Life in the Sewers: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I was born in 1984, and for the first few years of my life I grew acquainted with a world full of things that predated me – Sesame Street, Voltron, Cheers, and other shows which I understood to have existed since the dawn of time. But in the late 80s I was exposed to something new: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the first thing that started to exist which hadn’t existed beforehand. Nothing would ever be the same again, as far as seven year old me was concerned.  TMNT wasn’t just a show; it was a movement.

I was completely unaware that Ninja Turtles was originally a comic book, with an intentionally absurd concept to parody the comics of the time. When adapted to television, the concept was adjusted for the new medium and instead of being a parody, it influenced thee genres of children’s animation and was of course followed by a plethora of indistinguishable knock-offs which were not quite as Jawesome as they would have me believe.

The exact appeal of ninja turtles is a mix of several factors. At a time when my idea of cool was “Bert” instead of “Ernie,” they roamed the city freely without any care about school. On a subconscious level, young me enjoyed that the four turtles were a family of friends who were always there for each other. On a conscious level, I loved that scene where a guy tried to use a knife to mug Leonardo, who responded by taking out his katana.

As everybody knows, the titular quartet hang out in a sewer learning martial arts from Splinter, their surrogate father figure and talking rat. They were often besieged by Uncle Shredder and his robot ninjas. Most of my attention was focused on Michelangelo , abbreviated to Mike, which was my name – sharing a name with such a radical dude blew my mind and I quickly adopted him as the perfect role model (later I found out I shared my name with 1/8 males). Michelangelo showed me that there were more words for “good” than just “good” – sometimes the need for variety called for something to be described as Tubular or Gnarly or other levels from Super Mario World. This understanding of variable language helped me become the writer I am today.

Michelangelo’s sidekicks were Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and April O’Neil. When not PG fighting ninjas, they all ate pizza, introducing me to the most excellent dude-food several years before I would have discovered it otherwise. Almost every episode introduced (and wrote off) a new mutant for the Turtles to butt-heads with, so seeing the toy listings in the Sears catalogue felt like reading an episode guide. The final element of the show was April, and while at the time I thought girls were pretty gross, I was willing to forgive her presence since her name reminded me of my Birthday Month.

The experience was like “Frog and Toad” mixed with a Jackie Chan movie. There was media controversy because of the Turtles’ depictions of violence, and rightly so since, having seen the show, I became indoctrinated with the idea that it’s acceptable to use punches and kicks when dealing with robot ninjas, warthogs, fly monsters, and other things which might actually exist but certainly aren’t in Oakville yet.

One time in First Grade, one of the older students tried to mess with my head by telling me about how he went into the sewers and met the Turtles. I rolled my eyes and pointed out that obviously he was lying: the Turtles live in New York. Duh.

Of course there were toys, hundreds of toys of every character, even characters like Vernon who had no business being a toy. For marketing reasons the Turtles had a van and a blimp and green and yellow versions of anything Barbie has. Of course the apex of Turtle merchandise was the “Technodrome,” the kind of toy reserved for that one spoiled jerk in class who has the audacity to own both a Nintendo AND a Sega. Yeah, fuck you Kyle, you come by my place now and see who has the better toy collection – but just know my Fort Max is on Pre-Order.

But TMNT wasn’t a comic which grew into a toy commercial - it had a full-on marketing blitz. So there was a movie which was like a version of “The Warriors” for preteens. It seeded my younger self with the desire to one day get lost in New York (which was eventually the highlight of my time at art school). A second movie soon followed introducing Rocksteady and Bebop analogues, and while less entertaining in a “good movie” way it is an incredible experience to see Vanilla Ice drop the Ninja Rap in its proper context. I assumed the movies would continue and by the 7th film there would have been Dimension X and Neutrinos, but instead of the logical progression, the third movie was about time travel, and that wasn’t the Excellent Adventure it should have been.

The final major branch of the Turtles empire was video-games, before the “license games are usually crappy” rule was set in stone. Overall, I spent more money on renting the first game than it would have cost to purchase. TMNT 4: Turtles In Time was a “brawler” that holds up today better than Cold As Ice. And while I’m sure there were video-games that came out after that, I don’t imagine why I would play any when I could play more Turtles In Time. Get my Mode 7 graphics on.

“Tonight I dine on Turtle Soup!”

Eventually time went on and my interest in the Turtles waned. I would shift my love over to Power Rangers and X-Men and eventually Pokemon. Also, my cartoon time was heavily cut into because I stopped waking up before noon. I was reintroduced to the Ninja Turtles when Fox hosted the “Next Mutation” show, which was really pretty terrible, so let’s not dwell on it (or Girl Turtles with Shell Boobs).

In 2003, right after the 80′s revival had happened, the Ninja Turtles got another show – a more serious show with more modern sensibilities and a horrible intro. While I respect that many episodes were gems, on the whole I didn’t care for the show because I thought Teen Titans was much more fun. On the upside, the show eventually lead to Turtles Forever, a crazy multi-dimensional fan-gasam spreading across various continuities. It’s rather embarrassing that DC comics hasn’t accomplished anything like this yet, since multi-dimension Crises is really a game they invented.

For a comprehensive play-by-play of Turtles Forever, check out this article at 4th Letter.

There was also a CGI film in 2007, which was very fun. And if you really like Ninja Turtles, odds are you’ll like Afro Samurai too.

Of course, Ninja Turtles have always been a constant element of the comic industry. However, because I’ve always imagined them to have tons of complicated back-story (and a crossover with Savage Dragon, I think?), I never looked into the series when I was reading all the Marvel and DC I could find. I knew Dreamwave produced a TMNT series that vanished like all things Dreamwave; I imagine it was actually pretty decent since it was written by Peter David, but if I’m in the mood for good Peter David writing there’s a lot of back-issues I can read that weren’t put out by Dreamwave. Like the original run of Young Justice.

When IDW acquired the license for Turtles comics they gave them a fresh start. What we get is a solid comic that goes through the motions and is supplemented with numerous one-shots focusing on specific characters and giving more artists the chance to do issues. And there’s a thin chance the Turtles will cross over with Transformers and KISS sometime during the upcoming Infestation 14 event.

Now Nickelodeon owns the brand, and they have a new show. After meeting Rob Paulsen at Con-G earlier this year, I gave the show a shot, and while it has several issues, it’s enjoyable enough for me to watch (and I am both creeped out and intrigued by Donatello’s relationship with Butterface April. Her dad is Ron Howard).

According to The Internet, Michael Bay is going to produce a Ninja Turtles movie eventually, which I am completely prepared to ignore. While Transformers actress Megan Fox might be a poor casting choice for April O’Neil, I think John Turturro would make a perfect Vernon. And at the end of the movie, after the credits, Samuel L. Jackson shows up and tells the Turtles about the Ninja Rap Initiative.

Transformers dominate my shelves because, honestly, they’re better toys. But it is to the turtles that I attribute my charisma, and when I meet a tragic bore who gets upset over things like his cellphone case being scratched, I think “You must have never said ‘cowabunga’ as a child.” And the Decepticons are always grumpy because, growing up, they never had a role model like Michelangelo.

-Michael Ryan. 

For those of you wondering, the Turtles would totally beat the Sailor Scouts in a fight, no question.

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