In the late 1980s, four superheroes crawled out of the sewers of New York City, armed with bo, sword, nunchucks, sai, and pizza. Named after four of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance—Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael—the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) were light-hearted antidotes to the self-important and often grim comic-book heroes of the day. Sure the Ninja Turtles could kick some serious shell, but the wise-cracking crew never went looking for trouble (as mutated turtles skilled in the art of ninjutsu, they couldn’t exactly walk around in public without attracting attention) or took themselves too seriously. Mostly they roused themselves from their sewer lair only when it was time to battle evil or come to the aid of their friends, both of which happened a lot.
First let loose on the world in 1984 by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, a pair of underemployed comic-book artists from Northampton, Massachusetts, TMNT began as a 40-page, black-and-white comic, printed on newsprint in a run of just 3,275 copies. Published by Eastman and Laird’s imprint, Mirage Studios, the first issue quickly sold out, spurring reprints and follow-ups, which have continued, albeit with a few multi-year gaps, for three decades. Concurrently, from 1988 to 1995, Archie Comics published “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures,” whose cartoony look and simpler plot echoed the animated television series that enthralled a generation of kids (and their parents) from 1987 through 1996.
The main characters in the series are Donatello (weapon = bo; he’s considered the smart one), Leonardo (weapon = sword; he’s the big brother), Michelangelo (weapon = nunchucks; for years his name was misspelled as “Michaelangelo”), and Raphael (weapon = sai; he’s the Turtle with a temper). In the original comics, all of the Turtles wore red, cloth masks over their eyes, but for the TV cartoon, each was given his own color—purple for Donatello, blue for Leonardo, orange for Michelangelo, and red for Raphael.
Other featured characters include a mutated rat named Splinter, the Ninja Turtles’ sensei—in the TV show, Splinter begins life as a human who then mutates into a rat. April O’Neil debuted in the comic as a computer-savvy assistant to mad-scientist Baxter Stockman, but she’s best known to fans of the animated series as a plucky TV reporter who is either always being rescued by the Turtles or helping them catch the bad guys. Casey Jones is a hockey-mask-wearing vigilante who comes to the aid of the Turtles in fights, carries weapons like baseball and cricket bats in a golf bag, and eventually marries April. And then of course, there are Shredder and Karai, two of the leaders of a rival ninjutsu organization known as the Foot Clan.
While the Mirage and Archie comics are the two most obvious physical manifestations of the Ninja Turtles franchise, Eastman and Laird got into licensing relatively early, even before the comic made the jump to television. The first Ninja Turtle figures were produced by Dark Horse Miniatures in 1986. Packaging consisted of a plastic bag filled with four lead figures stapled to a card, which bore the Dark Horse logo and the description “25 MM Fantasy Miniatures” (the only mention of the actual contents was a laser-printed sticker at the bottom of the card that read “TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES #142”). The animated TV show came next, followed by a licensing deal with Playmates Toys, which produced its first batch of Ninja Turtles action figures and accessories from 1988 to 1997. Playmates also manufactured subsequent series of Ninja Turtles toys in 2003 and 2012.