August 16, 2014


Infographic depicting the stylistic changes throughout the Turtles' various incarnations.

It began as a joke.

The original Ninja Turtle sketches.
            While brainstorming with Peter Laird, Kevin Eastman sketched out a squat turtle with a mask and nunchakus strapped to its arms. Liking the idea, Laird suggested they expand the concept to include four turtles with different weapons. Using money from a tax refund and a loan from Eastman’s uncle, the pair created Mirage Studios (so named because the studio didn’t actually exist) and set to work creating their best self-published comic: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The pair took inspiration from the works of Jack Kirby and Frank Miller, and made the book to parody four properties: Marvel ComicsThe New Mutants, which featured teenaged mutants, Cerebus, which featured anthropomorphic animals, and DC ComicsRonin and Marvel’s Daredevil, which featured rival ninja clans battling over the New York City underworld. 

More refined concept sketches of the Turtles.

The Daredevil similarities become more apparent with the original origin for the Turtles: a truck carrying radioactive mutagenic ooze (or Mutagen) almost struck a blind man crossing the street. A young boy saves the man, but the truck, swerving to avoid them, loses some of its cargo. The boy is hit in the face (a play on the accident that blinded Daredevil and give him his powers) while some ends up in the sewer, along with four baby turtles being carried in the area. The ooze hits them and a rat named Splinter, the pet of a slain ninja warrior, transforming them into humanoids. Splinter (a play on the name of Daredevil’s mentor, Stick), adopts and names the turtles after the great Renaissance painters and, having learned martial arts by watching his owner, trains the turtles how to fight. They become Leonardo, the leader who wields dual ninjato swords; Donatello, the smartest of the four turtles who uses a bo staff; Raphael, the most hot-headed of the turtles who fights with twin sai; and Michelangelo, generally the more fun-loving of the turtles who uses nunchaku. Their most well-known foe is the Shredder, whose armor was inspired by both Samurai armor and a cheese grater Eastman once saw that he thought would make good weaponry when strapped to someone's body.

Concept sketch for Master Splinter.

The first issue was produced in an over-sized magazine format on cheap newsprint in black and white. With a print run of only 3,275 copies, the book debuted at a comic book convention in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in May of 1984. Because of intense speculation centered around black and white comics from independent publishers, copies of Turtles flew and Eastman and Laird were encouraged to continue producing it. Through 1985, Mirage published three more magazine-sized books before switching to a comic-sized format for the remainder of the series.

Shredder concept art.

Besides Splinter, the Turtles had two major supporting characters. The second issue saw the addition of their first: April O’Neil, a computer programmer who worked for evil scientist BaxterStockman. Baxter was using his Mouser robots to rob banks. When April stumbled upon his scheme, the Mousers chased her into the sewers where she was saved by the Turtles. 

April O'Neil's original appearance.
 The second was Casey Jones, who first appeared in a Raphael one-shot. Casey is a vigilante who wears a hockey mask and primarily uses sporting equipment as weapons. Casey first encountered, and fought, Raphael before making peace with each other and later coming to the aid of the Turtles when Shredder attacked them. Casey and April eventually form a troubled relationship before ultimately ending up married together with an adopted daughter named Shadow.

Casey Jones' original appearance.
As the popularity of the turtles continued to grow, licensing agent Mark Freedman took notice and sought out Eastman and Laird to explore merchandising opportunities for the franchise. One of those was a Saturday morning cartoon.

The cover to the original TMNT #1, 1984.