You may feel disgusted with me for including this in my “classic toys” series, but the tickle truck I keep around for the grandsons who are rapidly outgrowing it includes a plastic Ninja Turtle shell, typically the first choice among my selection of costumes.
Blame their parents. Memories of my elder son naming his pet skink “Leonardo” and explaining to me how you could tell the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) apart by their weapons made me curious about their origin. When I first heard of them, I assumed it had to be a joke. I wasn’t wrong.
American comic book authors and artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird enjoy telling the story of how they sat around doodling new concepts for comics. Eastman drew a turtle with nunchucks and labelled it “Ninja Turtle.” Laird laughed with him, then drew another and added the words “Teenage Mutant.” They laughed some more. The concept seemed too ridiculous to go anywhere. (Reminds me of Amish Vampires in Space, a book that started as a joke by cover designer Jeff Gerke of Marcher Lord Press, who granted author Kerry Nietz permission to use the concept—and write it straight. The crazy genre-mashup became a thing.)
Eastman and Laird kept going with their characters, developing four of them, naming them after Italian Renaissance artists they admired (Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni—which got misspelled “Michaelanchelo” in the early comics—Raffaello Sanzio, and Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi). The pair proved equally imaginative in creating the turtles’ backstory. Do you know it?
A canister containing an isotope accidentally strikes an innocent bystander carrying a fishbowl. In the bowl are his pets, four baby turtles. The turtles and canister fall down a grate into the sewer below. The canister empties onto the babies, causing them to mutate. At some point they meet a mutant rat named Splinter, the former pet of an exiled ninja warrior. Splinter becomes their martial arts master and adopted father. As teenagers, the turtles naturally live on pizza.
Or something like that.
In May 1984, Eastman’s uncle Quentin loaned the pair a thousand dollars for the first print run of a forty-page, black and white comic book. Would you have done the same? Eastman and Laird had no studio, only a kitchen table and lapboards to use while seated on a couch. I suspect Uncle Quentin considered it a decent investment when the second issue brought in advance orders of 15,000 copies—five times the initial print run of the first. Their creations rapidly became a popular cultural phenomenon that forced them both to take sabbaticals from their artwork to deal with daily pressures of running a multimedia franchise. In 1990, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie released, with Eastman playing a small role as the garbage man. Indigo’s website displays 357 TMNT products, from clothing to books to action figures.
If there’s a point to make, it’s that no one can accurately predict what will become popular—especially with kids. Our God-given imaginations take humans to places that boggle the mind because we were made in the image of someone far more creative still. This is why I’m convinced that eternity won’t bore us for even a second.
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)