I’m addressing fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles today. I intend to lay out a platform for the fandom, what it has meant in our lives and continues to mean. Like any good manifesto, it will be a bit unhinged, poorly-researched, and flat-out wrong in places.
I’m going to make bold statements: The 1980s cartoon series is an unwatchable slogfest that’s embarrassing in hindsight. No one has ever actually read the comic books. Every kid felt compelled to say Michelangelo was their favorite turtle in grade school, but he was actually the least favorite of everyone.
Go on. Fight me. I’ll probably lose. I’ll absorb the blow and get right back up. Look at me, look at yourself. I’ve taken every abuse this franchise has handed me, swallowed every rubber Turtle suit, rock tour, Burger King belt clip, Michael Bay film, just like you. You and I are not so different.
I’ve been a fan since I was six-years-old. The cartoon premiered the day before my seventh birthday. December 28th, 1987. I was a child. I was a baby. I didn’t know then what I know now. Neither did you. How could we? And just what do we know now?
We know this much. Leonard leads. Donatello does machines. Raphael is cool but rude, and Michelangelo is a party dude. Ninja Turtle fandom begins with proclaiming a favorite turtle. Mine is Leonardo.
As a franchise, the Ninja Turtles do not have a glory years. There is no golden age. Oh wait, they do, it was called your childhood. 1990 ruled. The first movie was incredible. It was enthralling to see in the theater. I still remember my jaw dropping when Raphael yelled “damn,” which I’d heard my parents say many times, but it was the first time that word was given to me, a kid, in something that belonged to me.
The Turtles belonged to me. But even my mother knew them by name. Hell, even my grandmother knew what the Ninja Turtles were, even if she thought Splinter was a dog. They transcended stupid kids cartoon, appearing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, showing up on the Oprah show, and featured in public-school drug PSAs. For a minute in the 1990s, they belonged to everyone, everywhere.
The arcade game. It’s God-tier. We all have the local restaurant or arcade or laundry mat that had the game, with its four player spots. Even though I was a shy kid, I swear it was the only time in life I felt bold enough to slide up next to some kids I didn’t know and pop my quarters in. Press Start. Cowabunga.
The Turtles empowered me. I felt less shy. I even felt inspired to take up karate. I’m now a black belt. I mean, I’m not, but the Turtles made me believe in something. I’m a believer, and that’s not nothing.
But being a fan of the Ninja Turtles is like having an inferiority complex, because you know deep down there’s no heavy lifting, there’s no real fandom, there’s no core philosophy or meaning to any of it. It’s not Marvel and its superheroes. It’s not Star Wars or Star Trek. It’s not even Transformers. It’s soft-ass derp turtles that live in a sewer and eat pizza. It’s a heaping helping of steaming hot 1980s garbage that should have stayed behind, like Zoobilee Zoo, Snorks, and Bob Dylan’s Christian albums.
The Ninja Turtles we love and know, that loveable foursome from the cartoon series, existed solely to take our money. The 1987 cartoon was created to sell toys when the original comic book series was deemed too dark and culty for a toy line. Thus Eastman and Laird made concessions to their creation, emasculating the Turtles into the equivalent of easy-to-swallow baby food. Suddenly, they were surfer-slang talking, high-fiving, pizza loving caricatures, with a supporting cast of bumbling henchmen, robot droids, and a talking brain operating an obese naked exoskeleton wearing oversized underpants.
In 2012, original co-creator Peter Laird confessed that he wished he’d had more creative control. He wrote on his blog, “the Turtles would not have been so ridiculously obsessed with pizza, and the show would not have had a joke or gag every five seconds.”
Once you accept the central tenet of the Ninja Turtles is profit and regret, you begin to see your favorite moments of being a Turtle fan have always revolved around buying something and soon regretting it. The DVD trilogy of the first three films, even though you only needed one of them. That pair of sleep pants you found at Target. The reissues of the old school Turtles figures you put out eighty bucks for like a sucker. The other dozen video games you’ve bought, desperately hoping they might somehow rekindle the magic of the first arcade game. They won’t.
Most of Turtle fandom exists because someone remembers something online and then we all glom around it. Remember the Spaghetti-O’s, remember the cookies, remember the cereal, remember the pies, remember the Burger King toys (no, but we’ll humor you).
