The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are about to take their third trip to the big screen, but they began their lives as a whimsical sketch in a comic book studio. In this excerpt from his book Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History, cartoon historian Andrew Farago reveals the comic book origins of the Turtles.
Reprinted from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History by Andrew Farago, published by Insight Editions. © 2014 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved. Nickelodeon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and all related titles, logos and characters are trademarks of Viacom International Inc.
One night at Mirage Studios in November 1893, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were hard at work on the latest chapter of their Fugitoid comic when Eastman, struck by some unknown inspiration, drew a masked, nunchuck-wielding "ninja turtle." He showed it to Laird, and the two of them shared a laugh at the sheer goofiness of the premise.
"Pete drew a cooler one," remembers Eastman. "Then, of course, I had to top his sketch, so I drew four of them standing in a dramatic pose. That was in pencil, but Pete inked it, and added 'teenage mutant' to the 'ninja turtle' part. We were just pissing our pants that night, to be honest. 'This is the dumbest thing ever.'"
The more they thought about it, however, the more potential they saw in the offbeat concept. With their work on the first Fugitoid story coming to an end, the pair decided to make the Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles their next comic book project. Drawing inspiration from some of their favorite contemporary comics, including Frank Miller's epic samurai adventure Ronin and his celebrated run on Marvel Comics' Daredevil—along with their mutual love of Jack Kirby—they set to work developing the Turtles universe.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles origin story paid homage to the first issue of Daredevil from 1963, in which young Matt Murdock is blinded by a radioactive isotope while pushing an old blind man from the path of an oncoming truck. Eastman and Laird extrapolated that after the canister containing that isotope struck Murdock, it collided with a bystander who was carrying a fishbowl containing his pets—four baby turtles. The turtles and the canister, which bore the initials T.C.R.I., fell down a grate into the sewer below, where they were discovered by an inquisitive rat, Splinter.
Splinter had been the pet of the exiled ninja warrior Hamato Yoshi, who was slain along with his lover, Tang Shen, by the treacherous Oroku Saki, who blamed Yoshi for the death of his brother, Oroku Nagi.
"Splinter's name was a tip of the hat to the Daredevil supporting character Stick," recalls Laird, discussing the ninja master created by Miller who provided young Matt Murdock with the skills he would require to fight crime as Daredevil. "I think we chose a rat because as we began working out the story for the first issue of TMNT, we knew a lot of it would be set in the storm drains and sewers and back alleys of the city, and we figured that a common denizen of those places was the humble rat." Since The Hand menaced Daredevil during Miller's tenure, it was only natural that the Turtles would find themselves in conflict with The Foot, a clan of ninjas whose leader, the Shredder, was none other than Oroku Saki. The Shredder took his design inspiration from a metal cheese grater that struck Eastman as a potential weapon in the hands of the wrong person.
Using Laird's copy of Janson's History of Art for inspiration, the pair chose names for the Turtles from four of their favorite Renaissance artists: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael. As the four Turtles were virtually identical in appearance, particularly as the book was to be published in black and white, Eastman and Laird differentiated the four through their choice of weapons: Leonardo would wield a pair of katana blades, Michelangelo used nunchucks, Donatello mastered the bo staff, and Raphael favored the knife-like sais. And it was Master Splinter, the mutated rat, who took credit for naming the Turtles in the very first issue. Master Splinter, however, wasn't a master speller, as he dubbed his nunchuck-wielding student "Michaelangelo," a misspelling that stuck with the character for years to come.
With all the key story elements in place, the pair set to work on the comic. Eastman sketched up thumbnail drawings, writing the story and choreographing the action to fill a forty-page comic book. Laird refined the script and dialogue, and the pair set about creating the art for the book in a truly collaborative manner, made possible by their shared studio space. Pages were literally passed back and forth from one artist to the other, in an attempt to create a true hybrid of the duo's work, with each contributing to both the pencil art and ink art on every page of the comic.
Also contributing to the distinctive look of the comic was their use of Duo-Shade art board, a specially treated paper that reacted to the application of certain chemicals to produce the desired shading effect. "I had used the Duo-Shade paper in my career as an illustrator (such as it was) probably three or four years prior to starting work on TMNT," says Laird. "I had a few pieces of it lying around, and I demonstrated it to Kevin, who got very excited and thought it would be a great way to do the artwork. It was pretty pricey, and I think it cost eight dollars per sheet in 1983. Since we didn't have much money then, we made the most of each sheet, squeezing three comic book pages onto each, with a little left over to do spot illustrations. This economizing is the reason that the borders on original TMNT comic book pages from that era are quite narrow.
With their disappointment at not being able to find a publisher for Gobbledygook still fresh in their minds, Eastman and Laird decided to once again go the self-publishing route with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "Because of guys like [Cerebus creator] Dave Sim, who'd been self-publishing, and artists like Richard Corben, and companies like Last Gasp and Kitchen Sink Press, and [ElfQuest creator and self-publisher] Wendy Pini, we thought, 'Let's not even send this to any publishers. Let's do this ourselves," says Eastman.