It’s everything you ever wanted to know about the true, not-so-secret origins of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from one of their creators and the people responsible for getting them on toy shelves and onto TV (and movie screens).
Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman was joined by Tom Waltz, writer of IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic, ’80s voice actor Townsend Coleman, and Secret of the Ooze actor Ernie Reyes Jr. took the stage to talk about the strange history of the four sewer-dwelling heroes.
When asked about the origins of the Turtles, Eastman says that he was working at a restaurant in Maine when he came across a booklet with cartoons. He couldn’t get a gig with the company that made the pamphlet, but they directed him toward Peter Laird who lived in Northampton, MA. Eastman wrote to Laird and the two hit it off, initially bouncing short stories off of one another in the fall of 1983.
Eastman says the first Ninja Turtle started off as a joke, a sketch to annoy co-creator Peter Laird. The two passed the sketch back and forth, with Eastman adding three more turtles and Laird creating the chunky, cartoon-style titles. Eastman added the words “teenage mutant” to the title and the quartet was born (Eastman recounts some of this in the deluxe reprint of the Mirage-era comics out of IDW).
“I have the dream job of a lifetime: I get to write and draw Turtle stories.”
If you’ve ever wondered with the colored headbands come from (originally, they were red), Eastman says that was Laird’s idea. When asked how fans would differentiate the Turtles in color, Eastman and Laird initially responded that fans would figure it out via each Turtles’ weapon. But Laird struck on the idea to give them colors based on their personalities (red for rage and Raphael, etc.).
It was thanks to agent Mark Friedman that the Turtles made the leap from the comics to toys, TV, and film. Eastman says that initially, he and Laird were distrustful of Friedman who showed up with an $800 suit and demanded all of the rights to the characters. After they turned him down flatly, they went out for coffee and he made a passionate case for working with them to build out the characters and get them to a wider audience.
Given that the series has gone through so many incarnations over the years, Eastman says that when IDW wanted to launch a new comic, he worked with Tom Waltz to pick elements from each to develop the new book.
The panelists talked about the winding path to getting a comic which initially had a 6,000 copy run to a cartoon with viewership in the millions. Coleman says that he was working on Fraggle Rock around the time that the series was in development, landing the role of Michaelangelo in the 1997 5-part miniseries. Based on the success of the miniseries, they went right in production, Coleman says that the studio went immediate into production in early 1988.
When he arrived at the first read-through, Coleman says that the studio still didn’t know if they wanted him for Leonardo or Michelangelo. Ultimately, he’s played the character across 230-plus episodes of the animated series.
When their agent told them that it was only a matter of time before the Turtles would end up in the discount bin, it was time for Eastman and Laird to pursue a feature film. Eastman says that they got a lot of bad ideas from the studios, including one pitch that involved comedian Sam Kinison, Bobcat Goldwaith, and Billy Crystal in green face paint as the Turtles for Roger Corman’s production company. Eastman says he’s got this pitch laying around somewhere.
It took New Line and director Steve Baron to make the case for a movie that Eastman and Laird could get behind. He showed them some Hong Kong films and designs for the Turtles and convinced them that he would treat the characters well. Ernie Reyes Jr., famed stuntman (and son of the equally famous Ernie Reyes Sr.) talked about being honored to be one of the first people to wear a Turtle costume.
For fans of the live-action Turtles series in the 90’s from Power Rangers studio Saban, a new character added to the team – the female fifth Turtle, Venus – was actually an idea for the nixed fourth live-action film, added at the last minute.
When it came to the 4Kids animated version, that series went through some weird permutations, almost starting with April and Casey Jones as high school students. They were ultimately able to get the show off the ground by approaching it from the original comics.
If you’re wondering where Peter Laird is, back in 2009, the artist and writer sold his rights to Nickelodeon (if I recall, the story was a little more complicated than that). It was the handover to Nick that lead to the IDW deal which lead to new comics as well as reprints of the Mirage books.
Tom Waltz talked about his history with the Turtles, starting with the early comics and later enjoying the first animated series as a young adult. But it was the 4Kids series which grabbed his interest – he and his daughter bonded over that take on the characters and when he was ultimately tapped to write the Turtles, he drew on that series as a basis.
When IDW landed the rights to the comics, he pitched the idea that the Turtles were in fact reincarnated brothers whose minds ended up in the bodies of mutated turtles, going up against the man who would become the Shredder. He describes working with Eastman in nothing but glowing terms, saying that the three years has been the most enjoyable thing he’s ever done.
IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is on shelves now. There’s also a Ghostbusters crossover on the way in October.