Cowabunga — Here Come the Ninja Turtles!

Turtle Power returns to the big screen this weekend with a new version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  While the turtles are now household names, 30 years ago, it all started as a joke.

Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were struggling comic book artists who were looking for their big break.  As a joke, Eastman sketched an anthropomorphic giant turtle complete with ninja attire and titled it “Ninja Turtle”.  He had picked a turtle since he thought it would be the most comical animal to be a martial arts expert.


TMNT #9, October 1985 — pencils by Michael Dooney, inks by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Michael Dooney, Jim Lawson, and Ryan Brown

Not to be outdone, Laird refined the original sketch and soon the two were one-upping each other at the kitchen table until there were four ninja turtles, each with a different weapon.  Laird added the label “teenage mutant” to the title.

Eastman and Laird continued to work on their turtles for the next four months, thinking they could self-publish a one-off title.  Another comic book parody featuring an anthropomorphic animal, a barbarian aardvark name Cerebus, was being successfully self-published by Canadian artist Dave Sim.  Eastman and Laird thought there was room in the comic book market for another animal parody, this time spoofing popular comic books Daredevil, New Mutants, and Ronin.

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TMNT #9, October 1985 — pencils by Michael Dooney, inks by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Michael Dooney, Jim Lawson, and Ryan Brown

The turtle’s origin story was a spoof off of Daredevil’s origin.  In both stories, a container of a radioactive substance flies off a truck, but instead of hitting the hero in the face, as in Daredevil, the container lands in a fishbowl of four turtles and sends them crashing into the sewer.  The turtles would get a sensei, a rat named Splinter, as a nod to Daredevil’s sensei, Stick, and would also battle a warrior ninja group, The Foot, just as Daredevil battled The Hand.  Meanwhile, the turtles were drawn with the look of Frank Miller’s artwork for Ronin.

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TMNT #3, March 1985 — by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird

Originally, the turtles were to get Japanese-inspired names. Eastman and Laird changed their minds after realizing that Japanese names just were not working into the story.  There was also concern that the American audience would not connect to Japanese names.  Both artists had studied art history in college, so they decided to name the turtles after four famous Italian artists: Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, which was accidentally misspelled as Michelangelo.  According to Laird, “it felt just quirky enough to fit the concept.”

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TMNT #2, October 1984 — by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird

In March 1984, the artists borrowed money from Eastman’s uncle ($1000 – $1500 based on different sources), and along with Eastman’s $500 tax rebate and Laird’s $200 bank account, they had 3000 40-page black and white copies printed.  They published under the name Mirage Studios, since their “studio” was just the living room.  They also purchased a $145 full page ad in Comic Buyers Guide to promote the book. They never imagined that all 3000 copies would sell, especially not in a few weeks, nor that an additional print run of 6000 more would either.  The copies sold for $1.50, and by May, Eastman and Laird had a $200 profit.

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by Richard Corben, TMNT #2, 3rd printing, 1986

Eastman and Laird realized that their idea might work as an ongoing series.  The first printing of book #2 sold 15,000 copies.  This issue, plus other early issues, would later be reprinted with color covers by additional artists.

Eastman and Laird wanted each page to art by both of them and both shared in the pencils, inks, and toning by passing them back and forth.  By book #5, Eastman felt that the artwork no longer looked like underground comic art and had a polished, unified style.  By book #6, Eastman no longer had to do the lettering, since there was enough money to hire a professional letterer, Steve Lavigne.  As the series progressed, additional artists would contribute to the pencils and inks.

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Leonardo Micro Issue, December 1986 — by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Steve Bissette, Michael Dooney, and Ryan Brown

The series expanded to include “micro issues” featuring each turtle.  The turtles also appeared in cross-over stories with other publishers.  The story featuring Cerebus the Aardvark in Book 8 was the best selling issue in the series.

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TMNT #8, July 1086 — by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, and Dave Sim

In 1986, the series would expand to beyond the printed page.  Playmates Toys expressed interest in licensing action figures and an animated cartoon.  Since their age demographic was younger than the age bracket Eastman and Laird were writing for, changes had to be made.  In the cartoon version, the turtles could not shout out the occassional curse word, so new phrases “Cowabunga” and “Turtle Power” were inserted instead.  To de-emphasize the violence, there was to be less emphasis on the weapons.  Since the weapons were the identfiers for each turtle, the cartoon version needed a new way to identify each character.  It was decided that each turtle would have a different color mask, instead of all wearing red, and they would have belt buckles with the first letter of their name.

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Michaelangelo Micro Issue, December 1985 — by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird

Eastman and Laird had final say on the characters, but they have since admitted there were some elements they wish had not happened.  Laird specifically regretted that the cartoon had a gag every few seconds and that the turtles, who always had liked pizza, were now obsessed with the food.

The animated version of the turtles plus all the action figures had made the reptilian heroes household names.  It also inspired more comic book parodies.

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by Stan Sakai, Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters #1, August 1989

In 2000, Eastman ended up selling his portion of the franchise to Laird.  A new animated cartoon aired from 2003-2009, which stayed closer to the original comic, since Laird was active in the production.  Laird kept control of the franchise until 2009, when he sold it to Viacom.

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Cfhcomic_turtle_1986_n7_pin“pin-up” from TMNT #9, September 1986, by Jim Lawson


The TMNT comics are part of the Center For Humanties Comics Collection.

Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters is from the Karl S. Kaltenthaler Comic Books and Zines Collection.

Information about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is from:

Alimurung, Gendy.  How Kevin Eastman Invented the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. LA Weekly. December 20, 2012.

Blitz, Matt. The Origin of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Today I Found Out. 2012.

Eastman, Kevin. Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Artobiography. Heavy Metal, 2013.

Lammle, Rob. The Complete History of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Mental Floss. May 3, 2014.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.