The first time I saw the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was when I was about 9. I was on Spring Break and remember catching the pilot episode on a drizzly Monday afternoon. The series became appointment television after that. I couldn’t get enough of the four anthropomorphic Turtles who use their formidable skills in the art of ninjitsu to defend New York City from the Shredder, a supervillain fixated on sharp objects and world-domination. It was such a bizarre concept, so out there, and at the same time, so perfect.
It wasn’t until I got into comics a few years later that I discovered the characters were a sendup of Frank Miller’s classic run on “Daredevil” and even share a non-canonical origin with DD. The radioactive ooze that blinded young Matt Murdock and heightened his remaining senses also mutated the turtles. It goes even further than that. Daredevil was trained by a martial artist named Stick, the Turtles’ mentor is a ninja master named Splinter; Daredevil fights a group of ninjas called The Hand, the Turtles battle The Foot; Daredevil wears a red costume, the Turtles originally all wore red masks. What I wouldn’t give to see an in-universe team-up between DD and the TMNT. But I digress.
The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoon spawned a toy franchise that ate up most of my discretionary income well into my adolescence. Where most of my friends stopped collecting toys as their ages crossed over into the double-digits, I never quite gave up the hobby. It’s tapered off a bit as I’ve gotten older, but that’s mostly because I don’t think anything in aisle 7 at my local toy store comes close to the collectability of the Turtles in their heyday.
My first Turtle toy was Michelangelo, the nunchuck-twirling, pizza-scarfing “party dude” on the team. I still remember the horror of breaking one of his flimsy nunchucks shortly after getting the toy. Even as a kid, I tried to be as delicate as possible when handling my figures, but still there was the occasional mishap. I later got a replacement Mikey and rounded out the rest of the team with his three companions: tech guru Donatello, fearless leader Leonardo, and my personal favorite, wisacre Raphael.
In 1990, I was there opening day for the live-action film. I think I saw it five times during its theatrical release and who knows how often on home video. Today, the film holds up surprisingly well. I went to a revivial house screening of it about a year ago, and it still got laughs in all the right places. I’ll defend the first sequel, “The Secret of the Ooze,” since it’s more in the spirit of the cartoon; I watched it again recently, and it still boasts Vanilla Ice’s best on-screen performace to date. That being said, I’m kind of terrified of revisiting the third installment.
The raft of imitators that came in the wake of the Turtles’ overwhelming popularity was staggering. As far as animated series go, I remain partial to “Toxic Crusaders,” a weird amalgam of the ultraviolent “Toxic Avenger” cult films by Troma and the kid-friendly sensibilities of the TMNT. A couple of years ago, I was in an airport in Fargo, North Dakota, and put a few quarters in the “Battletoads” arcade game they had in their lounge. Though plentiful, the wannabes never quite took root in popular culture, which is probably for the best. Any “Cowboys of Moo Mesa” fans out there?
As time marched on, excitement for the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” subsided. I even transitioned into becoming a full-on Batman fanboy throughout much of my teens. But I never forgot about the Turtles and will occasionally hop on eBay to see about buying back that part of my childhood. (Oh, how I desperately wanted a Technodrome playset.) Not too long ago, I bought the four Turtles that NECA put out, modeled after the original Eastman and Laird comic book versions of the characters. They’re currently lurking on the top shelf of one of my bookcases, their weapons drawn and their faces masked in red bandanas. Cowabunga.