How the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Came to Dominate ’90s Culture


For a bunch of layabouts who live in a subterranean cave and obsess over pizza, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have had impressive staying power. No longer just a hazy ’90s memory, the heroes in a half-shell — Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo — are on the comeback trail, with a revived show on Nickelodeon and a Michael Bay-directed film coming out this summer with Megan Fox as April O’Neill.

But if you want the real story about how these Turtles were the first transmedia property, moving from comics to cartoons to Vanilla Ice as a costar in their live-action movies, ECW Press’ new book, Raise Some Shell by Richard Rosenbaum is the only guide you need to understand “the persistence of Turtle power.” In our exclusive excerpt from the book, which was released in April, Rosenbaum shows how the story of the Turtles straddled all sorts of mediums.

From Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Richard Rosenbaum:

Turtlemania hit full stride between 1989 and 1991. Mirage was publishing a second title called Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with stories that jumped around throughout Turtles continuity. Stories took place between the issues of the original, still ongoing comic (which was appropriate since there were many issues of the original series telling stories outside of continuity during this period).

Debuting on December 14, 1987, the cartoon had launched its own new continuity — a very toned-down one, but the main wellspring of the Turtles’ popularity — which spawned yet another comic book series, published by Archie Comics, called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures. It was printed in full-color (the Mirage books were still black and white) and started out with a three-issue miniseries that adapted the first season of the cartoon, then four issues that continued directly adapting the TV show; after that, it began telling original stories and would eventually veer way off from the plot, feel, and tone of its parent series. It would grow weirder and darker than the cartoon, and skew heavily toward environmental issues and even world politics. Adventures, the first “third-generation” spawn of TMNT, represents the first sub-sub-universe for the Turtles, the first adaptation of an adaptation, a comic based on a cartoon based on a comic. It serves as the major example of another of TMNT’s greatest strengths when it comes to mining the postmodern zeitgeist for relevance as well as sheer longevity: multiple histories.

One consequence of the dissolution of Grand Narratives in the postmodern era was that suddenly no one could agree on what history was, or at least on what kind of history we should be teaching. Was Christopher Columbus a great and heroic explorer or the harbinger of an unprecedented genocide? Which side actually won the War of 1812? Was the American Civil War a War Between the States or a War of Northern Aggression? Was the entire universe created by God less than 6,000 years ago, or was it the result of blind cosmic forces over a period of billions of years?

None of these questions were new to postmodernism, but now that distrust of Grand Narratives was a pervasive part of society, opposing whatever the authorities professed became an automatically political act. Holding unpopular beliefs became a badge of pride. Your position on Kirk v. Picard was as definitional an issue as your position on Roe vs. Wade.

This might not sound like it has very much to do with Ninja Turtles, but it does, in the sense that art and entertainment reacted to the rising skepticism by offering multiple versions of the same thing targeted at different groups, different demographics, whose receptivity to a work would vary. Again, I’m not trying to argue that Bowdlerization was anything original to postmodernism — editor Thomas Bowdler expurgated the violent, profane, and sexy bits from Shakespeare two-and-a-half centuries ago — but whereas censorship of works to make them more appropriate for certain audiences (usually children) had been going on forever, the multiple versions of TMNT were created not for moral reasons but for artistic and commercial ones. It was also possible to access all these different versions of the same thing simultaneously: you could read the original comic, watch the cartoon, then read the comic based on the cartoon. It’s all TMNT, but everything that happens is totally different in each and every one of them. You could keep reading the original comic and pretend that the cartoon doesn’t exist, because it’s for kids and you like your entertainment more grown-up. Or you could, like I did, discover the cartoon as a child and be instantly entranced, then find the comic based on the cartoon and be bewildered but no less entranced, and only later read the original comics that will become your new favorite, definitive version of the Turtles — but only because, had you stumbled upon that original version when it had first appeared, before you ever the saw the cartoon (when you were, uh, five), you would have had no idea what was going on, no context to understand it, and no stomach for the kind of brutality that occurred in its pages, let alone the capacity to appreciate the layers upon layers of references contained therein.

This multiplicity, the divergence of a single work of art into a spray of contradictory worlds where you can select the one that appeals to you the most and have that be the real one, continued to proliferate. TMNT became a true transmedia franchise. There were video games: based loosely on the cartoon (so, again, another adaptation of an adaptation), the first TMNT game came out in 1989 for the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. An action game with both overhead and side-scrolling aspects (a bit similar, although far superior, to the fairly disappointing Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link), it was, as Nintendo games tended to be in those days, unaccountably hard. If you didn’t have an NES at home, there was also the arcade game, again based on the cartoon, but a side-scrolling beat-em-up in the tradition of Double Dragon. It featured a simultaneous four-player mode, fantastic (for the time) graphics and sound, and a healthy dash of humor. The arcade game was ported to consoles in 1990 as a sequel to the original NES game, even though there was absolutely no connection between the two, and the end of the NES game actually contradicted what occurred in the arcade game. Then an actual sequel to the arcade game came out in 1991: Turtles in Time, where the Turtles, uh, traveled through time. It was the bestselling arcade game ever. It was also ported to consoles (TMNT 4: Turtles in Time, after the third game, TMNT 3: The Manhattan Project, another original NES game, came out in 1992). When the big hot thing was fighting games (thanks to the success of Street Fighter 2), there was TMNT: Tournament Fighters (1993), a game that pitted players against each other as any of the Turtles, characters from the cartoon, the original comics, and the Archie comics series, or original characters — a synthesis of disparate TMNT continuities that drew fans of any and every version of the franchise, and stood as a testament to the extreme flexibility of TMNT. It should also be noted that the archetypes of the four Turtles were very consistently and effectively used throughout all of the TMNT games, a major factor in their success. Even with the limited interactivity of games at that time, the Turtles’ individual personalities shone through in their movements and fighting styles.

Maintaining the thematic heart of what made TMNT so popular while at the same time allowing for profound flexibility across every imaginable medium made it possible for the Turtles to dominate the increasingly Turtle-saturated culture of the 1990s.

Excerpt from Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Richard Rosenbaum © 2014 by ECW Press. Used with permission from the publisher.