Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: From Indy Comic To Worldwide Phenomenon

Thanks to the new Michael Bay-produced ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ movie, the four heroes in a half shell are set to hook another generation on pizza and ninjutsu. But it’s not the first time a case of Turtlemania has struck planet Earth. It happened back in the late 80s, and it took plenty of people, not least the Turtle creators, by surprise…


We explore why.

Cult following

Comic book writers Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created their four amphibian heroes - named after Renaissance artists - using a tax refund and a loan from Eastman’s uncle, with the original comics being blazingly violent. A loving parody of the kind of gritty black-and-white material by Frank Miller and co., they ended up finding favour with the same audience.


After completely selling out their first comic book capers in 1984 (there were parodies like Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters popping up, and the original TMBT#1 sells for $4000 these days), they were offered merchandising deals to turn the turtles into toys - but only if they could get themselves on TV. So they did…

Kid-friendly re-brand

The cartoon series, which began in 1987, softened the Turtles to make them more zany and fun for a young, Saturday morning audience. Now with catchphrases like ‘cowabunga’, memorable calls to arms like ‘Turtle Power!’, colour-coded masks and a hankering for pizza helped make the turtles hugely accessible.  


At first the series didn’t take, and it had to be repeated several times. But eventually it found an audience and was picked up by major network CBS. Soon the Turtles became a fully-fledged, worldwide phenomenon.

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Merchandising phenomenon

Thanks to the cartoon series (renamed Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in the UK to make it sound a smidge less violent), the action figures were just the tip of the iceberg. Video games, skateboards, breakfast cereals, stationary, bedspreads, beach towels - come the late 80s, anything that stood still long enough would be emblazoned with turtles. 


There were even toy crossovers between the Turtles and other properties like Star Trek and Trolls, because Playmate Toys owned the rights to both. A staggering $1.1 billion worth of toys flew off the shelves (well over $2 billion in today’s money) from 1988 to 1992, setting the Turtles behind only G.I. Joe and Star Wars in terms of the best-selling toy properties of all time.

Hollywood tie-in

Capitalising on the phenomenon of the cartoon series, the first ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ movie landed in 1990. Directed by Steve Barron, famed for the iconic music videos for Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Take On Me’ by A-ha, it cost a pretty modest $13.5 million. But it reaped an eye-watering $202 million at the box office - nearly $370 million today.


Two more movies followed, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze’, just a year after the first in 1991, and a third movie, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III’ in 1993. They weren’t as successful as the original, but still opened at number 1 at the US box office.  As you will no doubt recall, the original movie also hit the spot with theme tune Turtle Power too, crafted by hip hop one-hit wonders Partners in Kryme (the lyrics haven’t aged well, mind you).

A successful reboot

Turtlemania faded for the next few years, though various follow-up series’, including the current CGI incarnation, continued to do brisk business on Nickelodeon. But after a moderately successful animated movie called ‘TMNT’ was released in 2007, producer Michael Bay was tasked with reviving the franchise for the big screen, quite possibly because he did such a successful job adapting Hasbro’s Transformers toy range into a billion dollar film franchise.  The heroes in a half shell are back, and once again top of the US box office. Cowabunga indeed.

'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' is released in the UK on 17 October.

Image credit: Rex/Wikipedia