Remember your eighth birthday cake with Raphael on it, look internet here’s a picture of you as a child and you were happy once. REMEMBER the lunch box, the kite, the fun time bubble bath, the plush dolls, the corn snack chips, the frozen pizza, and the pies, oh fuck I already said the pies DO YOU REMEMBER THEM DO YOU
remember the trading cards, the fruit snacks, the Colorforms, the stickers with glitter, the Band-Aids, god one time you gashed your knee wide open, blood everywhere, but it was okay, it was okay because you had those Band-Aids.
THE 3D Viewmaster, THE puzzles, THE Shrinky-Dinks, THE pencil case, and THE pillowcase
remember everything, it’s a self-writing Ernest Cline novel being a Ninja Turtles fan.
And then what?
Remember some more. Dig deeper. Try harder. Glom Around. Remember Monty Moose? Remember Wingnut and Screwloose? Remember Ghengis Frog? Remember Cudley Cowlick and Lord Wick and Larry the Lemur?
Dig deeper. Try harder. Glom Around.
All Star Wars fans have a loose working knowledge of any obscure character, even those in the prequels, some character that’s a mouth breathing reference to a fuller back story in one of the novelizations — even though they haven’t even read the books. And you don’t even remember who Halfcourt the Giraffe is, you pathetic excuse of a fan.
The 1990 film is our sole touchstone of quality. It holds up nearly thirty years later. Everything is top-notch — from the directing, to the voice acting, the puppeteering, script and character development — it will never get this good again in our fleeting childhoods.
It is clung to with a fervor, like guns and religion. Because it is religion. And the gun is the arcade game. I’m convinced it’s these two things alone that have kept the Ninja Turtles enduring. The movie and the arcade game generated enough goodwill for the franchise to coast on, maybe forever.
And Jesus Christ, they have needed that coasting, because the next thing they dropped was the Coming Out of Their Shells Tour, a shithole concert revue where the Turtles played fake instruments, sang terrible songs, and fought Shredder through sing-offs and the power of music. The puppet costumes were bedazzled in rhinestones to make up for the fact that their mouths didn’t move.
I have zero memory of this in childhood. I only found out it existed in my late twenties, when I found evidence of the accompanying Making Of Documentary video and cassette soundtrack at the thrift store. I feel as though I’ve been in a coma and when I awoke, someone told me that the Ninja Turtles went on a hastily thrown together rock tour.
On the first run of the tour, April was played by Sherie Rene Scott, an actress who has gone on to become an accomplished star on Broadway, appearing in shows such as Grease, Rent, and Aida. During the second run of the tour — yes, this all somehow warranted a second run — the role of April was played by an “unknown actress,” according to the Ninja Turtles wiki.
Any other fandom, that unknown actress is a known and regular star on the con circuit. She’s the random extra in the horror film that people are lined up to get an autograph with. Wrestling cons, Star Trek cons, Comic Cons — they all have these D-list randos that the fans want to meet and take selfies with. Ninja Turtle fandom exists with a shrug, a collective weariness, a knowingness that Vanilla Ice is forever associated with it.
Vanilla Ice and his Ninja Rap are prominently featured in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze. We’ve retconned our brains into thinking this is somehow ironically-postmodern-unironically awesome. It isn’t. Ninja Rap is still as unequivocally depressing, white-ass, and milquetoast as it was in 1991.
Secret of the Ooze is generally regarded as the other good Turtle movie, and everything here, is well, good… even if every detail is a step down from the first movie. Whereas music video mogul Steve Barron (Michael Jackson/Billie Jean, A-Ha/Take On Me) directed the first film, here we have director Michael Pressman, who also directed an episode of Law and Order.
The biggest step down was the loss of actress Judith Hoag, who was April in the first film. She had embodied the role. She was April O’Neil, bringing an edginess and depth to the character. For the sequel, the producers ditched Hoag, who had been very vocal about her dislike of the violence in the film, the grueling schedule, and the infamous and hideous perm. Enter Paige Turco, an actress who likely did not complain as she gamely played April as the effusive, non-threatening Turtle Mom.
