August 1, 2023
Melinda Head

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

From Incredible Beginnings

Card-carrying members of the performers union SAF-AFTRA are currently not allowed to engage in voice-acting. Luckily, “TMNT: Mutant Mayhem” is already a wrap … otherwise, would AI step in to replace them? How would you know the difference? Okay, okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves quite yet. That’s a topic for labor negotiations.

TMNT had very humble roots. Its struggling co-creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, self-published 3,275 copies of their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book in 1984 with a $500 tax return, $200 from an emptied bank account and a $1,000 loan (aka love money) from Eastman’s uncle.

“TMNT came out of love, passion and a late-night bout of goofiness.  I am a big fan of Bruce Lee. I thought if Bruce Lee was an animal, what would be the silliest animal he would be? And so I did this drawing of a turtle standing upright with a mask on … and said this is going to be the next big thing, a ninja turtle. … That first night I did a pencil sketch with all 4 turtles each with different weapons and then Pete added Teenage Mutant to the Ninja Turtle title … We didn’t have any distracting paying work …” (Kevin Eastman, TMNT Co-creator)

TMNTs took inspiration from Bruce Lee. Here is a 1983 drawing of the turtles, long before Eastman and Laird’s lives were completely transformed by the quirky reptiles

In their unique tongue-in-cheek fashion, TMNT was produced by Mirage Studios, because there was no studio, no office, no real place of work - it was just a fake-it-until-you-make-it mirage; however, an ad in an industry publication generated unexpected interest and good ole Uncle Quentin was surprisingly paid back within a few months. An initial run of 3,275 comic book copies had ballooned to 135,000 by Issue #8 and, at that point, the 2 men innocently figured their dreams had come true.

Self-published in 1984, this is the first TMNT comic book, which is now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (Kenneth E. Behring Center)

Enter “the suit”, a fast-talking aspiring licensing agent, Mark Freedman, who was working out of his living room. This fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants hustler, flogged TMNT to Mattel and Hasbro, among others, and was turned down flat. His last hope was a Hong Kong-based doll manufacturer trying to expand into the US. Playmates insisted that content be produced to drive action figure sales, so a 5 part TV series was developed. They also took good advice to “toyize” the Turtles so that every kid could identify with at least one of them; this involved more visually differentiating each Turtle with colored masks and stylized belts, as well as giving each a unique personality.

Now a commitment was needed from a large US retailer. It was “no thanks” from Sears, Target and Kmart, but Toys R Us went out on a limb and placed an initial order for 6,000 units. Following the comic book trend, their next order was for 50,000 units.

The TV show aired from 1988-1996, creating a tsunami known as Turtlemania, during which Turtles action figures sales kept company with superstar brands such as G.I. Joe and Star Wars. In 1990 alone, 100 million units were sold, supported with a live action feature film produced by Golden Harvest, which coincidentally also launched martial arts stars Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. It didn’t hurt that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop supplied the movie’s creature effects.

TMNT Co-Creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, 1988

Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, and his Creature Shop played an important role in the development of creatures for the first two TMNT movies

As is often the case, business eventually got in the way of their initial friendship and, in 2000, at age 38, Eastman sold his 50% stake in TMNT to Laird for a reported $20 million. Viacom came knocking in 2009, and Laird sold the Turtle rights to it, retaining the comic part of the business. Viacom (and its kids’ subsidiary, Nickelodeon) made $475 million in retail sales in its first Turtle year – not bad for an investment of $60 million paid to Laird (Eastman received nothing). Now Paramount Global owns the whole kit and caboodle. Paramount Consumer Products handles retailing and licensing of Paramount products, using partners to produce, package and distribute its goods.

"Twenty-five years is a long time. It has worn me down. I am no longer that guy who carries his sketchbook around with him and draws in it every chance he gets. I really, really miss being that guy. (Peter Laird, Co-Creator, TMNT)

If you want to learn more about the evolution of TMNT, check out this documentary film on Netflix.

“TMNT: Mutant Mayhem” will be released in movie theaters across North America tomorrow. It has a deliberately raw, earthy feel, like an underground comic. The turtles are pure teenagers, not forced or manufactured, just a bunch of goofy kids. Sounds like a recipe for an insanely cool, fun-filled 1h39m adventure. And you betcha gobs of Turtle merchandise will be sold. That’s the end game, after all.

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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