The unexpected emotional mix of finally sitting down to watch some of Nickelodeon’s 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series coupled with warm feelings of post-birthday nostalgia gave birth to this post. You see, there are a lot of characters I’ve loved through my whole life but few I’ve experienced in as many different iterations as I have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So I’m taking a walk down Memory Lane, looking at every incarnation of the Turtles I’ve met and exploring what they meant to me. To be clear, this is not an exhaustive list of every single version of the Turtles. There’s plenty of entries, sure, but the Turtles are prolific characters with parts of their mythology I’ve missed/yet to experience. Still, this is a fairly impressive list if I do say so myself :). With that being said, onward to an exploration of my life with the heroes in a half shell…TURTLE POWER.
One of the things I love about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and the above image they released on Twitter back on 6 February) is how they keep changing through the years. It’s a clear reflection of how modern mythology can work. In ancient times, long before the days of common literacy let alone the proliferation of written manuscripts, storytellers would regale their audiences with tales of Heracles, King Arthur, etc. But, while the core of the story remained the same, the oral storytellers would tweak the narrative to fit their audience, giving the people what they wanted and, perhaps, needed. While many of the options on this list speak more to transformations for capitalistic means (another version to sell man!), there’s still a bit of the ancient tradition alive here – as Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo are reborn again and again for each generation to experience anew. With that being said, let’s all grab a slice of pizza and jump in! Cowabunga dudes!
Oh, also, this isn’t a traditional post that develops one argument or tells one sequential story. I’ve ordered the Turtles experiences below based on when I first encountered them. So feel free to read each entry if you like OR skip around to see my thoughts on your favorite versions of the Turtles! You won’t miss anything (save my memories!) by skipping around so have fun with this :).
1) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – cartoon series – ran 28 December 1987 to 2 November 1996
I don’t remember the first time I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but I can tell you it would be a life-changing experience. Both David and I instantly became lifelong Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fans! I immediately gravitated to Raphael as my favorite, while David went with Leonardo. I can’t speak for David but I can say the overwhelming majority of my initial attraction to Raph was the fact that red was my favorite color and he wore a red bandanna. I know, I know…I was deep even as a kid. However I grew up plagued by family members who weren’t super close to me giving me Michelangelo stuff. Their rationale was they knew I liked the Turtles and they knew my name was “Michael” so he had to be my favorite. C’mon people! Learn me! Still, a few odd Christmas ornaments and action figures aside, Raph was my boy. And the toys still went to good use! I mean, I’m not saying “no” to a Turtle action figure just because it’s Mikey, you know? He can happily join the toy bin! But more on that below.
When I think back to my youth there are three cartoons that really stand out – He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Real Ghostbusters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes there were others I loved but these three formed the foundation of my cartoon watching and imagination – whether it came to the toys I wanted to play with, the stories I wanted to read, or the characters I pretended to be. As much as I loved Spider-Man and Marvel, from when I was born in July of 1982 until October of 1992 when X-Men the Animated Series premiered, Marvel didn’t have much of a presence on TV. And of He-Man, the Ghostbusters, and the Turtles, it was the Turtles I could experience everywhere I looked. While I loved Ghostbusters, The Real Ghostbusters cartoon, and their toys, there were no Ghostbusters comics at the time…and Ghostbusters 2 scared the hell out of me. He-Man gave me a great cartoon, toys, and storybooks…but the movie was only so-so. I watched it because I loved He-Man but I never needed to own it. But the Turtles? Well, as this list explores, the Turtles were EVERYWHERE for me! And that forms a special sort of bond, allowing me to experience them in so many ways while continuing to grow with them through my life.
2) Playmate’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures – awesome toys! – began summer of 1988
I wrestled with whether or not to include toys on this list. There were so many waves and so many different styles of Turtles toys. It would be impossible (or a completely different post with faaaar more research needed) for me to trace my life’s journey through the various Turtles toys David and I had. However I felt they needed to be included because David and I loved our Turtles toys! As a kid, a big part of my personal and emotional experience of the Turtles was in the stories we’d create when we sat down on the floor with our action figures to weave our own narrative webs of pizza-lovin’, ninja-fightin’ excitement.