Secret of the Ooze was also the point at which, as children, we knew. Vanilla Ice. Mom April. Dance Sequences. Pizza Delivery Guy sidekicks. And the sinking feeling that they would never, ever bring in any of our beloved other characters from the cartoon series — farewell Bebop and Rocksteady. Instead they gave us the “timeless” Tokka and Rahzaar as stand-ins for our favorite stooges. I would go on to spend a good portion of the rest of my childhood pretending Tokka and Rahzaar were Bebop and Rocksteady.
With the original cartoon series still plugging along, the Ninja Turtle crackpipe was still hooking as many kids as ever, and 1993 brought us Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. It really was just called III. They didn’t bother to give the movie a name, which tells us everything we need to know about the film.
In the early 2000s, someone in design department tried to remedy this on the Wal-Mart bin DVDs, subtitling the film “Turtles in Time” on the cover. You know some 1980s kid went rogue slipping that in, and I just want to say you’re a hero, whoever you are.
III is the one where they go to Japan. It’s a painful money grab with confusing writing. Paige Turco provided us with some continuity, coming back as April, and somehow they dragged Elias Koteas back, the dude who played Casey Jones in the first film. He plays Casey Jones for about three minutes in this third sequel, but mostly he plays a character named Whit. Stay with me.
Who the hell is Whit? I wasted the final days of my sunsetting childhood wondering why these movies couldn’t bother with any other characters from the cartoon show. We wanted Krang, Baxter Stockman, Bebop and Rocksteady. We would have settled for Rat King or fucking Usagi Yojimbo, a karate rabbit that was in like two episodes.
Instead, we got Whit. The movie implies that Whit is Casey Jones in a previous life. It doesn’t come out and say it, it only sheepishly implies it — so if you’re ten, it will just sort of upset you, and if you’re an adult, it will just make your eyes roll so hard into the back of your head. Casey Jones. Follow me. Before he was reincarnated in 1990s New York City, he was an enslaved English mercenary living in Feudal Japan.
III is also remarkable for being the first time the Turtles are given sexual interest in humans. I don’t have a citation for that, and there’s no chance in hell I’m googling it, but Michelangelo is given a human love interest, and the Turtles check out April’s bare legs while emitting a Wayne’s World-cross-over “schwiiing.” It hurt me more to type that sentence than it did for you to read. God Bless You Paige Turco. I hope you got paid.
I just want to say one thing to Judith Hoag and Paige Turco — ya’ll were for real April, even if you had that Lecy Goranson/Sarah Chalke thing going on. We cool, okay? Megan Fox will never be April.
1994 gave us the direct-to-video twenty-five minute holiday special, We Wish You a Turtle Christmas, a production so terrible that they didn’t even sync the puppet mouths with the dialogue. They didn’t care, and neither do I. Next.
While most of us kids were on the Ninja Turtle Crackpipe America trip (and rapidly aging out of it), all along there had been the Eastman and Laird comics run, still telling the gritty stories the creators wanted to tell. But even the true-to-self comic series pulled a classic Ninja Turtle move, when the rights were sold to Image Comics and things promptly went apeshit.
Splinter turned in a bat, Donatello turned into a cyborg, Leonardo lost his hand, and Raphael became the Shredder. Of course. Peter Laird wrestled back the rights in 1999, disavowing the series, and today none of this is considered canon. In comic world, I suppose you can walk back ill-advised moments and declare it non-canon. However, in the real world, we are stuck with We Wish You a Turtle Christmas, forever.
By the late-nineties, most of the original Turtle fans had grown up to become brooding teenagers, and the kids these days were more into the Power Rangers. Thus, the Power Rangers producers Saban came up with a brilliant idea. Ninja Turtles, Power Ranger-style.
But Saban’s Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation was not brilliant, and perhaps is only notable for giving us the fifth female Ninja Turtle, Venus, objectified with her shell breasts and Michelangelo hitting on her.
Everything has sucked so far since that 1990 movie. Fight me. Still, the Ninja Turtles kept getting right back up, and maybe that resilience is why I’m a fan. The 2003 revival of the cartoon series on Fox is regarded as a breath of fresh air. No more puppets, no more gags, no more derp Turtles. The cartoon intended to align itself with the Mirage Comics versions of the Turtles.
