Twenty-five years ago two young amateur comic artists created an indy comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was intended as a homage/parody of Frank Miller. At the time Miller was hot as a writer and artist for his noirish reworking of Daredevil, in particular the long running and absorbing Electra saga. This was also the time Miller was establishing his trademark style that he pretty much launched with the breakthrough mini-series Ronin. This was just before Miller's landmark The Dark Knight Returns and so his hotdom was still a simmering pot within the comic community.
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird came out with the first issue of TMNT at this time aimed squarely at that comic community and the convention scene in the US. Eastman and Laird hit the right buttons with their Milleresque action poses as done by turtle ninjas, poses capturing a fan sense of a new front that would become mainstream comic imagery a decade or two later.
Script wise they were hitting the right buttons as well, achieving that rare creature that plays on the images, plots and characters of the currently hot scene while achieving its own right to exist as an independent work. Its appropriations were clearly referential and in-jokey in a manner that everyone was meant to share. For instance, in Daredevil, Matt Murdock's martial arts sensei goes by the name of stick, the Ninja Turtles are trained in the ways of Ninjutsu and of the ways of being a spiritual warrior by a old rat called Splinter.
Because TMNT has something groovy going on it didn't take long for a licensing agent to approach Eastman and Laird and turn this indy comic into a toy franchise. From there it quickly evolved into endless cartoon series and toy lines. And as this was now almost entirely a commercial venture the turtles also evolved into mainstream family friendly merchandise marketing tools with trademark catch phrases like "Heroes in a Half-Shell" and "Turtle Power", both created by marketing and jingle writers for the toy ads played during the morning cartoons.
The mainstreaming success of TMNT inevitably led to the movies, but I gotta say, I have a fondness for the first film for which Jim Henson's colleagues, especially director Steve Barron, can be largely thanked. It was darker than expected and character driven, more concerned with the motivations of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Splinter than the fight scenes, pratfalls and inevitable pop soundtrack you expect the industry to demand. On the whole, much more sophisticated than I thought they'd ever dare. Sure, it's dated but it remains a highlight on the Ninja Turtles era.
Still, TMNT is now pretty much a franchise and marketing tool, one that has a respectable novelty of its inherent absurdity. I mean Ninja Turtles with Renaissance artist monikers is cooler than say Action Man or G.I. Joe, don't you think? And so I won't dismiss entirely the more contemporary manifestations of the turtles. The recent animated movie wasn't that bad and there seems to have been always a bit of a spark, no matter how dim, within most animated work with the TMNT stamp on it, but it long ago stopped being anything other than a commercial platform.
Regardless, I'm not begrudging the financial success that came Eastman and Laird's way. And why? Because we can still go back twenty five years and admire two bold comicers and their indy publication having gleeful fun with the stylish pretentiousness of hero comics. And despite all the commercial pancaking and soliciting of the children toy market one can still look to the core of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle empire and see something deep inside that remains pretty cool.