There’s something uniquely special about playing with toys…something that builds your imagination and forms a deep and lasting bond with the characters you play with. Long before I knew the term “canon” was a thing (let alone something people argued about), I was creating my own Turtles stories. And you know what? For a nine-year-old, the stories David and I told with our Turtle toys were every bit as real to me as what I saw on the cartoon, in the movies, and in the comics. It was all Turtles and it was all good to me.
3) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures – Archie Comics series – ran August 1988 to October 1995
In preparation of writing this post, I pulled out my old comic box with all my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Adventures comics in it and…WOW. There was far too much there to include here. It should be its own post or, rather, perhaps several posts. So you can look forward to those in the future! But two thoughts are worth mentioning.
First, I realized as I looked back I have every single issue of this series! I think I have all the tie-in, spin-off series (like the ones with the Mutanimals, the ones staring April, the ones with Man Rey, etc.) too. So this was the first (and to this day, one of the only and certainly the biggest) series I had in competition. I’ll never forget seeing issue #1 on the spinning rack at the grocery store and asking Mom for it, which she happily agreed to. And I’ll never forget the surprisingly sad feeling I had when I read the last issue. It was the first time I ever lost a comic like that, seeing it leave my file because it was cancelled and not because I chose to drop it. Second, while the first few storylines were adapted from the cartoon series, I remember how EXCITING it was when they started taking the Turtles on their own unique adventures in these comics! To this day, some of my favorite Turtle tales are found in this series. But that is the story for another post :).
4) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – film – released 30 March 1990
I feel like I talk about this film all the time on this blog but I adore it and it will always be very, very special to me. I was in first grade when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out and this is the very first movie I remember seeing on opening night. I COULDN’T WAIT. Each day, David and I would come home from school and cross another day off the calendar. I remember having the first movie poster hanging on my closet door and spending so much time just sitting on my bed staring at the Turtles faces peeking out from under the manhole cover and wondering what the rest of the live Turtles would look like. “Hey dude, this is no cartoon” was the tagline and I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the movie would be like.
This movie will also always, always make me think of Grandma. She’s ninety-four now and she still talks about how excited she was by this movie. One of the most beautiful things about my life is how Grandma’s always been a part of it. From Friday night dinners to vacations to movies, we were (and are!) always hanging with Grandma. As to this movie, she’ll talk about how amazing it was to see the Turtles live and how she couldn’t believe how great it looked. The effects – handled masterfully by the Jim Henson Studio – blew her mind and have stayed with her for nearly thirty years. I remember Grandma taking David and I to see this a few times because she enjoyed it so much. It’s also pretty cool that a woman who’s lived ninety-four years and counts movies like Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman among her favorites (as well as anything with Elvis!) would have such warm memories about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. To this day I love talking about this film with her and I love that whenever I watch it (or think of it) I can’t help but smile and think of Grandma too. I shared so much with her growing up (and I continue to do so!) and the fact that the first Turtles movie is one of those most-memorable-moments is something I’ll always cherish :).
5) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Magazine – um, magazine, obvs – ran mid-1990 to mid-1993
I’m going to be totally honest…I completely forgot about this. I found the cover while googling pictures of the comic book. But once I saw it I had a total flashback moment! I think this was the first magazine I ever had a subscription to. And I do remember getting really excited when it would come in the mail and pouring over every page. It’s a sad reflection on adult life that I have no magazine subscriptions now :/. Magazines just feel like homework I’ll never get to because I prioritize my novel/nonfiction/comic reading first and I get my news online. But back in 1990? I loved this thing!
6) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out Of Their Shells – cassette tape – released 1990
“OH MY GOSH THE TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES SING TOO!!!!” was essentially my thought that fateful day David and I left Pizza Hut with a Turtles tape. “Life can’t get any better!!!” had to be a close second. I think this was the very first cassette I owned but I have no way of knowing for sure. Looking back it feels like it was the very first cassette I owned at least :). We played this thing alllllllllll the time. It was with the Turtles and their magical mutant music that I’d first hone my lip syncing skills too, something that comes in handy now when I face off against other faculty members in lip sync battles at work. So thank you Turtles for giving me such great music and thank you for the countless hours I spent air-guitaring and lip syncing to you when I was a kid. It proved magical and helpful!
7) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out Of Their Shells The Concert – VHS tape – released 1990
I don’t remember which of these tapes (this one or the one below it) we got first. I think it was the documentary below but my memory is a bit fuzzy so I just put these on there in release order. Anyway, the memory of the Turtles playing live is a bit of a bittersweet one for me. As I said above, I loved the music. I listened and lip synced to it all the time. And David and I watched this tape as frequently as we’d watch their movies. BUT there was a magical day when we heard this tour was coming to our hometown. FOR REAL! The Turtles were coming HERE and we COULD SEE THEM. So we waited and waited, with our tickets…only to have the concert cancelled. Aaaaargggh!! It was heartbreaking! This was to be my very first concert (outside of when Mom took me to Rod Stewart because she was still pregnant with me at the time (which I totally count as my first concert (so I guess this was to be my first concert while not living in Mom’s uterus))) and, like Pink would to me years later, they cancelled. While the memory of this VHS tape still makes me very happy, the sting of that lost concert still burns a little bit. But c’este la vie I guess. And, just as I still love Pink (despite her doing it to me TWICE), I still love the Turtles too.
8) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Making of Coming Out Of Their Shells – VHS tape – released 1990
This tape was fantastic too AND it doesn’t carry any of the tangential emotional scarring of the tour one above :). This was essentially a documentary about the Turtles and why they decided to come out of the sewers and go on tour, how Donnie designed their instruments, etc. and so on. It showed them practicing and rehearsing and it did all of this as though they were real. This wasn’t a making-of piece that looked into bringing the Turtles to life for this tour. No, this was a making-of feature that treated the Turtles as real and I loved it. If I could find a DVD copy or track it down online I would love to watch it now. I wonder if it’s on Hulu? If it was, this alone would be worth the subscription!
9) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze – film – released 22 March 1991
The first sequel! And, of course, we were there opening night :). Yes, April was played by a different actress (Paige Turco taking over for Judith Hoag) and Casey Jones was inexplicable gone. But it was still the Turtles baby! I loved how it showed them fighting in a mall/toy store at the start. I thought Keno was a great addition. And we got Tokka, Rahzar, a Super Shredder AND VANILLA ICE. Watching it as an adult I realize this takes place days after the first film (something I never got as a kid) so Casey being gone (and, in fact, never mentioned) is really weird. But the good far outweighs the bad for me. We watched this tape so many times I even have the previews committed to memory! I have a weird soft spot in my heart for the Hulk Hogan/Christopher Lloyd action-comedy Suburban Commando because it was one of the previews on this movie and every time I’d see it I knew The Secret Of The Ooze was almost on!
OH! I just remembered this too! I remember Dad making us these incredible TGRI mutagen cans out of piping and stuff like that. They were some pretty hefty/legit looking things…so naturally we used them to recreate the scene where the Turtles play football with the cannister to keep the last one away from the Foot Clan. That was a good idea until poor David took one to the head (I don’t remember who threw it – me or one of our cousins – but I’ll fall on that sword here because I am not athletic in the least so it would make sense I couldn’t throw it) and it gave him a big ol’ lump. Needless to say we didn’t recreate that scene much more after that.
10) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III – film – released 19 March 1993
Even as a kid, I didn’t think this film was as good as it’s predecessors. But I still enjoyed it! I don’t want to paint a bad picture. But I was always hoping for more and wished there was a more epic experience to end the film series on after this. However I did adore the fact Page Turco reprised her role as April (continuity!) and Elias Koteas returned as Casey Jones. And the Turtles travelling through time was awesome! David and I had some rad toys of the Turtles in their samurai suits. However, even as a kid I was one to think deeply about (or, if you prefer, overthink) things. When April went back in time, she switched places with Kenshin and they ended up in each other’s clothes. When the Turtles went back in time to rescue her, they switched places with four samurai…but they still took their bandannas, belts, and weapons while arriving in the samurai armor and the samurai they replaced ended up in New York not naked (with their naughty bits hanging out under the Turtles belts (which is a good thing)) but in…uh, weird white diaper things. It never made sense to me and it’s something I’m angsty about to this day.
11) Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation – live action show – ran 12 September 1997 to 20 March 1998
Okay, so, the Power Rangers were becoming HUGE and the Turtles were losing some of their steam by this time so the answer was to make a(n admittedly odd) live-action, Power Rangers-inspired show. This notably introduced Venus, as a female mutated turtle who teamed up with Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello. My most vivid memory of this show (outside of the, admittedly, cool work they did giving each Turtle some unique flares to their costume) was the line, “There was another turtle in the bowl with us!” Um, what? So Venus is the guys’ sister and I guess she got oozed too but then she just disappeared (and Splinter was okay with this) until she shows up now? I just…I couldn’t do it. I watched it. I even enjoyed some of it! But my suspension of disbelief only goes so far and yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah, nope. I don’t buy Venus being in the bowl.
12) TMNT – film – released 23 March 2007
This film was to kickoff a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon series. I don’t remember watching much of the series. By this time, David was in college and I was working full-time as a Youth Minister so neither of us had as much time as we’d like to devote to a new Turtles cartoon. But while I don’t remember much of the show, I certainly remember opening night of the movie. David and I were debating whether or not we were going to go, as it was a cartoon we weren’t super interested in BUT it was still the Turtles and we’d seen every other Turtles movie on opening night. Ultimately our fan-nature won out and we hit Tinseltown…to find we were the only solo adults in the entire theatre. Yep, this was NOT an MCU-esque superhero movie experience were old fans, current nerds, and families all mixed in together. This was a theatre exculsively full of little kids with their parents…and David (at twenty-one) and me (at twenty-four). It felt a little lot AWKWARD to say the least :). But I still enjoyed the film (more than I thought I would) and I’ve always wanted to really try the cartoon series that followed it.
13) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – film – released 8 August 2014
Okay…like almost everyone, David and I were not excited over the monstrous versions of the Turtles created by Michael Bay and his team for this movie. They looked and felt all wrong. BUT we are Turtle fans! So we were giving it a chance. We were there on opening night and, while the aesthetics of the film left a lot to be desired, the characters of the four brothers as well as the heart and humor I remember between them was fairly well presented. As a result, I don’t see this film as any sort of an abomination. I even own the DVD! I don’t watch it often but I have rewatched it because they are still the Turtles baby and I dig it. It’s also a good lesson/reminder that, as we grow up and the characters we love continue to be reinvented in new ways for new audiences, all the versions aren’t going to strike a chord with those who fell in love with them in an earlier incarnation…and this is okay. In fact, this is probably how it should be. I, at thirty-two, shouldn’t have been the primary audience for this movie. It should be aimed at the kids who’ve never seen the Turtles or who were falling in love with them via the Nickelodeon shows. This was a movie for them and if I enjoyed it too, fine. If not, c’este la vie. Whether or not it hooked those audiences is to be answered by someone more knowledgeable on that than I. But I can say I didn’t hate it.
14) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Ghostbusters – IDW trade paperback – released April 2015
THIS SERIES MAY WELL BE THE GREATEST LITERARY COMPOSITION IN HUMAN HISTORY. That’s right Bible, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie…I think you may’ve been bested by Tom Waltz and Eric Burnham. I’ve already written extensively about this series here, so I won’t belabor the point again. I will reiterate I ADORE THIS SERIES because THE TURTLES TEAM-UP WITH THE GHOSTBUSTERS. What more can you ask for?? Also, as I was returning to comic collecting after my seventeen year hiatus, this was the trade that got me hooked on both of IDW’s beyond brilliant titles – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters (in all it’s iterations).
15) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – IDW comic series – August 2011 to the present
I could go on and on and on and on and on about how much I love this series. In fact, I have on this blog…a lot :). Instead of rehashing old ideas (which I’ve linked below if you’re feeling it), I’ll just say this comic series stands as a perfect example of how characters and the stories we tell about them can grow. While still a comic kids can enjoy, the emotional depth and weight of so many of these comics leave me thinking about them far after I’ve finished reading the issue. These are versions of the Turtles I can appreciate as an adult as much as I appreciated the cartoon in the ‘80s as a kid. Many of Tom Waltz and Kevin Eastman’s narratives carry the mark of not just a good comic book but of great literature. I’ll also add it was in these pages that I rediscovered Raphael and, while I still dig him for his red bandanna, sais, and sass…I see some of my own struggle to manage my anger/short fuse and find a more peaceful balance in life in his character too. Now I love Raph for all the reasons I did as a kid while being able to appreciate the fact that we’re walking a similar emotional journey in some respects.
16) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows – film – released 3 June 2016
Um…well what I said about the first Michael Bay-ified version of the Turtles still stands here. It’s big. It’s fun. And, while they still look like huge, hulking monsters, their personalities are intact. I can’t say I’ve bought this on DVD. I haven’t seen it since the theatre. I wasn’t crazy about their version of Casey Jones at all and I wasn’t really digging their Bebop and Rocksteady either. However, it was the first movie I saw in those D-Box seats! Here’s what I’ll say, the D-Box seats (which shake with the movie like you’re at some sort of Disney World show) aren’t really worth the money. They are awesome for an opening night show when I can’t get there early because they are a RESERVED seat. So that’s helpful. I’ll also say whoever programmed the D-Box seats for The Conjuring 2 deserves some sort of D-Box programmer Oscar because they made an already freaky movie waaaaay scarier.
17) Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – cartoon series – ran 29 September 2012 to 12 November 2017
While David’s been watching this for ages (and constantly singing its praises to me), I’ve just found the time to sit down and watch some of these episodes this summer. My very first reaction was the 3D animations threw me a bit and…why is Michelangelo saying “Booyakasha” instead of “Cowabunga”?? I was a bit disconcerted. But I quickly fell in love with the show! We still have a video rental store in town (and I LOVE it!) and they have several of the DVDs of this series. Even better…kids movies rent free!!! So I stop in, rent a few regular movies I want to see, and pick up some Turtle action for free too. Woo hoo! In fact, I’m heading there to get some tonight as soon as I’m done with this post! I could see myself eventually caving and getting Hulu (right now I stick to Netflix and Amazon) so I can watch this whole series. That’s how much fun I’m having with it. There are so many references to the Turtles entire career and they pull in so many facets of the Turtles history in their plots. They reference the films, the old comics, the IDW run…there was even an episode (I have yet to see) where they team-up with the ‘80s cartoon versions of themselves!!!!! Are you even kidding me?!? This is too great! For me, this show is the perfect balance of a modernized take on a classic story I loved as a kid. Admittedly it doesn’t have the emotional depth or resonance of the IDW series but I don’t think it should. This is primarily for kids and it feels that way…while still totally hooking a thirty-six-year-old like me. Booyakasha baby!!!
18) Nickelodeon’s Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – cartoon series – debuting September 2018
Obviously I haven’t seen this one as I am yet incapable of travelling into the future. But this show, from what I know, has already received a lot of skepticism online given the design/character of the Turtles. For example, what I’ve learned (from my horribly unscholarly Wikipedia research…I am so ashamed!) is in this version Raphael is both the oldest of the Turtles and the team leader. Whaaa?!?!?!?!? He also fights with two tonfa (those li’l billy club things) as opposed to sais. Michelangelo, while still the youngest, uses a a kusari-fundo (that chain-like weapon) and is their in-house artist/wild card. Donatello’s still their resident genius but since he’s a softshell turtle he’s built himself a series of shell armors to wear into battle. Oh, that’s a thing too. All the Turtles are different types of turtles. Donnie’s a softshell turtle; Raph’s a snapping turtle; Mikey is a box turtle; and Leonardo is a red-eared slider turtle. Also, as apparently Raph leads in this version (which he’s never done save the verse where Partners in Kryme introduce the Turtles in their kick ass song “Turtle Power”), Leo’s there to think himself the funniest and coolest of all the Turtles. Um, okay…
Admittedly, I’m not super excited about this. BUT that doesn’t mean it will be horrible nor that I’ll never check it out. As I did with the Michael Bay-designed monstrosities, I’ll go in with an open mind. And, as I said with the Michael Bay films, as long as the character and spirit of the brothers is maintained alongside the humor and heart of the show, then it can’t be all bad. If nothing else, it just gives me another version of the Turtles to experience. Will it leave long-lasting memories? Or will it be a flash-in-the-pan experience for me? I don’t know. But one thing I do know is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been in my life for thirty-one years in all manner of different ways. And for that I say THANK YOU to Peter Laird, Kevin Eastman, and all the other writers, artists, designers, and visionaries who have given me Ninja Turtles stories to experience, in all manner of mediums. So Cowabunga! Booyakasha! And let’s go get some more pizza…I think I’ll hit that up after the video store :).