No fans have ever said a bad thing about the 2003 series for fear of being called a baby. Because we lock-ourselves-in-the-closet secretly liked the cartoon made for babies better. And we know if you say anything critical of the series, you will get called a baby by someone mean on the Internet.
But in fact, the series finale — the 81-minute Turtles Forever — went ahead and called you a baby, too. Turtles Forever relishes giving the middle finger to the 1987 series. It’s a crossover event where the gritty Turtles meet the derp Turtles, and then make fun of them for being a dorky cartoon that sucked. Look how much cooler they were now. Seriously 2003 show, you didn’t have to be such a dick about it. I’ve never said anything bad about you and maybe I should. The 2003 series is kind of a dick.
2007 gave us a CGI film called TMNT, a movie that feels random, forgettable, and everyone is a little unsure of why it exists. When Toys R Us issued an anniversary pack of figures featuring molds from each of the iterations, they didn’t even include one from the 2007 toys, because the factory had thrown out the molds. You can throw out the movie, too.
Nickelodeon absorbed the Ninja Turtles in 2012, ushering in what might actually be the Turtles’ golden age. Mostly because it means stores sell endless TMNT merch, and we love buying shit. It’s what we do as fans. As for the new cartoon series, we never made it past episode three, but God help us, we have gleefully foisted this inheritance and burden to bear upon our children. My son’s first birthday was Ninja Turtle themed. Cowabunga!
The Michael Bay films: fell asleep during the first, haven’t seen the second. This never happened. LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU. The worst part is, there’s a sadistic fuck out there who put Bebop and Rocksteady in the second film, almost as a way to bait us 1980s kids with a dangling carrot — come see our movie, after thirty years, we put your stupid baby characters in the movie.
LA LA LA.
In fall 2018, yet another new version of the Turtles cartoon will premiere on Nickelodeon: Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We expect the worst, hope for the best, and will happily buy the toys because we are the fandom of buying things.
Speaking of which, there is, finally, the Playmates toy line. My God. Thank you. The toy line means to me what Star Wars toys meant to kids in the 1970s. It is nostalgia. It is childhood. These hunks of plastic are intertwined with my very identity. By the end of the line, things got silly, but in a cool sort of way, with various stupid figures like Party Clown Michelangelo, Turtle Trolls, punk rock get-ups, Universal Monster tie-ins, sumo Turtles. I ain’t even mad.
You would think, out of all the childhood memories my brain chose to keep, I’d remember something more remarkable, some special moment with my mother, who has since passed. But instead I remember moments like this one: standing in the aisle of the toy store, searching for the action figure of April.
My eyes scanned each of the peg hooks holding the cardboard backs, looking for her. I had all of the other Turtle figures. I had Splinter. I had Shredder, Bebop, and Rocksteady. I even had Leatherhead and the Rat King. I even had this swimming Donatello figure that I’d confirmed could swim in the toilet. Science.
It’s not like I had any money on me. I was eight. I was lucky if I had a quarter for the gumball machine. I had to beg and bribe my mother for the chance to even walk into the toy store in the first place. We were at the mall for other reasons, like looking in Sears for curtains. Torture, in other words. (It goes in this order: Electroshock. Waterboarding. Shopping for curtains with Mom.)
On top of it, my mother had already warned me in advance that she wasn’t going to buy me anything. But we weren’t talking about just any bumblefuck toy. It’s not like I was asking for Gak. Or Floam. We were talking about April, and she was rare as shit.
Typical Ninja Turtles bullshit dick move, setting me up for a lifetime of disappointment — creating a false shortage of one of the essential toy figures.
But on that day, there she was, hanging from the peg hook in KB Toys. I went racing back to my mother, breathlessly to report this emerging development, this breaking news: THEY GOT APRIL. And my mom, for all her fronting about only buying Sears curtains, dropped everything. We ran. We got that shit. April was rare. And essential. And mine. Thanks, Mom.
At the end here, I’m not sure I’ve even properly defined the Ninja Turtles fandom. Who are we? And just what do we know? We know this: It’s the freaking Ninja Turtles. We just like them. You got a problem with that? Fight me.