In certain ways, you can almost mark the specific moment the renaissance of television animation began - the moment when the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles went on the air for the first time.
Sure you could also give a lot of credit to such shows or animation blocks like Disney Afternoon, The Simpsons, Batman: The Animated Series and the launches of Nicktoons, Cartoon Network, and the whole Fox Kids block. At the same time, when you look back on it, it was when the Turtles debuted that the other cool TV shows started appearing, be they Voltron, Bionic 6 or ThunderCats. Kids not only got much better programming than He-Man and The Smurfs, the Turtles made it hip for us older kids to tune in again, whether we were still in our teens or much later than that.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of their [comic book] birth, Lionsgate has released a special four-disk set of DVDs. Each disk contains a portion of the show’s seventh season. They also include a special Turtles figurine and some extra content devoted to the history of the righteous reptiles. Among the principles interviewed are original comic book creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, series producer Fred Wolf, and writer David Wise.
When Laird and Eastman first created the comic book, they started with an inspired mix of the top superhero comics of their day (mainly X-Men and Teen Titans). Add to this were some steals from titles like Frank Miller’s Ronin and anthropomorphic comics such as Dave Sims’ Cerebus. As their name implied, the heroes of the series were four reptiles (and one rat) who were mutated through chemicals in the New York City sewer system. When they weren’t fighting crime, they were coming up with elaborate, and often incredibly funny, ways of obtaining their means of everyday survival, especially their favorite food, pizza.
What many know but can’t usually articulate is just how different the original TV series was from Laird and Eastman’s original creation. This was done, in most part, because of the kids' censorship rules that existed in 1987, when the show made its own debut in syndication. Still, in the interview itself, Eastman admits that some of the changes Wolf and company did have altered the comic book, if not the whole TMNT universe.
Three such examples include:
• The Turtles’ Bandanas – The original comic was black and white. TV has been averse to black and white since color was introduced back in the early 60s. As the cartoon series was going to be color, and the show needed easy ways to identify the red-eared sliders other than by their weapons, Wolf and company gave each Turtle a distinctive colored bandana. Leonardo’s was blue, Raphael had red, Michelangelo’s orange and Donatello’s purple.
• The Foot Ninjas Became Robots – As animation master Alan Burnett would often point out, the 80's were a time when the Super Friends weren’t allowed to punch a villain, much less commit any other form of violence to one another. The way that Wolf and company got around this was to turn the Turtles’ main cannon fodder, the Foot Ninja, into robots. The TMNT could then slice and dice them as much as they wanted because they weren’t “living.” Go figure.
• April O’Neal – Yep, April’s another TV creation. As writer David Wise points out, she was the Turtle’s “Lois Lane.” They even made her TV news reporter. Why? She was the interface between the Turtles’ secret world and the world outside of the sewers. If there was anything that needed doing, she would be the one that would more than not tell them.
What did stay true though was the undercurrent of subversive fun both the Turtles and their fans had. Initially, TV would see an incredible number of sad knock-offs based on the show, such as Biker Mice From Mars or Wild West Cows of Moo County. Still, you can't help but think that if it wasn’t for the Turtles, shows such as Batman would be very different indeed, if they would exist at all.
As it stands, the original series did last a very impressive nine seasons, first in syndication then on CBS. While the next shot at a Turtles revival will be live-action, don't be surprised if, sooner or later, the Turtles come back in some new animated incarnation. In the meantime, Lionsgate continues to put out the original series in DVD form. This is good news; because for some reason, pizza tastes better when you put the Turtles in the DVD player. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself.
NEXT COLUMN: Mamoru Oshii’s latest masterwork, Sky Crawlers, will finally come out in the U.S. through Sony. We take a look at it and what the anime master has to say about this recent effort.