, ate the cereal, wore the TMNT clothing. I even bought a few of the comic books (of the Archie series, not those published by Eastman and Laird’s Mirage Studios).
Fortunately for the creators of the cartoon show, I wasn’t alone in my admiration either. An entire nation of schoolchildren had fallen in love. And it didn’t stop there, either, long after I had grown tired of the cartoon show the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were still on the air. The original 1987 cartoon didn’t end until 1997, an impressive run for a Saturday morning cartoon show.
Even that didn’t end the Turtles presence on Saturday mornings, following up with a short-lived live action show, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the Next Mutation. This show would not prove as popular as the cartoon show, however, and would end after only a single season.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the 2003 Cartoon
With the death of both the cartoon and the live action television show, you would think that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would never again grace the television screens of Saturday morning cartoon lovers everywhere.
Surprisingly enough the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were reborn in 2003 with a brand new cartoon show. This show, which is produced in cooperation with Mirage Studios (who also own 1/3 of the rights), is much darker than the original, and is more closely in tune with the comic book than its 1987 incarnation.
Gone were Krang, and Bebop and Rocksteady and the buffoonish villains of the 1987 cartoon. Much deeper and better plotted than the original, the 2003 cartoon has brought the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to a whole new generation of fans.
The show has even sparked a relaunch of the original comic by Mirage Studios, its fourth volume in the series. How long this new show will last no one can say, but its rise has proven the lasting popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles spanning nearly two decades of television.