Since 1984 the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been one of the most successful multi-media properties in the world, generating cartoons, big-budget movies, video games, toys and nearly anything else you can think of. And yet, this amazing idea started out as a small black and white comic book created by two friends as a fun side project. In this article we take a look at the beginnings of the TMNT and the twisted history of their original comic book.
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were huge comic book fans but neither of them could have known that when Eastman drew an upright nunchuk-wielding turtle as a joke it would lead to them creating a worldwide phenomenon. Both men were heavily influenced by the many award-winning comics of their day such as the X-Men and Frank Miller’s Daredevil. Together they wrote and drew a single black and white comic starring the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” which homaged many of these comics. The characters literally had their origin incorporated into Frank Miller’s retelling of Daredevil’s origin, positing that the radioactive canister that blinded Matt Murdock then struck a bowl of pet turtles which tumbled into a storm drain together with the radioactive ooze.
That first story was told in the gritty kind of narration that was popular in the early 1980s. It followed the mutated turtles as they successfully exacted revenge on the Shredder, leader of the criminal Foot Clan. Eastman and Laird had started a studio together, calling it Mirage Studios, and published their ninja comic, probably thinking it might make them a few dollars. To their surprise Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 was a huge sales hit in 1984 and the duo had to order several reprintings of the comic to satisfy buyer demand. They also realized that they probably should capitalize on their success and publish a second issue.
Eastman and Laird started hiring other artists and writers to help them produce more comics and make new issues of TMNT. As a result, the operation quickly grew during 1984, 1985 and 1986. They had inadvertently created a new boom for indie comics as new publishers crawled out of the woodwork to try and create the “next” TMNT phenomenon. Many of these comics were in black and white and tackled topics more gritty or mature than the standard superhero fare of the time would. Other existing publishers frantically increased their publishing and expanded their range to get in while the market was hot.
The TMNT comic continued being mostly produced by Eastman and Laird themselves during this period though they often recruited help with inking and pencils to get the comics out on time. Mirage also started publishing other comics, few of which made much of an impact and most of which were passion projects by various studio artists. There were also a range of “micro-series”, one-shots which fit into the ongoing TMNT story and gave different characters more depth.
Eastman and Laird were also approached by various companies who had noticed the success of the turtles and wanted a slice of the pie. The largest of these were toy manufacturer Playmates, who wanted to turn the teenage ninjas into action figures, and the Fred Wolf Films animation company who wished to make an animated series based on their adventures in the vein of other popular action-adventure properties of the time like Masters of the Universe or Transformers. Eastman and Laird signed contracts with both companies and by 1987 the entire world would be exposed to the first spark of turtlemania.
But behind the scenes, things were close to the breaking point.
Eastman and Laird had been working at a frantic pace for almost three years trying to handle the marketing and merchandising of their phenomenon but they also wanted to keep making the comic book which started it all. The original TMNT comic had more story pages than most comics on the stands and it took Eastman and Laird more and more effort to keep it coming out even semi-regularly. By early 1987 the comic had only published 10 issues (plus some assorted one-issue spinoffs) and both men were getting fed up with each other. Their personal differences had begun tearing their friendship apart and the increasing strain of the workload of the company they found themselves the head of did the rest.
Over the next two years the partnership slowly dissolved as both men started doing issues of the comic solo while the other did other duties. There was also more and more work by other Mirage employees like Jim Lawson. By 1989 Eastman and Laird finished their ongoing storyline in the title with the “Return to New York” issues and then broke up, seemingly for good. Both were occupied by new projects like the upcoming live-action movie and instead they made a unique offer to the comics scene in general.
For the next three years (the so-called “guest era”) any artist and writer could work on TMNT and bring their own vision to the comic. Most veered towards humoristic tales while some promoted their creator-owned titles in their TMNT guest issue. Some produced genuinely fascinating and lore-rich stories like Rick Veitch’s “River” trilogy. But the original spirit of the comic was no longer there. There was no more ongoing story about the turtles, just an unpredictable, mercurial artist showcase titles where you never knew what you would get.
The return and end
Though the “guest era” seemed unending, it did nonetheless end in 1992 with the return of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird to the title. With time and distance the two collaborated on the massive 13-part story “City at War” which served as a coda to the story of the turtles as they finally closed the book on the threat of the Foot Clan. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #62 (published in 1993) was the final issue of the storyline and series. It also marked the final major collaboration between Eastman and Laird.
Following this, the TMNT title relaunched several times. Artist-writer Jim Lawson did a short-lived second volume between 1993 and 1995, after which Mirage Studios licensed the right to continue the storyline at Image Comics where a volume three ran between 1996 and 1999. At that point Kevin Eastman felt he was fully done with the turtles and sold his rights share to Peter Laird, who brought the Mirage turtles back in volume four in 2001 (a run which disregarded the Image comic entirely). This era saw the title become increasingly bleak and existential with the death of master Splinter and the discovery that April O’Neil was an artificially created person. In 2009 Laird sold the rights to the TMNT property as a whole to Nickelodeon and the studio closed up for good in 2014 after the story wrapped up.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the original TMNT comics. Every media using the turtles since goes back to this one comic, with many concepts and storylines echoing through many different continuities. The cartoon which began in 2003 directly adapted and updated many Mirage storylines for a new generation and was a massive hit and we are still getting new turtle stories today which go back to these comics. From joke sketch to financial juggernaut to cultural mainstay, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the indie comic that shook the world.